From Literary Review:
What would it be like to be swallowed by a whale? Disappearing into the huge maw of a sea giant has made for thrilling and terrifying narratives, from the biblical story of Jonah to Melville’s Moby-Dick and Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. But here’s a stranger idea: what if you were already living inside a whale but didn’t realise it, so vast were its cavernous insides? For an idea this odd and haunting, you would have to look to the works of John Donne and, more specifically, to what is by far his most bizarre poem, ‘Metempsychosis’, which tells the story of the migration of a single soul from entity to entity, from the apple picked by Eve in Eden through a head-spinning range of animal and human creatures. It’s as part of this hallucinogenic bestiary that we encounter the whale, with its pillar-sized ribs and ‘thunder-proof’ hide, and are told that ‘Swim in him swallowed dolphins, without fear,/And feel no sides, as if his vast womb were/Some inland sea.’
I’ve always been haunted by these lines – by the question of how to interpret them and whether they should be interpreted at all. Are the dolphins somehow a metaphor for our condition as humans, believing that we are free so long as we remain oblivious to the restrictions within which we operate? Does Donne call the whale’s abdominal cavity its ‘womb’ innocently – the word could just mean ‘stomach’ in this period – or is there a deliberately gender-bending quality to this whale teeming internally with life, making it a symbol of pregnancy? Or are the dolphins just innocent sea creatures, brought idly to life by a poet allowing his imagination to go on a surreal holiday in a poem so strange that one critic in the 19th century called it ‘the effusion of a man very drunk or very mad’?
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.