JOHN DONNE: Life, Mind and Art by John Carey
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JOHN DONNE: Life, Mind and Art

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A splendid critical survey, blending first-rate scholarship and lucid accessibility, written with a shrewd, probing, easy wit altogether worthy of its subject. Carey (Merton Professor of English at Oxford) has written books on Thackeray and Dickens, but this time he seems to have found the author he was ideally suited for. A mind as mercurial and contradictory as Donne's resists unitary treatment, and so Carey, at least until his somewhat flimsy final chapter, takes instead a chronological and thematic approach. He begins by tracing the reverberations in Donne's work of his painful apostasy from Catholicism. These are obvious enough in, say, Satire III, but Carey argues that in Songs and Sonnets Donne exorcises his guilt over his disloyalty by transferring it to his various faithless mistresses. Then, again in the ""Holy Sonnets,"" Donne longs for pain--as if he regretted his immunity from the martyrdom that befell his former co-religionists (including members of his own family). In discussing the trials and achievements of Donne's middle career Carey is sharp-eyed but sympathetic. He records unsparingly the way Donne groveled before his patrons (D.'s letters to Mrs. Herbert ""combine brassy adulation with the adhesiveness of an anxious limpet""), but he also shows how the ""aerobatic extravagance"" of his imagination transformed flattery into great art. Carey is especially good at unraveling the contortions of Donne's poetic theodicy. Of the famous Holy Sonnet X, with its thumping envoi, ""Death thou shalt die,"" he writes, ""He [Donne] stamps his foot with fine dramatic conclusiveness, and plummets straight through a trapdoor."" Carey's last chapter, ""Imagined Comers,"" which views Donne's fondness for the tension-filled yoking of opposites as the key to his oeuvre, is perhaps his weakest--but it's still not bad. And Carey has a tendency to quote his fellow-critics only to catch them out in dumb misreadings. Yet such blemishes aside, this is not just one of the finest books on Donne in recent years, but a lively, luminous performance in its own right.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press