Reared a Roman Catholic, Donne was educated at Oxford, Cambridge, and Lincoln's Inn. He traveled on the Continent and in 1596-97 accompanied the earl of Essex on his expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores. On his return he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (later Baron Ellesmere), lord keeper of the great seal, and achieved a reputation as a poet and public personage. His writing of this period, including some of his Songs and Sonnets (others were written as late as 1617) and Problems and Paradoxes, consist of cynical, realistic, often sensual lyrics, essays, and verse satires.
Donne's court career was ruined by the discovery of his marriage in 1601 to Anne More, niece to Sir Thomas Egerton's second wife, and he was imprisoned for a short time. After 1601 his poetry became more serious. The two Anniversaries—An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612)—reveal that his faith in the medieval order of things had been disrupted by the growing political, scientific, and philosophic doubt of the times. He wrote prose on religious and moral subjects; a polemic against the Jesuits; Biathanatos (not published until 1644), a qualified apology for suicide; and the Pseudo-Martyr (1610), an argument for Anglicanism.
After a long period of financial uncertainty and desperation, during which he was twice a member of Parliament (1601, 1614), Donne yielded to the wishes of King James I and took orders in 1615. Two years later his wife died. The tone of his poetry, especially the Holy Sonnets, deepened after her death. After his ordination, Donne wrote more religious works, such as his Devotions (1624) and sermons. Several of his sermons were published during his lifetime. Donne was one of the most eloquent preachers of his day. He was made reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn, a royal chaplain, and in 1621, dean of St. Paul's, a position he held until his death.
All of Donne's verse—his love sonnets and his religious and philosophical poems—is distinguished by a remarkable blend of passion and reason. His love poetry treats the breadth of the experience of loving, emphasizing, in such poems as "The Ecstasie," the root of spiritual love in physical love. The devotional poems and sermons reveal a profound concern with death, decay, damnation, and the possibility of the soul's transcendent union with God.
Original, witty, erudite, and often obscure, Donne's style is characterized by a brilliant use of paradox, hyperbole, and imagery. His most famous poems include "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," "Go and catch a falling star," "Hymn to God the Father," and the sonnet to death ("Death be not proud"). Neglected for 200 years, Donne was rediscovered by 20th-century critics. His work has had a profound influence on a number of poets Including W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.
See biographies by R. C. Bald (1970, repr. 1986) and J. Stubbs (2007); studies by R. E. Hughes (1968), R. S. Jackson (1970), W. Sanders (1971), M. Roston (1974), T. Spencer, ed. (2d ed. 1986), C. J. Summers and T.-L. Pebworth, ed. (1986), F. J. Wamke (1987), D. A. Larson (1989), J. Carey (1981, rev. ed. 1991), A. L. Clements, ed. (2d ed., 1991), E. W. Tayler (1991), A. F. Marotti (1986 and as ed. 1994), A. J. Smith (2 vol., 1975, repr. 1996), P. M. Oliver (1997), J. Johnson (1999), A Mousley, ed. (1999), D. L. Edwards (2002), B. Saunders (2006), D. R. Dickson, ed. (2007), and R. Targoff (2009); centenary volumes edited by P. A. Fiore (1972) and A. J. Smith (1972).
John Donne, detail of an oil painting by an unknown artist, after Isaac Oliver, circa 1616; in elipsis
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John Donne (pronounced like done, ; 1572 – 31 March 1631) was a Jacobean poet, preacher and a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period. His works are notable for their realistic and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially as compared to those of his contemporaries. He is famous for his Holy Sonnets.
As Donne came from a Roman Catholic family he experienced some persecution until his conversion to the Anglican Church. Despite his great education and poetic talents he lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. In 1615 he became an Anglican priest and, in 1621, was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Some scholars believe that Donne's literary works reflect these trends, with love poetry and satires from his youth, and religious sermons during his later years. Other scholars, such as Helen Gardner, question the validity of dating when most of his poems were published posthumously (1633). The exception to these is his Anniversaries which were published in 1612 and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1623. His sermons are also dated, sometimes quite specifically, by date and year.
John Donne was born in London, England, sometime near the end of 1571 or between January and 19 June in 1572, the third of six children. His father, of Welsh descent, also called John Donne, was a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London and a respected Roman Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention, out of fear of being persecuted for his Catholicism. John Donne Sr. died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their children. Elizabeth Heywood, also from a noted Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Jasper Heywood, the translator and Jesuit. She was a great-niece of the Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne’s closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons. Despite the obvious dangers, Donne’s family arranged for his education by the Jesuits, which gave him a deep knowledge of his religion that equipped him for the ideological religious conflicts of his time. Elizabeth Donne nee Heywood married Dr John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after John Donne Sr's death. The next year, 1577, John Donne's sister Elizabeth died, followed by two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, in 1581. Before the future poet was ten years old he had thus experienced the deaths of four of his immediate family.
Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. It was here that he met his life-long friend Joshua Adamson. He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates. In 1591, he was accepted as a student at the Thaives Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Court in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, another of the Inns of Court legal schools. His brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest. Henry Donne died in prison of bubonic plague, leading John Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith. During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel. Although there is no record detailing precisely where he travelled, it is known that he visited the Continent and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cádiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe, and her crew. According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1640:
... he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.
By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking. He 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, then the most influential social centre in England. During the next four years he fell in love with Egerton's 17 (some say 14 or 16) year old niece, Anne More, and they were secretly married in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison along with the priest who married them and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proved valid, and soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when he wrote to his wife to tell her about losing his post, he wrote after his name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife's dowry.
Following his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey. Over the next few years he scraped a meagre living as a lawyer, depending on his wife’s cousin Sir Francis Wolly to house him, his wife, and their children. Since Anne Donne had a baby almost every year, this was a very generous gesture.
Though he practiced law and worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton, he was in a state of constant financial insecurity, with a growing family to provide for. Before her death, Anne bore him eleven children (including still births). The nine living were named Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (after Donne's patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas and Margaret. Francis and Mary died before they were ten. In a state of despair, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time Donne wrote, but did not publish, Biathanatos, his daring defense of suicide.
Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being equated to sex. In en:Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII he compared the gap between his lover's breasts to the Hellespont. Donne did not publish these poems, although he did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.
Because love-poetry was very fashionable at that time, there are different opinions about whether the passionate love poems Donne wrote are addressed to his wife Anne, but it seems likely. She spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing, so they evidently had a strong physical relationship. On 15 August 1617 his wife died five days after giving birth to a still-born baby, their twelfth child in sixteen years of marriage. Donne mourned her deeply and never remarried. This was quite unusual for the time, especially as he had a large family to bring up.
After Anne Donne's death in 1617, the grief-stricken Donne wrote the en:Holy Sonnets with this event in mind.
Donne became a Royal Chaplain in late 1615, Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge in 1618. Later in 1618 Donne became the chaplain for the Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the German princes. Donne did not return to England until 1620. In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England and one he held until his death in 1631. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. It was in late November and early December of 1623 that he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by the seven-day relapsing fever. During his convalescence 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, the XVIIth of which later became well known for its phrase "for whom the bell tolls" and the statement that "no man is an island". In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a Royal Chaplain to Charles I. He earned a reputation as an impressive, eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death’s Duel sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631. It is thought that his final illness was stomach cancer. He died on March 31, 1631 having never published a poem in his lifetime but having left a body of work fiercely engaged with the emotional and intellectual conflicts of his age. John Donne is buried in St Paul's, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself.
His numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more somber and pious tone in his later poems. 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. This poem treats Elizabeth's demise with extreme gloominess, using it as a symbol for the Fall of Man and the destruction of the universe.
The poem 'A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, being the shortest day' concerns the poet's despair at the death of a loved one. In it Donne expresses a feeling of utter negation and hopelessness, saying that "I am every dead thing...re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death". This famous work was probably written in 1627 when both Donne's friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford and his daughter Lucy Donne died. It is interesting to note that three years later in 1630 Donne wrote his will on Saint Lucy's day (December 13th), the date the poem describes as "Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight."
The increasing gloominess of Donne's tone may also be observed in the religious works that he began writing during the same period. His early belief in the value of skepticism now gave way to a firm faith in the traditional teachings of the Bible. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature. He quickly became noted for his deeply moving sermons and religious poems. The passionate lines of these sermons would come to influence future works of English literature, such as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which took its title from a passage in Meditation XVII, and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, which took its title from the same source.
Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally. One example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, from which come the famous lines “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Even as he lay dying during Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death's Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.
The memorial to John Donne, modeled after the engraving pictured above, was one of the few such memorials to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and now appears in St Paul's Cathedral south of the choir.
Donne's works are also witty, employing paradoxes, puns, and subtle yet remarkable analogies. His pieces are often ironic and cynical, especially regarding love and human motives. Common subjects of Donne's poems are love (especially in his early life), death (especially after his wife's death), and religion.
John Donne's poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry. Donne is noted for his poetic metre, which was structured with changing and jagged rhythms that closely resemble casual speech (it was for this that the more classically-minded Ben Jonson commented that "Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging").
John Donne was famous for his metaphysical poetry in the 17th century. His work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion. He did this through the use of conceits, wit and intellect — as seen in the poems "The Sunne Rising" and "Batter My Heart". His work has received much criticism over the years, with very judgmental responses about his metaphysical form. Donne's immediate successors in poetry tended to regard his works with ambivalence, while the Neoclassical poets regarded his conceits as abuse of the metaphor. He was revived by Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Browning, though his more recent revival in the early twentieth century by poets such as T. S. Eliot tended to portray him as an anti-Romantic.
Saunders, Ben Desiring Donne Harvard University Press 2007