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Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell; and A Companion in Crisis by Philip Yancey

02 September 2022

Mark Oakley considers two different tributes to Donne and his writings

IT WAS the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman who unapologetically announced: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Nearly three centuries before, another poet, John Donne, was communicating a similar truth about himself through his poems, essays, and sermons. From his earlier days, when excited by the nakedness of his body, till later in life, when he feared the nakedness of his soul, Donne’s life was as inspirited by love, language, sex, and God as much as it was complicated by ambition, illness, money problems, and the death of six of his children.

As this new biography comments, his restless hungers and desires made Donne “incapable of being just one thing. He reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over.” It notes that he loved the trans- prefix on words because he believed that we were creatures born transformable; and it observes that the one constant running through his life and work is his steadfast belief that we, humans, “are at once a catastrophe and a miracle”.

The author of this biography, Katherine Rundell, also contains multitudes. A bestselling author of children’s books, a Fellow of All Souls, a night climber, and a tightrope walker, she is just the person to get to grips with the childlike curiosity, the mature intellectual dexterity, the plunges into soul darkness, and the balancing act of passionate worldly desire and a deep longing for God, which Donne’s life holds together all in one. Super-Infinite is a delight — quirky, learned, anecdotal, fun, and insightful.

Inspired by John Carey’s approach of forty years ago that the life of Donne leads to a more comprehensive reading of his work, Rundell paints vivid pictures of Donne and his times which open the mind and stay there, as well as readings of the poems that launch us into fresh space. Historians might want more of the wider context. Literary critics might want more poems under the microscope. This, however, is a wonderful achievement, full of idiosyncrasies, some revision of past narratives about Donne, and, most of all, an intoxicated love of Donne in his all his chaos and glory.

Declaring his poetry to have the power to be transformative, Rundell says that her book is a biography “and an act of evangelism”. It is successful. I defy anyone to read her descriptions (“he wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in”) or her summaries (“Tap a human, he believed, and they ring with the sound of infinity”) and not be wanting more.

The same cannot be said, I fear, of Philip Yancey’s modern paraphrasing of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Yancey came across these 23 meditations — written in 1623, during a bubonic plague epidemic in London — as he tried to think his way through Covid-19. The purpose of his A Companion in Crisis is “to make more accessible for twenty-first-century readers the timeless insights from one of our greatest writers”. He slashes “anything that required explanations” and seeks “to tame Donne’s complicated writing style into something that modern readers can more readily absorb”. Oh dear. The result is like some boiled strawberries: all that remains is a little of the original colour and taste, but nothing that you’d want to savour for long.

Rundell argues that Donne “understood that flair is its own kind of truth: if you want to make your point, make it so vivid and strange that it cuts straight through your interlocutor’s complacent inattention”. Yancey has simmered off the flair and the difficulty, such as is found in Shakespeare, too, and needs patience and attention for your reward, and has eased away the challenges in the name of relevance rather than resonance, carrying with them the jewels of Donne’s exquisite craftsmanship in language.

Rundell, at one point, says: “The human soul is so ruthlessly original; the only way to express the distinctive pitch of one’s own heart is for each of us to build our own way of using our voice. To read Donne is to be told: kill the desire to keep the accent and tone of the time. It is necessary to shake language until it will express our own distinctive hesitations, peculiarities, our own uncertain and never-quite-successful yearning towards beauty.” Amen to that.

The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Super-Infinite: The transformations of John Donne
Katherine Rundell
Faber & Faber £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29


A Companion in Crisis: A modern paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions
Philip Yancey
DLT £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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