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Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: Why we still read John Donne

On the opening day of JLF 2023, scholar Katherine Rundell contextualised poet John Donne's life and mind, and how he made the English language richer

John Donne, late 17th century copy of a 1616 work by Isaac Oliver.
John Donne, late 17th century copy of a 1616 work by Isaac Oliver. (Wikmedia Commons)

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By any standards John Donne (1571-1632) had an eventful life. Today he is remembered as perhaps the most important among the Metaphysical poets, the one who took English poetry away from its too-safe status quo. During his lifetime, Donne wrote across a variety of a genres; love poems, theological treatises, books of letters and so on. This had something to do with the fact that Donne was, at various points in his life, a secretary, a soldier, a teacher and a priest.

Katherine Rundell, whose 2022 book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (awarded the Baillie Gifford Non-Fiction Prize in November) described some of these big moves in Donne’s life, spoke about her work in an eponymous session on the first day of the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival. The writer was in conversation with Nandini Das, who teaches Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford.

One of the primary dichotomies of Donne’s life and work is the confluence of the sacred and the profane. Here was a man who wrote some of the most sensual and evocative love poetry of all time, writing quite frequently about the female form. He was also a prolific writer of sermons and philosophical texts on religion, on the relationship between man and God. Born a Catholic, Donne died a Protestant—and as Rundell pointed out, “one of the most famous Protestants in England”. In order to give the audience a bit of background, Rundell also gave the audience a quick lesson in the religious politics/policies of the era.

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“This was a time when not going to Church was illegal,” Rundell said. “The Church wasn’t some sideshow in your lived experience, it was one of the main events. And John Donne’s mother, who was Catholic till the end of her days, was frequently fined for not going to Church. However, when Donne did eventually make the shift to becoming a priest, he did so in part because he couldn’t find any other work.” 

Rundell was quick to add that this was her interpretation of events, that opinion is divided among scholars on this point. Donne’s disillusionment with Catholicism, the loss of his wife Anne, his financial troubles—all of these are cited as reasons for his becoming a Protestant priest, and there are scholars backing every one of these theories.

The name of Rundell’s book, Super-Infinite, derives its name from the fact that Donne once wrote that after death, what awaits us on the other side is “a super-infinite heaven”. As the writer explained during the session, Donne was fond of the ‘super’ prefix, even adding it to words that do not require intensifier. Super-death, super-love, super-infinite; his writings were all about “pushing language to its very limit”, as Rundell said.

“Donne went to Oxford at age 12,” Rundell said, “which may feel shockingly early today but was only slightly above par for his time. Another reason why he went so early—apart from his obvious brilliance, of course—was that at age 16 you would be pledged to the Crown, so Donne had those 4 years remaining where there were no expectations of him, official or otherwise.”

Here, then was a prodigal boy at one of the harshest academic venues in the world (“brutally cruel” as Rundell called it) at the time. This was an era where the University had to specify in writing that the students could only be beaten with the side of a sword, and not the edge. Tutors would thrash students, older students would thrash younger ones and everybody was expected to smoke (at the time, people believed the practice to be good for the lungs — but if we’re being honest, they had bigger problems, like organized religion and painful, inevitable death-at-age-40).

Donne’s unusual mind, however, thrived even in an atmosphere like this, and the English language is far richer for it. Towards the end of Rundell’s book, she talks about how Donne’s remarkable intellect reconciled some of the biggest contradiction of the era.

“In his hardest days Donne wrote that his mind was a ‘sullen weedy lake’. But it was fertile water: in it, things were born. From his prodigious learning, from his lust, from his fear, came work strong enough to ring through the barricade of time. Donne was honest about horror and its place in the task of living, and honest too in his insistence: joy is also a truth. Who else of his peers had been able to hold grotesqueries and delights, death and life so tightly in the same hand?”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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