Super Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

“The central mystery of John Donne’s life has always been this,” Kathryn Hughes said in The Sunday Times: How did the man who wrote “some of the most erotic verses in English literature” in his “Rapscallion youth” – poems such as To his mistress going to bed and The rising sun – “end up in St. Paul’s Cathedral preaching that sex is a sin”?

In her “exciting reappraisal of Donne’s oddly lopsided career,” Katherine Rundell argues that the transformation was less unlikely than it appears. Donne’s poetry often involved “the yoking of two seemingly contradictory positions,” and Rundell surmises that his “love of the paradox” was also behind his decision to enter the clergy. Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and is also an award-winning children’s author. “Reading this extraordinary biography, one concludes that her talent, like that of her hero, must somehow be super-infinite.”

Donne was born in 1572 and was raised Catholic at a time when it meant living “in constant fear of a violent death,” James Marriott said in The times. After renouncing his Catholicism, he fought his way into the Elizabethan court, became a lawyer and aspiring diplomat. The “seduction poems” he wrote as a young man – shared among friends but mostly unpublished – gave him a reputation for being a “prolific shagger,” but Rundell questions that. The difficulty of seducing young women in his class — combined with the threat of syphilis — made it more likely, she suggests, that he limited himself to “flirts and flirtation.”

Donne pulled off a seduction, Roger Lewis said in the Daily Mail. In 1601, at the age of 29, he secretly married 16-year-old Anne More, the niece of his boss, Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, against her family’s wishes. The scandal resulted in his being thrown in Fleet prison. The marriage was eventually declared “good and sufficient” (although he was a hopeless husband and father), but it ruined his court career.

After years in the wilderness, Donne accepted priestly ordination and became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Joe Moshenska said in Literary review. By the time of his death in 1631, he had established himself as the most admired preacher of his time. During super infinite While “well executed” as a biography, it shines on a more personal level because Rundell inserts “herself and her reactions to Donne’s work” into the text. “Without ever claiming to think like Donne, she shows in every paragraph how Donne enabled her to think.”

Faber 352 pages £16.99; Bookstore The Week £13.99

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