Joe Moshenska at Literary Review:
The agility of Donne’s imagination and the sheer pyrotechnic weirdness of his writings have made him both irresistibly attractive to biographers – who wouldn’t want to understand the man behind poems like this? – and particularly elusive of biographical scrutiny: what set of facts could possibly help to explain such a person? Katherine Rundell’s excellent Super-Infinite approaches Donne with keen and frank awareness of these temptations and the pitfalls they conceal. She recognises the double bind in which Donne’s works place his readers: they are conspicuously difficult and erudite, demanding depth of knowledge, intensity of attention and speed of thought from those who would follow them, but bringing knowledge to bear upon their quicksilver shifts and spurts of imagination can feel like ramming a pin through the body of a particularly beautiful butterfly in order to taxonomise it. Rundell is scrupulously polite about R C Bald’s ‘spectacularly detailed’ life of Donne, the standard scholarly biography, calling it ‘the bedrock of this book’ in a footnote, but there has surely never been a duller life of a more exciting poet. Knowledge may be necessary, but it can be like an anvil dropped on the head of a mischievous cartoon character, stunning it briefly into passive silence.