Seductive, scholarly life of the poet-priest

This new biography of John Donne brings the centuries-dead poet to life

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On 25 February 1601, the head of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was severed from his body. The execution took place in private, as a last request: the small number of witnesses who gathered in a stone courtyard of the Tower of London is not recorded. Could a poet have been among them? John Donne had become one of the men who knew Essex best, watching him across the table at the house of Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton, where Donne served as secretary. Egerton had entertained Essex first as a concerned mentor, trying to calm his rebellious excesses towards the ageing Elizabeth I; then as a permanent and reluctant host when charged with keeping him under house arrest. 

Years later, Donne wrote a poem about a beheading in which, as Katherine Rundell observes, “he dwelt, hard, on the blood: and on the way the dying cling feverishly to life”.

Or as sometimes in a beheaded man,
Though at those two red seas which freely ran,
One from the trunk, another from the head,
His soul be sailed to her eternal bed,
His eyes will twinkle, and his tongue will roll
As though he beckoned and called back his soul,
He grasps his hands, and he pulls up his feet,
And seems to reach and to step forth to meet,
His soul …

In this seductive literary biography of the poet-turned-priest, Rundell never overstates the links between John Donne’s poetry and the elusive, scrappy trail of evidence we have for its connections to his life. This section on his relationship with Essex is a masterclass in how to get that balance right. Rundell carefully explains what we do and do not know. Egerton did take senior staff with him in his farcical attempt to arrest Essex; Donne may or may not have been among them; if not he would have had first hand reports of the scene from his colleagues — and secretly, from his own close friends on Essex’s side.

Rundell’s textual expertise is forensic

Then, ever rooting her prose in Donne’s own poetry, Rundell quotes at length the startling imagery which either real life or imagination inspired. Does this poem bear the traces of one of the most notorious Tudor executions? Did John Donne personally watch as “two red seas” of blood flowed from the head and body of Queen Elizabeth’s famous favourite? Makers of gory TV dramas may seize on these lines as evidence that the severed head of Essex rolled its tongue after death and his eyes still twinkled — but for Rundell and for the rest of us, it is Donne’s poetry that matters. He has more to teach us about life and death than any man like Essex.

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

Katherine Rundell is known to the general reader as a successful children’s writer. She burst onto the scene with the award-winning Rooftoppers in 2014; the Duchess of Cornwall recently recommended The Explorer (2017) as a favourite of her grandchildren. In the field of early modern literature, however, she is known as a Donne scholar. An examination fellow of All Souls, Rundell understands the academic world as well as she understands Donne. Writing of the “papery disarray” with which the prolific Donne tossed out uncatalogued verses to friends, Rundell notes with an intimate’s familiarity the irony of a scholarly editorial circuit in which “thousands of people from across the world would gather in hotel conference rooms to discuss poems which he himself had perhaps forgotten”.

Her own textual expertise is forensic. Attributing poems and letters to John Donne is a tricky task. He allowed almost none of his work to be printed, and only one poem survives in his own handwriting. “When you quote a Donne poem,” Rundell observes, “you are in fact quoting an amalgamation, pieced together over four hundred years from an array of manuscripts of varying degrees of scrappiness … Poems, by John Donne and by educated guesswork.” Fortunately, Rundell is an excellent guide.

Super-Infinite is a literary biography, an increasingly fashionable mode, better understood as works of “biographical reading”. There are echoes of Joe Moshenska’s recent Making Darkness Light, which took us through the writings of John Milton in chronological fashion, only to use each text as the starting point for personal contemplation. Rundell skates less close to memoir than Moshenska did — this is a book about Donne, not about her — but she clearly understands the experience of reading Donne as deeply personal. She wants her reader to appreciate Donne as emotionally “galvanic” to read: “this is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism”.

Rundell is a born writer. She brings the same capacity for wonder to her language about Donne as to her children’s writing. In a dashing portrait, Donne “wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in”. Writing of Donne’s lack of interest in cataloguing his work, she speculates: “He was willing to lose his work, perhaps because he knew there was more to come. Imagination will beget imagination, and more readily so if it is flung out instead of dragon-hoarded.”

By the standards of this genre, Rundell keeps speculation to a minimum, though at times her brush does stroke too broadly across the page of history. Faced with the dearth of evidence about Donne’s own sexual experience, Rundell fills pages with how other men pursued sex in the Elizabethan city. The suggestion that Donne “kicked aside the Petrarch traditions of idealised, sanitised desire” surely does a disservice to Petrarch, who heralded the Renaissance’s shift from heavenly to earthly desires. 

And our contemporary fixation with Protestant persecution of England’s Catholics, the twenty-first century reversal of Philip and Mary’s “Black Legend”, is reissued here with fashionably little nuance. Years before his re-emergence as an Anglican priest, Donne was indeed scarred by the fate of rebellious Catholic relatives — not least, his brother Henry, dead of prison-plague at 20 after making the mistake of harbouring a controversial Jesuit in his college rooms. 

Her prose is dreamy, liquid with lightness and learning

But it is hardly fair to blame the shadow of John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs. Foxe’s own experience of and testimony to the previous persecutions of Protestants made him a committed campaigner against the death penalty for heresy. He wrote to William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, to protest its use against even his Catholic foes. (Perhaps self-interestedly, Foxe was also a campaigner for leniency towards adulterers.) 

And one final, near-trivial quibble: does Donne really have a claim to be the first to use “purse” as a term for female genitalia in Love’s Progress? The pun is littered through all the “cut-purse” jokes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, written at least a year earlier.

There are moments when Rundell’s contemporary asides erupt too sharply from the skein of her prose. Her text is occasionally punctured by feminist parentheses which would work well as tweets, but feel, without the benefit of further development, like shallow point-scoring. Donne’s family, we learned “prized casual sexism as a comic trope”; a suggestion that women over 40 were sexually uninteresting is “personally provoking”. Rundell is less sisterly to Anne Boleyn, “a woman who in paintings looks like an unimpressed headmistress”. (Contra the point Rundell is trying to make here about the clash between contemporary and early modern ideas of beauty, Boleyn’s contemporaries regularly trashed her appearance, too.) 

Yet Rundell’s feminist perspective, unquestionably valuable, is applied to far better purpose when imagining the bodily experience of Donne’s wife, Anne More, pregnant 12 times in 16 years — or, when picking her way with scholarly dexterity through Donne’s own writing on the question of women’s souls. For the most part, her prose is dreamy, liquid with lightness and learning. The profane and the sacred are mingled here, not only in Donne’s lines but on each page of Rundell’s apt response.

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