John Donne Donne, John (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

John Donne 1572-1631

English poet, epigrammist, and sermonist.

The following entry presents criticism on Donne from 1978 to 2001.

One of the most original and controversial poets in the history of English literature, Donne is best known for his metaphysical poetry on topics as diverse as the joys of lovemaking and humanity's subservience to God. Donne's poetry broke with the poetic conventions of the Elizabethan era, which favored smooth, measured lines and use of classical allusions. Instead, insisting that a poem's form cannot be separated from its content or argument, Donne wrote energetic, rigorous but uneven lines characterized by complex, witty conceits—contrasts and paradoxes—startling extended metaphors, and striking imagery juxtaposing the earthly and the divine. Eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson noted that in Donne's work, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions.” While not fully accepted in his day, Donne's poetry inspired the metaphysical school of English verse, whose members include Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn, and George Herbert, among others. Donne was rediscovered in the twentieth century by modernists such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, who wrote that Donne's poems, with their fusion of passion and intellect, demonstrate a “dissociation of sensibility.” Today Donne is viewed as an extraordinary poet, an equally accomplished writer of prose, and an influence on many poets, notably the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Donne was born in 1572 to a prosperous London family. His mother came from one of England's most distinguished Catholic families. Donne was the grandson of the dramatist John Heywood, the nephew of Jasper Heywood, who led the Jesuit mission to England in the 1580s, and a great-great-nephew of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. After receiving his early education from the Jesuits, in 1584 Donne began study at Oxford. Oxford would award Donne his degree only if he renounced his Catholic faith, as was standard practice at the university at that time. Defiant, Donne left Oxford and pursued legal studies at the Inns of Court in London, where he was known both for his dandyism and his serious study of legal and religious issues. During this period Donne wrote many epigrams, satires, verse letters, and elegies which were shared among friends in his literary circle but remained unpublished during his lifetime. After completing his law degree in 1596, Donne accompanied the Earl of Essex on two naval expeditions against Spain, writing of his experiences in the poems “The Storm,” “The Calm,” and “The Burnt Ship.” Returning to England in 1597 Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Four years later Donne secretly wed Ann More, Egerton's sixteen-year-old niece. Enraged, More's father had Donne imprisoned until 1602. Donne left prison without a professional position, social standing, or much hope of a career. From 1602 to 1615 Donne was able to support Ann and their growing family—which eventually included ten children—only through the generosity of friends and patrons. His letters from this period chronicle his struggles with depression and illness. Strong religious feelings, mixed with intellectual discontent, deep cynicism, and despair are evident in the Holy Sonnets, which Donne wrote but did not publish at this time. It was also during these years that he wrote his finest love poetry. Donne had been offered a position in the Anglican Church as early as 1607 but did not accept ordination until 1615, when it became clear that King James I would advance him through the Church. He became the King's chaplain; and the next year he was made divinity reader at Lincoln's Inn. Ann died in childbirth in 1617. In 1621, a mere six years following his entry into the priesthood, Donne became Dean of St. Paul's, and his sermons became widely heard and admired. He stated that he was happy in the rejection of “the mistress of my youth, Poetry” for “the wife of mine age, Divinity.” Nevertheless, when he was struck with a fever in 1623 and thought he was dying, he wrote “Hymn to God the Father” and “Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Donne died in 1631.

Major Works

Donne produced an exceedingly diverse body of work. As the writer of erotic, even bawdy, verses such as “The Flea” and “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” in which he celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, and as an author of difficult poetic meditations on his faith, suffering and subservience to God, such as “Batter My Heart” and “Hymn to God the Father,” Donne's poems share stylistic qualities and a complicated, questioning worldview. Both Donne's secular and religious poetry rely on naturalistic, often unexpected arguments pushed to extremes, and both rely on surprising juxtapositions of the ordinary (or in some instances, the profane) with the divine. Included among Donne's secular poems are the Elegies, Songs and Sonnets, and Satyres, which subverted the conventions of Elizabethan poetry and laid the foundation for the neoclassical tradition in English verse, influencing writers such as Ben Jonson. Donne—who published only seven poems during his lifetime—was best known to his contemporaries for his Elegies, modeled after Ovid's Amores. They impressed Donne's literary circle with their elaborate, witty conceits and sensual, even erotic, content. In “Elegie XVIII: Loves Progress,” Donne mocks Platonic love, which forever defers “the right true end of love.” In “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” the narrator openly admires his mistress as she disrobes and compares her to “America! My new-found-land!” In Satyre III, Donne extols the pursuit of truth over acquiescence to political authority; the result, according to critics, is one of the outstanding poems of its age.

Today Donne's best known works are Songs and Sonnets, written mostly during his student days. Poems such as “The Flea” and “Womans Constancy” reveal the playful, exaggerated voice of the elegies, but Songs and Sonnets are generally more complex in their treatment of love and relationships. Poems such as “Lovers Infinitenesse,” “The Sunne Rising,” and “The Extasie” abound in unexpected metaphors, original imagery, and startling paradoxes in their celebration of mutual love. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the narrator compares himself and his mistress to “twin compasses” connected in the center even when the points seem far apart. In “The Canonization,” Donne boldly conflates the divine and the secular, granting love the power of canonization. The Holy Sonnets, including “Death Be Not Proud” and “Batter My Heart,” explore Donne's understanding and acceptance of the will of God in the Jesuit tradition of liturgical prayer and private mediation. The Litanie, along with the seven sonnets that comprise La Corona, examine morality, mortality and questions of faith. “The Crosse” and “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” illustrate Donne's concern with humanity's relationship with God. In The Anniversaries (1611 and 1612), which he wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, Donne explores the relationship of the individual to the world and the progress of the soul after death.

Critical Reception

The history of Donne's reputation is one of the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other poet currently so admired has fallen from favor for so long and been so condemned as inept and crude. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Donne's unpublished poetry was highly prized within his small literary circle. The first collection of Donne's poetry, titled simply Poems, was published two years after his death and prefaced with elegies by Izaak Walton, Thomas Carew, and other contemporaries who admired his work. Donne's “strong lines” and metaphysical conceits continued to influence poets such as Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn, and George Herbert—known now as the Metaphysical Poets—some thirty years after his death. However, not all contemporaries were enamored of Donne. Ben Jonson appreciated Donne's early poetry and declared him “the first poet in the World in some things” but also expressed frustration, stating, “Don[n]e for not keeping accent deserved hanging.” Toward the end of the seventeenth century John Dryden characterized Donne as more a wit than a poet. Indeed, Donne was often accused of overdoing his wit. In the eighteenth century the essayist Samuel Johnson wrote a scathing critique of Donne's poetry in which he used the term “metaphysical” to describe poets who flaunted their cleverness to construct outlandish paradoxes. Johnson disapprovingly called Donne's witty conceits discordia concors or “harmonious discord.” In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were struck by how Donne's poetry exhibited an agile mind at play. In “On Donne's Poetry” (1818), Coleridge wrote: “With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots, / Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots; / Rhyme's sturdy cripple, fancy's maze and clue. / Wit's forge and fire-blast, meaning's press and screw.” The poet Robert Browning also admired Donne, but not until the 1890s was Donne's poetry celebrated by avant-garde writers such as the Symbolistes. Donne became something of a cult figure in the 1920s and 1930s when modernist poets Eliot and Yeats, among others, discovered in his poetry the fusion of intellect and passion that they aspired to in their own work. Eliot argued that Donne and the Metaphysical poets had written complex, emotionally charged celebrations of the joys, sorrows, and dilemmas of their own age. While modern criticism of Donne's poetry has not been universally favorable, since the first half of the twentieth century Donne has maintained a place of high regard in the canon of English literature. Donne is acknowledged as an accomplished and versatile poet who has profoundly influenced modern poetry. In “Whispers of Immortality” (1920), Eliot wrote that Donne “found no substitute for sense, / To seize and clutch and penetrate; / Expert beyond experience, // He knew the anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton; / No contact possible to flesh / Allayed the fever of the bone.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

*The First Anniversarie. An Anatomie of the World. Wherein By Occasion Of the untimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailtie and decay of this whole World is represented 1611

*The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progress of the Soule. Wherein, By Occasion Of the Religious death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the incommodities of the Soule in this life, and her exaltation in the next, are Contemplated 1612

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several steps in my sickness 1632

Poems 1633

Works. 6 vols. (poetry, essays, sermons, devotions, epistles, and prose) 1839


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David Aers and Gunther Kress (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Aers, David, and Gunther Kress. “‘Darke Texts Need Notes': Versions of Self in Donne's Verse Epistles.” In Critical Essays on John Donne, edited by Arthur F. Marotti, pp. 102-22. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Aers and Kress examine Donne's representation of self in several verse epistles from Letters to Severall Personages. The epistles studied are “You Refine Me,” addressed to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, who was his patroness after Donne secretly married and lost his professional position; “To the Countess of Salisbury”; and two poems not addressed to patrons.]

Donne's verse...

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Arthur F. Marotti (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Marotti, Arthur F. “Donne as Social Exile and Jacobean Courtier: The Devotional Verse and Prose of the Secular Man.”1 In Critical Essays on John Donne, edited by Arthur F. Marotti, pp. 77-101. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Marotti examines the conflicts revealed in Donne's poetry and letters as he seeks employment and advancement in the court. Marotti finds that pieces such as “A Litanie” and “Hymn to God the Father,” which he sent to potential patrons to obtain positions, are “politically encoded” religious poems that “transpose public forms into private devotions.”]


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John L. Klause (essay date winter 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Klause, John L. “Donne and the Wonderful.” English Literary Renaissance 17, no. 1 (winter 1987): 41-66.

[In the following essay, Klause examines how Donne uses the concept of miracles and alchemy—the science of changing matter into gold—in his elaborate, sometimes satirical metaphysical conceits in poets such as “Loves Alchymie,” “The Canonization,” “The Extasie” and “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day,” as well as in religious essays.]

In Ignatius His Conclave Donne mocks Paracelsus, portraying “Bombast of Hohenheim” as a foolish innovator whose empty, in some ways pernicious, works and pomps fail to win him distinction even in...

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Tom Cain (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cain, Tom. “Donne and the Prince D'Amour.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 14 (1995): 83-111.

[In the following essay, Cain examines Donne's Satyres in historical context to shed light on Donne's political and religious coming of age.]

Despite his involvement with such figures as Essex and Egerton, and his membership of two parliaments, Donne remains politically enigmatic. For those many readers who still see his poetry as characterized by the very fact that it transcends its time and its roots in history this has never been a problem. Until recently, however, almost all those who have refused to cut Donne off from his times and his...

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William H. Halewood (essay date spring 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Halewood, William H. “The Predicament of the Westward Rider.” Studies in Philology 93, no. 2 (spring 1996): 218-28.

[In the following essay, Halewood provides a detailed reading of Donne's poem, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and suggests that the poem does not achieve closure, but remains concerned with the conflict between Protestant and Catholic ways of understanding humanity's relationship to God and salvation.]

A body of commentary has begun to accumulate around “Good-friday, 1613. Riding Westward” that promises to enhance its already almost central position among Donne's religious poems—to make it fairly certain, for example, to be the...

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Andrew Shifflett (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Shifflett, Andrew. “Sexual Calvinism in Donne's ‘Communitie.’” In Renaissance Papers 1998, edited by T. H Howard-Hill and Philip Rollinson, pp. 53-67. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

[In the following essay, Shifflett provides a historically grounded reading of Donne's poem “Communitie” from Songs and Sonnets, suggesting that Donne explicitly rejected the Calvinist definition of community in his poetry and sermons.]

Good wee must love, and must hate ill,
For ill is ill, and good good still,
                    But there are things indifferent,
Which wee may neither hate, nor love,
But one, and then another prove,
                    As wee...

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Lawrence Beaston (essay date winter 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Beaston, Lawrence. “Talking to a Silent God: Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Via Negativa.Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 60, no. 2 (winter 1999): 95-109.

[In the following essay, Beaston examines the tension between modern readers' expectations and Donne's intent in the Holy Sonnets, arguing that the Sonnets dramatize the medieval concept of via negativa, or the experience of God's presence and mystery even in His apparent absence.]

Donne's Holy Sonnets trouble many twentieth-century readers who, like Helen Gardner, find “some sickness in the soul” (xxxi) expressed in these poems—a certain note of...

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David Buck Beliles (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Beliles, David Buck. “Donne and Feminist Critics.” In Theoretically-Informed Criticism of Donne's Love Poetry: Toward Pluralist Hermeneutics of Faith, pp. 7-21. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following essay, Beliles provides an introduction to several feminist responses to Donne's Songs and Sonnets and Elegies, especially “Confined Love,” “Breake of Day” and “Sapho to Philaenis”— three poems that have a female narrator.]

John Donne's love poetry has attracted a great number of women critics in the twentieth century. Several of the major scholars and critics of an earlier generation who made Donne central to their careers...

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Theresa M. DiPasquale (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: DiPasquale, Theresa M. “The Things Not Seen in Donne's ‘Farewell to Love.’” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 243-53.

[In the following essay, DiPasquale explores the theme of atheism in Donne's poem, “Farewell to Love,” from Songs and Sonnets.]

Donne's “Farewell to Love” is based on an analogy between religion and love. The speaker traces his history as a lover, looks back on the time when he had yet to experience love and was a naive believer in its divinity, and professes his current rejection of such faith. His perspective is that of a disillusioned atheist who is all the more scornful toward religion because he once...

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L. M. Gorton (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gorton, L. M. “Philosophy and the City: Space in Donne.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 61-71.

[In the following essay, Gorton discusses Donne’s sense of place, use of space, and spatial imagery in “The Sunne Rising,” “Breake of Day,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” and the Anniversaries.]

John Donne was a Londoner born and bred, and his poems take much of their life from the life of that city.1 His lovers think of taxes, coins, and compasses. They know boys go to school, lawyers make money, ships come in; the business of life goes on outside their rooms. His...

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R. V. Young (essay date summer 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, R. V. “Love, Poetry, and John Donne in the Love Poetry of John Donne.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 251-73.

[In the following essay, Young examines Donne's complex and ironic treatment of love in his poetry, focusing on “The Bracelet,” “Loves Growth,” “The Sunne Rising,” and the Elegies.]

Taken together, John Donne's Songs and Sonets, along with many of the erotic elegies, constitute a varied, even sporadic meditation on the experience and significance of love.1 Despite the apparent contradictions in the collection—the outbursts of bawdiness, arrogance, and cynicism among the...

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Shankar Raman (essay date spring 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Raman, Shankar. “Can't Buy Me Love: Money, Gender, and Colonialism in Donne's Erotic Verse.”1Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 43, no. 2 (spring 2001): 135-68.

[In the following essay, Raman analyzes s Donne's complex use of money, gender, and colonialist discourse in three erotic poems—“Loves Progress,” “Going to Bed,” and “The Bracelet.”]


Suppressed by the licenser from the 1633 printed text of John Donne's poetry, the elegy “Loves Progress” seems also to have escaped sustained critical discussion, despite the twentieth-century revival of Donne studies. The comparative neglect does...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Correll, Barbara. “Chiasmus and Commodification: Crossing Tropes and Conditions in Donne's Elegy 11, ‘The Bracelet.’” Exemplaria 11, no. 1 (1999): 141-65.

Examines metaphors of economics and commodification in Donne's poems “The Bracelet,” “Of Weeping,” “The Canonization,” “Elegie X: The Dream,” and several other poems to illustrate Donne's “erotic economy.”

Harland, Paul W. “Donne and Virginia: The Ideology of Conquest.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 127-52.

Examines the ideology of conquest in Donne's Sermons.


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