Divine Poetry: Katherine Rundell Shines a Light on John Donne
“My hope was that they would finish the book and immediately go and find his poetry.”
The following first appeared in Trust Magazine
Katherine Rundell’s childhood in Zimbabwe was the stuff of dreams. School finished at midday, after which she’d head outside to climb trees and build rafts. She also loved reading, something her parents encouraged. They’d pin poems next to the bathroom sink and pay her a few cents for each one she learned by heart. One poem that captured her imagination was “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” which sparked a lifelong passion for John Donne. Reciting it, she brings the fantastic imagery to life:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot.
Rundell wants to share her passion for Donne. She describes Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne as “both a biography and act of evangelism. I wanted to write something that would be gripping enough to take hold of people by the wrist, even those who perhaps wouldn’t think they could be interested in John Donne, and pull them through his life. My hope was that they would finish the book and immediately go and find his poetry.”
We meet in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the poet preached for the final decade of his life. The sound of a choir singing evensong floats through the circular grates above us. As the last tourists and worshippers leave the building, mice come out and scuttle across the stone floor of the cavernous chamber.
I ask Rundell to take us back 400 years to the days of Donne.
“The cathedral was, of course, a place of devotion and worship, but it was also loud and busy—a place to display your newest hats and coats,” she explains. “It was said that if you wanted to get the latest fashion, you’d take your tailor there, and you’d be able to get the perfect suit copied from one of the exquisitely clad men parading his elegance around the church.” It was also unruly. “You could climb up the roof to etch your initials into the soft lead. Young gallants with spurs on their boots walked through the cathedral, chased by choirboys who would fine them for wearing spurs. And there are accounts of little boys peeing on the floor and then skating along it like an ice rink.”
For many, the draw was the Rev Dr Donne. He would often weep at the pulpit in sorrow or joy. And sometimes, he’d preach outside the cathedral, and crowds of between 1,000 and 6,000 stretching back to the River Thames gathered to hear or at least observe him. His sermons would last up to three hours but weren’t “a laborious process of holiness,” Rundell says. “His sermons were often the most fascinating moment of your week. They would include bold religious insight, news of Europe, news of wars, propaganda, jokes, new religious angles and references to poets. And Donne was the finest. The one people came to see.”
But the Dean of St Paul’s is far better remembered as a poet in an era when poetry was central to cultural life, alongside theatre and music. This was before the days of novels and newspapers. Poems were treasured, folded into small pieces and passed from hand to hand. “It would have been incredibly rare to be an educated man and not write poetry. Everyone tried it. Everyone wrote sonnets,” explains Rundell. They didn’t just use poetry for courtship but to make friends and enemies, undermine the monarchy, explain God and explore death.
Donne’s poetry is famously tricky to master. In contrast to Shakespeare, his contemporary whose dramatic poetry thrilled the masses, Donne wrote poems for his elite circle. There’s no evidence the two met, but given Donne’s love of theatre, there’s a chance they brushed shoulders at the Globe Theatre or in the many taverns that lined the Thames. Donne’s verses may be harder to disentangle but are potentially just as rewarding, says Rundell. His poetry “requires your focus, care and attention, and a degree of excessive intellectual strain,” she says. “But in return, it’s like cracking a safe, and there is gold inside, and it’s gold that will last.”
This is typical of the vivid imagery Rundell conjures up for her readers. My mind drifts to the highlander’s sgian dubh when she says in her book that the poet “wanted to wear his wit like a knife in his shoes; he wanted it to flash out at unexpected moments.” And she describes reading a Donne sermon as “a little like mounting a horse only to discover that it is an elephant: large and unfamiliar.”
Rundell brings the Renaissance poet to life as if he were still with us. A couple of times during the interview, she pauses between sentences and says: “I love Donne.”
She describes him as the finest writer of love poetry in the English language because he broke with convention at a time when others described women as flowers, roses and doves. Instead, Donne was gleeful, lustful and explicit when writing about sex. His poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed” is an example:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d
So did he enact the wild sexual abandonment his poetry celebrates? “Probably, he would have had dalliances with women,” speculates Rundell. “But the great love poet of the period is very unlikely to have been the great Lothario working his way through swathes of the female glories of London. That’s unlikely.”
Women of his class were carefully protected at the time because pregnancy out of wedlock could lead to ostracism. And his Catholic roots probably limited his prospects, despite his conversion to Protestantism in his twenties. It’s hard to overstate how hard it was growing up as a Catholic in England at the time. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says that back, then Catholics were regarded as many in the west now see Islamic State or al-Qaida.
Donne was more than just a poet and preacher. He was one of the greatest polymaths of his age: a lawyer, pirate, politician and diplomat. In her book, Rundell chronicles his swashbuckling journey from Bread Street birth to burial a stone’s throw away at St Paul’s.
The tales of derring-do include fighting the Spanish at the Battle of Cadiz in 1596. There’s tragedy too. His brother died from bubonic plague in Newgate Prison after being arrested for harboring a Catholic priest, and Donne’s wife, Anne, died shortly after childbirth following her 12th labour, aged just 33.
Donne was undoubtedly an original, and Rundell says he deserves a place in our hearts and on the curriculum. “He isn’t so impenetrable that you can’t fall in love with him at 14 or 15 or 20,” she argues “He’s got mischief and spikes of great wit. It is good to put children in the presence of a burning original so they know what is possible.”
As one of our best-selling children’s authors, she should know. The Oxford don, a Fellow of All Souls College, is an extraordinarily diverse writer. Her most recent book, The Golden Mole, is an illustrated compendium of pangolins, narwhals and other endangered animals. And her talents and interests extend to night climbing and tightrope walking, which she describes as “a continuation of childhood joy.” That same childhood saw her fall in love with Donne. Her book invites us to do the same.
Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne was the winner of the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.