Katherine Rundell. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022. 343pp. $30.00
“Oh to vex me, contraryes meet in one.” So begins one of John Donne’s final Holy Sonnets, usually numbered nineteen. Donne (1572–1631) is a notoriously difficult author when it comes to dating his compositions, but this sonnet is thought to come from the period after Donne’s ordination to the priesthood in 1615. Most of Donne’s Holy Sonnets are dated five or six years earlier; this sonnet, then, represents some of Donne’s mature reflections on the Christian life in verse. It captures the familiar spiritual experience of most Christians: there are days where God seems much nearer than others, and we oscillate dramatically between over-familiarity and irreverence on the one hand, and despair, fear, and shame on the other.
In his later years, Donne became one of the preeminent poets of Christian experience. But Donne’s poetic corpus also contains some of the finest love poetry in the English language, written primarily in his youth. He became famous for his unusual and sometimes troubling metaphors to describe love, sex, and marriage, including, infamously, “The Flea”—a poem in which the speaker presents a flea to his lover as an image of marriage. The bug has sucked both of their bloods, and they are forever intertwined as a result.
To read Donne is to marvel at the workings of his mind. What kind of man can look at a flea and see a marriage, or a girdle and see a star-studded sky? Such connections are the defining characteristic of the metaphysical poets—Donne, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, among others—and have not always been to everyone’s taste. Samuel Johnson famously derided their “combinations of confused magnificence that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.” Yet, more puzzling than the question of how Donne could begin ascending the ladder of Being from the most quotidian object is this: what could have effected his monumental transformation from the young, roguish poet for whom poetry was a tool of seduction to the mature Christian clergyman for whom poetry was a tool of devotion?
Katherine Rundell’s new biography of Donne, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, makes an excellent beginning at answering this question. The book has been roundly praised, appearing on a surprising array of “Best of 2022” lists, selected by writers and critics whom one would not usually imagine to have much interest in Elizabethan religious poets. As a genre, literary biographies, when done well, repay the work a reader invests in them with interest. Rundell’s is no exception. Best known outside of scholarly circles for her children’s literature, Rundell is eminently readable, and has a talent for making little details significant and driving home more significant matters with poignant understatement. Take, for example, her discussion of Donne’s mustache when he was a young man. In a long section about Donne’s meticulous care for his own appearance, she writes, with humor characteristic of the whole volume: “But Donne’s moustache, particularly in the Lothian portrait, is exemplary. It is careful: the moustache of a man who understands that even facial hair has to it an element of performance. To see his moustache is to know: almost nothing is easy” (57, emphasis original).
The book’s title and subtitle arise from Rundell’s decision to name most chapters in the book after the many hats that Donne wore throughout his life, such as “The Exquisitely Clothed Theoriser on Fashion” or “The Anticlimactically Married Man.” Such multiplicity in Donne will be familiar to any who knows his life already. People often speak of the “two Donnes”: the young love poet, “Jack Donne,” with grand political ambitions; and the mature Dr. Donne presiding over his pulpit as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rundell seeks to weave both (or all) together, as much as may ever be possible. If there is a persistent core to Rundell’s portrayal, it is a man who took profound joy in God’s gift of the body and the experience of earthly life, even as he wrestled with its limitations. Rundell centers this theme and traces it across his poetry and his lesser-known works of prose, which she surveys chronologically, situating them well against the backdrop of Donne’s sometimes-hectic but never dull journey from aspiring man of law to esteemed senior clergyman.
In Rundell’s telling, despite the marked change from his amorous youth to his pious old age, Donne never lost his grand ambitions for fame and social status—he simply achieved them via different means than those which the young Donne would have imagined for himself. However, while there may be some truth to this (Rundell frequently reports biographer Izaak Walton’s somewhat hagiographical version of an episode in Donne’s life before giving a more fully rounded picture), it is in her view of “Donne the social climber,” which she insists upon well into Donne’s senior years, that the book’s ultimate shortcoming lies.
To read this biography is to have one’s appetite whetted by Rundell’s gift for the poetic and yet, more often than not, to be left yearning for something beyond the poetic: the transcendent. It is difficult at times to imagine Rundell’s Donne as having anything like an interior religious life. Her Donne is a man of ideas and ambition—part poet, part politician; fascinated by this world and the metaphysical realities behind it. But Rundell’s Donne seems to reduce religion—that is, the questions of actual doctrine, worship, and such, as distinct from spirituality and metaphysics—to a mere tool of his social ambitions. While this is quite possibly true of Donne at times—he was from strong Catholic stock, a great-nephew of Thomas More, and his brother died in the Tower of London whilst detained for harboring a Jesuit priest, and so he had more than a few social hurdles to climb—it is a register that Rundell works in unconvincingly for the majority of the book. It is difficult to imagine her version of Donne writing “Batter my heart Three-Personed God,” or “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” or indeed any of Donne’s divine poems, which do not feature nearly as heavily in Rundell’s book as his earlier love poetry, elegies, and satires. At times she seems to ignore the spiritual dimensions of his poetry altogether. For example, in a chapter called “Donne and Death,” speaking of “Death, be not proud,” Donne’s famous sonnet mocking death with the hope of the resurrection, Rundell writes:
When Donne wrote about suicide there was urgent pain: but when he wrote about death in itself, there is great serious joy, and occasional rampant glee. Spiritually speaking, many of us confronted with the thought of death perform the psychological equivalence of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin: Donne hunted death, battled it, killed it, saluted it, threw it parties. His poetry explicitly about death is rarely sad: it thrums with strange images of living (277, emphasis original).
Rundell goes on to quote the first eight lines of the poem, before moving on to discuss death in one of Donne’s youthful love poems, “The Relic,” but at no point does she note that behind Donne’s seeming enthusiasm about death, even in the poems of his youth, is a steadfast, unwavering Christian hope in the resurrection. For Donne, death is not the end, as the triumphant end of “Death, be not proud” boldly proclaims: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (13–14). For the Christian—or for a literary biographer who has adequately inhabited the mind of her Christian subject—there is nothing “strange” about “images of living” coming hot on the heels of a discussion about death. So is the resurrection of the dead: it is sown in corruption, it riseth in incorruption.
This is not to say that Rundell sees no sincere inner life in Donne, cynically reducing him to nothing but a climber of the greasy pole. Despite her sometimes-head-scratching refusals to consider the interior-religious dimensions of Donne’s life alongside the political and philosophical, she is helpful in understanding how a man who wrote such profoundly moving, cerebral, searching poetry could sometimes seem, at times, to outright contradict his religious motivations. The answer, for Rundell, comes in Donne’s obsession with the body—his own and others—and his refusal to pretend that he was not an embodied being, both finite and sinful. In her chapter simply entitled “The Dean,” she writes,
Donne is at his most remarkable when he speaks about how very hard it is to seek God at all. More than anyone else, he acknowledged the way that the human heart darts about like a rat. His body, he found, so readily present in desire for other humans, betrayed him when he sought the same intensity in prayer. Donne was a man so in control of his poetry that he could layer it with ten dozen references; he could write a twelve-line sonnet that would take you a week to read, but he was not in control of his mind (257–58).
Donne’s concern with the quality of his devotion occupied him for his entire adult life. He was truly vexed by his inconsistency, and ashamed of his inability to conquer sin. As Rundell writes, “This is the same Donne who, in the Holy Sonnets…seeks a force so great that it will sweep away doubt, exhaustion, distraction, and leave behind something stripped back and certain: ‘And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal/Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.’ Both verse and sermons are the voice of a man seeking to have doubt torn away” (258).
Ultimately, what emerges from Rundell’s portrayal of Donne is neither the young rogue pretending to be a priest in his old age nor the hagiographic saint-in-the-making of Walton, but a man wrestling with his inability to keep control of his own heart; a man fascinated by the gift of embodiment, but sometimes frustrated by the limits of human finitude. However true this may be, this is not the final word that Donne would have wanted. In writing about the oscillations of the soul from irreverence to shame, what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters refers to as the “law of undulation,” Donne describes a middle ground between them:
I durst not view Heav’n yesterday; and today In prayers, and flatt’ring speeches I court God: Tomorrow I quake with true feare of his rod. So my devout fitts come and go away, Like a fantastique Ague: save that here Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare. —Holy Sonnet 19.9–14
For Donne, his best days are those in which he not merely understands but feels his proper relationship to God and stands before him, shaking with fearful reverence but present nevertheless. Donne realized that from the oscillations of the soul, what he calls “inconstancy’s constant habit,” God draws out the Christian’s proper orientation toward himself: an awe-filled boldness as a middle ground between a repelling fear and patronizing irreverence. Thus, while Donne knew that to inhabit a body meant to struggle against the inclinations of his heart, pulling him in one direction or the other, he also knew that out of this struggle, God was faithfully drawing Donne closer to himself.
In short, Rundell unfortunately adds to a widespread trend in contemporary reflections on historical religious figures, namely a refusal to take religion seriously as a motivating impulse. It is an odd experience to watch such a post-Christian appraisal of Donne. Thus, readers will come away from certain chapters with a sense that Rundell stops herself short of the transcendent in reflecting on Donne’s work, richly waxing poetic with Donne but never quite following him to the heights of religious ecstasy he reaches. Yet, even as the central motivation in Donne’s life goes misunderstood, readers will still come away with a deepened appreciation for Donne as a thinker who, in both prose and poetry, refused to abandon the question of what it means to be an embodied soul. By tracing the vexations and contrarieties of that question, Super-Infinite lives up to its name in its account of a life that wove multiple, seemingly incompatible threads together to form a single person—one who stands in history as a profoundly impactful instrument of God’s grace on nearly anyone fortunate enough to pick up a volume of his poetry. Rundell’s biography is the most enjoyable volume on Donne’s life in recent memory, but, despite its widespread accolades this past year, it should not be taken as the final word on him. For the Christian reader, or the reader sincerely interested in Donne’s religious life, it is no substitute for reading Donne himself.
Michael Riggins is the Assistant Editor of Ad Fontes. He is a Ph.D. student in English at Baylor University. His research focuses on devotional poetry in Early Modern England.
 See https://www.poeticous.com/john-donne/holy-sonnets-19-oh-to-vex-me-contraries-meet-in-one.
 For an account of the general neglect of Donne’s divine poetry, even among Christians, see Rhys Laverty, “Retrieving John Donne: Poetic Companion for Conflicted Protestants,” in A Protestant Christendom? The World the Reformation Made, ed. Onsi A. Kamel(Landrum, SC: Davenant Press, 2021), 93–108.