Review of Super Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

· review ·

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction outside of work, so it has be a pretty special non-fiction book to occupy a precious reading slot. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, is such a book. I finished reading it nearly a month ago, but it has been in my mind a lot.

John Donne, if you haven’t heard of him before, was an Elizabethan man who we know today primarily as a poet. However, as this biography makes clear, he was so much more than that. He is often called a ‘metaphysical’ poet, and his poems — while utterly compelling — can be hard to understand. The meaning slips and slides away from you, like something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye which disappears when you turn to look at it. It turns out that the man himself was a bit like that, defying convention and categorisation, and shape-shifting between multiple contradictory forms. He ended up as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, but also wrote some of the hottest, borderline-NSFW love poetry ever (see ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ for a particular scorcher). Simon Schama presented a great documentary about Donne a while back, and in it Fiona Shaw read that poem beautifully looking straight down the camera lens, and it was quite something…

Anyway, that wasn’t my introduction to Donne’s poetry. That came when I first heard the composer John Adams’ piece Harmonium, which starts with a choral setting of Donne’s poem Negative Love. I have read that poem many times (and listened to it through ‘Harmonium’), but the sense and meaning of it still shifts around, rearranges itself, and it has meant different things to me at different points of my life. I think of it now as being about something more than romantic love. The message that I take from it is that it doesn’t matter if I can’t pin down what it is about an experience that moves me, that’s fine and expected. If you experience something purely, with your whole being, there is nothing in that experience that you can point to and say this, this is what I love.

What comes across clearly from Rundell’s brilliant biography of Donne is that he had an all-encompassing imagination, and a viewpoint that looked beyond boundaries and saw instead the wholeness and oneness of everything. For him, mind and body were one, but also all of creation and the Universe were one. Most of all, his writing grabs your face with both hands and urges you to look at all of this.

The book is structured into chapters which focus on different aspects of Donne’s many selves — ‘The Hungry Scholar’, ‘The Suicidal Man’, ‘The Clergyman’ and so on — which are roughly but not strictly chronological in order. Rundell’s writing is incisive and startling (befitting her subject), but also hilarious and drily witty in places. You get a vivid sense of the political times, and of the man himself, to the extent that it is possible to pin such a contradictory person down. She uses snippets of his writing (letters and poetry) to show the way that Donne looked at the world. Some of these are slippery and puzzling but Rundell does a great job of explaining the many layers of potential meaning. Others go so directly to common experience that there is no need of explanation. For example, Donne joined a couple of Naval expedition to try to capture Spanish ships, and on the second, got caught in a violent storm. Anyone who has ever experienced severe sea-sickness will know exactly how this feels:

Some coffined in their cabins lie, equally
Grieved that they are not dead, and yet must die.

There are also fascinating insights into the ways people learned and analysed ideas at the time. Rundell points out that the education system involved students memorising enormous chunks of text, so while sermons in church were often incredibly long by modern standards, the congregations would remember much of it, and discuss it amongst themselves afterwards. That feels like a different world. Today we have direct access to uncountable bits of writing, but have to remember little, so it’s easy to end up just regurgitating the original, rather than holding it in our head, recombining it with our own experience and other ideas we have acquired, discussing it with others, and coming up with a new insight or interpretation. Indeed, trying to resist that trap is the whole point of the modern Personal Knowledge Management/Zettelkasten movement, though while every bit of information is at our fingertips, only actual hard intellectual work and self-control can really stop you falling into it, unfortunately.

That brings me neatly on to a passage that made me laugh out loud. Rundell is explaining the practice of keeping a ‘commonplace book’, of which Donne was a keen practitioner. This was a notebook in which people collected quotations, words and ideas from multiple sources under thematic headings. Rundell writes:

As always with any intellectual pursuit, there were those who were anxious about achieving the ideal commonplace book, and, as it always does, the market seized on a way to monetise that anxiety. It became possible to buy ready-prepared commonplace books with the quotations already filled in: years’ worth of work achieved without lifting a quill. Buying a ready-made text meant that you avoided the potential pitfalls: for instance, of making a heading and then finding either too much or not enough to fit. (pp. 37-38)

Sound familiar? I instantly imagined the YouTube thumbnail showing a chap in a ruff and a velvet cap, pointing a quill at a notebook, with his hand on his chin to look thoughtful. The calligraphy text overlay reads “Art thou a Commonplacer? The ten headings thou shouldst not use.”

Anyway, whether you are already a Donne fan or not, I highly recommend this book.