- Born: c. January, 1572, London, England
- Died: March 31, 1631 (aged 59), London, England
- Notable Works: “Holy Sonnets”, “Death, Be Not Proud”, “The Canonization”, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, “Batter My Heart”, “Anniversaries”, “Pseudo-Martyr”, “Songs and Sonnets”, “Paradoxes and Problems”, “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”
John Donne (c. January 1572 — 31 March 1631) was an English poet, scholar, soldier and secretary. He is considered the most prominent member of the metaphysical poets, with his works noted for their metaphorical and sensual style. His works include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, and satires.
Donne became a cleric in the Church of England as well as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (1621–1631) and is known for his sermons. His poetry work often covers the theme of religion, something about which he often theorised, as well as showing a great knowledge of English society, which he often criticised.
Donne married Anne More and had twelve children. Donne and his family lived in poverty for many years, and he was not really celebrated as a writer until the 20th century. Donne died in 1631, at the age of 59.
John Donne – Early Life
John Donne was born in London between January 24 and June 19, 1572 and was the third of six children. His father, John Donne, was a Welsh ironmonger. His mother, Elizabeth (Heywood) Donne, was the great-niece of the martyred Sir Thomas More. The family were a recusant Roman Catholic family, and, at the time, practice of that religion was illegal in England.
Donne’s father died in 1576, when Donne was four years old. Within six months, Elizabeth Donne had married John Syminges, an Oxford-educated physician with a practice in London, who had three children of his own.
Donne was first educated privately, and some believe he was educated by the Jesuits, although there is no evidence to support this. In 1583, at the age of 11, Donne began studying at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford. After three years of studies there, Donne was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years.
Donne could not obtain his degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required to graduate. In 1591, he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. On 6 May 1592, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court.
Both during and after his education, Donne spent his inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel and, although there are no precise records, it is thought he travelled across Europe, possibly accompanying his uncle Jasper Heywood on a trip to Paris and Antwerp.
Later, in 1596 and 1597, he crossed Europe and fought alongside the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and the Azores, and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe.
At the age of 25, Donne was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton’s London home, York House, Strand close to the Palace of Whitehall. As Egerton’s highly valued secretary, he developed the keen interest in statecraft and foreign affairs that he retained throughout his life.
Marriage and Children
Being placed in the Egerton household placed his closer with Egerton’s domestic circle. Sir George More, Egerton’s brother-in-law and parliamentary representative for Surrey, came up to London for an autumn sitting of Parliament in 1601, bringing with him his daughter Anne, who was then 17.
Over the next four years, Donne and Anne fell in love and were secretly married just before Christmas, in 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and George More. Upon discovery, this wedding ruined Donne’s career, getting him dismissed and put in Fleet Prison, along with the Church of England priest Samuel Brooke, who married them, and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding.
After the wedding was proven to be valid, Donne was released from prison he soon secured the release of the other two. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife’s dowry.
Donne and Anne had to retire to a small house in Pyrford, Surrey, owned by Anne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley after Donne’s release. They lived here until the end of 1604, and in 1605 moved to another small house in Mitcham, London. The couple had very little money, with Donne scraping by working as a lawyer and an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton writing anti-Catholic pamphlets.
Anne gave birth to a baby almost every year and bore 12 children in 16 years of marriage and was pregnant or nursing for most of their married life. The couple had two stillbirths — their eighth child and then, in 1617, their last-child. Their surviving children were Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (named after Donne’s patron Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Three (Francis, Nicholas, and Mary) died before they were ten.
In a state of despair that almost drove him to kill himself, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one mouth fewer to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time, Donne wrote Biathanatos, his defence of suicide, but he did not publish it.
Anne died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child who was stillborn. Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.
Following his dismissal from the Egerton household, Donne did not find regular employment again for the next twelve years. This, combined with the deaths of his children and his wife, led him to write verse letters, funeral poems, epithalamiums, and holy sonnets, as well as the prose treatises Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius his Conclave (1611).
Donne did not write for publication and fewer than eight complete poems were published during his lifetime. Only two of these publications were authorised by him and no more than a handful of Donne’s poems can be dated with certainty.
Once married, Donne elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley in 1602, but this position was not paid. Following Queen Elizabeth I‘s death in 1603, the fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave Donne a means to seek patronage, and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially for MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted (1575–1615), whom he met in 1610 and who became his chief patron, furnishing him and his family an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane.
He also wrote two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612) for Drury.
These poems of Donne’s middle years are less frequently read than the rest of his work, and they have struck readers as perversely obscure and odd. The poems flaunt Donne’s unconcern with decorum to the point of shocking their readers.
In 1614, Donne sat as an MP again, this time for Taunton, in the Addled Parliament. Although King James I was pleased with Donne’s work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. Therefore, in 1615, Donne was ordained Anglican priest in the Church of England. Once committed to the Church, Donne devoted himself to it totally, and his life thereafter becomes a record of incumbencies held and sermons preached.
Donne was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge University in 1615. The same year, he became a Royal Chaplain and, in 1616, a reader of divinity at Lincoln’s Inn where he served in the chapel as minister until 1622. In 1618, he became chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany, and Donne did not return to England until 1620.
He was made Dean of St Paul’s, a leading and well-paid position in the Church of England, in 1621, which he held until his death in 1631. Donne became the most celebrated cleric of his age, preaching frequently before the king at court as well as at St. Paul’s and other churches. 160 of his sermons have survived, including “Death’s Duel”, his famous sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631. The few religious poems he wrote after he became a priest show he remained imaginative.
During these years, Donne lived in a number of parishes, including Blunham, in Bedfordshire. Blunham Parish Church has an imposing stained glass window commemorating Donne, designed by Derek Hunt.
During Donne’s period as dean, his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen, and, in late November and early December 1623, he suffered a nearly fatal illness. This was thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by a period of fever. It was during his illness that he wrote a series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness that were published as a book in 1624 under the title of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One of these meditations, Meditation XVII, contains the well known phrases “No man is an Iland” (often modernised as “No man is an island”) and “…for whom the bell tolls”.
In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625, a prolocutor to Charles I.
John Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul’s Cathedral. A memorial statue of him by Nicholas Stone was erected, and it was one of the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is now in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The most common subjects Donne’s poems are love (especially in his early life), death (especially after his wife’s death), and religion, which was a matter of great importance to him. His poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry, with many believing his literary works reflect the changing trends of his life.
He wrote showing a knowledge of English society, yet was not afraid to criticise its problems. His works often dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers in a satirical way, and used images of sickness, vomit, manure and plague to make fun of society.
Donne’s later works were more sombre in tone, which may have been influenced by illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends. The change can be clearly seen in “An Anatomy of the World” (1611), a poem that Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk.
This tone can also be seen in his religious works that he began writing during the same period, with his sermons and religious poems often challenging death and the idea of Heaven.
His writing used metaphysical conceit, an extended metaphor that combines two vastly different ideas into a single idea, often using imagery. One of the most famous of Donne’s conceits is found in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” where he compares the distance of two separated lovers to the working of the legs of a compass.
The satirical style of Donne’s work was heightened by paradoxes and puns, and he was noted for his poetic metre, which was structured with changing and jagged rhythms that closely resemble casual speech.
Because Donne avoided publication during his life, the majority of his works were brought to the press by others in the decades after his death. However, this has not prevented Donne becoming very significant in the history of poetry.
In Donne’s own day, his poetry was highly prized among the small circle of his admirers, who read it as it was circulated in manuscript, and in his later years he gained wide fame as a preacher. During the Restoration his writing went out of fashion and remained so for several centuries. Throughout the 18th century, and for much of the 19th century, he was little read and scarcely appreciated. Towards the end of the 1800s, Donne’s poetry was eagerly taken up by avant-garde readers and writers. However, his prose remained largely unnoticed until 1919.
Donne is generally considered the most prominent member of the metaphysical poets, a phrase coined in 1781 by Samuel Johnson. His works challenge the reader, asking philosophical questions about religion, faith, spirituality and being. His poetry also allows us to understand the time in which he was writing better, especially as he tackles many of the issues present in a satirical way, and this has allowed his work to remain popular in the many years after his death.
- Biathanatos (1608)
- Pseudo-Martyr (1610)
- Ignatius His Conclave (1611)
- An Anatomy of the World (1611)
- The First Anniversary (1612)
- Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
- Poems (1633)
- Juvenilia: or Certain Paradoxes and Problems (1633)
- LXXX Sermons (1640)
- Fifty Sermons (1649)
- Essays in Divinity (1651)
- Letters to severall persons of honour (1651)
- XXVI Sermons (1661)
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