John Donne Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201666-Donne.jpg John Donne (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

John Donne Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 position as Egerton’s secretary, and the couple were forced to live for several years on the charity of friends and relations. A comment made at the time, sometimes attributed to Donne himself, was, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.”

Although his career hopes had been dashed by the impetuous marriage, his winning personality and poetic skill won for him new friends in high places. He traveled abroad with Sir Walter Chute in 1605; he became a member of the salon of Lucy, countess of Bedford; and he even attracted the attention of King James, who saw what a useful ornament Donne would be to the Church and urged him to take orders. Not completely resolved in his conscience to do so, Donne, for a considerable time, temporized. However, his activity during this period led him inevitably toward this step. A substantial body of Donne’s religious verse was written during this period and sent to Magdalen Herbert, mother of George Herbert and Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Finally, he committed himself to seeking advancement within the Anglican Church with the publication of Pseudo-Martyr, a work of religious controversy on a problem strongly vexing the King—the refusal of Roman Catholics to subscribe to the Oath of Allegiance. Thereafter, the king refused to consider Donne for any post outside the Church. In 1610, Oxford University awarded an honorary master’s degree to Donne, who had been prevented by his former religion from taking an undergraduate degree.

Having composed the Anniversaries under the patronage of Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted, he accompanied Sir Robert to Paris and then to Frankfort. After the return of the party to England in 1612, Donne and his family resided with Sir Robert. Although he continued to write occasional verse, Donne had definitely decided to take orders. Having prepared himself through further study, he was ordained early in 1615, and numerous avenues for advancement immediately became available to him. The king made him a royal chaplain. Cambridge awarded him the degree of doctor of divinity by royal command. Lincoln’s Inn appointed him reader in divinity to the Society. In addition, he was able to turn down offers of fourteen country livings in his first year as a priest, while accepting two. The one blight on his early years as a priest was the death of his wife in 1617. In 1619, Donne took time out from his regular duties to serve as chaplain accompanying Lord Doncaster on an embassy to Germany.

Donne’s fame as a preacher had been immediate, and it continued to grow each year. As Walton reports, even his friends were surprised by the continuous growth of his pulpit eloquence after such a striking beginning. Such genius received its proper setting in 1621, when Donne was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The position was also a lucrative one, and the dean’s residence was as large as an episcopal palace.

The winter of 1623-1624 was a particularly eventful time in Donne’s life. Having contracted relapsing fever, he was on the verge of death, but with characteristic dedication—and also characteristic self-consciousness—he kept a meticulous record of his illness as an aid to devotion. The resulting work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, was published almost immediately. During the same period, Donne’s daughter, Constance, married the aging Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn, founder of Dulwich College. From circumstances surrounding the wedding, the publishing history of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions has been reconstructed. It now seems clear that Donne composed this highly structured work in just a few weeks while still physically incapacitated.

In 1624, he took on additional duties as vicar of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West. After the death of King James in the following year, Donne was chosen to preach the first sermon before the new king. This and other sermons were printed at the request of King Charles. Also printed was his memorial sermon for Lady Danvers, as Magdalen Herbert had become.

Even when Donne again became gravely ill in 1629, he would not stop preaching. Ever conscious of his mortality during these last months, he sat for a portrait wearing his shroud. When he delivered his last sermon on Ash Wednesday in 1631, it was the famous Death’s Duell. Walton gives a vivid account of the writing and preaching of this sermon during Donne’s last illness, and some of the sermon’s special urgency is perhaps explained by the fact that the king’s household called it Donne’s own funeral sermon. Indeed, a few weeks later, on March 31, 1631, he died, having been preceded only a few months before by his aged mother.

John Donne Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111201666-Donne.jpg John Donne Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 without a degree.

In 1590, he began his study of law at Lincoln’s Inn, where he probably acquired most of his learning in law and where he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, thereby establishing himself in a secular career. He took part in two military expeditions under the influence of Egerton, but they were uneventful for him; he wrote two poems based on them, “The Storm” and “The Calm.”

While in Egerton’s service in 1591, Donne met and in violation of canon law secretly married Ann Moore, Egerton’s niece and the daughter of Sir George Moore, an event that profoundly affected Donne’s career. As a consequence of the marriage, Egerton dismissed Donne from his employ, and Moore had him imprisoned briefly. Released after the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage legal, Donne, now thirty, found himself with a wife and no prospects. Egerton refused to reinstate him, and Moore implacably refused to release Ann’s dowry. Donne’s marriage thus marks the end of one era of his life and the beginning of another.

During Donne’s earlier era, he had begun to write poetry, including songs, sonnets, satires, and elegies. These secular poems, early expressions of Donne’s genius and typical of Renaissance poetry, were not originally printed but circulated among friends. Each of the songs and sonnets is unique, each looking at one of the many possible perspectives of love, its glories and its failures. His satires, all in the tradition of the seventeenth century, assault urban vice; his third satire deserves special note, for it reveals Donne’s changing attitude toward religion as he moved away from Catholicism. The nineteen elegies contributed especially to Donne’s reputation as Jack Donne, a man-about-town and a frequenter of the ladies. All of these early poems reveal Donne’s philosophical and scientific bent, his use of rugged, dramatic verse, his references to everyday experiences, and his fondness for fantastic metaphors—qualities that identified him to the English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, at least, as a Metaphysical poet.

Following his release from prison, Donne moved from London to Pyrford and then to Mitchum, still searching for secular preferment. This period of Donne’s life, characterized by fewer and different types of literary pieces, failed to produce a political appointment for him, but he did succeed in establishing himself with some worthy patrons. Among his patrons were Lady Magdalen Herbert, for whom he may have written the “La Corona” sonnet sequence and the “Autumnall,” and Sir Robert Drury. When Drury’s young daughter, Elizabeth, died, Donne wrote An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary (1611) and, subsequently, Of the Progress of the Soule: The Second Anniversary (1612), poems known today as the Anniversaries.

Also during this period, Donne began to establish himself as a writer of prose. His first important work was Biathanatos (1646), an argument justifying suicide and still of interest today because of what it reveals of Donne’s erudition and of his state of mind at the time he wrote the work. His prose career further developed in the service of Thomas Morton, dean of Gloucester, who retained Donne to write polemical prose against Catholics. Donne obliged with Pseudo-Martyr (1610), an attack against the Catholic Church for teaching that to remain Catholic in defiance of British law was an act of martyrdom. This work also provides the best evidence up to 1610 that Donne had reconciled himself to the Anglican Church. His most scathing attack upon Catholics was Ignatius His Conclave (1611), in which he has Ignatius, a Jesuit, depose Satan and become the sovereign of Hell.

In 1609, Sir George Moore relented and released Ann’s dowry, an event that signaled a change in fortune for Donne. He never received the secular appointment he sought, but he decided instead to become a priest and took holy orders in the Anglican Church in 1615. Close upon this appointment, his wife died in 1617 while giving birth to their twelfth child, and for the rest of his life Donne was, according to biographer Izaak Walton, “crucified to the world.” Donne quickly established himself as the leading Anglican preacher of his day, and he was appointed dean of St. Paul’s in 1621, a position he held for the remaining ten years of his life.

The last part of his life was devoted almost entirely to sermons, and although only 6 were published during his lifetime, 150 were published by the year 1700. His only important poetic accomplishments during this period were a few divine poems and hymns, including his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), written during a severe illness, and his “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness,” written, Walton concludes, only eight days before he died. He preached his last sermon before King Charles I on February 15, 1631; he died on March 31, 1631, in London.

John Donne Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 chaotic world; his experimental Renaissance style of writing poetry has become characteristic of modern poetics.

John Donne Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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 hands of the civil authorities. Leaving Oxford University without a degree, because to do so would require that he swear to the Anglican Articles of Faith, Donne studied law at the Inns of Court in the 1590’s. At that time he also read widely in theology. He was trying to decide which of the two churches that claimed to be truly Catholic—the Roman and the Anglican—was the right one. The date of his decision in favor of the Church of England is uncertain, but it certainly came later, after intense study, and was not merely to clear the way to worldly advancement.

Study was not his whole life at the Inns of Court. He also took his place in the world of wit and fashion, made friends with the gifted youth of his time, and became “a great visitor of ladies.” Despite his reputation for hard study in many languages and many subjects, early in his career he also began a series of highly original, occasionally improper, love poems. These circulated widely in manuscript and grew famous, in spite of his later avowed distaste for them. They were published in 1633, after his death. In modern times these Songs and Sonets (in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death) have achieved a remarkable celebrity. They are often very difficult—even Ben Jonson, Donne’s friend, found them so—and some of the most difficult are also the most profound, such as the “Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day.” Many of them, however—this applies also to the Elegies—are merely learned jokes about love, such as “The Flea,” or paradoxes ridiculing conventional morality, such as “Elegy xvii.” Others are apparently serious love poems, such as “The Feaver”; yet even these are, as John Dryden complained, calculated to “perplex the minds of the fair sex with the nice speculations of philosophy.” One or two poems seem to be addressed to Donne’s wife. In fact there is a variety of occasions and moods, but nearly all the poems are alike in abjuring the usual smoothness of Elizabethan love poetry. They are harsh, to use Donne’s word, extremely rapid, witty, and compressed. This quality will disturb modern readers less than the obscurity of the thought; most need help from a learned edition to understand these poems.

When he left the Inns of Court, Donne traveled in Italy and Spain and took part in two naval expeditions (1596 and 1597). He was trying to make his way in the world. In 1598 he became secretary to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton but ruined his chances by secretly marrying Lady Egerton’s niece, Ann More, in December, 1601. He went to prison and lost his job. Forgiven but not reinstated, he lived for some years in relative poverty and discomfort at Mitcham, then a village outside London, with his rapidly growing family. Being poor, he sought patronage, writing complimentary and elegiac verse, some of it excellent, for the great countess of Bedford, Sir Robert Drury, and others. He “ghosted” for the bishop of Durham in anti-Romanist controversy but refused to enter the Church. When the belated payment of his wife’s dowry gave him a spell of leisure, he wrote Pseudo-Martyr and the witty Ignatius His Conclave against the Jesuits and a work of theology, Essayes in Divinity, written about 1614 but not published until 1651. Biathanatos was also written at this time.

Eventually the king made it clear that Donne would not achieve advancement outside the Church, and in 1615, at the age of nearly forty-three, he was ordained and granted an honorary doctorate of divinity from Cambridge University at the king’s insistence. Thenceforth he wrote little verse, and that of relatively small importance; his religious poetry belongs mostly to the period from 1607 to 1615. Instead he wrote and preached sermons which established him as one of the greatest of preachers in an age of great pulpit oratory. His wife died in 1617, and he celebrated her memory in a magnificent sermon and a fine sonnet. In 1621 he became dean of St. Paul’s. He had become a somber priest much given to thoughts of death but as often finding solace in contemplation of divinity. In 1623, seriously ill, he wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a set of religious meditations on his disease which, for all their solemnity, show that he remained in his strange way the wittiest of writers. During Lent, 1631, he preached the famous and terrible sermon called “Deaths Duell” before Charles I and then ordered the grim monument of himself in his shroud, which survived the great fires of 1666 and 1940, and may still be seen in St. Paul’s. Donne died in London on March 31, 1631.

Donne’s reputation as a poet faded rapidly and was not fully revived until the twentieth century. His influence on modern poetry has been considerable, poets admiring the intellectual vigor of his work, his range of learned reference, and his wit. It has also been thought, not quite correctly, that his attitude toward the new science of his time (for example, to the Copernicus’s discoveries) was that of a man who saw an older and more stable world disintegrating, so that his mood resembled that of some twentieth century intellectuals. This is a distorted view, but distortion is probably inevitable because Donne wrote a large body of works, and not much of it is read.

What is well known is the love poetry and the religious poetry. Of the love poetry the modern reader, with an effort, can recover some of the delight and surprise it must have given to Donne’s friends. The religious poetry, much of it based on Catholic techniques of meditation in use by Anglo-Catholics at that time, has an equal appeal. It is characterized by the same agility of intellect, here associated with religious passion. Although it sometimes declines into clever trifling that offends modern taste, it remains a remarkable record of spiritual turbulence. At the core of Donne’s literary and sermonic productions is the question of faith and the problem of knowing, with certainty, the status of one’s soul.

John Donne Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

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...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

John Donne 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.)

John Donne Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Donne was born in London in 1572. His family was of Roman Catholic faith (his mother was a relative of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More),...

(The entire section is 321 words.)