Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell review – a skillful portrayal of John Donne | Biography books



In 1611, John Donne composed a funeral elegy for 14-year-old Elizabeth Drury. It contained one of his brightest and most unsettling lines: “You could almost say, his body was thinking.” Donne portrays body and soul as radically, deliciously blended.

It is a poem that has long excited Donne’s commentators. John Carey, in his seminal 1981 work Life, Mind and Art, was fascinated by Donne’s belief that, as he wrote in a sermon, “everything the soul does, it does in, with, and through the body.” Today, scholar and children’s writer Katherine Rundell places the poem at the center of a book she describes as “both a Donne biography and an act of evangelism.” For Rundell, Donne writes of a new ideal: a “complete mesh of body and imagination.”

Rundell is right to say that Donne – “the greatest writer of desire in the English language” – must never be forgotten, and she is the perfect person to evangelize it in our time. She shares his linguistic dexterity, his delight in what TS Eliot called “felt thinking”, his ability to give physicality to the abstract. “He was a man who walked so often in the dark that it became a daily commute for him,” she wrote. “The body is, at its essence, a very, very slow solo horror show: a piece of meat that slowly decomposes into clothing.”

The facts of Donne’s life are well known. In addition to Carey’s study, there is a recent full biography of John Stubbs. Donne was born into a Catholic family during a time of persecution; family members were imprisoned and tortured. Donne oscillated between success and scarcity, with a stint in law, an unsuccessful foray as an adventurer in Spain and a period at court that ended when he secretly married Anne More and was thrown into prison by his father. Then there were years as an impoverished and frustrated father of 12 children (six died), a period of grief after the untimely death of his wife, and his eventual blossoming, both unexpected and inevitable, as a clergyman quickly promoted to dean of St. Paul’s Church. .

It’s a biography filled with gaps, and Rundell brings a dash of imaginative speculation to it. We know so little about Donne’s wife, but Rundell brings her to life like never before, dwelling on the audacity of Anne’s acceptance of this man at a time when young upper-class women obeyed their fathers and, above all, demonstrated their virtue by being impossible to woo. It’s a love story, but few of Donne’s love poems were written for Anne, and Rundell is good at Donne too as a swaggering womanizer who in reality had very little sex. She is convincing in her suggestion that Donne wrote her most satisfying erotic poems not for her lovers but for an audience of male friends.

Indeed, poems like La Puce are exercises in showing off women, and Rundell confronts the difficult question of Donne’s misogyny head-on. In her Paradoxes, Donne pushed the arguments to often paltry limits, likening women to “fleas that suck our blood.” Rundell doesn’t diminish the revulsion of these, but she also points out that the absurdity is the point – he may even have taken other people’s arguments and demonstrated their invalidity. She doesn’t want Donne to be perfect; he is a poet who dazzled himself by turning imperfection into perfection. And the misogyny of his prose doesn’t negate the expansive equality of his best erotic poetry — his belief, as Rundell puts it, that you can find “eternity through another person’s human body.”

Eternity, in its particular manifestation of infinity, is Rundell’s central theme. It’s a decidedly deft book, and I wish it had puffed out a little more, leaving room for deeper readings of the poems and broader arguments about the Renaissance. But if there’s one overriding argument, then it’s Donne as the “merchant of infinity.” By embracing infinity, he transformed eternity into a mathematical concept, and there is a thrilling excitement in his pursuit of this quality, which runs through his writings on sex, death and God – his three great subjects. To read Donne is to wrestle with a vision of the eternal that is startlingly reimagined in the here and now, and Rundell captures this vivid vision in all its power, eloquence and strangeness.

Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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