"A very modern biography of John Donne-the poet of love, sex, and death-by bestselling children's book author and superstar academic Katherine Rundell"-- Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. In his myriad lives he was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, a priest, an MP - and perhaps the greatest love poet in the history of the English language. Along the way he converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was imprisoned for marrying a sixteen-year old girl without her father's consent; struggled to feed a family of ten children; and was often ill and in pain. He was a man who suffered from black surges of misery, yet expressed in his verse many breathtaking impressions of electric joy and love.
I had been familiar with a few of Donne’s works (probably the same few that everyone knows) from having studied a few of them untold decades ago as a new undergraduate, but had been lamentably hazy about his life, and the
Donne’s life was hard and eventful, and seldom far from sorrow or vexation. Raised as a Roman Catholic, much of his early life was passed under the shadow of persecution, and indeed his younger brother henry was arrested for harbouring a priest and was consigned to the tower of London, where he subsequently died of plague. His own dedication to the faith he was born into seems to have been less adamant, and during his twenties he moved into at least apparent acceptance of the dogma of the Church of England, in which he eventually secured a living, publishing two anti-Catholic polemics in 1610 and 1611, before becoming a Royal Chaplain in 1615.
He also spent much of his life in relative penury, despite having received a decent inheritance on the death of his mother – it seems that he worked his way through this fairly swiftly, spending much of it on womanising, books and travel (presumably just wasting the rest!). He spent some years as a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Brackley, during which time he was under the protection and influence of Sir Francis Wooley (his wife’s cousin), furthering whose interests was his primary objective in Westminster. Having sought patronage as a court poet under King James, he eventually secured the living of three parishes (none especially close to another, being situated in Kent, Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire) which he held simultaneously until his death.
Yet it is as a writer, and primarily a poet, that he is remembered, and rightly so. The breadth of his interests and the flexibility of his style are extraordinary, and were probably unprecedented in his own time. Best known now for his sensual verse, he also explored philosophical quandaries that were dividing learned opinion at the time, offering and incisiveness of thought that was illuminating and compelling.
Indeed, ‘illuminating and compelling’ applies equally fittingly to this book. Ms Rundell has a clarity of expression, and a facility for conveying complex issues in a readily accessible way. I can readily understand why this book won the esteemed Baillie Gifford Award for non-fiction works. I will certainly be looking for her other books as a matter of urgency.
“Few people would turn to Donne’s poetry or prose, with its twisting logic and deliberate difficulty, for solace--but you might turn to him to be reminded that for all its horror, the human animal is worth your attention, your awe, your love” (261).