Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne 
by Katherine Rundell.
Faber, 352 pp., £16.99, April 2022, 978 0 571 34591 5
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The engraved frontispiece​ to the 1635 second edition of John Donne’s Poems features a portrait of the artist as an exceedingly young man. Eighteen years old, in loose curls, padded Italian doublet, a single cross-shaped earring and the optimistic hint of a moustache, Donne clutches an oversized sword by the hilt and gazes sidelong at the viewer from beneath provocatively arched brows, a study in adolescent bravado. A family crest just outside the frame signals his genteel pedigree – the Dwns were an ancient clan of Welsh Catholic landowners, although Donne’s own connection to them is dubious – while a banner floating in the upper right-hand corner bears a defiant Spanish motto: Antes muerto que mudado – ‘Sooner dead than changed’.

The date in the upper left-hand corner of the portrait is 1591: three years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, amid a rising tide of legislation aimed at restricting the freedoms of English Catholics, an altogether inauspicious moment to be advertising one’s Catholic origins or hinting at Iberian sympathies – and the look on Donne’s face suggests he knows it. Born in London in 1572, a year after a doomed international conspiracy to replace Elizabeth I with her papist cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, Donne was, as Katherine Rundell puts it in her new biography, ‘not just Catholic … but super-Catholic’, the scion of a double line of renowned religious recusants. His father’s family estates were confiscated by the crown, leaving the elder John Donne to pursue a living as warden of the Ironmongers’ Company. On his mother Elizabeth’s side he was the great-great-grand-nephew of Sir Thomas More, whose preserved head Elizabeth was (falsely) rumoured to have inherited and kept as a relic. Two years after Donne’s birth, his great-uncle Thomas Heywood was discovered to be a priest, arrested, imprisoned and possibly put to death. A decade later, Elizabeth’s brother Jasper was also discovered to be a priest (worse: a Jesuit) and imprisoned for treason in the Tower of London. Jasper survived, thanks to a childhood connection with the queen, but his ordeal made a vivid impression on the 12-year-old Donne, who was taken by Elizabeth to visit him in the Tower – he was used, it seems, as a decoy to distract the jailers from the presence of the third visitor, a disguised fellow Jesuit with whom Jasper exchanged seditious notes. ‘It was a darkly particular way to grow up,’ Rundell writes, a family life fashioned by extremes of recklessness and caution, always skirting the edges of offence but ready at any moment to answer the summons of death for Christ. Years later, in the preface to a treatise against the Catholic cult of martyrdom – a book written either as a calculated bid for professional advancement, or a protest against the atmosphere of terror and devotion in which he was raised, or possibly both – Donne wrote of the visit to the Tower and hinted at its lingering effects: ‘I have been ever kept awake in a meditation of Martyrdome.’

Within months of the portrait’s being made, however, the swashbuckling would-be martyr depicted in it had taken up a new role, as a law student at Lincoln’s Inn. (Donne and his younger brother, Henry, began their studies at Oxford, and may have spent time at Cambridge, but there was a law barring Catholics from formal admission to the ranks of either university.) At Lincoln’s Inn, Donne quickly established a reputation for himself, not as a carefully reared Catholic, but as a gifted (if desultory) reader of the law, a voracious reader of everything else, the life of every party, and – thanks to a vigorous underground trade in manuscript verses among the wits at the Inns of Court – the author of satires, verse epistles, epigrams and elegies written in a voice so brash, brilliant and brazenly unrefined as to make the rest of the poetic tradition sound instantly outdated.

Donne’s early poems convert the spiritual and emotional intensities of his childhood into a preternatural worldliness. The satires flirt with scandal. One, on the impossibly fraught subject of religion, sums up and then casts aside as unworthy the whole substance of the schism in the early modern church:

Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this?

(‘Philip’ is Philip II of Spain, ‘Gregory’ the pope, ‘Harry’ the Tudor king whose marital woes precipitated England’s break from Rome, and ‘Martin’ is Martin Luther – the leading lights of Reformation and Counter-Reformation alike reduced to a familiarity that stops just a hair’s-breadth short of contempt.) The love poems tend to bypass flirting altogether. Donne’s muse has no patience with Petrarchan niceties: ‘Licence my roving hands and let them go/Behind, before, above, between, below,’ urges the speaker of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. No time for Neoplatonic abstraction, either, except jokingly, to serve an erotic end: ‘Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;/As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,/ To taste whole joys.’ ‘Come, madam, come,’ the poem begins: it’s as if the gorgeously ornamented, elaborately starched body of the Elizabethan love lyric had suddenly decided to stop faking its orgasms.

Some of that worldliness was no doubt feigned – as Rundell points out, ‘women of [Donne’s own] class would have been hard to seduce,’ while paying for sex came with a significant risk of venereal disease – but some of it was painfully hard-won. A year after joining his older brother at the Inns of Court, Henry Donne was caught harbouring a priest in his living chambers. He was arrested, jailed, interrogated and no doubt threatened with torture. He swiftly broke. The man he had been hiding, William Harrington, might have held out against his questioners, but Henry’s testimony did for him; in February 1594, he was tried, convicted of treason, and hung, drawn and quartered. Henry himself was already long gone. Transferred to a filthy cell in the jail at Newgate during an outbreak of bubonic plague, he died within days, at the age of nineteen: a lonely, sad, unspectacular and altogether inglorious end.

What followed is hard to document and hotly contested by contemporary scholars. This much is sure: at some point in the eight years between Henry’s death in 1593 and his own marriage in 1601, Donne did the thing his youthful portrait suggested he would not: he changed from the Roman Catholic faith he had inherited to the Anglicanism on which his future largely depended. As to when, why and how this momentous change occurred, Rundell mostly, wisely, declines to speculate:

It is possible that he licked a finger and held it to the political wind, and saw that no man could advance while remaining a Catholic: it’s possible there was never a change of heart, only of expedience. But if the conversion was real, there was probably no single burst of light or dark that caused it; like almost everything in our rusty-hinged, slow-moving world, it happened in pieces … And what happened to Henry must have been part of it.

Donne certainly seems to have been craving distraction in the years after Henry died. In 1596, when he was 24, he threw over the law and turned sailor, joining the Earl of Essex in a string of quasi-piratical expeditions against a new Spanish armada, rumoured to be gathering in the waters west of Cadiz. The expeditions resulted in a costly stalemate; Essex and his men sacked Cadiz but lost the real prize, the Spanish fleet, and with it the indulgence of the queen. For Donne, however, it was a productive venture: in his time at sea he forged a valuable connection with a fellow well-educated privateer, the son of Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. By the end of the 16th century, Essex had been tried and executed for treason, but Donne had a job as Egerton’s secretary, a place in his household and every prospect of a successful career at court.

And then a cataclysm: he fell in love. When Donne met her, Anne More was in her mid-teens, the niece and ward of his employer’s second wife, Elizabeth Wolley, and the daughter of Sir George More, a wealthy, ambitious and notably short-tempered man. There was no question of a courtship; Sir George had not sent his daughter to London to make a match with her uncle’s secretary. So Donne wooed her in secret, gave her love tokens in secret, wrote poems for her in secret, and eventually – disastrously – married her in secret. The wedding took place in December 1601; in February, George More found out and promptly had Donne arrested. Donne was prepared for this – he had already hired a lawyer to defend the legitimacy of the marriage in court – but he doesn’t seem to have been remotely prepared for what came next. When Donne regained his freedom and his bride, he found himself without a job, a place to live or a single remaining prospect. According to his first biographer, Izaak Walton, he wrote a poem about that, too: ‘John Donne. Anne Donne. Undone.’ Walton, who revered his subject and regarded his unauthorised wedding as ‘the remarkable error of his life’, takes the epigram as the realisation of a sadder-but-wiser Donne, penned at the bottom of a letter informing Anne of his dismissal from Egerton’s service. Rundell, who doesn’t revere her subject so much as like him an enormous lot, prefers a different origin story for the verse, from a 17th-century jestbook in which the new-married Donne, ‘in a frolic’, scrawls the punning line in chalk on his kitchen door, the ecstatic graffito ‘of a man floored and upended by desire’.

Eitherway, the next ten years of Donne’s life were the dull opposite of martyrdom: a protracted getting-by in borrowed rooms and draughty suburban houses, on loans from friends and in constant pursuit of better employment. There were satisfactions, to be sure. In ‘Love’s Growth’, a double sonnet likely written for Anne (it puns repeatedly on her maiden name, More), Donne boasts joyously of a love perfected by sexual intimacy:

Love’s not so pure and abstract as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their Muse;
But, as all else being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

But the final lines of the poem make an abrupt swerve:

And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

The analogy is strange, even by Donne’s standards. Instead of natural abundance, we get unjust tax policy, spring’s increase weirdly converted to a financial burden. The couple were, in fact, deeply in love, significantly in debt and exceptionally fertile: by the time the marriage was approved in court, Anne was already expecting a child. Over sixteen years, she bore twelve children and suffered at least one miscarriage: ‘She would have spent her entire adult life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth,’ Rundell points out. Love grew, and she was taxed by it. Some of Donne’s most beautiful verse for Anne dates to this difficult era: the ‘Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, for instance, written on the eve of a trip abroad in search of work, which contains the image of a love stressed and strengthened by suffering, ‘like gold to airy thinness beat’. But his weekly letters to his friend Henry Goodere bear traces of bitterness. ‘The pleasantness of the season displeases me,’ he writes in one springtime letter. ‘Everything refreshes, and I wither, and I grow older, and not better.’

At some point between 1607 and 1610, Donne began to write seriously in prose. The first book he completed was one he never intended to publish: Biathanatos is not an argument in favour of suicide, exactly, but a lucid and often lacerating account of why one might be justified in choosing it. Donne’s most daring claim – that the Crucifixion itself was a kind of noble suicide – would have rendered him permanently unemployable; nonetheless, he shared the manuscript with a select few, begging them to keep its contents to themselves. And then he embarked on a very different book. Pseudo-Martyr, a treatise in defence of the 1606 Oath of Allegiance imposed on English Catholics by James I, isn’t a scintillating work – ‘It would be swifter to eat it than to read it,’ Rundell jokes – but its significance for Donne can hardly be overstated. Biathanatos and Pseudo-Martyr form an unsettling diptych, a double meditation on the most painful mysteries of Donne’s life: the deaths of all those uncles, great-uncles and great-great-great-uncles; the death of his brother Henry; the death of Christ himself – and, in the face of so much death, the inglorious reality of his own survival. Biathanatos argues that it is possible to conceive of suicide as a sacred act; Pseudo-Martyr makes a furious, copiously annotated case that English Catholics who died rather than swear allegiance to the crown were in fact committing suicide and had no claim on the ‘supreame Dignity of Martyrdome’.

It’s in the pages of this book that Donne recalls his youthful visit to his uncle Jasper in the Tower of London and the sleepless nights it brought him; it’s hard to avoid the sense that here, in the guise of a legal and philosophical treatise, Donne was finally coming to grips with, or perhaps simply turning his back on, his extraordinary upbringing. But he was also laying claim to his future. Pseudo-Martyr is dedicated to James I, and Donne clearly had it published in a bid for favour from the king. And it worked, though not perhaps in the way Donne expected: rather than offering him a position at court, James suggested that he think about joining the Anglican priesthood. It wasn’t the first time someone had made the suggestion; the Dean of Gloucester had offered him a job in 1607. Donne had refused, ‘not for that I think myself too good for that calling’, he wrote, but out of professed worry that ‘some irregularities’ of his early life – Catholicism, the matter of his unauthorised marriage – might cause scandal. Now it was the king himself urging Donne to take holy orders, and although he again demurred, the possibility seems to have taken root in his imagination. It took two years for him to make up his mind, and another two years after that to make it official, but on 23 January 1615, Donne presented himself before the Bishop of London and was ordained a priest.

He was 42 years old, had seventeen years left to live and was on the brink of becoming extremely famous. Backed by the king and endowed with unparalleled eloquence, Donne rose swiftly through the ranks of the Anglican Church: personal chaplain to James I, honorary Cambridge doctor in divinity, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and, within a few years, the most celebrated preacher in London. Rundell conjures the scene on a Sunday morning in April 1623, two years after Donne was appointed dean, when he delivered a guest sermon in the new chapel at Lincoln’s Inn: ‘Word went out: wherever he was, people came flocking, often in their thousands, to hear him speak.’ The chapel building filled, and over-filled, with what a contemporary report described as ‘a great concourse of noblemen and gentlemen’. As the crowd pressed forward to hear Donne speak, the situation grew dangerous; in the ‘extreme press and throng’, men stumbled and fell, or perhaps they simply couldn’t breathe: ‘Two or three were endangered and taken up for dead at the time.’ As Rundell observes, ‘there’s no record of Donne halting his sermon; so it’s likely that he kept going in his rich, authoritative voice as the bruised men were carried off and out of sight.’

He kept going. Sweet as Donne’s triumph must have been, it was also a feat of endurance. In the summer of 1617, aged 33, Anne died – less than a week after delivering her twelfth child, a stillborn infant. Mother and baby were buried in a single grave; Donne found himself a widowed father of seven living children, ranging in age from fourteen to not quite one. In his last poem for his wife, a sonnet, Donne strains to present her loss as a blessed release:

Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt
To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set.

‘To hers, and my good is dead’: this is brutal, but it’s also orthodoxy; Anne was in a better place and one day, God willing, he would be too. But in an extraordinary turn – an echo of the impulse that, in Donne’s earlier poem ‘The Relic’, makes ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ into a sweetly macabre device for postponing eternity – the poem goes on to admit that heavenly things aren’t consolation enough:

Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offring all thine,
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea devil put thee out.

‘Why should I beg more love’ is a question rhetorically recast as a rebuke, the voice of conscience admonishing the love-addicted soul. But it’s also, of course, an excuse for one last, affectionate pun: more love, More love. There could never be enough.

Donne died​ in 1631, a wealthy and revered man. His own importance wasn’t lost on him: in late February, at the king’s behest, he preached his final sermon, on the subject of his impending demise, to be published posthumously as a pamphlet titled Death’s Duel; in March, on his (literal) deathbed, he hired an artist to produce a life-sized sketch of his shrouded form, to serve as the basis for the marble funerary monument that still stands in an alcove at St Paul’s. That monument shows a fully bearded adult man, the features of his face moulded by suffering into a kind of elegant ethereality. Four years later, then, when the portrait of a swashbuckling teenage Donne appeared on the frontispiece of the second print edition of Poems by J D., With Elegies on the Authors Death, its Spanish motto – Antes muerto que mudado – must have had an ironic ring. John Donne had changed, and just about everyone knew it.

That seems to have been the point of the 1635 Poems. None of Donne’s verses was published in his lifetime, though they circulated widely in written copies, and the first print edition of 1633 retains the haphazard format of a manuscript miscellany. The title of Thomas Browne’s elegiac contribution to the volume registers its potentially scandalous effect: ‘To the deceased Author, Upon the Promiscuous printing of his Poems, the Looser sort with the Religious.’ In the 1635 edition, by contrast, someone – probably Izaak Walton, soon to become his biographer – took pains to straighten out the poetic record of Donne’s life. Beneath the frontispiece portrait appears an epigraph by Walton, which suggests alchemical refinement, a favourite metaphor of Donne’s, as the interpretive key to his existence:

This was for youth, Strength, Mirth, and wit that Time
Most count their golden Age; but t’was not thine.
Thine was thy later yeares, so much refind
From youths Drosse, Mirth, and wit; as thy pure mind
Thought (like the Angels) nothing but the Praise
Of thy Creator, in those last, best Dayes.
Witnes this Booke, (thy Embleme) which begins
With Love; but endes, with Sighes, and Teares for sins.

The contents of the book are carefully arranged to bear out this hint, organised into a series of generically distinct, implicitly developmental epochs: ‘Songs and Sonets’, ‘Epigrams’, ‘Elegies’, ‘Epithalamions’, ‘Satyres’, ‘Letters’ (in verse), ‘Funerall Elegies’, ‘Letters’ (in prose) and, finally, ‘Divine Poems’.

That sequence isn’t actually a biographical progression – the satires were probably among Donne’s earliest poems, while some of the love lyrics collected in ‘Songs and Sonets’ were written long after – but it gives the powerful impression of one. We begin with ‘The Flea’, which narrates an irrepressible young man’s absurd efforts to persuade a love interest that having been bitten by the same flea is an excellent excuse for sleeping together, and we arrive nearly four hundred pages later at ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, a plainspoken prayer for salvation:

Sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne
Shall shine as hee shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done That, thou hast done,
I feare no more.

These first and last poems are, in some deep sense, the same poem – an unworthy supplicant’s bid for grace, ‘save me’ and ‘have sex with me’ being close to synonymous in Donne’s rhetorical lexicon – but placing them at opposite ends of the volume invites us to see the movement between them as a kind of divinely ordained plot: not just progress, but providence.

Donne himself saw the appeal of that plot; indeed, he could be said to have invented it. Late in life, he sent a copy of his most incendiary work, Biathanatos, to Robert Ker with a cautionary note attached: ‘It is a book written by Jack Donne, and not by Doctor Donne.’ It’s an irresistible formulation, with the snap and symmetry of an epigram, and it has become a shorthand for the puzzle of Donne’s mercurial being. But it’s tempting to regard it as a solution, too: that’s what Walton does in his ‘Life of Dr John Donne’ (1640), which treats the first half of Donne’s life as a protracted detour or misadventure, culminating in the ‘remarkable error’ of his marriage. In Walton’s account, Donne was always going to be the person God intended him to be – orthodox Anglican; respectable family man; true servant of the crown. It just took him a while to get free of the person he had carelessly pretended to be. Modern biographers tend to give less weight to God’s will and more to Donne’s own: apostasy and ambition are the twin themes of John Carey’s still indispensable John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1980), two sides of Donne’s singular mind. As her title suggests, Rundell wants to move past such binaries: Donne, she insists, ‘was infinitely more various and unpredictable than that’. Her Donne is not two people but at least a dozen, a veritable panoply: ‘poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the king, dean of the finest cathedral in London’.

‘Nor in nothing, nor in things/Extreme and scattering bright can love inhere,’ Donne wrote in ‘Air and Angels’, and the same might be true of biography. ‘Super-infinite’ is a compound Donne coined to describe the limitless potentiality of God; Rundell’s faintly blasphemous application of it to Donne himself is both a wry nod to the difficulty of her task and a clever evasion of it. Rather than try to explain Donne, she invites us to join her in marvelling at him in all his incarnations; as she says, ‘This is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism.’

No one ever preached the gospel with more dash and flair than Donne did, and Rundell’s affection for her subject shines brightest in the imitative exuberance of her style. Describing a painting of the 23-year-old Donne, the famed Lothian portrait, Rundell writes: ‘He wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar, an exquisite moustache.’ Her description of the hat has the topsy-turvy immediacy of one of Donne’s own weird images: one instantly grasps how big it is and only then stops to wonder what a cat might be doing in it. She’s capable of an affecting plainness, too, especially when it comes to the great sorrows of Donne’s life: the death of Henry, of six children, of his beloved Anne. Oddly, where Rundell’s evangelical impulse tends to fail her is in conveying the wonders of Donne’s own words, which, she promises, ‘if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you’. Super-Infinite is studded with quotations from Donne’s poems, letters and religious writings, but Rundell rarely lingers over them – rarely allows us to get them under our skin. Then again, this is a book whose irrepressibility is its great asset: swift-paced, sharp-edged, and show-offy in a good way. And the realisation that one might be show-offy in a good way is among Donne’s chief bequests to English literature, a salutary corrective to the 16th-century cult of Sidneian sprezzatura. The embrace of effort – the wish to impress, to delight, to dazzle, to convince or convert, and the willingness to be seen working at it – is the secret to the deathless charm of ‘The Flea’ and the pathos of the ‘Holy Sonnets’. (When Donne pleads, ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God,’ he is asking the Trinity to try his approach for a change.) Rundell grasps the magnificence of this gift and returns the favour.

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Vol. 45 No. 4 · 16 February 2023

It isn’t quite accurate to say, as Catherine Nicholson does, that ‘none of Donne’s verses was published in his lifetime’ (LRB, 19 January). In fact, his two dense philosophical poems, An Anatomie of the World (‘The First Anniversarie’) and The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progresse of the Soule, were printed in London in 1611 and 1612 respectively, long before his death in 1631. But perhaps the problem lies with our modern and rather narrower sense of the word ‘published’. As Nicholson writes, Donne’s poetry ‘circulated widely in written copies’. To 17th-century readers and writers, manuscript circulation would certainly have been understood as a form of publication. Some poets, the notorious Earl of Rochester being an obvious example, actively cultivated what now tends to be called ‘scribal’ (i.e. manuscript) publication. Indeed, the throngs of spectators (the word seems more appropriate than ‘congregation’) who attended Donne’s sermons would have understood even his oral performances as a kind of ‘publication’.

Jonathan Sawday
Saint Louis University, Missouri

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