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 mystery and uniqueness of his love, the speaker comments on its potentially destructive nature by alluding to the phoenix, which must die before rising anew from its ashes, and by punning, “We can die by it, if not live by love,/ And if unfit for tombs and hearse/ Our legend be, it will be fit for verse.” Similarly, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” dramatizes a scene of the lovers parting and distinguishes between “Dull sublunary lovers’ love/ (Whose soul is sense)” and the speaker’s refined, spiritual love; their souls undergo not “A breach, but an expansion,/ Like gold to aery thinness beat,” suggesting a painful process of purification. Donne’s use of religious imagery to describe his love affairs implies that he perceived and valued the mystical potential of human love as well as its physical pleasures.
The early years of Donne’s marriage were characterized by frequent moves and unsuccessful requests for employment. He was denied a position in the queen’s household and later denied secretaryships in Ireland, with the Virginia Company, and with the state. During these disillusioning years of the early seventeenth century, Donne wrote Biathanatos (unpublished until 1646), a treatise challenging “right reason’s” condemnation of suicide. Donne used his literary talent in his attempts to secure a place; from 1606 to 1610, he assisted Thomas Morton (later dean of Gloucester) by producing the anti-Catholic polemics Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius His Conclave (1611). In 1607, Morton urged Donne to take holy orders, but Donne pleaded unworthiness. Although he had converted to an uneasy Anglicanism sometime in the 1590’s, Donne was probably clinging tenaciously to a hope for political preferment and considered the Church his last resort for advancement.
From 1610 onward, Donne’s career outlook began to brighten, though not, perhaps, in the manner he had hoped. He received an honorary M.A. from Oxford in 1610; in 1611, he accompanied Sir Robert Drury to the Continent, and upon his return in 1612, Donne moved with his large family to a house in Drury Lane, on the Drury estate. Also in 1611, An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary, was published, followed by Of the Progress of the Soule: The Seconde Anniversary in 1612; known as the Anniversaries, these companion poems are formal funeral elegies commemorating the death of Drury’s fifteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth (whom Donne, incidentally, had never met). Symbolizing innocence, vitality, and virtue, Elizabeth takes with her all order and harmony, leaving the earth in a chaotic state of sin, corruption, and death. The first Anniversary is usually said to reflect Jacobean melancholy, that early seventeenth century questioning of the once-stable universal hierarchy; contemporary economic, political, theological, and scientific thought is summarized in Donne’s famous line, “new philosophy calls all in doubt.”
Although a satellite of the court, Donne maintained friendships and exchanged verse letters with an influential group of courtiers, politicians, poets, and clergy. In 1613, for example, he paid visits to Sir Henry Goodyer and Sir Edward Herbert (whose brother George Herbert was to become a metaphysical poet and whose mother, Magdalen, was one of Donne’s patronesses). This visit occasioned the poem “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” which reveals Donne’s concern with vocation and his ultimate willingness to imitate Christ’s sacrifice. In 1615, Donne was finally ordained as a priest at St. Paul’s and received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge at King James’s command.
Two years later, Anne Donne died, having borne twelve children (five of whom predeceased Donne). Ironically, Donne’s public stature and responsibilities increased after Anne’s death; for the next fifteen years, he preached frequently (exercising great intellectual and dramatic talent) to the court and various nobles, while also serving as reader in divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. He traveled to Germany as chaplain with the embassy of James Hay, Viscount Doncaster, in 1619-1620 and was installed as the dean of St. Paul’s in 1621. Throughout the 1620’s, Donne heard cases in ecclesiastical courts and the Court of Delegates and served as a justice of the peace and as the governor of the Charterhouse.
During a severe illness in 1623, Donne produced several prayers and devotional poems which were published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One such poem, “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness,” reveals Donne’s preoccupation with the essentials of Protestant drama—sin, death, faith, resurrection—and his keen introspective ability. Using, as usual, striking conceits (complex intellectual comparisons of seemingly dissimilar objects), Donne ingeniously compares his body to a lute, a map, and the two Adams. Donne also wrote numerous holy sonnets; many of these incorporate erotic imagery to emphasize the soul’s passionate desire for God, as evidenced in “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” and “Show Me Dear Christ, Thy Spouse.”
Taken ill late in 1630, Donne instinctively began to dramatize his death, preaching his own “funeral” sermon (published posthumously in 1632 as “Death’s Duel”) to the court on February 25, 1631. Sometime in February or March, he dressed in a shroud and posed for a portrait, making himself an emblem of mortality upon which to meditate. He transacted final Cathedral business on March 21, and on March 31, he died, a well-known and respected divine. He was buried April 3, at St. Paul’s.
Approximately 160 of John Donne’s sermons survive, some of which were published during his life; in 1633, the first collected edition of Donne’s verse was published. Donne’s work exerted a tremendous influence on other seventeenth century poets, including George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Abraham Cowley. While not a self-styled group, as were Ben Jonson’s cavalier poets, the “Sons of Ben,” this “metaphysical” school of poets (a term coined by John Dryden and Samuel Johnson) practiced Donne’s roughly vigorous, colloquial, and wittily “conceited” style. Donne’s innovative talent popularized the use of realistic, homely imagery, a concentration of thought, and a precision of diction. With the publication of Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poetry in 1921, Donne’s influence was revived (his popular reputation languished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries); early twentieth century poets, themselves struggling to find truth and meaning in a rapidly changing world, found Donne a fitting model.
The parallel drawn by Izaak Walton in his hagiographic Life and Death of Dr. John Donne (1640) between Donne and Saint Augustine (whose lives are neatly divided into sensual and ascetic halves) is, although to some extent encouraged by Donne himself, a false one. “Jack” and “Dr.” Donne are the same person. Both Donne’s amatory and religious experience are characterized by a troubled restlessness, a sense of struggle intermingled with joyous union. His poetry powerfully combines the emotional and the intellectual, fusing song, drama, argument, and theological discourse. Though artfully crafted, Donne’s poetry achieves an effect of spontaneity and psychological truth as it probes skeptically, perceptively, boldly into man’s heart and soul.
Bald, R. C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bald draws on anecdotes, poems, letters, and earlier biographies. Includes useful appendices providing information on Donne’s children, his library, his will, and other relevant documents.
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Carey approaches Donne from a somewhat psychoanalytic perspective, focusing on Donne’s anxiety about the permanence of human relationships, his apostasy as a major influence on his verse, and his fascination with power. Carey’s observations are, at times, outrageous, but he is frequently perceptive and always entertaining.
Eliot, T. S. “The Metaphysical Poets.” In Selected Essays, 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1932. A seminal essay in Donne’s critical history. Eliot’s work originated as a review of Grierson’s edition of the poems. Discusses the “direct sensuous apprehension of thought” and the “dissociation of sensibility.”
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, 1978.
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Elegies and the “Songs and Sonnets.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965. An eminent critic of Donne, Gardner provides in these two books excellent general introductions to the love poems and the devotional poems, commentary, and detailed textual analysis of manuscript dating.
Leishman, J. B. The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1951, 6th ed. 1962. In a good one-volume overview, Leishman divides the book into chapters on Donne and seventeenth century poetry, Donne’s biography, and the poetry, analyzed by type.
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “John Donne: Writing After the Copy of a Metaphorical God.” In Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Lewalski argues that Donne relied increasingly on genres important to Protestant devotion and biblical poetics theory, instead of forms that were secular, liturgical, or meditational. Focuses on typology and the Protestant “application to the self.” Her first two sections, “Biblical Poetics” and “Ancillary Genres,” are also useful.
Martz, Louis L. “John Donne in Meditation.” In The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. Martz argues that Donne’s poetry is modeled on formal religious meditations such as those practiced by St. Bernard and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Places Donne’s work in religious cultural context.
Walton, Izaak. The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Robert Sanderson. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Walton’s Life and Death of Dr. John Donne is hagiography rather than biography. His facts are inaccurate, but his testimony as a contemporary of Donne is valuable.