In Review

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

This is a ‘thrilling reassessment of Donne’s oddly hinged career’

“The central riddle of John Donne’s life has always been this,” said Kathryn Hughes in The Sunday Times: how did the man who, in his “rapscallion youth”, wrote “some of the most erotic verse in English literature” – poems such as To His Mistress Going to Bed and The Sun Rising – “end up at St Paul’s Cathedral preaching that sex was a sin”?

In her “thrilling reassessment of Donne’s oddly hinged career”, Katherine Rundell argues that the transformation was less unlikely than it seems. Donne’s poetry often involved the “yoking together of two apparently contradictory positions”, and Rundell suggests that his “love of paradox” likewise lay behind his decision to enter the clergy. Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and also a prize-winning children’s writer. “On reading this extraordinary biography you are left concluding that her talent, like that of her hero, must somehow be super-infinite.”

Born in 1572, Donne was brought up a Catholic in an era when it meant living “in constant terror of violent death”, said James Marriott in The Times. Having renounced his Catholicism, he fought his way into the Elizabethan court, becoming a lawyer and aspiring diplomat. The “poems of seduction” he wrote as a young man – shared among friends, but mostly unpublished – gave him the reputation of being a “prolific shagger”, but Rundell questions this. The difficulty of seducing young women of his class – combined with the threat of syphilis – made it more likely, she suggests, that he restricted himself to “flirtations and dalliances”.

Donne did pull off one seduction, said Roger Lewis in the Daily Mail. In 1601, at the age of 29, he secretly wed 16-year-old Anne More, niece of his boss, Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the great seal, against her family’s wishes. The scandal led him to be thrown into Fleet prison. The marriage was in time declared “good and sufficient” (though he was a hopeless husband and father), but it wrecked his court career.

After years in the wilderness, Donne took holy orders, and became dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, said Joe Moshenska in Literary Review. By his death in 1631, he had established himself as the most admired preacher of the age. While Super-Infinite is “well executed” as a biography, it excels on a more personal level, because Rundell puts “herself and her reactions to Donne’s work” into the text. “Without ever claiming to think like Donne, she shows in every paragraph how Donne has enabled her to think.”

Faber 352pp £16.99; The Week bookshop £13.99

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