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John Donne: staying awake

The title of a new biography of an English poet, “Super-infinite”, points to the multi-faceted life of a 16th-century poet whose life journey unfolded in such unexpected ways as to fully  earn the book’s subtitle: “The transformations of John Donne”.


Sean Sheehan


The love poetry and erotic verse that he wrote is beyond compare and it allows him to be portrayed as a saucy young rake but Donne later turned to the priesthood and became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

He was a libertine only in the imagination and gleefully took on the role of a womaniser.

Enormous crowds turned out to hear him preach at St Paul’s: ‘Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate [prison] and Tyburn [site of public executions]?, he noted in one sermon. The moral was unexpected: “And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave, we are never thoroughly awake.”

Staying awake means being alive to life’s rich pulses but also to commonality and mortality: “No man is an island… I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Katherine Rundell, the biographer, is wonderfully literate and her sparkling book is a joy to read. She summarizes Donne’s love poetry with panache – “True sex is soul played out in flesh” – and champions the poet for audacious over-reaching and urgent relish for life in all its contradictory manifestations.

His favourite prefixes, she points out, were trans (in Latin, ‘to the other side, over, beyond’) and super. Rundell informs us, apropos Donne’s sassy ‘The flea”, that when the poem was first printed in 1633 the typographers used the ‘long s’, a letter that looks almost identical to an f, for the words ‘sucked’ and ‘suck’: offering a very impudent rendering of the opening lines:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.

Born into a Catholic family, at a time when violence in the guise of religion was as vehement as it is today, Donne could not afford the affiliation. Catholics, if caught, were tortured to death and his younger brother died in prison, aged 19, for trying to hide a priest in his house; Donne converted to Protestantism. A risk he did take was to marry in secret and live with the repercussions of alienating his father-in-law. His career prospects were seriously derailed.

Rundell does a first-rate job of – to use one of the 340 words that the Oxford English Dictionary finds their first recorded  use in Donne  – ‘unperplexing’ this most beguiling of poets; someone who, as she puts it, ‘sliced through the gender binary and left it gasping on the floor.’

Super-infinite: The transformations of John Donne” by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber & Faber.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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