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Andrew Hadfield, John Donne: In the Shadow of Religion
by Emma Rhatigan

Andrew Hadfield. John Donne: In the Shadow of Religion. London: Reaktion Books, 2021. 248 pp. ISBN: 9781789143935. £16.95 hardback.


In a letter to Sir Robert Carre, Donne wrote of his scandalous treatise Biathanatos that it was a ‘Book written by Jack Donne, and not by D. Donne’ (Letters to Severall Persons of Honour [1651], D3v). This dual identity as licentious wit and sober cleric has reverberated through subsequent biographical and critical studies. It echoes in Isaac Walton’s dramatic description of Donne’s rebirth into the ordained ministry, when he tells us Donne ‘had a new calling, new thoughts, and a new imployment for his wit and eloquence’ so that ‘all his earthly affections were changed into divine love’ (The Life of John Donne [1658], C9r). It also haunts the titles of twentieth-century biographies such as David Edwards’s, John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit (Continuum, 2002) and John Stubbs’s Donne: The Reformed Soul (Penguin, 2007). Andrew Hadfield’s study John Donne: In the Shadow of Religion seeks to challenge this binary by presenting Donne to us as a ‘significant thinker’ (9) and, crucially, a writer whose significance is diminished if we read his works in isolation from each other. This account asks us to go beyond the ‘familiar view of Donne as a brilliant lustful young man who turned to religion in older age’ to consider instead ‘the range and diversity’ of his writings (9-10). Hadfield eschews a biographical structure in order to read across Donne’s works, illuminating an imagination which is both ‘capacious and interconnected’ (10).

Hadfield opens with a chapter exploring Donne’s sense of his own identity and his preoccupation with the relationship which Ramie Targoff has described as ‘the defining bond of his life’ (John Donne: Body and Soul [Chicago, 2008], 1), namely that between the body and the soul. The chapter is underpinned by the assertion that Donne’s works represent a ‘sustained’ response to the Reformation, revealing ‘what happened when the individual was cut off from the Church’ (16). Hadfield reads across the Holy Sonnets, the Songs and Sonnets, and, innovatively, the first of the prose Paradoxes, to show how Donne’s sense of self is constituted by the urgent pressure to navigate his relationship with God and secure his salvation. These examples lead into a discussion of Biathanatos where we see Donne working through the ramifications of the belief that ‘our bodies and selves are never simply our own but belong to the God who made them’ (31). The chapter concludes with a discussion of Donne’s meditation on the soul’s return to God through death in his final sermon Deaths’s Duel.

The second chapter, ‘Religion’, complements the first chapter’s inward focus on the self and the soul, by turning outward to consider the place of institutions in Donne’s experience of religion. The chapter opens with a reading of the polemical treatise Pseudo-Martyr in which Donne defends the Oath of Allegiance (1606), which required subjects to swear loyalty to the king and to deny the power of the Pope to depose monarchs. This is a work which rarely receives in depth attention in broader studies on Donne and Hadfield’s reading is important not only in its elucidation of the text’s complex exploration of secular and religious authority, but also in placing it alongside other more widely read texts, such as ‘Satire 3’ which, as Hadfield shows, is similarly concerned with the relationship between faith, truth and the, often fallible, human institutions which claim to lead to it. Extending the chapter into the sermons, Hadfield argues that in the pulpit Donne deliberately avoids ‘a commitment to a doctrinal position because faith is by definition beyond reason’ (71). Finally, Hadfield examines the Anniversaries, in which Donne turns once again to the nature of man’s soul and its journey from a corrupt and decaying earth to salvation in heaven.

In both of these opening chapters, the Donne who emerges is a man who primarily experiences his religious life as an individual. Hadfield stresses how his conversion left Donne isolated from the Catholic Church, to which many of his family remained loyal, and traces throughout his writings a belief that ‘individuals should be left alone to explore faith – with proper guidance, should they seek it – as best they can’ (70).  It is, though, worth questioning whether this view might be nuanced by a consideration of Donne’s frequent emphasis in his sermons on the Church as God’s means for man’s salvation. In 1628, for example, Donne claims that ‘the ordinary place for Illumination in the knowledge of God, is the Church’ (Sermons of John Donne, ed. by George Potter and Evelyn Simpson [California University Press, 1953-62], vol. 8, 226). Alongside the isolated voices of the Holy Sonnets we also need to read Donne’s celebrations of spiritual community, as when he tells his congregation at Lincoln’s Inn that although ‘every earnest, and zealous, and spiritually valiant Man, may take hold of [the kingdom of heaven], we may be much more sure of doing so, in the Congregation’ (Sermons of John Donne, vol. 2, 220). In the pulpit Donne espoused salvation as a team effort, in which individuals could forge their relationship with God as part of a larger spiritual Community.

The third and fourth chapters move from religion to a consideration of Donne’s love poetry. Chapter three, ‘Sexuality’, explores his erotic verse and chapter four, ‘Marriage’, turns to poems which, Hadfield argues, were inspired by Donne’s relationship with his wife, Anne More. These chapters take readers into what is likely to be more familiar territory, but Hadfield’s approach opens up some new perspectives. Especially valuable is the focus on Donne’s debt to Ovid. Much has been written on Donne’s response to Petrarchan verse, but less on his status as an Ovidian poet. In chapter three Hadfield places ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ alongside Ovid’s fifth elegy in order to reveal Donne ‘overgoing Ovid in the force, extent and daring of his erotic poetry’ (88). Thinking about Donne as an Ovidian poet then allows Hadfield to develop fruitful comparisons with Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Thomas Nashe’s ‘Choice of Valentines’. In chapter four he shows how three of Donne’s most widely read poems, ‘The Flea’, ‘The Sun Rising’, and ‘The Canonisation’ can be read as reflections on Donne’s early years of marriage. For Hadfield, these poems complicate the traditional relationships between the sexes and show Donne using ‘autobiographical material to affirm a more balanced and mutual relationship between himself and his wife’ (128). The chapter concludes with a reading of ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ alongside Henry King’s ‘The Exequy’ on the death of his wife.

In chapter five, ‘Learning’, Hadfield examines Donne’s reading. We see Donne drawing links between classical texts (including those by Ovid, Catullus, Martial, and Juvenal) and contemporary London, emerging, in the Satires, as a ‘metropolitan poet’ (144). The chapter also considers Donne’s interrogation of Petrarchan poetics, suggesting that the more cynical voices of the Songs and Sonnets deploy mockery of poetic conventions as part of their search for ‘certainty and security in an uncertain, chaotic world’ (161). This discussion paves the way for a reading of Donne’s challenging philosophical poem, Metempsychosis where Hadfield argues we can see Donne’s learning ‘deployed in an unsettling, possibly even dangerous manner’ (174).

In his final chapter Hadfield turns to ‘Friendship’. This is an exciting area of enquiry in Donne studies, one which has been galvanised by the recent publication of the Variorum edition of Donne’s verse letters (The Variorum Edition of the Poems of John Donne [Indiana University Press, 2019], vol. 5). Hadfield argues that friendship for Donne was, like marriage, ‘a bulwark against the uncertainties and hostilities of the world’ (193). The chapter explores Donne’s intimate letters to his longstanding friends, Henry Goodere and Henry Wotton, as well as his letters to female addressees such as Bridget White and Lucy Russell, in which we see him seeking to balance the languages and conventions of both patronage and friendship.

There are many merits to Hadfield’s thematic approach. Under-studied texts such as Pseudo-Martyr are contextualised and made accessible by being read alongside the more canonical poetry. At the same time, widely read poems are re-contextualised by being placed alongside the prose works. As he promises, Hadfield interrogates and complicates the easy distinction between poet and preacher and reveals not only the range of forms within which Donne experiments, but also the thematic and stylistic continuities which run between them. There are, of course, lacunae. A reader coming to Donne’s work for the first time might prefer a few more biographical and historical co-ordinates. We also miss some of the social, political, and religious networks and institutions in which Donne was writing and thinking. We have a tantalising glimpse of Donne the urban poet in chapter five, but Donne’s participation in the Mermaid Tavern group, his membership of Lincoln’s Inn, his identity as a court preacher, and his ten years as Dean of St Paul’s are less visible. Nonetheless, few books offer such an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to Donne. Lucidly written and beautifully illustrated, this study provides both an engaging introduction for those reading Donne for the first time, and a series of stimulating new perspectives for those who have spent longer with his works.


Emma Rhatigan

University of Sheffield


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Cite as:

Emma Rhatigan, "Andrew Hadfield, John Donne: In the Shadow of Religion," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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