The Transformations Of John Donne


SUPER-INFINITE: Kevin Saving looks at Katherine Rundell’s recent study of John Donne

Super-Infinite: The Transformations Of John Donne
Katherine Rundell
Faber & Faber
ISBN 978 0 571 34592 2
344pp  £10.99

Katherine Rundell’s compact biography performs the most-important function of which any such book is capable: it stimulates the reader to go out and revisit its subject’s work. As she herself declares, Super-Infinite is “an act of evangelism”. She has admired Donne’s poetry, she tells us, ever since her parents pinned some of it next to the bathroom sink when she was a child. Her John Donne is one for the twenty-first century, both super-charged and supersubtle. She hails him, perhaps accurately, as “the finest love poet England has ever known”.

Ben Jonson (his exact contemporary and himself no mean judge) reckoned Donne “the finest poet in the world for some things”. He also felt that he “for not being understood would perish” – that is, be forgotten. Jonson was almost right. It would take the intervention of T.S. Eliot – which is, in itself, telling – to revive Donne’s reputation after two centuries of neglect. Partially, the fault for this might be placed at his own door – even laying aside the vexing issues of linguistic abstrusity, metrical irregularity and syntactic convolution. Donne was extraordinarily lackadaisical regarding the survival of his own verse, which was originally written for a small coterie of friends and acquaintances. Hardly any of it was printed during his lifetime and scholars still tussle over the authenticity of various contemporaneous – or near-contemporaneous – manuscripts, in which textual variations occur. Ben Jonson (him again!) smirked that Donne “repenteth highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems” after taking Holy Orders. The latter’s well-remunerated absentee-Benefices might conceivably have been jeopardised by his youthful torrent of licentiousness. Nothing was ever simple for John Donne. A master of exaggeration, even infinity is insufficient: it has to be super-infinity “…in these new heavens and new earth, for ever and ever and ever, and infinite and super-infinite forevers”.

Rundell – an acclaimed author of books for children – is a knowledgeable guide and a sassy stylist. Donne, she tells us, “knew about fashions; he wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in {…and…} an exquisite moustache”. (Or, perhaps given the times, that should read “moustaches”?). A portrait of one of his patronesses, Lucy Russell (countess of Bedford) sports “a look of scepticism powerful enough to burn rubber”.

Rather more prosaically: Donne (1572-1631) was born into a staunchly Roman Catholic family –kin, on his mother’s side, to Sir Thomas (‘Utopia’) More – at once unusually privileged and heretically-marked. An uncle was indicted on a charge of ‘Treason’ – whose customary penalty, gruesome execution, was then commuted to banishment solely by virtue of his having been educated alongside the reigning monarch. A brother, Henry, imprisoned for recusancy in Newgate gaol, died there of the plague. We do not know precisely when Donne recanted his Catholicism, but recant it he did – quite possibly out of expediency (he was always ambitious for worldly success). It won’t have harmed his prospects at Court that he was then involved in privateering expeditions (against ‘papist’ Spain) led by the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Though he often sounds like the consummate womaniser, Rundell takes leave to doubt whether he can have achieved many extra-marital conquests before his clandestine and calamitous betrothal to the teenaged Ann More in 1601 (which saw him briefly imprisoned). He was also summarily dismissed from his position of secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. It cannot have helped that he was known for habitually ‘improving’ his employer’s letters.

Donne can closely-resemble the dandy you dread meeting at the office party: quicker-witted than you, better-dressed and better-looking (“all architectural jawline and hooked eyebrows” according to his biographer). The boys can feel out-smarted and the girls, outshone.

His chat-up lines are always highly-polished,

     To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
     What need'st thou have more cov'ring than a man?

he can ‘come the old soldier’,

     Those wars the ignorant, these the experienced love,
     There we always under, here above.
     There engines far off breed a just true fear,
     Near thrusts, pikes, stabs, yea bullets hurt not here.
     There lies are wrongs, here safe uprightly lie;
     There men kill men, we'll make one by and by.

and he can sound enormously expert (bearing in mind that Colombus had made his first New World landfall a mere eighty years prior to Donne’s birth)

     License my roving hands and let them go
     Behind, before, above, between, below!
     O my America! My new-found land!
     My Kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned!

But every time you just know that you’ll end up crying into your (small) beer… It’s all enough to make you eat your own, less-than-cat-sized, irredeemably-capsized, hat!

Whatever else he was, Donne was undeniably uxorious. In the fifteen-and-a-half years of his marriage to Ann she endured twelve confinements, the last of which killed her. It can be almost impossible to weld-together the eloquent hedonist who so memorably hymned the joys of sex, with the seeming-misogynist who could aver

     Women are like flies which feed amongst us at our
     table, or fleas sucking out our very blood.

Like Walt Whitman – though perhaps less happily – he contained “multitudes”. Narcissist, sycophant, hyperbolist , hypochondriac and hypocrite (an obsequious flatterer who, later, fulminated from the pulpit against flattery), Donne was also something less than a fully-engaged parent. His faults can seem legion. Rundell makes an elegant apologist, yet even she sometimes struggles -as with the super-toadying dedication to King James I of his super-turgid Pseudo-Martyr [1610]) – a work, as she admits “of white-hot ingratiation. {…} This, though, wasn’t purposeless fawning: it was a way Donne could signal unambiguously his allegiance to James’ religious policies and flag his devotion to serve the King.”

Purposeful fawning, then – a culmination of which would see him installed, in 1621, as Dean of St. Paul’s cathedral.

The word “brilliant” could have been coined with Donne in mind – as defined by “very bright” or “sparkling” but also by “showy”. Following John Carey’s erudite John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1990), Super-Infinite causes us to realise how his world – harsh, initially resistive towards his ambitions and abrasive towards his original Faith – informed, shaped and quite-possibly maimed, him. Consequently, he is always performing; forever – for this reviewer, at least – proclaiming “Look: how ingenious am I?” rather than witnessing “Look: how remarkable is that?”. These performances, these – and, again, the word is apt – “conceits” continue to glitter, sometimes bewilderingly, often bewitchingly. For Donne – at least as much as for Thomas Hardy’s fictive ‘Drummer Hodge’ – like “strange-eyed constellations reign his stars eternally”. Or, maybe, super-eternally.