John Donne Questions and Answers

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Discuss John Donne as a religious poet.

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Donne was a cleric (priest) in the Church of England and rose through the hierarchy to become the Dean of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. He is known for sleeping in a coffin to remind himself of his own mortality. He is also famous for using the fast-moving sands in an hour glass he would turn over while preaching to illustrate the speed with which human life passes.

Donne was often called metaphysical: this describes the school of poetry for which he is the most famous example but also describes his belief that life continues on after...

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John Donne was born on January 22, 1572, and died on March 31, 1631. He is best known for a being a metaphysical poet. It is believed that John Donne had a tremendous amount of inner conflict that he reflected on in his religious poetry. Donne was born a Catholic, but Donne believed that religion should be chosen after great thought and consideration, and not something that a person should simply be born into. It is believed that he converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism by 1598. Donne felt satisfied with his conversion overall, but it also left him with some pangs and soul-searching. Donne most likely felt a feeling of conflict between his old and new beliefs.

As a poet, Donne focused on conflict and doubt. He questioned the assumptions and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Even after converting, his mind was not at peace because he could not rectify his inner conflicts. He often prayed to God for mercy so that he would be able to build a faith with a strong foundation. In his A Hymn to God the Father, he arrives at a firm faith:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

This portion of the poem demonstrates that Donne was asking for forgiveness and ultimately feels that he has earned forgiveness and no longer fears that he is without faith.

Another common aspect of Donne’s poetry is introspection. Within his poems is evidence of the metaphysical, as well as inner heart searching. He looks within himself to find and measure his devotion to God, his awareness of his sins, and his need for repentance. There are also many mentions of his fear of death and this makes him repent for his past mistakes. Donne never had the intent of preaching morality or for men to turn to virtue, but it seems that he wrote his poems as a way to search his own heart, list his fears and agitations, and express his love for God.

There are several overall important themes with Donne’s religious poetry, including the fleetingness of the world, the short-lived nature of physical joys and happiness, and the sufferings of the soul. Perhaps the most important theme is the threat of death which leads him to turn to Jesus as his Savior. Although Donne wrote about the sins of physical pleasure and earthly happiness, it appears that he was not always able to separate himself from these joys. This is most likely why he continued to write poems of apology to God. That being said, one cannot refute his belief in God and his desire to please Him.