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Review by Drew Nathaniel Keane
Readers will find Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne a stimulating and accessible account of his life that spurns any artificial separation between the poet and the divine, the swashbuckling Jack and the staid dean of St. Paul’s. Rundell’s account, winner of the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, leans into the paradoxes.
The definitive biography of John Donne is R.C. Bald’s 1970 John Donne: A Life (revised 1986). Rundell tells us it “forms the bedrock of this [and] every other account of Donne’s life since.” Though “spectacularly detailed,” it is a dry tome unlikely to interest non-scholars. Since the 20th-century revival of interest in John Donne (1572-1631), many scholars have been as troubled by the heterogeneity they found in him as Dr. Johnson was (who criticized Donne’s verse for yoking together heterogeneous ideas by violence).
As a result, we tended to see fragmented engagement with Donne — only the erotic verse, only the religious verse, only the prose, only the sermons, and so on. Led by John Carey’s 1981 John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art,scholars have rightly rejected that misleading fragmentation. Rundell credits this “electric piece of literary criticism” as an inspiration for her career.
Recent works have brought this reassessment out of the academy, like Ramie Targoff’s John Donne, Body and Soul and John Stubbs’s John Donne: The Reformed Soul, both published in 2008. Rundell’s work follows in the footsteps of Carey, Targoff, and Stubbs with a popular-level — though no less perceptive — distillation that was a joy to read.
What distinguishes this book from Targoff and Stubbs is both its swift pace and delightful style, capturing something of Donne’s ludic wit. She proceeds chronologically, which is trickier than one might expect. Much of his work circulated in manuscripts among friends and was copied out over and again, often preventing us from pinpointing when particular texts were written. While not hiding the uncertainty of dating, Rundell weaves sensitive analysis of Donne’s poetry and prose throughout without getting bogged down.
She achieves speed without superficiality by treating certain words Donne uses very frequently as thematic highways that both connect the corners of his life and corpus and allow for easy movement between them. Love (the most-used), infinity, and words with the prefix “trans” (hence the subtitle) provide thematic unity. Hidden within them lies another word that figures prominently in the account: Possibility.
She delights in the many indeterminate possibilities of her subject: the many gaps in our records of Donne’s life, the multiple meanings in his fecund writing, his continual self-reinvention, the thorny question(s) regarding his religious conversion, the encounters with others’ minds and bodies, and, most of all, with the Wholly Other, the heart-battering three-personed God. She connects the indeterminate possibilities of his life with a quality of his work: “he saw the chaos and the potential of us. We are, he believed, creatures transformable.”
Donne was a precocious, Jesuit-educated great-great-nephew of Sir Thomas More who became the most popular Protestant preacher in any London pulpit. He briefly turned pirate with Sir Walter Raleigh, plundering Spanish ships of their New World plunder. Though piracy proved less profitable than he might have hoped, he was imprinted with a passion for “exploration, discovery, and fresh territory.”
Donne, “the greatest writer of desire in the English language,” was briefly imprisoned for eloping with 16-year-old Anne More, but he was likely not a Casanova — “he wrote the early swaggering erotic poetry for which he is so famous for a small coterie of male friends.” Despite the unabashed sexuality of his verse, he preached that “marriage is but a continual fornication sealed with an oath.”
This stern Protestant preacher also wrote the first full-length defense of suicide in English, Biathanatos, admitting, “with painstaking precision, how often [he] dreamed of killing himself.” The same hand in extremis created a “relentlessly beautiful” prose reflection on death, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, including perhaps his most familiar passage, “No man is an island.”
Humanizing her subject, Rundell shatters Isaac Walton’s “stained-glass saint,” though without animosity. That foreign country — the past — comes to life through her selection of contextualizing details. The description of the “rowdy,” “moving, rustling, eating” audiences of one-to-three hour Renaissance sermons will surely elicit tittering.
Sometimes the selection of detail is quite timely, such as the description of a London plague outbreak of 1593, when “street officials wielded three-foot-long marshal wands, to swat at people who weren’t maintaining social distancing.” Occasionally this familiarization may, for academic readers, bring to mind Michael Goulder’s observation that “all descriptions carry the peril of anachronism.” An example is her use of Roman Catholic and Anglican, labels that suggest a kind of religious pluralism familiar to us but incompatible with the world-picture of Renaissance England.
Donne held rottenness and wonder, Rundell explains, “ever in front of him: a kind of duck-rabbit of the human condition” — “Our nature is meteoric … we respect (because we partake so) both earth and heaven; for as our bodies glorified shall be capable of spiritual joy, so our souls, demerged into those bodies, are allowed to partake earthly pleasure.”
Rundell’s work is not only an engaging vita but, as she says, “an act of evangelism.” She argues that, from 400 years’ distance, Donne’s work offers “ways of reckoning with the grimly and majestically improbable problem of being alive” and “still has the power to be transformative.”
Dr. Drew Nathaniel Keane teaches English at Georgia Southern University.