John Donne was a contemporary of Shakespeare. This is strangely difficult to remember, for they had contrary relationships to poetic traditions and trends. Like other English writers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare works fluidly with formal and emotional vocabularies inherited from the Italian poet Petrarch and his followers. His Dark Lady and Fair Youth—the addressees of the sonnets—exist undeniably in the same world as Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and Edmund Spenser’s courtly and pastoral personae, shaped by the same history and giving voice to comparable ideas about love and sex, art and nature, and the battle between our angelic and animal qualities.
Donne’s poems, by contrast, are from outer space. That’s not to say they don’t lean on commonplaces (they do) or that Donne was isolated from the political situation of his age (he was anything but). Nonetheless the work is stunningly bizarre, worthy as few things are of the name sui generis. Radically disorienting yet utterly persuasive, his language—torqued by what might politely be called an eccentric relationship to meter—splits convention open and, with it, the punctilious shell of fashion and gesture we mistake for the actual human body. Out comes stuff: blood, bugs, sperm, glass, gold, tears, rust, smoke, bubbles, stars, houses and ships on fire.
Donne’s poetry is called “metaphysical.” One of the first people to use the term for literature was William Drummond, who in 1630 scolded writers who tried to abstract poetry into “Metaphysical Ideas, and Scholastical Quiddities, denuding her of her own Habits, and those Ornaments with which she has amused the world some Thousand Years.” Metaphysical poetry, Drummond suggests, is not only difficult but lewd. Its intellectual excesses leave poetry paradoxically naked, with only flesh to recommend it. It’s not a bad account of Donne, who did after all write “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” a blisteringly hot hymn to the precoital striptease:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed-time!
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be and still can stand so nigh!
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flow’ry meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow!
Now off with those shoes and then safely tread
In this—Love’s hallowed temple—this soft bed!
Literally and figuratively, the poem is a panty dropper. This may be a bit cute, but it gets at something important about the metaphysical style, namely its vertiginous suspension of a difference between things that are real, and really happening, and things that are not. When Samuel Johnson blasted Donne for writing in such a way that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together” or when T.S. Eliot said that in Donne’s poetry thought and sensation were entirely united, they were each describing the same effect—that of moving past the compromise of metaphor to concretize the imaginary or even the impossible.
This concretion is called a conceit. In “To His Mistress Going to Bed” the conceit is that the simple progression of the poem undoes or “unlaces” the phantom garments of the phantom mistress: as lines add up, clothes come off. If you think this is happening only in fantasy, in the hypothetical realm of the literary, remember that the poem is addressed to you, and that there is a chance you might like—depending on the circumstances—to do exactly as it says.
Donne is famous for his conceits, which often emerge from an exuberant crushing of familiar into unexpected objects. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the souls of the poet and his beloved become the two inseparable legs of a drafting compass, one staying put while the other moves. “The Flea” turns on the erotic possibilities of an insect bite:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny’st me is:
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
From its startling, almost instantaneous shift between the declamatory and grandiose (“Mark but”) and the microscopic and disgusting (“this flea”) to its impish adolescent pleasure in repeating the word “suck”—and, silently, its orthographic neighbor “fuck”—to the demented logic according to which mastication by the same bug is equivalent to sex or getting married (“nay, more than…married”), the poem is, in a word, wild. It is also painstakingly calibrated, a thought experiment whose rakish absurdity is mixed with rising desperation.
Donne is one of the great poets of sexual intimacy, a sensualist at ease with the mixing, merging, and consolidation of bodies and souls. But he is also a great poet of distance, more than usually interested in how the truth of love might survive the anguish of being apart. A couple divided is like a compass but also a single sheet of gold “to aery thinness beat,” suffering not “a breach, but an expansïon.” This is very beautiful, but the homelier figures pack just as much of a punch, as when Donne implores his absent lover to “think that we/are but turned aside to sleep,” or confides of his tears that her “face coins them, and [her] stamp they bear.”
Tears are a favorite motif. So is breath, often standing for a shared life that one partner’s longing for the other threatens to end for them both. “Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,/Whoe’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death,” he reasons. A different poem makes a similar argument: “When thou sigh’st,” Donne writes, “thou sigh’st not wind,/But sigh’st my soul away”:
It cannot be
That thou lov’st me, as thou say’st,
If in thine my life thou waste:
Thou art the best of me.
What is this “best” that not only belongs to but is the beloved? Elsewhere he clarifies: “I am my best part, I am my soule.”
These are the love poems. The satirical and religious ones are very like, though in them Donne’s proclivity for metrical and symbolic whacking and thwacking—beating things to aery thinness, or worse—is even more conspicuous. The nineteen poems referred to collectively as the Holy Sonnets were first published in 1633, two years after his death. They are schoolroom standbys not just for their emotional power, which is colossal even for a secular audience, but for their ability to serve as examples of what meter is and what happens when you derail it. The best-known sonnet violates any reputable pattern of stresses before it has even established one. Donne’s prosody is confrontational and insulting, its irregularities obscene:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
Here thought is marked by constant self-obstruction, the choppy movement of a mind that doesn’t know quite what it believes but is determined to work itself into a commitment. Those commas are gasps and sobs and stutters, ragged intakes of breath between Donne’s pummeling of the line and God’s raid on his soul. As everywhere in his verse, language is both the object and instrument of excruciation. Through it and by it we are walloped and charred, hammered and milled, smacked upside the head, bent, stricken, put on the rack, and drowned—afflicted but never, not for a moment, abandoned.
Who was this lunatic, this man from the moon? He was born to a Catholic family in 1572, when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne and popery stood close to treason. Thomas More was a relative, and there was a rumor that Donne’s mother, Elizabeth, was in possession of his severed head. Political defiance ran in some of the blood. At the age of nineteen Donne’s younger brother, Henry, was arrested for harboring a Catholic priest; he died of the plague in Newgate Prison, and Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism seems to have happened not long thereafter.
For all his iconoclasm, Donne was not interested in causing trouble of the sectarian kind. He was, however, unable to stop himself from causing trouble in his personal life, which in turn jeopardized his professional prospects. After studying law, he had obtained a choice position as secretary to Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, when he met the woman who would alter the course of his life. Anne (or Ann) More was the niece of Egerton’s second wife. She was pretty, well read, and what must have been an intoxicating combination of courageous and naive, for when she married Donne in 1601 she was courting disaster both legal and familial and she got it, and much else besides.
Anne was then sixteen years old, still a minor, so the marriage violated canon law, and her new husband spent several weeks in prison. For the first decade of their marriage the Donnes were quite poor, living off the largesse, and in the houses, of various patrons and friends. Then there were the hard facts of life in a time before obstetrics. Anne gave birth twelve times, to ten live children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She died from complications in childbirth at the age of thirty-three—the same, Donne noted, as Jesus.
He did not remarry, and instead threw himself into the task of providing for his children. In 1621 the rat race of Jacobean court life finally paid off. Donne, who had been ordained when he was forty-three, became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and so he was until his death about ten years later. He had been sick for a long time, and out of his experiences with illness came Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, from whence the phrase “never send to know for whom the bell tolls” and the rather more encouraging “No man is an island, entire of itself.” His last sermon, delivered only a month before he expired, ends with an exemplary contusion of the sacred by the profane:
There [I] leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes, and lye downe in peace in his grave, till hee vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that Kingdome, which hee hath purchas’d for you, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. AMEN.
Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is a biography of the poet and, in her words, “an act of evangelism” for his work. Previous treatments of Donne’s life have gone deep into the political and religious background of the period, poring over letters, pamphlets, edicts, bills of sale, and other archival materials to give a robust picture of Renaissance England. The major ones have been very learned and very long: John Stubbs’s John Donne: The Reformed Soul (2007) and R.C. Bald’s John Donne: A Life (1970) each weigh in at about six hundred pages. Super-Infinite is half that length. Presented in twenty-four short chapters and an introduction, it is a trim, highly readable study somewhat in the vein of John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1981), accessible without compromising its seriousness of purpose.
I had many thoughts while reading Super-Infinite, but the most persistent one was this: there ought to be more books like it. It announces itself with none of the usual augustness of prestige nonfiction. You can’t use it to stop your door, there is no oil portrait on the cover, and the title says not a word about nations, wars, centuries, or the invention of anything modern. It is light-footed without being in the least light-witted. Ten or so pages in, we have already heard about Petrarch, Ovid, and Thomas Aquinas’s ideal of the vita mixta, or a life that combines contemplation with action. This is all delivered without airs or apology, as if it were simply the sort of thing one might like to know for no other reason than that it is interesting.
Rundell does not claim that John Donne is more relevant today than ever before. She does not tease new discoveries. She assumes that literature is a matter of general concern, and that her own enthusiasm for Donne is worth communicating thoughtfully and with care. That enthusiasm is both intellectual and erotic. The younger Donne (if not the older, who became increasingly dour) would be tickled to find himself more than once referred to as “beautiful,” a metaphysical Jim Morrison whose “architectural jawline and hooked eyebrows” ought to get their own “walk-on music, rock-and-roll lute.” “If he took her to bed like he wrote,” Rundell speculates of John and Anne, “he was worth sacrificing all the wall hangings in England for.”
This is the tone: winking, suggestive, sympathetic. Rundell is an excellent storyteller, moving ably between anecdote and analysis and never losing track of her purpose, which is to follow Donne from cradle to grave and convince us to come along. Throughout Super-Infinite, she strikes a fine balance between discussions of Donne’s writing and accounts of his world. The sectarian clashes of the Reformation are, to put it mildly, complex, the inter-imperial wars that doused them in gasoline and used them for tinder even more so. Rundell has the right feel for just how much detail an engaged but nonspecialist reader can take. Theological debates are summarized broadly but neatly, and flashy characters like Robert Devereux, George Villiers, King James I, and even Nicolaus Copernicus amble on and off stage without drawing the spotlight away from the man himself.
This mode works particularly well given that, as Rundell explains in her introduction, there is not that much material when it comes to Donne’s curriculum vitae. The biography composed after his death by his friend Izaak Walton is fiercely protective and highly idealizing, which shows that Donne could inspire loyalty but goes not much further in the revelation of his character. We don’t know, for example, what Donne was like as a child, nor how many siblings he had; we don’t know exactly when he converted, how sexually active he’d been before his marriage (his father-in-law thought very), what illness caused his brush with death in 1623 or the stomach pain he suffered from throughout his life.
Rundell plugs the gaps with evocative sketches of the world Donne was born into, a world whose brutality and danger make his writing quake and pulse. There is a report on drawing and quartering—that is, tying someone to a horse, dragging him to the gallows and, eventually, dividing his body into four pieces—and on the executions of More and other people put to death for being or collaborating with Catholics. “Donne was taken by the adults around him to witness the blood and suffering of his religion,” Rundell writes, a “dark and scarring kind of theatre” later evident in his vivisectional style. To be alive and a believer was to expect, as he put it, to be burned “with a fiery zeal…which doth in eating heal.” It was also to pray for deliverance from the thought that “this earth/Is only for our prison framed,” despite ample evidence that life is one long incarceration, whether by kings or by the anxieties that turn us into “dead clods of sadness,” unable to think beyond pain.
The scarier, dirtier, freakier aspects of life in Renaissance London and its environs are good grist for Rundell. Donne was not sent away to school, perhaps because his family was actually fond of him: “At many of the public schools at the time, the boys burned the furniture to keep warm, threw each other around in their blankets, broke each other’s ribs and occasionally heads.” Rundell goes on: “Because smoking was believed to keep the plague at bay, at Eton they were flogged for the crime of not smoking.” Meanwhile the law held that “when a schoolmaster, in correcting his scholar, happens to occasion his death…he is at least guilty of manslaughter,” unless he had used “an iron bar or sword,” in which case the crime was murder. And here is Rundell on St. Paul’s Cathedral, as it would have been during Donne’s tenure as dean:
To picture the cathedral in which he stood…as akin to how it is now—all roped-off solemnity and Quiet Please—would be to give the wrong idea…. There were no hushed voices; rather, the church’s paperwork noted, “the boys and maids and children of the adjoining parishes…after dinner come into church and play as children used to till dark night.” Boys peed on the floor and used the slippery surface as an ice rink, adults scattered food or turned up drunk.
Imagining Donne at work in this environment, hollering at people that sin was “the ordure of the soul”—and that as a priest it was his job to examine it as closely “as Physicians must consider excrements”—puts real meat on the sharp, shining bones of his prose.
There are plenty of insights into Donne’s poetry threaded through Super-Infinite. Rundell likes clothes—there is a chapter on Elizabethan fashion, and she finds in Donne a good spiritual guide “for those who long for angels but also for sex, jokes, skin, doubt, good clothes, oceans and huge appetites”—and this affinity opens up the important observation that he “never describes [his lover’s] clothes, nor her body.” His poems are “not representations of her, but representations of him: him watching her, needing her, inventing for her.” You can easily guess how someone of Donne’s temperament would experience sex as “astonishment and urgency,” a fleeting chance to bust through the obscure convolutions of his own mind and ego.
Super-Infinite is especially absorbing when it comes to Donne’s final years—to the reign of Dr. Donne and not the rowdy younger self he referred to as Jack. This is impressive, since voluptuous lyrics and clandestine marriage are objectively more exciting than respectability. Rundell doesn’t hesitate to admit that Donne in his late middle age wasn’t always a pretty picture. She pays illuminating attention to his relationship with his oldest child, Constance, who was on the receiving end of much casual meanness. When Constance asked to have “a little nag” he rarely rode for—as her husband put it in a letter—“her own self, to use for her health, to take the air,” Donne agreed but then gave the horse to his son John. (Whether this was the same horse John Jr. was riding eight years later when he beat an eight-year-old child to death for startling it, we don’t know.) Donne also took one of Constance’s rings, promising to replace it with a better one, and never gave it back, a particularly “egregious” affront since, Rundell points out, “Constance as a married woman could not own property independently of her husband, but jewels…could be hers alone.”
Having established that Donne was a master of sartorial theater, Rundell ends with an unforgettable scene of him posing for a last portrait: “He stripped naked in his study and wrapped himself in his shroud, with the knots at his feet and atop his head; then he pushed back the cloth so that only his face was showing.” For his final conceit Donne played dead, forcing posterity into the present and offering his nearly lifeless flesh to prove the tenacity of human existence. The picture is grim and frightening, not what we might want from a poet who once clung so ferociously to joy. But it suggests a lesson: the body is a record of how hard we have fought for love and faith, and without it there would be no victory.
We are frail, Donne thought, but deserving. When we ask for our daily bread, “God never says you should have come yesterday” or “you must again tomorrow”; “to-day if ye will hear His voice, to-day He will hear you.” God, and life, are suddenness and surprise:
He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; He can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.
This is what is meant by miracles.