Mark Thwaite's interview with John Stubbs, author of the just-published biography of John Donne, Donne: The Reformed Soul, includes this exchange:
MT: You mostly seem to read Donne's poems biographically. But Donne always wore masks and played with the persona of the "I": are you, as a biographer, in danger of a biographically reductive reading of Donne's art?
JS: This is a very important question. The poems are not transparently autobiographical documents. But many of Donne’s poems are explicitly connected to a specific occasion or experience. . .and many more are addressed to a particular person, invoking a specific setting and time. . .The manuscript evidence assembled by Herbert Grierson, Helen Gardner and many later Donneans suggests that some were intended for a fairly wide social audience, while others, especially many of what became his most famous love poems in the “Songs and Sonets”, were of a much more personal nature – kept even from his closest friends. Other texts again have been traditionally associated, since the time of Donne’s earliest readers, with particular moments in his biography. Verbal testimony connected his great poem of farewell and consolation, for example, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (with its famous image of the couple as “stiffe twin compasses”) with Donne’s departure for France in 1611. That tradition has become an inescapable part of the poem’s meaning as we receive it now. Similarly, the social and literary contexts to which other Donne texts were attached are crucial to their style: the settings of the poems, in other words, are vitally important to their register. For me the really grave reduction would be to annul or simplify these contexts, especially in what is after all a biography. We would lose all sense of Donne’s art by losing touch with the historical reality he lived and breathed in and worked with, and which much of his language’s peculiar vividness is given over to revealing.
It's hard to imagine any poem, by any poet, that is not "explicitly connected to a specific occasion or experience" What would be an alternative to this--a poem ocassioned by nothing and conceived in a state of numbness? Yet this hopelessly overbroad generalization about the connection between art and life that motivates 600-page biographies of writers and artists is what is usually trotted out as justification for these exercises in voyeurism and speculation. All "occasions" and "experiences" that might plausibly be brought to bear on all poems, stories, and novels in the author's oeuvre are duly "investigated," and any attempt to help readers more fruitfully enjoy and understand the works themselves is more or less abandoned. I don't say that Stubbs has done this in his biography, although Colin Burrow's conclusion that it, too, focuses excessively on "evidence and symptom"--whereby Donne's poems are read back into his life--doesn't give me that much confidence that he hasn't. The very market niche that literary biography now occupies--somewhere between gossip and Freudian literary criticism--demands that writers' work be seen as the reflection of their lives rather than as autonomous works of art.
But Stubbs's claims for the necessity of biographical/historical analysis of Donne's poetry do otherwise seem relatively unexceptional--mostly because they don't really get us that far. It might be interesting to know which of his poems were written for "a fairly wide social audience" and which were of "a more personal nature," but this does very little in helping us understand what the experience of reading these poems is like or what they might still have to offer a 21st century reader. That the "Valediction" might be associated "with Donne’s departure for France in 1611" might be helpful in getting started on the poem, but it hardly does much for our understanding of that poem's figurative intricacy (". . .endure not yet/A breach, but an expansion,/Like gold to aery thinness beat"). Is it really crucial that a reader know this "tradition" in order to make sense of the poem, lest he/she miss this "inescapable part of the poem’s meaning"? It might be true that "the social and literary contexts to which other Donne texts were attached are crucial to their style" and that "the settings of the poems. . .are vitally important to their register," and if Stubbs's book were to show me that this is the case--specifically that it can be seen in the poems themselves--I would be grateful for it. Still, it seems to me a significant overstatement to say that "We would lose all sense of Donne’s art [emphasis mine] by losing touch with the historical reality he lived and breathed in and worked with." If Donne's poems are great art (and I think they are), they are so even if we do lose touch with his "historical reality."
Unfortunately, most literary biographies are written not to accomplish the reasonably modest goals Stubbs seems to set (to remind us that literature isn't written in an historical vacuum) but to appease the kind of interest expressed in this review of a new biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Reviewer Elaine Margolin tells us that
In a determined search for Singer's essence, [Florence] Noiville plunges through letters, personal recollections and interviews with Singer's friends, family and publishing colleagues, hoping to channel the young Singer.
Questions beget other questions. What made him so fearful of intimacy? Why was he so often devastatingly sad? What had created his need to distance himself from those who reached out to him, particularly his young son? What spurred his lust for so many women? How had he become such a skeptic about God?
God save us from biographers in search of a writer's "essence." This is only going to give us a tendentious, partial, and misleading account of the subject in question, as the biographer finds out in her "plunge" through the record that the writer had the same personal imperfections as anyone else. (That Singer had such imperfections, as revealed through Noiville's biography, certainly seems to be the "essence" of Margolin's review.)
As to the questions begat from questions: Who cares what made Singer fearful of intimacy? I want to read his stories, not learn about his psychological hangups. What difference does it make that he was "devastatingly sad" now that he's dead? Probably the sadness contributed to the power of his art, but I surely don't need to know about its source in order to appreciate that art.
The last three questions just take us farther from Singer's art, which is presumably the only thing concerning him that most readers now care about (or should care about.) No doubt his personal demons drove him away from his loved ones, but what could we ever know about what "created" them? It's hard to believe Elaine Margolin doesn't already know what "spurred his lust for so many women." Plus ca change. And Singer may or may not have been a "skeptic about God," but what does it accomplish toward our appreciation of what his stories have to tell us about such skepticism--they actually convey a multitude of feelings about God--to speculate about "how he became" a skeptic?
Margolin's review ultimately suggests that this biography will only deflect attention away from Singer's work and encourage readers instead to debate whether I.B. Singer was "a bad man" or not. How much useless time will be spent (in who knows how many more biographies) discussing this thoroughly irrelevant "issue" while Singer's marvelous short stories go unread?