Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Ben Jonson’s stern judgment on his contemporary, the metaphysical poet, cleric and scholar John Donne, was mitigated by his concession that he was “the first poet in the world for some things”. Nearly four centuries after his death, Donne remains a man of his age and a thoroughly contemporary figure, whose love of ambiguity and paradox, in life and art alike, baffles and thrills.
From a young age, as we learn from Katherine Rundell’s masterly new biography Super-Infinite, Donne was consumed by ideas of identity. The challenge for any biographer is to delve into the apparent contradictions between the two Donnes, the piratical Jack who sailed with Raleigh to Cadiz and who wrote brilliant sonnets, rich in witty paradox and bold sexual assertion, and the prelate Dr John, who eventually became dean of St Paul’s; an accomplishment, Rundell tells us, that owed as much to his networking skills as it did to his considerable ability at preaching. His show-stopping sermons, delivered with theatrical relish, were as much of a draw as any play at the nearby Globe.
Yet Donne also spent his life afraid, preoccupied with potential damnation and more earthly concerns. He was born and baptised a Catholic at a time when the faith was regarded with fear and suspicion, and his younger brother Henry, imprisoned in Newgate for harbouring a Catholic priest, died in 1594. He abandoned his former religion for practical and ideological reasons, and felt that he had betrayed himself in the process. As he later wrote of his relationship with God: “I, like an usurped town, to another due/ Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.” Perhaps inevitably, he even preached his own funeral sermon, Death’s Duel, dragging his ailing body into the pulpit at St Paul’s in February 1631 one final time to settle accounts with his deity and himself.
Given his fascinating life, it’s surprising that Donne hasn’t been written about more over the past decades. Rundell follows John Stubbs, whose 2006 biography The Reformed Soul explored the inherent contradictions in Donne’s religious and spiritual convictions, and John Carey, whose 1981 book John Donne: Life, Mind and Art took the writer’s sermons and letters as seriously as the poetry. Rundell’s conception of Donne as multifaceted Renaissance man is closer to Carey (whose book she praises as “the most electric piece of literary criticism I read as a teen”) than Stubbs’s more tightly focused reading, and she writes distinctively and boldly. Early on, she describes the 23-year-old Donne sitting for a portrait in the late 16th century, and notes “the painting was of a man who knew about fashion; he wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar, an exquisite moustache”. Immediately, we feel closer to him.
Rundell has an engagingly idiosyncratic and playful style, with chapter titles that include The Erratic Collector of His Own Talent, The Anticlimactically Married Man and The Paradoxical Quibbler, Taking Aim at Women. It suits her subject, who took delight in combining high learning with bawdy humour; only Donne could suggest, as he did in his poem The Flea, that his mistress should surrender herself to his attentions after both have been bitten by the titular insect. But there is welcome revisionism, too. Rundell debunks the traditional, self-perpetuated image of the young Donne as a lothario, observing that “women of his class would have been hard to seduce … make a mistake … and you could be punished for life”. The great chronicler of libertine passions emerges here as serially monogamous and uxorious, if hardly chaste: he had 12 children, after all.
Like her subject, Rundell is keenly aware of the skull beneath the skin. She observes that “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”. Death – sudden, and often violent – stalks this book, just as it did Donne’s life. Five of his children were either stillborn or died before they were 10, and he even had a prophetic vision of one of them dying while he was away on a trip to Paris in 1612. Little wonder that Donne’s long-suffering wife, Anne, perished, exhausted, in 1617. Yet as Donne wrote in his 10th Holy Sonnet: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, though are not so.” His religious faith might have been, at times, quixotic, but it was sincere and a source of comfort to him, his congregation and his readers.
Throughout his life, beset as he was by illness and money worries, Donne retained an unremitting self-belief, justified by intellectual genius and personal charm. Although his work can be difficult, it speaks seductively to our anxiety-riddled times: to read his poetry is to be reassured and challenged simultaneously. He was the leading cleric of his age, one of the great English poets of love, death and sex, and the first writer to advance an intellectual argument in favour of suicide, in his posthumously published essay Biathanatos. Like Whitman, and Bob Dylan, he contains multitudes.
In Rundell, Donne has an authoritative and sympathetic chronicler. If Super-infinite is ultimately stronger on the thematic and literary than the historical – Rundell’s evocations of court and international intrigue are gripping, but veer away from the book’s protagonist – then its achievements are substantial enough to make any shortcomings seem petty. This fine book demands and rewards your fullest concentration, just as its subject does: a super-infinite amount, in fact.