Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book by Katherine Rundell:

* The power of John Donne’s words nearly killed a man. It was the late spring of 1623, on the morning of Ascension Day, and Donne had finally secured for himself celebrity, fortune and a captive audience. He had been appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral two years before: he was fifty-one, slim and amply bearded, and his preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation – merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole sweep of the city – came to his sermons carrying paper and ink, 1 wrote down his finest passages and took them home to dissect and relish, pontificate and argue over. He often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him. His words, they said, could ‘charm the soul’. 2
That morning he was not preaching in his own church, but fifteen minutes’ easy walk across London at Lincoln’s Inn, where a new chapel was being consecrated. Word went out: wherever he was, people came flocking, often in their thousands, to hear him speak. That morning, too many people flocked. ‘There was a great concourse 3 of noblemen and gentlemen’, and in among ‘the extreme press and thronging’, as they pushed closer to hear his words, men in the crowd were shoved to the ground and trampled. ‘Two or three were endangered, and taken up dead for the time.’ There’s no record of Donne halting his sermon; so it’s likely that he kept going in his rich, authoritative voice as the bruised men were carried off and out of sight.

* His poetry is wildly delighted and captivated by the body – though broken, though doomed to decay – and by the ways in which thinking fast and hard were a sensual joy akin to sex. He kicked aside the Petrarchan traditions of idealised, sanitised desire: he joyfully brought the body to collide with the soul.

* Donne lived under a state which both censored and spied on its citizens, and his letters are largely – though not solely – practicalities. Will you come for dinner? I am ill. Might you give me money? Can you find me work? (Or, more accurately, because a significant portion of the letters are outrageous pieces of flattery: you are so ravishingly exquisite, can you find me work?)

* Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language. He wrote about sex in a way that nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life, the salute, the bodily semaphore for the human living infinite.

* St Paul’s Cathedral. He was born in sight of both his future job and his final resting place, which must be rare.

* no women were allowed in the Inns [of Court], except for the ‘laundresses’ who cleaned, and who had to be under the age of twelve or over forty in order to prevent romantic entanglements.

* the Inns of Court wielded against their students a litany of sumptuary regulations, to keep the men looking as serious externally as they were presumed to be internally. All gowns were to be ‘of a sad colour’, and there was a formidable list of forbidden accessories and styles, including ruffs, hats, boots, spurs, swords, daggers, long hair, beards, and ‘foreign fashions’ generally; overall, the Inns’ legislation stated that each student should ensure ‘his apparel pretend no lightness, 1 or wantonness in the wearer’.

* when we get dressed we ask something of the world. All clothes speak: they say desire me, or oh ignore me, or endow my words with greater seriousness than you would were I not wearing this hat.

* He understood that presentation, voice and look are not frivolities to be dismissed, but weapons to be harnessed.

* Performance, and the clothes that accompany it, remained an interest all Donne’s life. From his youth, when he posed exuberantly for images, until his death, before which he demanded that he be sketched for his statuary dressed only in his winding-sheet, Donne knew this: that to get dressed is to make both a statement and a demand. There’s no such thing as neutral clothing: to attempt neutrality is itself a statement of style.

* Donne lived through a plague with mortality rates at sixty per cent and higher. (Covid-19 has a global mortality rate of about three per cent.)

* Between Thomas More’s execution in 1535 and Henry’s death in 1593, we can count eleven members 1 of Donne’s family who died in exile or in prison for their Catholicism.

* There was the power of his ambition, and his understanding that promotion and success would not be compatible with open Catholicism, but there would also have been new books and new conversations, drinking with Protestants, flirtations with Protestants. There would have been the pull of other allegiances over denominational ones – to the monarch and to the idea of nationhood, which slowly took on the shape of national loyalism and led him towards the Church of England. His priorities shifted, realigned, took on new shapes.

* Was, then, the young Donne a great tumultuous lover: a conqueror of swathes of women? After so much time and so much entropy, we can only guess: but, almost certainly, not. 12 Women of his class would have been hard to seduce – they were fiercely and carefully protected. Make a mistake, they knew, and you could be punished for life.

* The idea that Donne’s poetry would give you, of a beautiful young man cutting through swathes of London’s finest female population, would have been difficult – though not impossible – to pull off.

* Because of this devil-may-care attitude to his own work, when you quote a Donne poem, you are in fact quoting an amalgamation, pieced together over four hundred years from an array of manuscripts of varying degrees of scrappiness.

* The poems we know as ‘by John Donne’ have in fact been constructed by editors, piecemeal, from the best of the manuscripts and the seventeenth-century print editions: the title page should, were it to be bluntly literal, read, ‘Poems, by John Donne and by educated guesswork’.

* the more you read Donne’s verse, the more you love him, and the more you read Donne’s prose, the less you can bear him.

* If he took her to bed like he wrote – if he knew how to render bodily his poetry – then he was worth sacrificing all the wall hangings in England for.

* Everything that made him so spectacular a poet made him ill-suited to being a father: having a parent whose mind is riddling, intense and recalcitrant of easy comfort is rarely what a child dreams of.

* For a man so emphatic, and capable of such fervent enthusiasm, he never did manage to enthuse very emphatically about his offspring while they were alive.

* The difficulty of history is that we must, to some extent at least, take men at their word; we must assume that they planned to do what they said they planned to do, and for roughly the reasons they said they did. We cannot read disingenuousness into every single speech, or the whole of history would be eaten alive by scepticism.

* generally sermons, in Donne’s day, were heard hungrily: they had breaking news in them, politics, entertainment, theatre; people gossiped about them and picked over in the week that followed.

* Donne’s sermons almost all follow the same structure, as was common to the vast majority of preachers. He would begin by laying out what was to follow, which usually was formed in two or three parts, and each part would have branches running out from it, and each branch further branches. Donne preached without a text in front of him; he would write the sermon out in full, take notes, and memorise it. He used the classical trick, employed by orators for thousands of years, of imagining a speech as a physical structure – a memory palace, a temple – through which he could move in his imagination. He was explicit about it: he compares the sermon to a ‘goodly palace’ through which he guides his audience.

* ‘marriage is but a continual fornication sealed with an oath.’

* The world is made up entirely of things that can kill you. Scarcely anything exists, Donne wrote with relish in the Devotions , which has not caused the death of someone once: ‘a pin, a comb, 1 a hair pulled, hath gangrened and killed.’

* Poets and playwrights, meanwhile, were killed and killing at a far greater rate of frequency than their percentage of the population seems to merit: Thomas Wyatt killed a man in an affray, Ben Jonson stabbed a man in a duel, Christopher Marlowe was murdered, probably in a tavern brawl, though possibly in an elaborate intrigue.

* and a woman without a dowry would have to be spectacularly beautiful or lucky.

* he wrote poems that take all your sustained focus to untangle them. The pleasure of reading a Donne poem is akin to that of cracking a locked safe, and he meant it to be so. He demanded hugely of us, and the demands of his poetry are a mirror to that demanding. The poetry stands to ask: why should everything be easy, rhythmical, pleasant? He is at times almost impossible to understand, but, in repayment for your work, he reveals images that stick under your skin until you die.

* The difficulty of Donne’s work had in it a stark moral imperative: pay attention. It was what Donne most demanded of his audience: attention. It was, he knew, the world’s most mercurial resource.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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