Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. By Katherine Rundell. Faber & Faber; 339 pages; £16.95. To be published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September; $30
The centenaries of both James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” fall in 2022. Reflecting on those twin monuments of modernism, readers might also give some thought to the writers of the past whom those authors revisited or revered. Eliot famously downgraded Milton—regarded for over two centuries as the greatest of English poets—and upgraded John Donne, for most of the same period largely forgotten. As a result, many poets of the mid-20th century hearkened to Donne, who died in 1631, as to a contemporary.
What made the metaphysical poet exciting, Eliot wrote in 1921, was that “a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” To give one example, Donne compares a woman lying on a bed to a map of the world awaiting exploration in “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. (“My Empirie/How blest am I in this discovering thee!”) Such unexpected pairings of the carnal with the energetically intellectual were compelling to 20th-century readers, and the map image, reminding readers that Donne lived in the Age of Discovery, brings the historical context of the work vividly close.
Do readers today still feel as Eliot did? Yes, says Katherine Rundell in “Super-Infinite”, a new biography. She proclaims that “Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language” and finds his love poetry sexy and appealing to 21st-century sensibilities. She argues for Donne’s uniqueness, perhaps exaggerating: Shakespeare, for instance, is equally frank, but then his sonnets are weighed down with a guilt and self-disgust quite foreign to Donne’s cheerfully boastful randiness.
Much of the sexual posturing in the early poems must be rooted in fantasy. Ms Rundell allows this in an interesting passage, observing that the young Donne “was almost certainly an exhausted over-sexed lover in the imagination only”, and that he probably wrote his early works for the entertainment of his male friends. But her book is not quite consistent on the matter. She suggests that the poet was assuming the persona of a rake; later she speaks of Donne’s truth to experience.
The inconsistency is not untypical and Donne’s life itself was “various and unpredictable”. Though the book’s author is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, “Super-Infinite” is not an academic tome. It is a short, lively, stimulating biography, good on local colour and the historical context. Ms Rundell is a skilled storyteller and an observant reader but her critical analyses are sometimes hazily subjective. At times she tries too hard to please her younger readers. After reading “The Undertaking”, for example, she reflects that: “His poetry sliced through the gender binary and left it gasping on the floor.” But Donne is talking about two lovers achieving oneness through ecstasy, not about gender politics, and binaries cannot gasp.
Despite her palpable enthusiasm for Donne’s love poetry and the gift to a biographer of his swashbuckling early years—he was imprisoned for marrying an underage woman without her father’s consent and went to sea on privateering missions—Ms Rundell is at her best when writing of his maturity. He became famous as Dean of St Paul’s and was an enthralling preacher and laureate of death. Not for nothing are poems such as “Death Be Not Proud” often recommended readings for funerals.
Ms Rundell’s account of the alarmingly sudden breakdown of his body in his late 50s is moving, accompanied as it is by his evocations of physical decay and the shocking brevity of life, as also by his hopes of a vividly imagined resurrection. Here Donne is not modern at all. It is his identification with the outlook of his time, so different from today’s, that fascinates and, 100 years on from Eliot, still compels attention. ■