Super-Infinite is Katherine Rundell’s biography of the poet John Donne, published in 2022. Unexpectedly, for the biography of a late sixteenth, early seventeenth century poet, the book became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller.
I first read John Donne at school. Apparently, he was a ‘metaphysical poet’. I didn’t really know what metaphysical meant – guessing it was something about being above and beyond the boring physical realm in which my classroom was situated.
Reading Super-Infinite I got a better sense of why a poet in Donne’s lifetime would want to be metaphysical – it might have something to do with the fact that his physical world was so relentlessly horrible. An arbitrary, ferociously cruel justice system, no antibiotics, no contraception, no dentistry. Alongside endless physical pain came constant mental torment resulting from the frequent death of children. If I lived in that world, I too would aspire to the metaphysical.
However, mercifully distant though Donne’s life might seem, part of the book’s interest for me lay in its description of changes that formed the foundations of the world we live in today. For example, prior to the sixteenth century, people did not tend to identify themselves in terms of their nationality, but in terms of locality, dynasty or, most importantly, religion. Then, in the 1530s, Henry the Eighth broke free from the Catholic Church, to create the Church of England. Nationality was beginning to muscle in on religious identity. Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Lord Burghley commissioned the first reliable maps of the British Isles, the Saxton Atlas of 1579, when Donne was a child. Now there was a picture of a country, with which proud citizens could more easily associate themselves. After living most of his life as a Catholic, seeing his identity in religious terms, Donne converted to Protestantism and spent his last years as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, a zealous representative of a national church.
Super-Infinite sometimes has an overblown tone, with odd turns of phrase. Donne’s poetry is described as offering a joy so violent that it ‘kicks the metal out of your knees’ for example. But the style is accessible, brings Donne’s frequently appalling world to life, and offers some insights into the poems. As I say, the thing I found most interesting was the way the book revealed the foundations of our present situation. Maybe that is why a book about a sixteenth/seventeenth century poet has been a surprise hit. I have to admit that Donne is still not my favourite poet. All his heated religious imagery doesn’t suit me. I prefer his contemporary – the cooler, more secular Shakespeare. Nevertheless, I feel that after reading this book, Donne’s work makes more sense than it did in a dingy classroom at school