By The Revd Canon Chris Palmer
I’ve just finished reading Katherine Rundell’s book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. It was published last year, and I was alerted to it by a member of the Cathedral congregation after I quoted Dunn in a poem. It is a remarkable book about a remarkable man.
Katherine Rundell is best known for writing children’s books – and encouraging adults to keep on reading children’s books! And she’s clearly a wordsmith who has found herself fascinated by Donne, another wordsmith and the poet of passion and prayer and the fiery preacher who drew crowds of thousands to St Paul’s Cathedral. He was equally adept on paper or in spoken word, in poetry and prose.
And Donne was a person of many faces, hence the ‘transformations’ of the book’s title. He is the scholar, the dandy, the (failed) diplomat, the courtier, the lover, the father, the mourner, the prisoner, the priest, the flatter – as well of course as the great poet and Dean of St Paul’s.
The book witnesses John’s growth in maturity throughout his life, and this isn’t merely a maturity that comes from acquiring knowledge and skills over the years, but from the bitter setbacks that he faced. His attempts to make his way into high society most often failed; he lived in poverty – and subjected his family to poverty – for years; he suffered bitter loss, including the loss of his brother, his wife, and his daughter, all at a young age. He acquired a real wisdom and deep spirituality, and he acquired influence and wealth – but both of these mostly in the final decade of his life.
I do encourage you to read the book. And even more to read John Donne, not merely to wonder at his brilliance with words, but more, to know the way that God can develop and use a complicated and compromised soul in his purposes. It gives us all hope.
Let me finish by quoting pieces from Donne, the first and last that Rundell includes in her book. The first is poetry, written in his 20s when courting Anne Moore, eventually his wife (notice the pun on her name!); the second is a well-known devotion he wrote in his 50s whilst Dean of St Paul’s and recovering from illness. He writes about the things that truly matter, love and death. They reveal the variety of this saintly sinful soul.
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had though it was,
Because it both endure
Vicissitude and season as the grass;
Methinks I lied all Winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if Spring make’t more.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.