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  • Super-Infinite

  • The Transformations of John Donne
  • By: Katherine Rundell
  • Narrated by: Jamie Parker
  • Length: 8 hrs and 41 mins
  • 4.9 out of 5 stars (29 ratings)

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Summary

John Donne lived myriad lives. 

Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. He was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, an MP, a priest, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral—and perhaps the greatest love poet in the history of the English language. He converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was imprisoned for marrying a high-born girl without her father's consent, struggled to feed a family of 10 children and was often ill and in pain. He was a man who suffered from black surges of sadness yet expressed in his verse electric joy and love. 

From a standout scholar, a biography of John Donne: the poet of love, sex and death. In Super-Infinite, Katherine Rundell embarks on a fleet-footed 'act of evangelism', showing us the many sides of Donne's extraordinary life, his obsessions, his blazing words and his tempestuous Elizabeth times—unveiling Donne as the most remarkable mind and as a lesson in living.

©2022 Katherine Rundell (P)2022 Faber Audio

Critic reviews

"Every page sparkles." (Claire Tomalin)

"Crackling with gusto and sympathetic intelligence." (Andrew Motion) 

"A triumph." (Matt Haig) 

What listeners say about Super-Infinite

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A super-excellent biography


Katherine Rendell is a writer of superb children’s books (check out The Explorer) and also, surprisingly, a Fellow of All Souls. Super-Infinite, her biography of John Donne, is a fabulous gem, what she calls her ‘act of evangelism,’ crammed with a detailed, wide-ranging and stimulating examination of every transformation of Donne’s life, writings and background. I loved it and have listened to it twice to catch the details which can be missed listening to a serious work as packed full as this one.
What makes Rendell’s work so satisfying is the way she weaves background material her subject. The brutal persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth raged through Donne’s early life with Catholics hanged, drawn and quartered, including women, members of his own family and the young priest sheltered by Donne’s brother Henry who died from the inhuman treatment he received in prison. Plague (which she links with the Coronavirus) was a ‘constant stalker’ with people boarded up in their houses to die in their tens of thousands. Donne sailed on expeditions against Spain in 1596 and 1597 witnessing the ships wrecked by storm and engagement with their crews decked in silver lace as they left England educed to vast piles of rotting corpses and suppurating wounds. He witnessed the beheading of Essex following his disastrous rebellion - Essex, who had once strutted in trousers costing as much as a cottage, hanging onto life with a twinkling eye even as as his head was severed. Five of Donne’s twelve children died and his beloved wife Anne lasted only a week after giving birth to the last which was buried with her. No wonder Donne’s works are permeated by death, rot and decay whether it be his poetry, his Sermons delivered to up to 6000 people from St Peter’s pulpit or his courageous arguments surrounding suicide in his 1608 Bathanatos.
Rendell is brilliant on the poems with their 340 neologisms, unfurling the layers of meaning, illustrating what she calls Donne’s “alchemy a mix of unlikely ingredients which spark into gold, images clash up against one another and the world looks, however briefly, new”. She gives a vast range of contemporary detail, such as whores’ ‘purses’ (think about the one well loved for her handstands!) and Eton’s rat-infested dormitories to astronomical discoveries and the first production of Twelfth Night, which all hugely enlighten and extend.
There’s a great deal more to be said about this book but this is enough! Just listen and revel in it. Narrating a book like this with plentiful quotation from prose and poetry and so many changes of topic and tone can’t be an easy task and a sub-standard narration would have been ruinous. But full marks to Jamie Parker for his faultless narration for which Katherine Rendell must be very grateful.


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JOHN DONNE, ANNE DONNE, UNDONE!

A great insight into the life and times of a poet I studied at school. Well written, well read and very accessible.
Like any biography of an historic figure, I take some of her conclusions with a pinch of salt, but Katherine is careful to own the possible ambiguities and yet paints a colourful and detailed portrait of the man.
Would love to be transported back to hear his preaching at St. Paul's!

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knowing John Donne

A brilliant listen. I feel I know the man now, his era and the history of the time.

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Christain book

Donne's love poetry and sonnets are passed by in favour of focusing upon his sermons written in his later life.