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Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (2022)

by Katherine Rundell

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278993,896 (4.15)23
"A very modern biography of John Donne-the poet of love, sex, and death-by bestselling children's book author and superstar academic Katherine Rundell"-- Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. In his myriad lives he was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, a priest, an MP - and perhaps the greatest love poet in the history of the English language. Along the way he converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was imprisoned for marrying a sixteen-year old girl without her father's consent; struggled to feed a family of ten children; and was often ill and in pain. He was a man who suffered from black surges of misery, yet expressed in his verse many breathtaking impressions of electric joy and love.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This is the second biography I've read where I didn't really know anything about the person who was the subject of the book; it's nice to go in as a blank slate instead of as a fan, and see what happens.

And what happened was that I had a good time learning about Donne, but the thing that made him famous and worthy of a biography - his writing - didn't interest me much at all. For the first half of the book I dutifully read each of the passages of poetry, but they didn't mean a thing to me, and from then on I skipped them. I think it's great that his writing continues to set people alight, and I'm also fine with not being one of them.

What did set me alight was author Rundell's own writing. Absolute powerhouse stuff, witty and evocative and honest and insightful. As I said, I didn't know a thing about Donne or why he mattered, but I was in good hands with Rundell guiding me along. Definitely a good read. ( )
  blueskygreentrees | Jul 30, 2023 |
There are more comprehensive biographies of Donne out there, but none that are as enthusiastic. Rundell openly proclaims herself an evangelist for Donne, by which she means not just a fan of his work, but a believer that his work, and the whole-hearted determination to embrace the complexity of life, is what we need now. In a world where so many people willingly inhabit the cosy comfort of a binary view of the world, or embrace outright denial of reality, Donne's willingness to see the manifold beauty and ugliness all around us, and often to yoke those together into something new, comes across as strikingly brave and ambitious. Of course, the difficulty of that endeavour--and the difficult poetry that it produced--offers a clear reason why Donne's lessons will go largely unheeded. After all, we now live in a world where people are quite happy to think they can make art by typing a few suggestive phrases into an AI generator. One unexpected side effect of this book is that it functions, however, as something of an antidote to present despair. For those who are convinced our world is uniquely going to hell in a handbasket, Rundell portrays the Elizabethan/Jacobean world in all is violence, its casual cruelty, it sickness, its loss, its chaos, with an unflinching eye. What is perhaps most remarkable about Rundell's work, however, is that she manages to be both an unabashed fan, while simultaneously being open, clear, and critical about Donne's many failings. Rundell couples a reverance for her subject with an often irreverent tone that will no doubt offend some. But her grasp of the minutae of the Early Modern period--occasionally deployed in anecdotes that are tangential, but forgivably so because they are just so damn interesting--is impressive. For me, at least, the book achieved its purpose: it has made me want to reread Donne. Or maybe, to really read him for the first time.

“Few people would turn to Donne’s poetry or prose, with its twisting logic and deliberate difficulty, for solace--but you might turn to him to be reminded that for all its horror, the human animal is worth your attention, your awe, your love” (261). ( )
  BornAnalog | May 16, 2023 |
Well, what a wonderful book – an absolute delight from start to finish.

I had been familiar with a few of Donne’s works (probably the same few that everyone knows) from having studied a few of them untold decades ago as a new undergraduate, but had been lamentably hazy about his life, and the sheer scale and range of his oeuvre. Indeed, having not thought about him since those lost student days, I was no longer clear on his chronology, and had forgotten the extent to which his life overlapped that of Shakespeare (Donne was born eight years later, in 1572). Katherine Rundell touches briefly on the question of whether they might ever have met.

Donne’s life was hard and eventful, and seldom far from sorrow or vexation. Raised as a Roman Catholic, much of his early life was passed under the shadow of persecution, and indeed his younger brother henry was arrested for harbouring a priest and was consigned to the tower of London, where he subsequently died of plague. His own dedication to the faith he was born into seems to have been less adamant, and during his twenties he moved into at least apparent acceptance of the dogma of the Church of England, in which he eventually secured a living, publishing two anti-Catholic polemics in 1610 and 1611, before becoming a Royal Chaplain in 1615.

He also spent much of his life in relative penury, despite having received a decent inheritance on the death of his mother – it seems that he worked his way through this fairly swiftly, spending much of it on womanising, books and travel (presumably just wasting the rest!). He spent some years as a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Brackley, during which time he was under the protection and influence of Sir Francis Wooley (his wife’s cousin), furthering whose interests was his primary objective in Westminster. Having sought patronage as a court poet under King James, he eventually secured the living of three parishes (none especially close to another, being situated in Kent, Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire) which he held simultaneously until his death.

Yet it is as a writer, and primarily a poet, that he is remembered, and rightly so. The breadth of his interests and the flexibility of his style are extraordinary, and were probably unprecedented in his own time. Best known now for his sensual verse, he also explored philosophical quandaries that were dividing learned opinion at the time, offering and incisiveness of thought that was illuminating and compelling.

Indeed, ‘illuminating and compelling’ applies equally fittingly to this book. Ms Rundell has a clarity of expression, and a facility for conveying complex issues in a readily accessible way. I can readily understand why this book won the esteemed Baillie Gifford Award for non-fiction works. I will certainly be looking for her other books as a matter of urgency. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Apr 12, 2023 |
This book wins on all counts. As a biography, it tells you everything you'd want to know about John Donne. But beyond that, Rundell injects the account with a lively spirit and a sensibility that curiously seems almost to emanate from Elizabethan times and Donne himself. This is an animated book, full of fascinating little digressions and anecdotes, as well as serious thoughts about his poetry. Rundell is clearly a teacher who loves teaching (actually, she's a Fellow at All Souls, Oxford), a delver who loves delving, a spelunker who loves spelunking. She's clearly full of joy in what she's doing and her book in consequence a joy to read. ( )
  Cr00 | Apr 1, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Plague poems, defiant wit and penis puns: why John Donne is a poet for our times. Master of the Revels at a time of persecution, Donne broke new ground with poems that burst with sexual desire and intellectual curiosity.

It was 1593 and John Donne was 21: tall, dark and exquisitely moustached. He was studying law at the Inns of Court in central London, and was living high. He excelled at the business of frivolity and was elected Master of the Revels, in charge of putting on pageantry and wild parties for his fellow scholars, with raucous singing and drunken dancing of the galliard. (The dance, which involved great leaps and kicks and spins, was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: she was said, even in her 50s, to dance “six or seven galliards in a morning”.) He was writing, for a group of male friends, rakish poetry that was beginning to make him known.

t was 1593 and John Donne was 21: tall, dark and exquisitely moustached. He was studying law at the Inns of Court in central London, and was living high. He excelled at the business of frivolity and was elected Master of the Revels, in charge of putting on pageantry and wild parties for his fellow scholars, with raucous singing and drunken dancing of the galliard. (The dance, which involved great leaps and kicks and spins, was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: she was said, even in her 50s, to dance “six or seven galliards in a morning”.) He was writing, for a group of male friends, rakish poetry that was beginning to make him known.

Donne saw that we need more than that: words that encompass the strangeness and mad sweep of human desire, human hunger. He summoned fleas, mathematical instruments, mythical fish, snakes, planets, kings. He chastised the sun for rising on his lover’s bed:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

He had, he wrote, “an hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning”: a labyrinthical mind. Searching for a way to note down the majestically improbable problem of being alive, he became a wild inventor of words, a neologismist. He accounts for the first recorded use of about 340 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, including beauteousness, emancipation, enripen, fecundate and jig.

Donne is often said to be a difficult poet. But if he is difficult, it is the difficulty of someone who wants you to read harder, to pay better attention. And when you have read and reread them, the poems open – they salute you. The pleasures of Donne are akin to the pleasures of cracking a safe: there is gold inside. And besides, why should it be easy? Very little that is worth having is easy. We are not, he told us, easy: we are both a miracle and a disaster; our lives deserve pity and wonder, careful loving attention, the full untrammelled exuberance of our imagination. When you have known vast horror, and still found glory, you do not compare loves to doves. You write: “Taste whole joys.”

Donne knew what it was to be ruthlessly alone. He knew dread, and fear: and that’s why we can believe him when he tells us of their opposite, of ravishments and of love.

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber
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To Bart van Es, whose teaching changed the course of my life.
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The power of John Donne's words nearly killed a man.
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"A very modern biography of John Donne-the poet of love, sex, and death-by bestselling children's book author and superstar academic Katherine Rundell"-- Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. In his myriad lives he was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, a priest, an MP - and perhaps the greatest love poet in the history of the English language. Along the way he converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was imprisoned for marrying a sixteen-year old girl without her father's consent; struggled to feed a family of ten children; and was often ill and in pain. He was a man who suffered from black surges of misery, yet expressed in his verse many breathtaking impressions of electric joy and love.

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