Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell
Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).
This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.
I loved it. Clearly.
I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.
As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).
As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.
And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.
It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.
Beowulf, from Maria Dahvana Headley
I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).
Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.
What an absolute joy.
The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.
Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:
The nails were notorious, hard as though
smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand
was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered
by work and warring (lines 985-88).
The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.
The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.
I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.
I took this with me on a holiday by the beach in winter for two main reasons:
1. The friend who first introduced me to Neruda (with “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”) loves that particular town, and it seemed appropriate; and
2. The friend who loaned me the collection would surely find it hilarious to imagine me clutching the book to my bosom, staring tragically/romantically/poetically (they’re all synonyms right?) out to sea.
Actually, so would the first friend.
Anyway. I am not much of a reader of poetry. I love the sound of poetry and I appreciate the artistry of using words as Neruda does, but I am at heart an impatient reader. I love words and I like the idea of lingering over them, but… it never really happens. Plus, I am realising that I am more plot-driven than beauty-focussed, which means poetry isn’t really going to work for me.
ANYWAY 2. Neruda. He uses words in beautiful ways – well, I presume he does in the original Spanish, and this isn’t just WS Merwin’s attempt to get work out there under someone else’s name. (What would be the point of that anyway?) Friend 2 pointed out to me that Neruda objectifies his subject a lot, and that’s absolutely crucial to much of his poetry: you don’t get “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs / you look like a world, lying in surrender” otherwise. But he does create some exquisite imagery.
Ah vastness of pines, murmur of waves breaking,
slow play of lights, solitary bell,
twilight falling in your eyes, toy doll,
earth-shell, in whom the earth sings!
I had at first expected “Tonight I can write” to be the “Song of Despair” mentioned in the title, but it’s not – it’s the twentieth love poem. Which made me realise, as I had been slowly realising over reading the collection, that to differentiate the love poems and the song of despair is to suggest something that is not there. In most of the love poems, despair is either present or looming on the margins. And the song of despair is of course only possible because of the love that is also present.
If you like poetry, this is highly recommended. If you want to try poetry, this is short and delightful and evocative. I’m glad I read it.