I wish I had thought of the title of this review, but it is Katherine Rundell’s phrase, and it encapsulates the aim of her new biography Super-Infinite: to follow the changes of role and personality that took John Donne from a childhood and youth shaped by his Catholicism, via an impulsive clandestine marriage, social disgrace, repeated professional disappointments, and multiple illnesses and bereavements, to the exalted position of Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Rundell is something of a transformational character herself; there cannot be many Fellows of All Souls, “home of the incurably bookish” as she describes it, whose hobbies include tightrope-walking (also, metaphorically, practiced by Donne) and rooftop-climbing. In addition, she is the author of several novels for children, so she knows how to tell a story briskly and crisply (if, at times, a little too chattily).

There is certainly quite a story to tell, and it has been told variously by Donne’s previous biographers. For Izaak Walton (1670) it was a tale of exemplary piety; for R. C. Bald (1970) a collection of facts to be sorted, organized, and preserved in an academic bell jar; for John Carey (1981) a study in hypocrisy and apostasy; for John Stubbs (2007) a sincere conversion narrative. For Rundell it is the story of a mind and an imagination, which she variously characterizes as “galvanizing,” “strange and labyrinthical,” and “cacophonous”: a mind that could conceive of eternity, in a sermon, as “super-infinite forevers.” “I am a little world made cunningly,” he wrote in the fifth of his Holy Sonnets: Rundell takes us around that world in twenty-four chapters, each examining a different Donne.

For Rundell it is the story of a mind and an imagination.

The documents in the case are, as Rundell admits, patchy. There are many chronological gaps; the Great Fire of London incinerated many papers we would like to have. A commonplace book that we know Donne compiled is lost, and he kept no diary. We have over two hundred of his letters (he destroyed his correspondents’ replies), the Oxford edition of which is still in progress after over fifty years. One recent major find came to light at Westminster Abbey in 2016: a manuscript by Donne listing invented absurd book titles ascribed to contemporary authors, for the use of ambitious courtiers eager to impress with the extent of their culture. This spoof, in Latin, dates from 1604 and was almost certainly meant as a satirical tilt at the learned James I. Print has preserved Donne’s prose writings, published posthumously in some cases because of their controversial nature, and his incomparable sermons. His poems had a different kind of life, circulating widely in manuscripts, of which there are over 260, none of them authorial. The textual problems created by variant readings are formidable, but here Rundell, unlike her predecessors, can profit from Robin Robbins’s authoritative two-volume edition (2008). Donne’s nonchalance about his “rags of verses”—“scattered loosely” as Walton lamented—was all part of his self-projection as a devil-may-care man-about-town.

The outline of Donne’s life given by Rundell differs little from what we already know, except that recent redating of letters to one of his patrons, Robert Carr, has established that he was actively lobbying to be ordained for a year, while being stonewalled by Carr, before Carr’s fall from James’s favor removed the obstacle. On the question of Donne’s conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism, Rundell can only echo previous biographers: it occurred sometime between the death of his brother Henry in 1593 and his own marriage in 1601, but we cannot date it more precisely or trace the steps by which he came to his change of allegiance. There is no doubt of its momentousness, however. Between 1535 and 1593, eleven members of his family died for their Catholic faith, including Thomas More, his mother’s great-uncle, and the Henry just mentioned, who died, aged nineteen, of plague in Newgate prison, where he had been committed for harboring a priest. Anti-Catholic feeling had been growing since the Armada; the 1590s saw a number of plots against the Queen, and James’s early toleration was blown up by the Gunpowder Plot. There would have been no future for Donne as a Catholic, and no preferment at court after his rash and secret marriage to his employer’s niece, for which he was briefly imprisoned in his turn. (His apparent sympathy for the disgraced Earl of Essex will not have helped.) Ordination was a guarantee of social acceptability and financial security. That his decision was expedient does not mean that his beliefs were insincere. He had delayed taking the step, he wrote in 1607, mindful of “some irregularities of my life.” It was not a seizing of the main chance.

What, though, did Donne believe? Rundell addresses this question at several points. The poems, as she says, “will not hold still”; they are “trying to wrestle with a world that was shifting and raw and unhinged.” How seriously are we to take his misogyny, his rakish persona, his boasting of amorous conquests? Are such things not merely “a masterclass in how to look and sound like a womaniser,” written to show off to his male friends? What are we to make of his outlandish imagery, his rhetorical excess, his metrical audacities? “Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging,” Ben Jonson complained; he also said that Donne wrote all his best work before he was twenty-five, i.e., by 1597. Rundell rebuts the charge of clumsy metrics in his satires of the 1590s: “The world was harsh, and needed a harsh language.” In any case, as Robbins points out in his headnote to the satires, stylistic roughness was a traditional feature of the genre. (The “improved” versions by Pope, which eliminate the indecorum, are catastrophically bad.) Donne was an experimenter. “Language, his poetry tells us,” Rundell says, “is a set, not of rules, but of possibilities.” It was both his genius and his weakness that he could always see another way of looking at things, skepticism being for him “a fundamental ordering principle” as it was for Montaigne (whom he mentions in a letter and is likely to have read).

Donne was an experimenter.

Then again, beyond the core Christian doctrines (which there is no reason to think he doubted), how much of his religion is histrionics or frivolous linguistic game-playing? Rhetoric, the accepted code of public discourse in Donne’s day, does not always know when its displays have gone too far. When, in Biathanatos, he argues that Jesus committed suicide, because he voluntarily chose to die when he could have used his divine power to save himself, is this a blasphemous rhetorical device or a troubling theological challenge? To defend suicide was itself dangerous, and the book appeared only posthumously. How many of the opinions in Paradoxes and Problems (also unpublished in his lifetime) are Donne’s own? “They are but swaggerers,” he wrote deprecatingly, of these little essays. For argument’s sake he could doubt that women had souls, but he raged against such an unchristian opinion in a sermon years later. There was always, in Rundell’s view, “something anarchic and furious in his intellectual make-up.” His religious poems are disturbingly violent, even sado-masochistic in places, never more so than in the tenth Holy Sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” which pleads with the Deity, “take me to you, imprison me, for I,/ Except you enthral me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste except you ravish me.” “Ravish” can mean simply carry away, but the undertone of rape is inescapable. It is striking, as Rundell points out, that none of Donne’s love poems is a sonnet. He kept that form for his devotional verse (the adjective is unusually apt here).

Donne’s poetic voices, his astonishing range of tones, are routinely called dramatic. We know he was a keen theatergoer in his youth in London, where he could have seen some of Shakespeare’s plays. Wilbur Sanders, in John Donne’s Poetry (1971), one of the best critical studies, overlooked by Rundell, has some searching pages on the levels of sincerity in the religious poems, for which he has an interesting historical explanation: the sense of strain, the lapses into dogmatic assertion, recycled piety, and empty word-spinning, which disfigure the unsuccessful poems, stem from the fact that Donne is “reaching for simplicities no longer available to him, or to his age. . . . He is trying to coerce, not celebrating in public language the unquestionable and assured.” The scholasticism in which he had been brought up, and the humanism which was the climate of thought of his maturity, were in conflict. Inevitably, one thinks of the line in “The First Anniversary”—“new philosophy calls all in doubt”—duly quoted by Rundell and glossed, as it usually is, with reference to Kepler and Galileo. Donne met Kepler in 1619, while on a fruitless diplomatic mission to Germany; Kepler wanted advice on presenting a book to James I. Rundell wonders what they talked about, deeming it “likely” that they discussed Kepler’s discoveries. William Empson long maintained that Donne made extensive use of astronomical theories to advocate heterodox views of God, human beings, and the universe. By contrast, Robbins’s notes on the “First Anniversary” passage dismiss any notion that Donne had a serious interest in, or even accurate understanding of, astronomy. This shows the difficulty of trying to pin Donne down. Once you let irony in, it is very hard to show it the door, since irony is, in Sanders’s fine formulation, “a willingness to have one’s feelings observed from many other viewpoints besides one’s own.” Like skepticism, irony resists tidy conclusions.

What of Donne as a family man? His own siblings feature little in the records; we aren’t even certain how many there were or in what order they came. Henry, a year his junior, with whom he went to Oxford when they were twelve and eleven, and who followed him to the Inns of Court only to perish in Newgate, may have been closest to him. Rundell speculates that the poem “The Bracelet” may be “a coded reference to Henry,” but this seems unlikely (Robbins does not consider it). Donne’s formidable mother, Elizabeth Heywood, remained a Catholic to her dying day, living latterly in the Deanery of St Paul’s and perhaps, Rundell speculates, continuing to regard her distinguished son as a heretic bound for Hell. Despite the casual sexism of much of his writing, he seems to have married for love, given the risks the union entailed, and there is no evidence that he was unfaithful to Anne; his extravagant verse letters to noble ladies are merely what was required of those angling for patronage or preferment. Yet he showed little consideration for her: she died of exhaustion, a week after giving birth to her twelfth child in sixteen years. Seven of the children survived, none of whom cut much of a figure in the world. John Donne Jr. is owed our gratitude for publishing the first editions of his father’s poems and sermons, but he was a dissolute heavy drinker who killed an eight-year-old child in a fit of rage, an “atheistical buffoon” in the judgment of the Oxford antiquarian Anthony à Wood. Donne’s children rarely feature in his letters, and then usually when ill or dead. Rundell suspects that his temperament—intense, highly strung, restless—would have made him a poor father. The poems that we most remember from the Songs and Sonnets concentrate on the lover and his beloved, the outside world excluded from this relationship so intense that it can become a “dialogue of one.”

Donne’s children rarely feature in his letters, and then usually when ill or dead.

Donne’s ten years as Dean of St Paul’s were memorable above all for his preaching. One hundred and sixty sermons survive, filling ten volumes in the standard modern edition. Immensely long and intricate, preached from notes and subsequently written up, they are the least read but, in many respects, the most brilliant of his writings, “a pleasure that is also work” as Rundell says. He was a favorite at court (only once displeasing Charles I, by a tactless remark about the Queen). The Psalms and the Gospel of John provided the greatest number of texts. Once more, a whole range of tones is deployed: often severely admonitory, often developing a train of thought or an elaborate metaphor to baroque proportions; sometimes homely, even wryly humorous. They contain wit, but they address their hearers’ hearts and intellect; if a game is being played, it is in deadly earnest, with salvation the winning prize. Rundell picks out Donne’s dwelling on the arduous search for God, his frustration at tepid prayer, distracting thoughts, faint-heartedness, discouragement. The naturally fervent, she observes, will have little need of Donne’s exhortations: “He is the writer and the preacher for those who make their way . . . in gestures, symbols, flickers, errors.”

That is finely said, but perhaps the most arresting sentence in Rundell’s book is that which identifies Donne’s twin gifts as being those of “distillation and contraction” on the one hand and “expansion and connection” on the other. These impulses were the systole and diastole of his mind and writing, and of his faith. The body, shrinking with age and destined for dust, was nonetheless the temple of the soul, which would know no bounds in the Kingdom of Heaven.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 65
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