Transcending the boundaries of time, are you prepared to delve into the labyrinth of a 17th-century poet’s soul, tracing the journey of John Donne through passion, power, and piety in a world unprepared for his genius? Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, is an immersive exploration of the metaphysical poet’s evolution and a profound analysis of the fusion of the sacred and secular in his life and work. This biography of Donne probes the depth of the 17th-century English poet’s intellectual and emotional journey, with Rundell tracing his arc from a cavalier lover to an introspective divine. The work is neither a dry historical account nor an inaccessible literary critique. Instead, it’s a vibrant, 21st-century investigation of a man ahead of his time, embodying the baroque flair and vivid humanity that my readership would delight in.


Rundell, noted for her debut Girl Savage and previous writings on literature, breathes life into Donne’s world. Rundell begins her narrative by painting a vivid picture of a youthful, 23-year-old Donne poised for a late 16th-century portrait session. She observes that: “the painting was of a man who knew about fashion; he wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar, an exquisite moustache.” Instantly, we find ourselves drawn to him, a tangible figure across the vast chasm of time.

John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England, to a Roman Catholic family during a time of religious upheaval. Despite his family’s faith, Donne converted to Anglicanism in his adult life, a decision that played a significant role in his personal and professional trajectory.

Professionally, Donne’s life took a turn in 1615 when he took holy orders in the Church of England, eventually becoming the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. His sermons became celebrated contributions to English religious literature. Donne’s later life was characterised by contemplation and introspection, reflected in the devotional and meditative character of his later poems and religious writings. John Donne died in 1631, leaving a legacy as one of the greatest metaphysical poets in English language.

He was a man who walked so often in darkness that it became for him a daily commute

Katherine Rundell

The opening chapters swiftly carry readers from the raucous taverns where Donne first found his voice, through the corridors of power where he served as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, to the quiet reflection of his later years as the Dean of St. Paul’s.

The author’s treatment of Donne’s love life is similarly revelatory. Rundell portrays his passion for Anne More as the catalyst for his transformation. In this love, and subsequent ostracization for it, she finds the seed of the profound introspection that marks Donne’s later work. A surprising and imaginative piece of metaphysical poetry, The Flea uses a flea bite as a conceit to discuss physical intimacy and desire. It’s renowned for Donne’s ability to transform a seemingly trivial event into a dramatic discourse on love and religion.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

John Donne

John Donne’s poetic works are celebrated for their originality, emotional depth, and intellectual complexity. One of Donne’s most famous love poems, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, uses the metaphor of a compass to describe two lovers’ souls. Despite physical separation, their spiritual connection remains unbroken.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

John Donne

Rundell’s description distinguishes itself by demonstrating an understanding of Donne’s poetry as a reflection of his shifting life experiences, rather than mere intellectual exercises. The contextual placement of his verses within the narrative of Donne’s life is commendable. Rundell’s rigorous examination of the sonnets as a conversation with contemporary social, political, and religious issues unveils the essence of Donne’s perspective. This makes the book a dynamic reading for those interested in Donne’s poetry, the evolution of English literature, or the intersection of art and history.

Rundell’s keen understanding of Donne’s oscillation between the earthly and divine, his struggle with existential questions and his continuous battle to reconcile his desires and beliefs find its way onto every page. The exploration of Donne’s religious tumult and how it manifested in his writings is masterful. Here, Donne’s conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism is not just a switch in denominations, but a crucial point of personal and creative transformation.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main.

John Donne


Super-Infinite is not without its shortcomings, however. Some may find Rundell’s intricate detailing of the cultural and societal nuances of Donne’s time slightly overwhelming. Furthermore, her highbrow academic approach occasionally obfuscates the subtleties of Donne’s work. Yet, these criticisms do not detract significantly from the book’s merits.

Rundell’s language mirrors the richness of Donne’s own. It is intimate, layered, and at times, daunting. She manages to emulate Donne’s own knack for fusing the sacred and secular, navigating between the analytical and the personal, the intellectual and the emotional. In this mimicry, Rundell achieves a tribute to Donne that feels timeless, encapsulating his spirit in prose as he did in verse.

In terms of literary biographies, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is a superb exploration of the man behind the metaphysical conceit. It’s an insightful narrative that traces the thematic and stylistic evolution of an enduring figure in English literature, which results in a comprehensive and vivid portrait of the man and his work.

The experience of reading Super-Infinite is similar to approaching a Donne sonnet. It requires dedication and patience, rewards rereading, and reveals its insights gradually. This is a book to be savored, not rushed—a profound exploration of one of literature’s most enduring and compelling figures.

Rundell’s Super-Infinite is an illuminating journey through the life and transformations of John Donne. It offers a new perspective on the artist, making us appreciate his works anew. It’s a formidable contribution to literary biographies, a rare book that’s as innovative and captivating as its subject. It serves both as an entry point for newcomers to Donne’s work and a fresh perspective for those already familiar with his poetry.

One can only hope that this book, which casts such a penetrating light on the enigmatic figure of Donne, will inspire readers to delve into the timeless and relevant poetry of this remarkable man. So, while the journey through Super-Infinite is as complex and nuanced as the poet’s own metaphysical conceits, it is a journey well worth undertaking.

📚 Cross-published to my Goodreads.

🛒 Purchase online at Luddites Books & Wine.

Gepubliceerd door Stijn Vogels

Stijn Vogels, een erkende expert in geopolitieke en technologische trends, analyseert wereldgebeurtenissen sinds 2003. Met een geschiedenisdiploma van de Universiteit van Gent worden zijn inzichten gepubliceerd op zijn blog, Aardling, en sociale media platforms. Stijn heeft ook een wereldwijde schrijversgemeenschap opgezet gericht op internationale betrekkingen. Gekend voor "connecting the dots" tussen technologie en politiek, streeft hij ernaar 'goed te doen' door middel van zijn doordachte analyses en waardevolle perspectieven op onze snel veranderende wereld.