the turbulent life of john donne -- 10/28/22

Today's selection -- from Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell. John Donne (1572 – 1631) was a celebrated English metaphysical poet who served as a soldier and as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, where he was known for his sermons. He lived a life often filled with horror:
"Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne is incapable of being just one thing. He 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 London. It's traditional 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 -- but he was infinitely more various and unpredictable than that.

"Donne loved the trans- prefix: it's scattered everywhere across his writing -- 'transpose', 'translate', 'transport', 'transubstantiate'. In this Latin preposition -- 'across, to the other side of, over, beyond' -- he saw both the chaos and potential of us. We are, he believed, creatures born transformable. He knew of transformation into misery: 'But O, self-traitor, I do bring/The spider love, which transubstan­iates all/And can convert manna to gall' -- but also the trans­formation achieved by beautiful women: 'Us she informed, but transubstantiates you'.

Donne, painted by Isaac Oliver

"And then there was the transformation of himself: from failure and penury, to recognition within his lifetime as one of the finest minds of his age; one whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal but of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you. Because amid all Donne's reinventions, there was a constant running through his life and work: he remained steadfast in his belief that we, humans, are at once a catastrophe and a miracle.

"There are few writers of his time who faced greater horror. Donne's family history was one of blood and fire; a great-uncle was arrested in an anti-Catholic raid and executed: another was locked inside the Tower of London, where as a small schoolboy Donne visited him, venturing fearfully in among the men convicted to death. As a stu­dent, a young priest whom his brother had tried to shelter was captured, hanged, drawn and quartered. His brother was taken by the priest hunters at the same time, tortured and locked in a plague-ridden jail. At sea, Donne watched in horror and fascination as dozens of sailors burned to death. He married a young woman, Anne More, clandestine and hurried by love, and as a result found himself thrown in prison, spending dismayed ice-cold winter months first in a disease-ridden cell and then under house arrest. Once married, they were often poor, and at the mercy of richer friends and relations; he knew what it was to be jealous and thwarted and bitter. He was racked, over and over again, by life-threatening illnesses, with dozens of bouts of fever, aching throat, vomiting; at least three times it was believed he was dying. He lost, over the course of his life, six chil­dren: Francis at seven, Lucy at nineteen, Mary at three, an unnamed stillborn baby, Nicholas as an infant, another stillborn child. He lost Anne, at the age of thirty-three, her body destroyed by bearing twelve children. He thought often of sin, and miserable failure, and suicide. He believed us unique in our capacity to ruin ourselves: 'Nothing but man, of all envenomed things/Doth work upon itself with inborn sting'. He was a man who walked so often in dark­ness that it became for him a daily commute.

"But there are also few writers of his time who insisted so doggedly and determinedly on awe. His poetry is wildly delighted and captivated by the body -- though broken, though doomed to decay -- and by the ways in which think­ing fast and hard were a sensual joy akin to sex. He kicked aside the Petrarchan traditions of idealised, sanitised desire: he joyfully brought the body to collide with the soul. He wrote: 'one might almost say her body thought.' In his ser­mons, he reckoned us a disaster, but the most spectacular disaster that has ever been. As he got older he grew richer, harsher, sterner and drier, yet he still asserted: 'it is too little to call Man a little world; except God, man is a diminu­tive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world doth, nay, than the world is.' He believed our minds could be forged into citadels against the world's chaos: he wrote in a verse letter, 'be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail.' Tap a human, he believed, and they ring with the sound of infinity.

"Joy and squalor: both Donne's life and work tell that it is fundamentally impossible to have one without taking up the other. You could try, but you would be so coated in the unacknowledged fear of being forced to look, that what purchase could you get on the world? Donne saw, analysed, lived alongside, even saluted corruption and death. He was often hopeless, often despairing, and yet still he insisted at the very end: it is an astonishment to be alive, and it behoves you to be astonished."



Katherine Rundell


Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2022 by Katherine Rundell


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