Super Infinite- The Transformation of John Donne | Katherine Rundell in conversation with Nandini Das
Born in the Elizabethen era, metaphysical poet, cleric and scholar John Donne lived a life which gave birth to some of the most brilliant words penned in the history of English literature. His vivid and arresting poetry captured the hearts and minds of many, cementing him as a true icon, even centuries later. A prominent figure in popular culture even today, one can find mugs being sold with the ‘let's get metaphysical’ Donne tagline.
As I watched Katherine Rundell’s engaging conversation with Nandini Das at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, I learnt about the many complexities of the man who was dubbed the greatest writer of desire in the English language. Rundell’s biography, Super-Infinite: The Transformation of John Donne, brings out the tribute paid to the writer’s duty of showcasing truth.
Born into a Catholic family at a time of persecution, Donne witnessed trauma and torture from a young age. As they say, ‘all great art stems from suffering’, the grief and misery in Donne’s young mind was spiraling around vigorously looking for an outlet. After meeting the love of his life, fourteen year old Anne Moore, Donne was inspired to write some of the most notable love poetry we had ever seen. A romance dotted with passion, controversy and spotlight, much of Donne’s best work was written either for her or about her. An extract from Donne’s work, Love’s Growth reads,
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.
Cleverly punning on the word ‘more’, this is just one example of how Donne constantly remembers Anne through his words. His sense of totality of desire is one of the reasons his poetry has stood the test of time. The idea of what it means to be swept away by love forms a crucial component of Donne's poetry and Rundell’s writing. She describes him as a charming ladies’ man who cared heavily about fashion, dressing to impress and to ask something of the world. He writes so wonderfully on the absolute focus on that person of desire and is often caught up with his obsession with language. Donne had an interesting affection for the ‘super’ prefix. He felt the need to amplify words which needed no magnifying. Superlatives like miraculous and eternal were elevated with the use of the word super. With this, he attempted to push language to its furthest boundary and have words guide the reader to question eternal truths like love and god. Donne almost arm wrestled language into submission to do what he wanted. For him it is not a set of rules one must obey, but a set of possibilities to work with.
Getting back to my earlier point of Donne’s homage to the writer’s responsibility of showcasing truth, he writes in his most famous work, No Man Is An Island. He is talking about the idea that we are so profoundly interconnected that it is only from one another that we gain our meaning.
Make no mistake, in no way was he perfect. He had many blindspots; fury and a shortage of generosity. When we think of Donne, we think of someone with staggering flashes of genius, but also qualities one would not want to emulate. This stark juxtaposition of his tragically flawed personality makes him such an interesting character to dissect and as a biographer, Rundell has done a brilliant job.
A man whose life evolved from stints in law, unsuccessful incursions into Spain, prison sentences and celebrity status as the most beloved priest in all of England, Donne kept things interesting, to say the very least. His dark and satirical elegies on love and sexuality were often peppered with a desire to die himself, sometimes humorous and sometimes very real iterations.
Rundell’s biography is a luminous and wonderful account of Donne’s tumultuous life. What comes through above all is the fascination he has with language and how he wrestles with it, questions it and yet loves it, for what it does to and for us.