Like many readers of Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, I knew almost nothing about the poet before picking up the book apart from vague memories of learning about metaphysical poetry at school. The fact that Donne’s poems seem to be either sexual or religious might explain why his work has fallen off the syllabus into oblivion. The language is difficult, of course, and schoolkids won’t (thank God) understand a lot of the nuance. Then again, half the literature I studied at school was beyond my understanding, but that doesn’t mean there was no value in reading it at a young age.
But how do you drag Donne from his hiding place in poetry anthologies back onto the cultural agenda? If anyone can do it, it’s Katherine Rundell. A few months before picking up her biography, I stumbled across To His Mistress Going to Bed, which I found so dazzling and utterly hilarious that I read it aloud to my husband at breakfast (‘O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safelist when with one man manned’).
This piqued my interest in Super-Infinite, which I’d heard trumpeted as the 2022 winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. Jumping eagerly into the book, I was quite surprised when, just 12 pages in, Rundell bowled us a poem. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “I’m not ready for this! I haven’t even finished the introduction!” but Rundell was firm: “You cannot claim a man is an alchemist and fail to lay out the gold”.
You can see why Rundell calls Super-Infinite “both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism”. Part of the joy of reading it is her gift as a teacher; she knows why Donne is brilliant and somehow infects you with the same enthusiasm. She does not let you brood over every footnoted detail (her own notes are all tidied away at the back of the book), but chucks you headlong into Donne’s world, knowing that you’ll begin by thrashing about in the water and end up doing the front-crawl.
Rundell’s authorial voice is strong and, dare we say it, somewhat eccentric. Take, for example, her description of Donne’s work: “if allowed under your skin, [it] can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you”. At times she is funny (paintings of Anne Boleyn make her look like “an unimpressed headmistress”). Elsewhere, she kicks the metal out of your knees by saying it was common in counter-blazon verse to say your rival’s mistress was sweaty; it was less common “to suggest that your mistress’s sweat was like the fat eked out of the boiled shoes of the starving”.
By using some kind of alchemy, Rundell merges herself with her subject, a feat that Donne himself – a great coiner of words –might have called ‘super-biography’. The result is that Super-Infinite probably won’t be seen as the definitive scholarly biography – it most certainly is scholarly, but academics are liable to be disappointed by Rundell’s hidden footnotes and her refusal to chase down every single piece of evidence. I suspect she never set out to write this kind of book anyway; her strength is her vivid storytelling, which brings the poet to life on every page. Many readers (she says) have disliked Donne’s work “in the way you would dislike a tooth in a basket of flowers”, but his poetry is “quick on its feet and angry at you”.
After this, who could resist reading him?
Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber, 2022).
You might also enjoy: All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (Review’d).