Reading notes: Super-Infinite

Other reviews of this wonderful book summarize it well. You don't need to know or remember your John Donne to get a lot out of it. It's largely a portrait of London c. 1600, in all its glory and strangeness and brutality.

A few notes:

  1. Rundell is fully convincing in arguing that the commonplace book is an important way into understanding Donne. I'd say that the history of the commonplace book is generally underrated.
  2. More generally, this is a good material history. Having a sense of the actual physical transmission (or not) of the various works vivifies them. In Donne's case this is unusually interesting. It takes a lot of work, at least for me, to overcome the impression high-school anthologies give of a well-defined, pristine corpus for every major author.
  3. Biographers often speculate about human nature in asides, but for me this book is sui generis. The combination of detailed analysis of Donne, British and European history, and broader psychological discussions is striking and fresh.
  4. Donne once wrote of something that it was "nature's great masterpiece" and "the only harmless great thing." What do you think he was talking about?
  5. Here's a great few sentences: "But his poetry never describes her clothes, or her body. Donne's metaphors are vivid, wild, evocative, and potent, but they're strikingly unspecific. It never occurred to him to tell us if she was curved at the hip, or jutted at the collar bone, or was taller than him: presumably it was not what was important. The hunger, and the body itself, were what mattered."
  6. And, finally, a great observation from Donne: "I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his angels thither; and when they are there, I ignore God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door..."

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