'Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne'

It’s fun to experience someone else’s enthusiasm, especially when they provide a good enough case that I get enthusiastic as well. The subject of Katherine Rundell’s contagious enthusiasm in “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne” is English poet and preacher John Donne, who lived from 1572 to 1631.

She calls his writing, which ranged from densely allusive erotic poetry to spectacular sermons on death and infinity, some of the finest ever produced in the English language.

The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras in England were tumultuous and uncertain times. Great wealth was available to people who pleased the crown, but sudden downfalls in fortune could come for anyone at any time.

Donne was born into a Catholic family, which meant brutal government persecution, and he easily might have never had a chance to make anything himself.

What was so special about Donne? He was born at a time where a facility with words was highly prized, and a life of constant challenges gave him plenty of opportunities to hone his writing.

Rundell argues that Donne contained a multitude of selves. Her book’s chapters each consider a different of Donne’s facets, such as The Hungry Scholar, The Flatterer, The (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. In each, she explains how Donne had to bend his unique writing skills in a different direction to get what he wanted from life (or, as often, not get what he wanted).

He wrote satires of legal arguments, flattering letters to potential patrons who might give him a job, poetry, and gave sermons so popular that people were almost trampled to death in crowds that came to hear him speak. Donne’s writing demanded attention.

He refused to use clichés everyone had heard, and later poets sometimes considered his verse to be of poor quality because he didn’t use familiar rhyme schemes. But his poetry and prose are both full of passionate and striking imagery, such as when he compares a lover to a flea, or imagined someone digging up his grave, which nobody else thought of before or since.

Why should anyone care about Donne today? There is something fascinating about encountering and trying to understand a mind from such a different era. A lot of our current culture is purposefully ephemeral, designed to be forgotten, and I also enjoyed learning about someone who chose his words so carefully and so well that they seem engraved into our very language — a man who wrote “no man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” not only in the same poem, but in the same paragraph.

Caleb Wilson, an employee of the Urbana Free Library, writes weird fantasy fiction. His first book, “Polymer,” was released in 2018. In addition to weird fiction, he also writes weird text-based computer games.