Monday 26 December 2022

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

"It's traditional", writes Katherine Rundell at the outset of her biography of English Renaissance writer John Donne, "to imagine two Donnes - Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr Donne, the older, wiser priest, a split Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend". In Super-Infinite, Rundell describes a man "infinitely more various and unpredictable", who "reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the King, dean of the finest cathedral in London". She introduces a writer "whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you". And she sets herself a high task: "This is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism."

I came to  Rundell's life of John Donne straight off my memorial re-read of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, finishing The Mirror and the Light (which I still find  grueling and upsetting, despite the fact the ending can come as no surprise, not only because it is well known that Cromwell is dead, but because I've read the book three times now). Within one page of Super-Infinite the two timelines unite. Sir Thomas More, Cromwell's great antagonist during his rise to power and his ghost as Mantel tracks his downfall, is Donne's maternal great-great uncle: Donne's life is shaped by his family's adherence to the Catholic faith and subsequent loss of fortune and precarious present. 

The transition from  Cromwell's Henrican era to Donne's Elizabethan period was very smooth, with the residual tastes and smells and textures of Mantel's writing fleshing out Rundell's book, which does not linger on world-building detail. Donne left behind no diaries, no household account books, no treasure trove of poetry drafts: his poetry was written for a limited audience, and little was published during his lifetime. Letters he wrote remain, collected and published posthumously by his son (who removed dates and changed names to burnish his father's reputation, attempting to make his social circle seem higher than it was and thus epically frustrating later researchers), but the letters he received he would burn after the writer's death ("a letter was, for him, akin to an extension of a living person, and should not exist without its parent"). Some of his surviving work Rundell admits to being unreadable even for his greatest fans - one religious treatise Rundell describes as "so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it". There is a sizable body of sermons, again largely published after his lifetime. During an extreme illness Donne smashed out and hurriedly published a collection of  23 essays on the human condition, part of the fashion for deathbed meditations - he lived another eight years. 

About 200 poems are today attributed to Donne. Again, very few were published during his lifetime, or even remain in his own handwriting. They have been pieced together from collections and manuscripts, painstakingly compared line by line, word by word, for variations. Few can be accurately dated, so close cross-referencing between his poems and his life events can be tricky; one tends more to illuminate the other than to pinpoint. Donne's poems were written to celebrate marriages and mourn deaths; there are "satires, religious verses, and about forty verse letters, a tradition he loved: poems of anything from twelve to 130 lines, carrying news, musings on virtue and God, and declarations of how richly he treasures the friends to whom he is writing."

And then there are the love poems and erotic verses - the ones many English readers have come across one way or another - even without the scaffolding of an education in literary history. "To call anyone the best of anything is a brittle kind of game", writes Rundell, "but if you wanted to play it, Donne was the greatest writer of desire in t he English language. He wrote about sex in a way 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. The word most used across his poetry, apart from 'and' and 'the', is 'love'."

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

 And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one. 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die. 

The Good Morrow

Good poetry and bad poetry are matters frequently debated in Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy. The courtier poet Thomas Wyatt plays a significant role in Cromwell's life and times, and the books illustrate the power poetry held at court and in political life. Wyatt's poems eddy around the court, passed swiftly from hand to hand, copied into commonplace books; verses that say sotto voce that which cannot be explicitly pronounced. Wyatt's lyrical powers are contrasted to those of "Tom Truth", the nom de plume of Lord Thomas Howard, whom Cromwell exposes in his illicit marriage to the King's niece Margaret Douglas through the revelations of his execrable love poems. Poems can be a matter of life and death - Howard died while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but at least was not beheaded or hung drawn and quartered; a very real threat in the machinations surrounding the crown. I remember the first time I walked through London's National Portrait Gallery, and the astonishing portraits of this era: men with their finely-turned stockinged legs and lustrous pearls, men executed at the age of 26 or 32 or 45 because they threw the wrong dice in the game of courtly life.

In an era when the stakes were so high and the politics so personal, writing was used to gain favour or redress fortunes. Donne had to dig himself out of one colossal hole earlier in his life, when he secretly married Anne More without the knowledge of her father Sir George More. Love matches were verboten: marriages were social and financial contracts and Donne had broken this violently. He wound up jobless and in prison and had to dig himself (and his young wife) out through a combination of groveling letters and an ecclesiastical court case. Later in life Donne undertook one of his most important transformations - a turn towards the Anglican church, not only personal but also professional, and for this he had to earn the King's trust and lay to rest both his Catholic origins and the lingering gossipy recklessness of his marriage. In a chapter titled "The Flatterer" Rundell lays out how Donne worked his way towards the security of a well-paid religious position, a route that was "byzantine, labyrinthine, often unpredictable", one that required talent, luck, strategy, and above all contacts. Ritual flattery, through letters and dedications, was oil that greased the social wheels, and Donne could be outrageously oily - although as Rundell points out, he blandished his compliments both upon those in positions to enable his rise, and recipients without any power whatsoever, suggesting he simply enjoyed making language work in this way.

The greatest courtship was that of the King. Donne's Pseudo-Martyr ("swifter to eat than to read") was dedicated to King James and distanced Donne far from the Catholic rebels who had recently attempted the  Gunpowder Plot, by arguing in favour of James's newly instituted Oath of Allegiance. Donne's book is dedicated to the King, a text of "white-hot ingratiation" but, writes Rundell, this was not "purposeless fawning"; rather, "it was a way Donne could signal unambiguously his allegiance to James's religious policies, and flag his devotion to serving the King." James loved the book, and had Donne made an honorary MA at Oxford. Donne's next book, Ignatius his Conclave, came hard on the heels of Pseudo-Martyr, and directly tackles political flattery. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) is in hell and in conversation with the devil, whom he quickly proceeds to abase himself before, larding him with compliments. 

Donne runs this parable two ways: 

whomsoever flatters any man, and presents him those praises which in his own opinion are not due to him, thinks him inferior to himself and makes account that he he hath taken him prisoner, and triumphs over him

but also, the flatterer

(at the best) instructs. For there may be, even in flattery, an honest kind of teaching, if Princes, by being told that they are already endued with all virtues necessary for their functions, be thereby taught what those virtues are, and by facile exhortation excited to endeavour to gain them.

This statement tingled in my mind, and the bell it rang was Cromwell's Book of Henry, the guide Mantel has him writing for the instruction of his favoured young employees, of how to move and influence in the dangerous radius of the King. Flattering those attributes you wish your prince to exercise is, if I remember correctly, a tactic Cromwell learns from his beloved patron Cardinal Wolsey in the books: when you hold a mirror of words up to the King, you show him a picture of his grace, his mercy and his temperateness as well as of his strength and god-given right to power. And hopefully you will hold on to your head for another day. 

The other book that Super-Infinite made me think of is Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An AnswerBoth books, I think, are brilliant: both are literary biographies of Renaissance men, and bring a twist to their structuring. Bakewell organises her book roughly chronologically, but uses the themes of Montaigne's essays as the jumping off point for each chapter (Question everything, Guard your humanity); Rundell hews closer to the chronological path, using the stages or transformations of Donne's life - The Hungry Scholar, The Anticlimatically Married Man, The Suicidal Man - as her organising principle. The scope of Bakewell's book is  wider, and she spends  more time on the philosophy and writing that influenced Montaigne, and how in turn he has been interpreted throughout history: Rundell's in contrast is focused and moves at a quick clip, but with sufficient diversions to not make you feel rushed as a reader. While not given to extraneous detail, Rundell's scholarship occasionally colours in the narrative in delightful ways:

The physical world was made up of symbolic meaning, and could, through relentless attention, be decoded. Your own body, stretched out in the water, could become a reminder of the crucifixion. He wrote:

Who can deny me the power and liberty 

To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?

Swim, and at every stroke, thou art thy cross 

(It's hard to picture exactly what stroke he's doing here, to mimic the cross. The first English treatise on swimming, in 1587 by Everard Digby, describes something akin to breaststroke with intervals of doggy-paddle: presumably not that.)

Donne, like Shakespeare, is known for inventing or embellishing words ("I knew that to have given any intimation of it [his wooing of Anne More], had been to impossibilitate the whole matter", he wrote to his unwilling father-in-law; "I have cribrated [sifted / reviewed], and re-cribrated, and post-recribrated the sermon" he wrote in a panic to a friend after the new King Charles took amiss at something in the first sermon Donne delivered to him). In Super-Infinite Rundell likewise jinks with language: "A grim truth", she observes of one of Donne's own observations about the nearness with which we live with death at all times, "and one which makes our modern attempts to avoid the topic of death look malarially unhinged"; the useful little prefix "un" gets coupled to unusual words - "uncharming", "unshining". While I've not read any of Rundell's writing for children I wonder if those books too share this playful use of language; I can remember as a child myself relishing  the ways bits of words can click together and transform each others' meanings, the plasticity of English that makes it both infuriating and delightful. One small quibble - as wonderful a word as "waspishly" is, I think it is such a strong spice that it can only really be used once in a book.

My one true regret with this book however is that it felt about 25% too short. Rundell doesn't hustle us through the story, and her scholarly asides (about fashions for moustaches, or the appalling conditions of a besieged Spanish city) add texture as well as enhancing our understanding of the many layers of Donne's writing. It's not necessarily even Donne who I want to spend more time with - it's Rundell's own company, her thoughts and observations that I want more of. Highly recommended.

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