Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
Article abstract: Capturing the restless, questioning spirit of the early seventeenth century, Donne established the “metaphysical” style—witty, colloquial, and dramatic—in his love poetry, which is both devotional and erotic.
John Donne’s early years set the stage for a lifelong tension that is reflected in his poetry, namely that between, on one hand, his careful cultivation of skills necessary for a politically prominent courtier and, on the other, his religion and imprudent marriage, which impeded his preferment. Donne was born in 1572, the son of John Donne, a successful London merchant and member of the Ironmongers’ Company, and Elizabeth, the daughter of epigrammatist John Heywood and the great-niece of the martyred Thomas More. Consequently trained in the Catholic faith, Donne learned early of the dangers accompanying Catholicism in Anglican Elizabethan England. Two of his uncles were Jesuits, one of whom headed a clandestine mission in England and was imprisoned, sentenced to death, and exiled. In addition, Donne’s brother Henry died of plague in Newgate Prison in 1593, having been arrested for harboring a seminary priest.
Being Catholic, Donne could not be granted a university or law degree, even though he matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and was probably at Cambridge in 1588-1589. After traveling abroad (probably from 1589-1591), Donne entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and spent 1592 to 1594 at Lincoln’s Inn, studying law, the classics, divinity, and perhaps medicine. During this time, Donne lived the life of a young man about town, frequently attending plays and cultivating the persona of a witty, cynical rake. In 1596-1597, he sailed with the English expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Ralegh, thus aligning himself with energetic and aspiring but doomed political forces (Raleigh was later imprisoned and Essex beheaded).
Donne’s poetry of the 1590’s communicates a sense of daring rebellion, restless talent, and spiritual exploration. Defying Elizabethan literary tradition, Donne wrote several Ovidian elegies. The elegies’ harsh realism, especially regarding sexual relationships, is a reaction against Golden Age idealism; their immediacy of situation and dominant, ironic speaking voice reflect the theater’s influence on Donne as well as his powers of self-dramatization as a “forward wit.” In addition to challenging literary tradition, Donne questions religious authority, specifically in his third satire. Again, the compelling speaking presence dictates the poem’s meter, so unlike the mellifluous Elizabethan verse with its patterned “flowers of rhetoric,” and the twisted, complex syntax mirrors the convoluted theological issues being explored. Donne urges readers to “doubt wisely” while pursuing a vigilant intellectual quest for personified Truth, which stands “on a huge hill,/ Cragged, and steep . . . and he that will/ Reach her, about must, and about must go.”
Even his frankly amatory verses (written approximately between 1590 and 1610 and published posthumously as Songs and Sonnets in Poems by John Donne with Elegies on the Author’s Death, 1633) are touched by his searching religious sensibility. While frequently interpreted as a typically metaphysical “forcible yoking together” of sacred and profane opposites, Donne’s technique derives from an incredible flexibility of mind which balances the physical and spiritual simultaneously. For example, “The Ecstasy,” with its steady movement from body to soul to body, can be interpreted both as a sophisticated verbal seduction, soon to be translated into the language of the body, and as a reverent celebration of the transcendent unity experienced by spiritual lovers. Even “The Flea,” typically viewed as one of Donne’s wittiest seduction poems, draws on religious imagery to create Christian undercurrents. The poem’s recurring wordplay on life and death is not merely a bawdy pun; the Eucharistic implications of drinking blood and the Crucifixion echoes suggested by the purpled nail which has killed the flea point to the body’s importance in Christ’s life-giving sacrifice as well as in sexual intercourse.
In many ways, Donne’s “life work” was searching for work, for a position suited to a person of his tremendous intelligence and talent. His elegies, satires, songs, and sonnets were not published but circulated in handwritten manuscript, primarily because the radical style, tones, and themes of these poems might have endangered Donne’s chances for political advancement. These seemed promising in 1597-1598, when Donne was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of England; in 1601, Donne also served as a Member of Parliament in the final gathering of that body under Queen Elizabeth.
In December of 1601, however, Donne secretly married Anne More, the seventeen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Anne’s father, Sir George More, had Donne imprisoned and then dismissed from Egerton’s service, which essentially ruined the young man’s career. Despite the devastating effects of the marriage, the love Donne shared with Anne seems remarkable in an age of arranged marriages, and Donne’s powers to express the many facets of the love experience, particularly the mutually sustaining love of equals, are phenomenal. Poems such as “The Canonization” and “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” usually assumed to portray John and Anne’s love, again combine the physical and the spiritual and demonstrate the force of Donne’s dramatic imagination. “The Canonization” begins abruptly with the command, “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,” as though the speaker is reacting to another’s words. Even as he celebrates the...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Born in St. Nicholas Olave Parish, London, sometime between January 24 and June 19, 1572, John Donne came from a Welsh paternal line (originally Dwn) with some claim to gentility. His father, however, was an ironmonger, although important enough to serve as warden of his professional guild. On his mother’s side, Donne’s connections were distinguished for both their intellectual attainments and their recusancy—that is, allegiance to the Church of Rome in the face of the Elizabethan Church Settlement. Donne’s maternal grandfather was the epigrammatist and playwright John Heywood. A great-grandfather, John Rastell, was a minor playwright. Two of Donne’s uncles were Jesuits who died in exile for their faith, as did his great-uncle Judge William Rastell; and another great-uncle, the monk Thomas Heywood, was executed, having been caught saying Mass. Finally, a great-grandmother was the sister of Thomas More, whose skull Donne inherited and very characteristically kept as a memento mori. Donne’s brother, Henry, died in prison, where he had been sent for harboring a seminary priest; and Donne justifiably said in Pseudo-Martyr that no family had suffered more for the Roman Church.
His father died while Donne was still in infancy. His mother married twice more. The stepfather of Donne’s youth was a prominent physician. At first educated at home by Roman Catholic tutors, in 1584, Donne and his younger brother, Henry, were admitted to Hart Hall, Oxford. Although they were a precocious twelve and eleven at the time, they were entered in the register as even younger to circumvent the requirement that students of sixteen and over subscribe to the Oath of Supremacy. Donne spent probably three years at Oxford altogether.
Although records are lacking for the next period of Donne’s life, one theory is that he spent some of this time in travel abroad. With his brother, Donne eventually took up residence at the Inns of Court to prepare for a legal career. Unsettled in these career plans by the arrest and death of Henry, Donne began serious study of the relative claims of the Anglican and Roman Churches and finally abandoned the study of law entirely.
In 1596, he participated in the earl of Essex’s military expedition to Cadiz. Donne’s affability and his growing reputation as a poet—sustained by the private circulation of some of his elegies and lyrics—recommended him to a son of Sir Thomas Egerton who had also participated in the sack of Cadiz, and Egerton, who was Lord Keeper, was persuaded to appoint Donne as his secretary. In this position and also in Parliament, where he served briefly in 1601, he had many opportunities to meet people of note, and he improved his reputation as a poet by composing satires and occasional poems as well as additional lyrics.
In 1601, Donne was already in his late twenties, and, during Christmastide, he contracted a secret marriage with Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Because the marriage was contrary to her father’s wishes, Donne was imprisoned for his offense; he also permanently lost his...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
John Donne (duhn) was born to prosperous parents in London, England, sometime between January 24 and June 19, in 1572. His father, also named John, was a successful iron merchant; his mother, Elizabeth, a descendant of Sir Thomas More and John Heywood, the dramatist. Both parents were devout Catholics. Their religion and especially his mother’s literary background seem to have had a profound influence upon Donne. He would not always remain a Catholic; he eventually took orders in the Anglican Church, but throughout his life, he retained a passionate interest in religion, and he was writing poetry before he was twenty-one. His parents sent him to Oxford, where he stayed for three years, but he left before he was sixteen and...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
T. S. Eliot perceived John Donne’s worldview as one of unified sensibility, as an attempt to hold together what Renaissance thought threatened to tear asunder, and a study of Donne’s poetry confirms this view. Widely read, acquainted with all worlds but committed to none, able to bring together the most heterogeneous elements in convincing if shocking images, Donne stands out as a thinker capable of moving easily between absolutes and particulars, of probing potentialities, of heightening sensuality into philosophy, of thinking and feeling simultaneously, and of distilling all of these experiences into an intimate logic. His intensely personal record of the turbulent seventeenth century has meaning in modern humanity’s...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
John Donne (duhn), born in London, probably early in 1572, was the son of a prosperous London tradesman. His mother, from a more distinguished family, was a Roman Catholic, and the poet was educated in that faith. His claim that his family had suffered for the faith is borne out by the fact that his brother died in prison after being charged with concealing a priest; his own career may well have been hindered by his recusancy. Jesuit training left permanent traces on his mind. In a book on suicide (Biathanatos) he said that his interest in the subject stemmed from firsthand knowledge of the persecuted Jesuits; in another book (Pseudo-Martyr) he analyzed and condemned the Jesuits’ desire to achieve martyrdom at...
(The entire section is 1142 words.)
John Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family in 1572, a time when anti-Catholic feeling in England was at its height. Although he attended both Oxford and Cambridge, Donne did not attain a degree at either and began making his way in the world through his wit and charm. He was appointed to a post in Queen Elizabeth’s court in 1598 and sat in her last parliament. However, his marriage to seventeen-year-old Anne More in 1601 offended many, ruined his immediate hopes of financial and social success, and landed him in prison for several weeks. Donne later joked, “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone.” Life without court favor, however, was no joking matter, and the fact that Anne’s father refused to pay her dowry compounded his...
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Biography (eNotes Publishing)
Born into a prosperous Roman Catholic family in 1572, John Donne was educated by Jesuits before he entered Oxford and then later studied at Cambridge, and scholars find that the meditative form of the sonnets reflect his Jesuit schooling. He did not graduate from either school, however, because his faith led him to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged the king as the head of the Church. After participating in several military expeditions, Donne accepted a post as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, an important member of the court. In 1601 he became a member of Parliament, but his political aspirations were dashed when he secretly married Egerton’s seventeen-year-old niece. After spending a few weeks in Fleet...
(The entire section is 330 words.)