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11 May 2022

The infinite art of John Donne

His life was blighted by poverty, but his poetry made exhilarating connections between sex, faith and death.

By Rowan Williams

The last thing that keeps contemporary Anglican preachers awake at night is the risk of serious injury resulting from the crush of people in their congregations. As Katherine Rundell reminds us in this spirited and sympathetic biography, the risk was real enough when John Donne was in the pulpit, especially in the flower of his achievement as dean of St Paul’s. She avoids (thankfully) the cliché about the early modern preacher as a rockstar equivalent, but helps us see that someone like Donne combined the appeal of a great actor, a performance poet, and a charismatic media don – a mixture of Mark Rylance, Kae Tempest and Brian Cox.

People came to experience the sheer stage presence; but they also relished the physical energy of the words, the music of rhythms and cadences constructed by an expert rhetorician. And the subject matter was of intense concern: most hearers believed that what Donne was talking about had something to do with their ultimate nature and fate as human agents, and the detail of this was the topic of fierce public contest, literally a question of life and death.

Donne knew more than many about this life-and-death dimension. Born in 1572 into a Catholic family of Welsh origin connected with the martyred hero Thomas More, he grew up in the intense and secretive world of a religious minority subject to draconian restrictions and savage official penalties for non-compliance. As a young man studying at Lincoln’s Inn, he saw his younger brother arrested because of his involvement in harbouring a Catholic priest: the priest was executed, and Henry Donne died of the plague in prison, aged 19.

In the years that followed, Donne moved away from his Catholic roots, though the details are hard to chart, beginning a journey that would eventually lead him in 1615 to ordination in the Church of England. And part of this involved teaching himself to think of the Catholic culture he had grown up with in much the same terms as most of his English contemporaries did – as a sophisticatedly perverse world that weaponised suffering and death in a way careless of the fate of individuals like his younger brother, exposing innocent and ill-equipped people to lethal risks for political ends, and capable of planning large-scale atrocities.

[See also: Gilbert Murray: the Oxford don who made Greek chic]

Catholics in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were thought of in a similar way as we might think of Islamic State or al-Qaeda: for English Protestants, the Catholic martyr was not far removed from the suicide bomber in the modern imagination, someone who was as indifferent to the lives of others as to their own. Donne was to write about these matters in his late thirties with just a touch of obsessiveness, overcompensating, perhaps, for guilt at the abandonment of his family’s costly faith.

But his first literary flowering was as a love poet. Rundell sensibly warns us against imagining that the astonishingly vivid, funny, exuberantly sensual verses of Donne’s twenties imply that he was an exceptionally promiscuous man. These poems are no more autobiographical than Shakespeare’s sonnets; of course they would be impossible without personal experience, but they are not chronicles of such experience, and the conventional description of the young Donne as a “rake” is probably misleading. What is undeniable, though, is that his is a deeply physical poetry of almost manic intellectual and metaphorical complexity which never wanders far from “this bed thy centre”.

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Donne undercuts, parodies and inverts all sorts of commonplaces, scolding the rising sun for disturbing lovers in bed, telling his partner that before their coupling they were like unweaned children or snoring sleepers, and, most boldly of all, cheerfully upending the pious idea that physical love is a step on the ladder to pure, spiritual union by insisting that the whole point of spiritual communion is to culminate in physical intercourse.

Our bodies “are ourselves, though they are not we”; in an image he uses more than once, drawn from medieval cosmology, he presents the relation of soul to body as that of “intelligence” to its “sphere” – the shaping, ordering force, and the material landscape to which it gives consistency and purpose. A soul deprived of its embodied activity, abstracted from its role as making sense of the world’s stuff, is unimaginable (and later on, in his devotional poetry, he will give this a further twist, describing the human soul as itself a “sphere” in which the “intelligence” is devotion to God: focusing on God is intelligible only when it is giving order to the confused tangle of impulses and longings that are going on within).

Donne’s world is, in all sorts of important respects, medieval – meaning quite the opposite of what that word so often evokes in popular discourse now. It is a place in which connections are everywhere, in which the material stuff of the world is always “speaking” and pointing and cross-referencing. In a world like this, you can take enormous risks in playing with concepts and images, because of a confidence that things will join up sooner or later; you can launch out from a trapeze, knowing that someone or something else’s trajectory will bring them to a place where they can catch you.

Donne’s poetry, then, often has the flavour of an experiment: suppose we start with this image? Where will it take us? “Let man’s soul be a sphere” is a little like, “Let R be the rate of acceleration of a body with mass M.” Set up the coordinates and see what comes out. Rundell is right to underline the way in which Donne, whether writing about sex or God, sees the human body as the site of the most demanding and exhilarating explorations of what language can produce.

If the early love poems play with all the dimensions of delight and surprise that can surround physical love, the devotional poetry and prose linger on the equally diverse and complex realities of human mortality. “Donne hunted death, battled it, killed it, saluted it, threw it parties,” as Rundell splendidly puts it, and he did so in the face of his own death, using protracted illness as an occasion for intense and intricately composed meditations, and quite literally posing for a portrait in his shroud.

[See also: Julian Barnes’s baffling new novel attempts to imagine a world without Christianity]

Mortality was not a quiet cessation but an entry into an unimaginably enhanced and concentrated sensuality, the “one equal music” he evokes in a much-quoted sermon. One of the real strengths of this book is that we are encouraged to see the continuity of Donne’s imagination – and not just in its blazing metaphorical fertility but in its awareness of how readily it can be distracted by the momentary and trivial.

In poetry, this can be turned into a new cycle of inventiveness (that extraordinary poem “The Flea” is a case in point); in prayer and devotion, it serves more as a humbling reminder of the difficulty of focusing one’s attention on God: “I ignore God and his angels for the noise of a fly.” But something of the same spirit is there throughout: nothing is beneath notice in this kaleidoscopic world of material change. To quote Rundell again, “The human animal is worth your attention, your awe, your love.” Being aware of mortality does not divert your attention from the passing world but challenges you to think of the depth of what you experience, what you will lose, and – for Donne and his fellow Christians – what you will rediscover in some unrecognisably enriched mode.

A sensibility like Donne’s was never going to be comfortable company. It is not surprising that his various attempts to establish himself as soldier of fortune, civil servant, member of parliament and diplomat were not successful. Single-mindedness and professional competence were not his priorities. Most spectacularly, he jeopardised his career and his freedom by marrying the teenage daughter of an aristocratic patron without the family’s consent.

Rundell manages to make Anne Donne a credible and lively presence in the story, with her own pathos – a bright and well-educated young woman, doomed to a premature death by poverty and ceaseless child-bearing. It is clear that Donne was deeply in love with her before and after the marriage; yet we can wonder, as Rundell does, what Anne felt about being so often left to cope with the household while her husband desperately tried to court influential patrons (including influential ladies) and establish some kind of financial stability. He wrote some wonderful poems for her; did she get to read them?

No life of Donne can be a hagiography. Apart from all the ambiguities around the marriage, it is hard for the contemporary reader to stomach the humiliating flatteries that pretty much every aspiring literary figure of the era had to offer to potential benefactors. In a society still dependent on patronage to an extent we can barely imagine, very few could afford to stand on their dignity. It is tempting to reduce – as some have wanted to do – Donne’s priestly career to a last, barrel-scraping effort to find secure employment. But Rundell insists that this is a skewed picture when set against the evidence of Donne’s own letters; he is never less than serious about ordination and its demands.

More uncomfortably, what do we make of Donne’s “male gaze”? The erotic poetry is wonderfully inventive, witty and joyful; is it also a poetry that leaves the female partner silent and (we hope at least) compliant? Even when Donne uses erotic imagery in his devotional work, there are uncomfortable notes of violence – as in the famous “Batter my heart…” sonnet with its stark concluding image of divine rape.

“O my America! my new-found land!” is a deservedly celebrated line, but Donne’s roving fingers exploring the woman’s body can hardly fail to evoke the story of colonial penetration and possession that was beginning to dominate the political imagination of the age. Donne was fascinated by maps. Rundell has some good things to say about the place of maps in Britain’s political imagination in the period as part of a defence strategy, and also about how they can work as metaphors for a strange and unexplored human body, one’s own or another’s – a theme that Donne develops with gusto. But this reminds us that mapmaking was no innocent activity in this first era of transcontinental empire-building.

Rundell rightly cautions against writing Donne off as a misogynist. There are poems and prose passages which seem to express disgust or contempt at the female body. But as with so much of the period’s literature, we cannot know exactly what is and isn’t an exercise in conventional forms and tropes. We are on safer ground concentrating on what is not conventional and predictable – and there is no shortage of that in Donne. But this does not relieve us of the anxiety around the silent partner (“For God’s sake, hold your tongue,” as one well-known poem begins), the Other who must be encompassed, mapped and possessed – nor should it.

The poetry of the past, like its fiction and drama, and indeed its theology or philosophy, will often shake us by its tone-deafness to the moral registers we take for granted. It is no concession to moral relativism to say that it still deserves intelligent reading; we can even say, in many instances, that such reading helps us see how the resources of a historic text lay foundations for new perceptions that its authors would not and could not have contemplated directly. We can appreciate without absolving or ignoring – and without a desperate attempt to show that any anxieties are unfounded and that a historical author is really just an inoffensive contemporary in fancy dress.

We go on reading Donne, as we go on reading any serious writer, because we are surprised, frustrated, exhilarated; we resonate with the voice, and we recognise that we have work to do (on ourselves as well as on the text). Katherine Rundell does in this book what any good literary biographer must do: share that sense of work to do, as well as the wonder and delight. Donne presents an interconnected world, both human and more-than-human, “not as a burden but as a great project”, she says – recommendation enough, we might think, in a culture so damagingly confused about how we are involved in our material setting. And, she asks, unanswerably, “Who else of his peers had been able to hold grotesqueries and delights, death and life, so tightly in the same hand?”

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
Katherine Rundell
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer