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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Donne 1572-1631

English poet, essayist, and sermon writer

The following entry presents criticism of Donne's works from 1990 to 2001. See also John Donne Poetry Criticism.

One of the most prominent literary figures of the early seventeenth century, Donne has nonetheless engendered widely differing views regarding the merits of his work. His reputation stands on two distinct accomplishments: the witty, sensual love poetry of his early career and the serious, devout religious writing of his later career as the Dean of St. Paul's. Donne's poetry was influential enough to be considered the basis of the metaphysical school of poetry, as characterized by later writers such as Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, and George Herbert. Donne was equally influential as an Anglican divine: his highly personal accounts of seeking God and an authentic faith address the universal difficulty of living both a spiritual and a worldly life as well as the specific struggles of the Anglican Church of the era.

Biographical Information

Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family in London. His father, a successful merchant, died when Donne was young; his mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the daughter of a playwright who was distantly related to the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. England's rejection of papal authority directly affected the Donne family: two Jesuit uncles died while in exile and Donne's younger brother was imprisoned for sheltering a Roman Catholic priest. Donne himself was unable to obtain his degree when he was at Oxford University because he could not take the oath of supremacy recognizing the English monarch, and not the pope, as the head of his church. He attended Oxford from 1584 to 1587, and from 1591 to 1596 he continued his legal studies at the Inns of Court. While there, he developed a reputation as a serious student and as a libertine: the latter persona is reflected in the Elegies and Satyres he wrote during this period. It was also while he was studying at the Inns of Court that Donne began to consider leaving the Catholic Church and converting to Anglicanism. After completing his studies at the Inns of Court, Donne entered the military, serving in the navy with the earl of Essex. During this time, he met Sir Thomas Egerton, who later employed Donne as his secretary. This position could have been the making of Donne, but it was instead his undoing. Donne secretly married Egerton's niece, Anne More, an act that prompted More's father to have Donne imprisoned. After his release from prison in 1602, Donne's prospects for gainful employment were unpromising. Meanwhile, his wife was nearly continually pregnant, eventually giving birth to twelve children before her death in 1617. Donne's luck improved when he found influential patrons in Sir Thomas Morton, the countess of Bedford, and Sir Robert Drury. Some biographers have suggested that Donne came to embrace the Anglican faith in order to advance himself professionally. While this view remains controversial, Donne did serve Morton by helping him write broadsides against the Catholic Church once Donne's conversion was official. The essays Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius His Conclave (1611), both anti-Catholic treatises, followed soon after. The death of Drury's daughter was the occasion for Donne's Anniversarie poems in 1611 and 1612. Donne also accompanied Drury on a diplomatic mission to France at this time, a year-long journey away from his wife that inspired one of Donne's best-known poems, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Donne's writing received the attention of James I, who felt that the essayist could serve the interests of the English Catholic (Anglican) church. James pressed Donne to take holy orders, a vocation Donne resisted for some time before submitting to the king's request in 1615. Donne acquitted himself well in his new profession. His Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) was well received, and he developed a reputation for thoughtful and articulate sermons. In...

(The entire section is 110,624 words.)