Light flashes. John Donne by Katherine Rundell
Hats off, please, to Katherine Rundell, who has written a book about John Donne that can stand toe-to-toe with John Carey, something I would not have thought achievable until I read Rundell’s first page, then her second, then her third, and so compulsively on to the end. If I didn’t have a book of my own to worry about I would have simply turned to the front and started again when I finished. Every page is interesting, witty, informative, has a crackling sentence to light it up, or all four; Rundell has the ability to move smoothly between academic narrative and sophisticated millennial speak. Her heroine when she was young was Jane Austen, and she “wanted to write something both big and compact in the way she does.” That is a high art and she has managed it. There is so much compression and clarity in this book.
And what a great subject. Is Donne the most underrated of the great English poets, a Shakespeare in metaphysical clothes? He is known for his love poetry, but the holy sonnets are some of his best work, especially Death be not proud in which Donne’s youthful contra mundum spirit is refocussed onto the most irresistible force of all. Nor was he just a great poet. That line of his that everyone can quote — No man is an island entire of himself — comes from his sermons, which are full of the most mesmerising prose.
Donne is a fascinating late bloomer. As a young man he was a Catholic, wrote erotic poetry, had a period as a soldier, converted to Anglicanism, eloped with his employer’s daughter, spent time in jail, lived in hopeless hope of preferment, and then, after his wife was dead and his body was starting to fail, became Dean of St Pauls and famous across London for his sermons.
Rundell is especially good on the practical ways in which Donne got his position, working away at well-placed contacts, failing, and trying again. Still, it was a remarkable transformation. The man who wrote such lusty verses when he was young had himself wrapped in a death shroud so a portrait could be made of what would look like when he was dead.
Here’s how Walton, one of my favourite biographers, described the scene:
Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin or grave. Upon this Urn he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and deathlike face, which was purposely turned towards the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus. In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the picture was fully finished, he caused it to be set by his bed-side, where it continued and became his hourly object till his death, and was then given to his dearest friend and executor Dr. Henry King, then chief Residentiary of St. Paul’s, who caused him to be thus carved in one entire piece of white marble, as it now stands in that Church
It stands there still, one of the few items that survived the Great Fire. Oh what I wouldn’t give to be a Walton, to write such prose. Still, I have Katherine Rundell’s book, to keep with his. Her syntax is more modern, without those subtle twists and turns that make an ordinary narrative so elevated. But she has panache. Her phrases ring. Her verbs are well chosen. She uses many lovely words, like “impossibilitate” and “beamish”. She puts proper words in proper places. She ought to win a prize. How many books can you say that about?
Rundell quotes Walton at length to describe the day when Donne saw the ghost-like image of his wife with their dead baby pass before him. She knows who her real competition is:
To this place Sir Robert returned within half an hour; and as he left so he found, Mr. Donne alone; but in such an ecstasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him; insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare what had befallen him in the short time of his absence. To which Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but after a long and perplexed pause, did at last say, "I have seen a dreadful vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms: this I have seen since I saw you." To which Sir Robert replied, "Sure, Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake." To which Mr. Donne’s reply was: "I cannot be surer that I now live, that that I have not slept since I saw you: and am as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopped, and looked me in the face, and vanished."––Rest and sleep had not altered Mr. Donne’s opinion the next day: for he then affirmed this vision with a more deliberate, and so confirmed a confidence, that he inclined Sir Robert to a faint belief that the vision was true.––It is truly said, that desire and doubt have no rest; and it proved so with Sir Robert; for he immediately sent a servant to Drewry-house with a charge to hasten back, and bring him word, whether Mrs. Donne were alive; and if alive, in what condition she was as to her health. The twelfth day the messenger returned with this account––That he found and left Mrs. Donne very sad, and sick in her bed; and that after a long and dangerous labour, she had been delivered of a dead child. And, upon examination, the abortion proved to be the same day, and about the very hour, that Mr. Donne affirmed he saw her pass by him in his chamber.
That passage was excised from an edition Samuel Johnson read, which made him cross, and rightly so. This is what biography ought to be: so much art made out of such a plain description of facts. Rundell couldn’t not quote this section. But she has brought scholarship, vivid prose, and historical acuity to the rest of Donne’s life. The whole period comes alive like it does in Orlando. I will never forget the roast chickens dressed as jockeys riding a roast pig. This really was the book I didn’t know I was waiting for.
Donne described his poems as “light flashes”, supposedly being self deprecating, but of course a light flash could also be a flame, lightning, a spark. Rather than being insubstantial, light can be brilliant, so can a flash, as Donne was, and Rundell’s book is. Read it.
Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell
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