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There’s a poem by John Donne that makes a presence of an absence; his absent love becomes as real to the speaker and more fully his than if she were present. This could illustrate what Katherine Rundell wants us to see in the work of John Donne, seventeenth-century metaphysical poet and preacher, in this useful book that she presents both as a biography and “an act of evangelism.” Donne’s peculiar mode of writing, often strained and twisted, is a “galvanic” force, she patiently shows readers, stretching meanings and associations, uniting opposites, and expanding the experience of being human.

His fondness for the super- prefix, “super-miraculous,” “super-exaltation,” pushes against limits. The “super-infinite,” for example, is an expression he forged in a eulogy reckoning with death from life. The trans- prefix sparked him as well, Rundell says, and even when he doesn’t specifically use the prefix, he employs it metaphorically, as in a poem transforming a bed of intimacy into exploration of the New World and back again. For that matter, the crux of his biography itself lies in his transmutation of the vexed, raggedy, sordid, and sorrowful elements of his life into ecstatic poetry and the sermons he gave as Dean of St. Paul’s that drew crowds from all around.

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