Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne review – masterly study

Katherine Rundell’s engaging and playful biography of the metaphysical poet demands – and rewards – your attention

“Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Ben Jonson’s stern judgment on his contemporary, the metaphysical poet, cleric and scholar John Donne, was mitigated by his concession that he was “the first poet in the world for some things”. Nearly four centuries after his death, Donne remains a man of his age and a thoroughly contemporary figure, whose love of ambiguity and paradox, in life and art alike, baffles and thrills.

From a young age, as we learn from Katherine Rundell’s masterly new biography Super-Infinite, Donne was consumed by ideas of identity. The challenge for any biographer is to delve into the apparent contradictions between the two Donnes, the piratical Jack who sailed with Raleigh to Cadiz and who wrote brilliant sonnets, rich in witty paradox and bold sexual assertion, and the prelate Dr John, who eventually became dean of St Paul’s; an accomplishment, Rundell tells us, that owed as much to his networking skills as it did to his considerable ability at preaching. His show-stopping sermons, delivered with theatrical relish, were as much of a draw as any play at the nearby Globe.

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