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.
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 1621, James insisted on Donne's promotion to Dean of St. Paul's church in London. Donne suffered periods of illness for the next ten years while continuing to preach and write. His first published sermon, Deaths Duell (1632), was referred to by many as Donne's funeral sermon, delivered as it was by a man so plainly dying. He died only a few weeks after giving the sermon and was interred in St. Paul's.
Although religious study and spiritual seeking were significant parts of Donne's writing life, his best-known works are his love poems. The poems classified as Songs and Sonets in particular are fine examples of the literary school later associated with Donne, that of the metaphysical poets of the mid-seventeenth century. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is in this group, as well as “The Canonization,” “The Ectasie,” and “The Flea.” These poems exhibit the provocative subjects and innovative language for which Donne would later be both condemned and praised. The Elegies and Anniversaries have similar qualities. The Elegies are not funeral poems, as the term implies in modern usage, but most often love poems characterized by sensual and even overtly lustful themes. The Anniversaries, however, are genuinely elegiac tributes to a young woman Donne hardly knew; critics suggest that Donne's careful adaptation of the elegy to address issues beyond the short life of Elizabeth Drury effectively redefined the genre. Donne's writing in these poems combines both intense passion and logical argument, features that would also help shape his Holy Sonnets. Among the better known of these poems are “Batter my heart, three person'd God,” and “Since she whom I lov'd,” the latter a lament on the death of his wife. While many of the Holy Sonnets are assumed to be the products of a more mature poet—written anywhere from 1609 to sometime after 1617—some biographers have suggested that the searching tone of some of the poems may also reflect the serious side of Donne as a young man. Donne's early prose is not often read by modern students, but his sermons and devotions remain a central part of his oeuvre. Perhaps the best known among these is the prose work “No man is an island,” included in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Donne's importance as a religious thinker is reflected in the posthumous publication of several of his sermons in LXXX Sermons (1640) and his Essays in Divinity (1652).
Among the first critics of Donne's poetry was the playwright Ben Jonson, with whom Donne maintained generally friendly relations. Donne and Jonson read and critiqued each others' work: Jonson found Donne witty but decried his earthy subject matter and his innovations in poetic meter. Nineteenth-century writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning, and Thomas DeQuincey, however, appreciated Donne's lack of reserve and stylistic experimentation, celebrating his works as brimming with life and filled with primeval emotion. Donne's status in the canon of English literature was consolidated in the twentieth century when major critics—including T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, and Cleanth Brooks—acknowledged Donne's ability to capture the human experience in poetry. Appreciation for Donne has never been universal, however. C. S. Lewis considered Donne's poetry overrated, flawed in both structure and content. More recently, influential scholar Stanley Fish has openly declared his dislike of Donne's work, which he has described as “bulimic.” Critics have been similarly divided on the subject of Donne himself. Donne writes in distinct personas that appear to serve his present needs without regard to consistency: his earlier poems are those of a witty courtier seeking favor and patronage, his later poems are concerned with theology and personal salvation. Similarly, while his earliest essays are strongly anti-Catholic, some of his later verse seems to show Catholic sympathies. Such inconsistencies have occasioned charges that Donne is insincere and self-serving—that his writing and even his conversion to the Anglican Church reflect not his personal beliefs but his attempts to rise in English society. One of the strongest statements of this position appeared in John Carey's 1981 biography of Donne, a highly influential and frequently cited volume. Carey has suggested that apostasy and ambition were the driving forces of Donne's career, describing the man himself as violent and driven and his poetry as powerful only to the extent that it reflects the poet's personal aspirations. The image of Donne as a forceful poet with a masculine drive to dominate has been a frequent theme of Donne criticism after Carey's biography. Fish embraced this view and argued it further, although other critics—notably, some feminist critics—have suggested that Donne's unique representation of gender as sometimes fluid or ambiguous belies the portrait of Donne as a domineering patriarch. Donne's view of women has also been a subject for disagreement. An important article by Achsah Guibbory has advanced the view of Donne's poetry as a document of masculine anxiety about female authority, focusing on the grotesque images of the feminine in his Elegies. The variety of Donne's verse has also permitted alternate contemporary views of his attitude towards women, particularly with respect to Donne's feelings for his wife, Anne More Donne. Maureen Sabine has proposed that Donne's love poetry reflects a deep attachment to More, although earlier critics had dismissed this view. Similarly, the authenticity of Donne's break from the Roman Catholic Church has remained a topic for scholarly debate. Whether critics have seen Donne as a secretive Catholic or a devout Anglican, however, many have been willing to accept Donne's devotions and religious poetry as sincere expressions of faith. Donne's melancholy and his spiritual anxiety are interpreted by many critics as a reflection of his deep concern with creating a Christian community and having a right relationship with his God.