John Donne Additional 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...

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(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...

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(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.


(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...

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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 money problems. He had a growing family—he and Anne eventually had twelve children, seven of whom survived—and he had to support them. His life during these years was not completely bleak, however, for he still had friends among some courtiers and influential women, and eventually they helped him return to the circle of important people. He later renounced his Catholicism, took Anglican orders, and King James appointed him to St. Paul’s cathedral. That Donne loved Anne dearly there is no doubt, and he grieved greatly after her death in 1617, but his career as a great preacher continued for fourteen more years. He died as a result of a serious, undiagnosed illness in 1631.


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 Prison as a result of his elopement, Donne was dismissed from his post and began a quiet and not particularly successful career in law. However, during this time he continued to write his love poetry, which he had begun in the 1590s. He also started writing anti-Catholic polemics, signaling his renunciation of Catholicism. Although he converted to Anglicanism, scholars debate to what extent he understood God in terms of the tenants of Calvinism, including predestination, sin, and grace. By 1607 King James was encouraging Donne to take Holy Orders in the Church of England, but Donne refused. However, by 1609 he began writing his nineteen Holy Sonnets, a documentation of his religious meditations as well as a symbolic turning point in his career. In 1615 Donne finally entered the ministry, and in 1621 he was made Dean of St. Paul’s, four years after the death of his beloved wife. During a time when preaching was considered both spiritual devotion and dramatic entertainment, Donne’s witty and erudite style captured the attention of influential people, and he preached to great congregations. As he became more devout and his life neared its end, he became obsessed with the idea of death, preaching what he called his own funeral sermon a few weeks before he died in 1631.


(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),...

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