Donne, John 1572–1631 English Poet and Preacher

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Donne, John
English poet and preacher

Few, if any, English poets of the 1600s had a greater influence on later writers than John Donne. His intelligence, unique style, sophistication, and poetic skill inspired poets for generations after him. In his later years Donne became a minister, and his reputation reflects his achievements both as a poet and as a preacher.

Education. John Donne was born into a Catholic family in London during the reign of Elizabeth I. At the time England was a Protestant country, and Catholics could not practice their faith openly. Donne received his early education at the hands of Catholic tutors, possibly including his uncle, a Jesuit*. At the age of 12, he entered Oxford University, along with his younger brother. Scholars know very little about the next six years of Donne's life. Some have suggested that he left the university before he turned 16 and spent some time traveling, possibly in France.

In 1591 Donne entered Lincoln's Inn, one of the four London law schools known as the Inns of Court. Many educated men in Renaissance England attended the Inns as a way to make social contacts with high society, rather than to study law seriously. Donne, like many of his fellow students, used his time at the Inns as a stepping-stone to the wealthy world of the royal court.

Poetic Beginnings. Donne wrote his first works of poetry and prose during his years at Lincoln's Inn. Like other writers who studied at the Inns, Donne created satires* ridiculing life in Elizabethan London. However, he also broke new ground, becoming the first writer to produce a collection of English love poems in the style of ancient Roman elegies*. Donne's early poems reveal his interest in philosophy, religion, science, and politics. Because it was considered tasteless at the time for educated writers to publish their works, Donne circulated his poems in manuscript form among a select group of readers.

Some time after 1593, Donne moved away from his Catholic faith and gradually came to embrace Protestant ideas. In the late 1590s he served as a volunteer in two of England's military efforts against Catholic Spain. On his return to England, he became a secretary to Thomas Egerton, Queen Elizabeth's chief officer of justice. In 1601 Egerton helped Donne secure a seat in Parliament.

At this time Donne, who was living in Egerton's house, also began to write love poems that reflected his social life in the court and high society. He addressed some of these love poems to Ann More, a young woman who was also living in Egerton's house. When Donne and Ann, who was only 17 years old, ran off to be married in 1601, Donne lost his position and ruined his career at court. For the next 14 years he was unable to find a secure job.

Many of Donne's love poems from these years discuss the events of his life—his marriage, his situation as a social outcast, and his lack of employment. During this period Donne also composed many of his Holy Sonnets*, a series of powerful, religious verses. These deeply thoughtful poems reveal some of the depression Donne felt during his difficult time of unemployment. The sonnets combine Catholic and Protestant ideas, including the teachings of the Protestant reformer John Calvin. The most famous of them, "Death, be not Proud," expresses the author's steadfast belief in life after death.

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Religious Career. Over the course of his unemployment, Donne grew more and more bitter about politics and society. The king, James I, suggested that Donne abandon the field of politics and become a minister. In 1615 Donne was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and King James made him a royal chaplain. The following year Donne accepted a position at Lincoln's Inn that required him to preach 50 sermons a year.

Donne became one of the most respected preachers of his day, giving sermons not only at Lincoln's Inn but also at court, in local churches, at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and in many other public and private places. One hundred and sixty sermons survive from Donne's years as a preacher. Some of them were published during his lifetime, others after his death. Donne's religious writings reveal his highly intelligent mind and political awareness. Although he was committed to the Church of England, in many of his sermons he tried to find a bridge between Protestants and Catholics.

When Donne's wife, Ann, died in 1617, he wrote the sonnet "Since She Whom I Loved Hath Paid Her Last Debt." Some scholars believe that Donne's religious faith deepened after this loss. In 1619 he left England to serve as chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Germany. He wrote a special poem for this occasion: "A Hymn to Christ, at the Author's Last Going into Germany." Many scholars consider this one of Donne's best religious poems.

In 1620 Donne returned to his post at Lincoln's Inn. Through his connections at court, he gained a post as chief officer (dean) of St. Paul's Cathedral. In this position Donne frequently defended the policies of King James. For example, his first published sermon defended the king's "Directions for Preachers," a document calling on preachers to stop criticizing the king's handling of internal and international affairs.

When Donne became seriously ill in 1623, he wrote the poem "A Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness." This verse expresses the author's firm belief in salvation and the afterlife. Donne preached his last sermon at court in 1631, only a month before he died. Within two years, the first collection of his poems appeared in print, and his work became an inspiration to many of the most famous poets in England over the next 200 years.

(See alsoBooks and Manuscripts; English Language and Literature; Poetry; Protestant Reformation )

* Jesuit

refers to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* elegy

type of poem often used to express sorrow for one who has died

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme