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.
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many epigrams, satires, verse letters, and elegies which were shared among friends in his literary circle but remained unpublished during his lifetime.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.
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.
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.”