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(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...

(The entire section is 103,612 words.)