Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

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Review by Terence Jagger

We all know John Donne, poet and preacher, though many don’t realise that; indeed, some apparently don’t realise that they are the same man!  But yes, this complaint that the sun is disturbing his lovemaking…

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

and this reminder that we are all one people, and that we will all die:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

…are by the same fecund genius. And Katherine Rundell’s biography is worthy of its subject; it is utterly different to John Carey’s magisterial work of 1981, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, but it is a wonderful complement to it. It is bold, streetwise and outspoken, and is right in the world, with references to modern culture and politics, as well as modern language, peppered throughout – which is only fitting, as that was where Donne himself was for much of his life.

And Katherine Rundell is an interesting person herself – academic, children’s author and roof climber (!) – well worth listening to her Private Passions from BBC Radio 3 at BBC Radio 3 – Private Passions, Katherine Rundell. She plunges into Donne’s life and poetry – and the verb is carefully chosen – in a series of fast moving and easily read chapters, liberally laced with examples from his and contemporaries’ writing. 

John Donne is a fascinating man, and lived at a time of great political interest – born in 1572 in sight of St Paul’s – he would have seen Shakespeare on the stage – he witnessed the fall of Essex – he was born into a Catholic family but was ordained as an Anglican clergyman – and served James I as priest and then as Dean of St Paul’s. He was a man about town, a secretary (a role he imperilled by secretly marrying a young girl from his master’s family) – briefly an MP, a lawyer, a sea adventurer, and the English love poet sans pareil.

Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language. He wrote about sex in a way that nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life, the salute, the bodily semaphore for the human living infinite. The word most used across his poetry, apart from ‘and’ and ‘the’, is ‘love’.

He had ten children and often struggled to provide for them, but ended wealthy and generous.  He was one of the great lords of language, but loved politics, business, and lived his religion with a passion unusual even in those times. He wrote poetry, letters, an apology for suicide, and sermons – and of course not all survives.  But what does,

… is enough, taken together, to make the case that Donne was one of the finest writers in English: that he belongs up alongside Shakespeare, and that to let him slowly fall out of the common consciousness would be as foolish as discarding a kidney or a lung.  The work cuts through time to us: but his life also cannot be ignored – because the imagination that burns through his poetry was the same which attempted to manoeuvre through the snake pit of the Renaissance court. This book, then, hopes to do both: both to tell the story of his life, and to point to the places in his work where his words are at their most singular: where his words can be, for a modern reader, galvanic.

All his life he was close to death – disease, the normal dreadful mortality of the times (his brother died of plague) – execution; and he faced the fact of death squarely:

Donne was often ill in later life: his body was handsome but not strong…Later in life, Donne repeatedly fell ill with what’s now thought to have been relapsing fever, a tick-borne infection which killed up to seventy per cent of those who contracted it.…There’s a kind of imaginative ferocity to Donne’s writing about death … He becomes a pedlar of the grotesque. 

The body is, in its essentials, a very, very slow one-man horror show: a slowly decaying piece of meatish fallibility in clothes, over the sensations of which we have very little control. Donne looked at it, saw it, and did not blink.  He walked straight at it: no explanation, justification, no cheerful sallies. There was just the clear-eyed acknowledgement of the precise anatomy and scale, the look and feel, the reality of ruin. It was his superpower, that unflinching quality. It allowed him clarity of vision. He would, throughout his life, write to the very brink of his terror: I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun / My last thread, I shall perish on the shore?

Donne took a long time to find his niche in life; even in 1607, he declined to go into the church, and was not ordained until 1615.  The elegant, foppish bachelor was long behind him, a long and faithful married life with many children – many of whom died early in life – gave way to a very full life in the church, and his second métier, preaching. What a preacher he must have been; to read the sermons is to be frighted and alarmed and to sweat, to be transported and to be judged – to hear them – of great length and unsparing detail and sweat and passion, often outdoors, must have been unimaginable. This is what Izaac Walton thought Donne was:

… a preacher in earnest; weeping sometimes for his auditory, sometimes with them; always preaching to himself, like an angel from a cloud, but in none; carrying some, as St. Paul was, to heaven in holy raptures . .. here picturing a vice so as to make it ugly to those that practised it, and a virtue so as to make it beloved even by those that loved it not; and all this with a most particular grace and an unexpressible addition of comeliness.

So what do we make of him, overall, this master of love poetry and of the sermon? First, Donne would have seen no conflict between them; they were both part of his humanity and his faith, and his lust for life and his fear of death.  But he kept them apart in some ways – the love poetry includes not a single sonnet – the sonnet is reserved for the divine and for death. But there’s no denying he is a hard read – there’s no picking up John Donne for five minutes and amusing yourself with a tripping little rhyme – you must pay attention, puzzle things out.  To Rundell, this is not a fault but part of Donne’s magic and his interest even today:

The difficulty of Donne’s work had in it a stark moral imperative: pay attention. It was what Donne most demanded of his audience: attention. It was, he knew, the world’s most mercurial resource. The command is in a passage in Donne’s sermon: ‘Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate and Tyburn? Between the prison, and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake’. Awake, is Donne’s cry. Attention, for Donne, was everything: attention paid to our mortality, and to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us, attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet and mouths. Attention to attention itself, in order to fully appreciate its power: ‘Our creatures are our thoughts‘, he wrote, ‘creatures that are born Giants: that reach from East to West, from earth to Heaven, that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament at Once: my thoughts reach all, comprehend all’.

This is an amazing book, almost a love letter to Donne from Rundell, but the love letter of someone who knows him well and sees all sides of him, who values everything he does, and sees it in excellent perspective – and the first and final thought of it is – read John Donne!

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Katharine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber). 978-0571345915, 297pp., hardback.

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