A biographer of John Donne faces unusual hurdles. To write about his tumultuous life demands grappling with the many dangers and uncertainties of Eliz

The Libertine’s Voice: The Life and Love Poems of John Donne

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2022-10-01 03:30:18

A biographer of John Donne faces unusual hurdles. To write about his tumultuous life demands grappling with the many dangers and uncertainties of Elizabethan times. Before his death at age 58 or 59, Donne would witness or experience religious persecution, warfare, imprisonment, conversion, foreign travel, illness, loss and plague. His literary range is daunting too, including a heretical book on suicide, religious devotions, sermons, letters and roughly 200 poems, many of which rank among the finest in the language (“The Canonization,” “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day,” “The Sun Rising,” “Death Be Not Proud”), few of which were published in his lifetime, and are hard to date or link to his personal experience.

Much that might aid his biographer is lost. After friends died, Donne burned every letter they had sent to him. He did leave behind his commonplace book — that pocket-size notebook in which Elizabethans scribbled what they heard, read and thought — but after his son bequeathed it to a friend, it disappeared. Several portraits of Donne survive. An early one depicts him at about 23, as Katherine Rundell describes it in “Super-Infinite,” “all architectural jawline and hooked eyebrows,” a dashing young man wearing “a hat big enough to sail a cat in.” But how is one to reconcile that image with the last of his portraits, made in 1631 after Donne, to whose sermons thousands flocked, preached for the final time? Donne posed for that artist by wrapping himself in the shroud in which he would shortly be buried, pushing back the fabric so that only his withered face showed.

Rundell shares some of her subject’s daring, which likely contributes to the freshness of her take on Donne. She is best known as the author of prizewinning children’s books (her only book for grown-ups, until now, is the slim and slyly titled “Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise”). While she keeps one foot in the academic world as a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, she has the other planted elsewhere, engaging in rooftop climbing and tightrope walking — as good a preparation as any for rendering Donne’s precarious life.

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