Ian Donaldson

Disdaining the opening moves traditionally associated with literary biography – the expected orderly progress through ancestry, parentage, birth, schooling, juvenilia – John Drury’s masterly new account of the life and poetry of George Herbert begins instead with the poem that Drury sees as Herbert’s finest work, written in mid-career, ‘Love (III)’. Herb ...

It was not until the middle years of the nineteenth century, so far as we can tell, that anyone seriously doubted that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon called William Shakespeare had written the plays that for the past two and a half centuries had passed without question under his name. In the early 1850s, however, a private scholar from Connecticut named Deli ...

The humanities are currently experiencing what’s been called a ‘material turn’ that is in some ways comparable to the linguistic turn that animated the academy half a century ago. Then it was language that commanded attention, and appeared to constitute a primary ‘reality’; now the focus is on physical objects, and what they can tell us about the wor ...

Two photographs from the present book, caught by the British press in 2009, vividly testify both to the fun and to the difficulty of maintaining ancient ritual in the modern world. In the first, a widely grinning Prince Harry, one leg extended in parody of traditional marching style ...

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Ben Jonson: A Life: Ian Donaldson by Oxford University Press, $48.95 hb, 552 pp, 9780198129769

February 2012, no. 338


Ben Jonson: A Life
by Ian Donaldson
Oxford University Press, $48.95 hb, 552 pp, 9780198129769


Ambitious, arrogant, talented, brave, learned, truculent, and convivial: Ben Jonson was too outstanding, too odd, and too contrary to be taken as a creature of his time. Yet ...

Sir Maurice Bowra, renowned as the most lively and learned don in Britain, if not in all Europe, reigned supreme as Warden of Wadham College Oxford for more than three decades until his retirement in 1970. This long-expected biography, diligently researched for many years by the late Michael Davie, London-based author, journalist, and former editor of the Melbourne Age, has now been expertly completed by Oxford historian Leslie Mitchell, who writes with the ease and authority of a biographer thoroughly acquainted with his subject and the College over which he long presided: though not, perhaps, with the sharply quizzical eye that Davie, working outside that golden circle, might have trained on both.

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During the last dozen years of his life, from the initial diagnosis of leukaemia in September 1991 until his death in September 2003, Edward Said continued to lead an astonishingly active life: travelling, lecturing, writing, conversing with seemingly undiminished energy, even as his physical powers sharply declined. When his New York physician gently suggested it might be wise to slow down, he replied that nothing would kill him more quickly than that; boredom seemed a more lethal adversary than the cells invading his body. What kept Said quite literally alive was an unflagging engagement with what he saw to be the most pressing cultural and political issues of his time. That engagement is fully evident in the works that have appeared since his death, such as Humanism and Democratic Criticism and From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, both published in 2004. On Late Style, another posthumous collection, reflects a further and unsurprising preoccupation throughout these final years. The book explores the manner in which artists and writers often acquire a new idiom or mode of expression – what Said terms a ‘late style’ – during the last stages of their creative lives.

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Ian Donaldson’s The Rapes of Lucretia is a book so rich in ideas that a review can only be unfairly perfunctory. It starts from ancient accounts of the rape of Lucretia and tracks the transformations of the myth through two millennia. This is no wearisome catalogue, no tedious grinding of PhD mills. Donaldson is, as he puts it, ‘especially interested in the close relationship that may exist between the creative and the philosophical processes of mind; between art and argument’. What emerges is a sturdy contribution to the history of ideas, a book showing how a myth which sustained Roman ideas of heroism and political liberty was used at different periods of history to reflect and embody changing political and sexual ideas.

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