Donne, John (1572–1631)
DONNE, JOHN (1572–1631)
DONNE, JOHN (1572–1631), English poet and divine. Donne was born in London sometime between 24 January and 19 June 1572, the son of John Donne, an ironmonger, and Elizabeth, daughter of the epigrammatist and playwright John Heywood and the great-niece of Sir Thomas More. Donne's mother's family were staunch Roman Catholics: his maternal uncle Jasper headed a Jesuit mission to England in 1581–1583, and was imprisoned and later exiled; Donne's younger brother Henry died from the plague in 1593 while being held in Newgate Prison, accused of harboring a seminary priest.
Donne entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in October 1584, and according to some accounts, also studied at Cambridge. He may have spent time on the Continent with Jasper Heywood. In May 1592 he entered Lincoln's Inn after a period of preliminary study at Thavies Inn. He took part in the English expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores in 1596 and 1597 and worked as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of England. Most of his Satires and a number of other poems, including the Elegies, are thought to have been written in the 1590s, although the dating of most of Donne's poetry is extremely slippery. The Satires and Elegies play with the image of a young man in a glittering but seedy London and present Donne's poetic personae in a variety of social and sexual situations.
Donne served as M.P. for Brackley in the Parliament of October–December 1601, but his public career was irrevocably damaged by his secret marriage in December 1601 to Anne More, daughter of Egerton's brother-in-law, Sir George More. More seems to have objected to his new son-in-law's Catholic background, to his presumptuous behavior, and possibly to Donne's own rakish reputation. When the marriage became publicly known, Donne and the friends who had helped him were briefly imprisoned, and Donne lost his employment with Egerton. His subsequent attempts to find state employment were consistently unsuccessful, although he accompanied Sir Robert Drury to the Continent in 1611–1612, and served as M.P. for Taunton in 1614. He had earlier converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, avowedly as a result of sustained intellectual consideration, but the prohibitions against Catholics in English society may also have had a contributory effect. The majority of his verse letters, occasional poems, and holy sonnets date from these years of frustration, and he also produced a series of religious tracts: The Pseudo-Martyr (published 1610), in which he urged English Catholics to submit to the oath of allegiance, Ignatius His Conclave (1611), and the study of suicide, Biathanatos (not published until 1647). Two of his poems, the disjunctive and often disturbing Anniversaries, written to commemorate the life of Drury's daughter Elizabeth, were printed in 1611–1612.
On 23 January 1615 Donne was ordained in the Church of England. This decision clearly met with favor from the king, and he was appointed as a royal chaplain only a few weeks after his ordination. He was presented with a series of lucrative livings, and held the divinity readership at Lincoln's Inn from October 1616. Anne Donne died in August 1617, and in May 1619 Donne went to Germany as chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, returning in January 1620. On 22 November 1621 he was elected dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, an office that he held until his death. He was widely regarded as the most eloquent and learned of preachers. Reflecting this fame, his sermons were printed from 1622, and in 1624 he published Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, inspired by a recent illness. Although his prose works are not today as familiar to readers as his poems, the Devotions and Sermons display a similar controlled power, stylistic experimentation, and intellectual focus.
Donne's best-known sermon is his last, "Death's Duel," preached at court only a month before his death. "Death's Duel" is a typically brilliant piece, drawing its power from its combination of biblical exegesis, linguistic control, and the quasi-theatrical display of the dying preacher's body. Donne died on 31 March 1631, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. His tomb, for which—according to his early biographer Izaak Walton—he posed in the months prior to his death, wearing his shroud and standing on a funeral urn, survived the fire of 1666 and can be seen in Christopher Wren's cathedral, completed in 1710.
Donne's public reputation during his lifetime was based mainly on his church career and the wide circulation of his prose works, especially his sermons. He began to be reconfigured as a poet, however, after his son John collected his poems in print for the first time in 1633. The volume was prefaced with elegies on the author; these elegies and Walton's biography, published with LXXX Sermons (1640), disseminated two images of Donne, the youthful, rakish poet "Jack Donne" and the older and wiser Reverend Dr. Donne, dean of St. Paul's. Close examination of his career and writing does not fully sustain these starkly divided personae. Donne was already publishing religious polemic before his ordination, and he continued to compose poetry until at least 1625. His career in fact demonstrates the impossibility of maintaining clear divisions between the secular and the sacred in early modern England.
See also Church of England ; Clergy: Protestant ; English Literature and Language ; Herbert, George ; Puritanism .
Donne, John. Biathanatos. Edited by Ernest W. Sullivan. Newark, N.J., and London, 1984.
——. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Edited by Anthony Raspa. Montreal, 1975.
——. The Divine Poems. Edited by Helen Gardner. Oxford, 1952.
——. The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. Edited by Helen Gardner. Oxford, 1965.
——. The Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes. Edited by W. Milgate. Oxford, 1978.
——. Ignatius His Conclave. Edited by T. S. Healy. Oxford, 1969.
——. Paradoxes and Problems. Edited by Helen Peters. Oxford, 1980.
——. Pseudo-Martyr. Edited by Anthony Raspa. Rev. ed. Montreal, 1993.
——. The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters. Edited by W. Milage. Oxford, 1967.
——. Selections. Edited by John Carey. Oxford, 1990. Complete poems and selected prose.
——. The Sermons of John Donne. Edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson. 10 vols. Berkeley, 1953–1962.
——. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Edited by Gary A. Stringer. Bloomington, Ind., 1995–. Vols. 2, 7, and 8 published by 2002.
Bald, R. C. John Donne: A Life. Oxford, 1970.
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Oxford, 1981.
Davies, Stevie. John Donne. Plymouth, U.K., 1994. An introductory account of Donne's poetry with a helpful annotated bibliography.
Docherty, Thomas. John Donne, Undone. London and New York, 1986.
Flynn, Dennis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington, Ind., 1995.
Marotti, Arthur F. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison, Wis., 1986.
BORN: 1572, London, England
DIED: 1631, London, England
NATIONALITY: British, English
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Holy Sonnets (1609–1610)
“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1611)
Deaths Duell (1631)
Essayes in Divinity (1651)
An accomplished master of both prose and poetry, John Donne was a controversial seventeenth-century English poet whose life and work are often perceived as a study in contrasts. His secular verses portray him as a man who celebrates the joys of physical union. His poems of divinity, however, reveal him to be a serious Christian humanist who contemplated mortality and humanity's submissiveness to God's will. Donne led the Metaphysical poetry movement and was a major influence on modernist writers of the first half of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Catholic Upbringing John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England, into a devout Roman Catholic family. His father was a prosperous London merchant, and his mother was a relative of Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. Donne was educated at home by Catholic tutors until age eleven, when he went to Hart Hall, Oxford. Donne attended Oxford University but he did not take a degree. Graduation required signing an oath of allegiance to the English monarch, which would have compromised his Catholic beliefs requiring him to swear
allegiance only to the pope. He entered law school at Lincoln's Inn in 1592.
Donne was born during the reign of Elizabeth I, an era now recognized as one of the most bountiful periods of art and literature in the history of England. The Elizabethan era was characterized by exploration in foreign lands and expansion of the British Empire, relative peace between Protestants and Catholics (though she decreed that all citizens were required to attend a Church of England Sunday service), and a flowering of English poetry and theater. Some writers who lived during this time were William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser.
Donne may not have been the first to imitate classical satire, but his pieces constitute the finest from the out-pouring of satiric verse in the 1590s. Behind his satire lies a contempt for the shallowness and hypocrisy of contemporary life, particularly life at court. In “Satyre 3,” having observed the activities and goals of his countrymen, Donne concludes that his compatriots, content with false achievement, have the “courage of straw.” Nowhere in society does he find dedication to what he considers life's only meaningful quest: the quest for religious truth. This search took on new meaning for Donne when, in 1593, his youngest brother died in prison after being arrested for harboring a Catholic priest. It was around this time that Donne renounced his Catholic faith.
Sonnets and Sails It was also in the 1590s that Donne wrote many of his love poems, most of which are dramatic monologues. In these poems, Donne explores different conceptions of love, ranging from cynical realism to platonic idealism and presents the extremes of both physical and spiritual love in a favorable light. During these years, Donne also composed letters, elegies, wedding songs, and epigrams that were published after his death as Songs and Sonets (1635).
Donne volunteered to sail with the Earl of Essex to sack Cadiz in 1596 and with Sir Walter Raleigh to hunt Spanish treasure ships in the Azores in 1597. Donne celebrated these experiences in the poems “The Storm” and “The Calm.” One of his companions on these voyages was the son of Sir Thomas Egerton, a judge and adviser to Queen Elizabeth. The young Egerton helped Donne gain employment as his father's secretary.
Marriage and Jail In December 1601, when he was nearly thirty, Donne eloped with Anne More, Egerton's seventeen-year-old niece. He severely underestimated the reaction and influence of his wife's father, Sir George More, who was a member of Parliament and a favorite of the queen. More was enraged not only because Donne had obtained his daughter in an underhanded way, but also because Donne had an unsavory reputation, and his family was identified with the Catholic underground. More had Donne thrown into jail, and he destroyed Donne's career by forcing Egerton to dismiss him. Released from prison in 1602, Donne had little chance of obtaining gainful employment. He spent the next thirteen years in poverty, desperately seeking patronage to support his wife and rapidly growing family. (Anne Donne died while giving birth to the couple's twelfth child in 1617.)
The Church of England After embracing the Church of England—the only church officially recognized by King James I and his wealthy supporters—Donne gained the patronage of Sir Thomas Morton, a prominent member of the Protestant clergy, who hired him to write anti-Catholic pamphlets. Pseudo-Martyr (1610), Donne's first published guide, was written to persuade English Catholics to renounce their allegiance to Rome and instead take the oath of allegiance to the British crown. This work captured the attention of King James I. The anti-Jesuit polemic Ignatius His Conclave followed in 1611. Donne then wrote Biathanatos, a treatise defending suicide, for which Donne admitted a “sickley inclination.” (The subject matter of this poem made it unsuitable for publication at the time; it was not published until 1646.)
The Anniversaries “An Anatomie of the World” and “Of the Progres of the Soule,” together known as the Anniversaries (1611), were poems composed for Sir Robert Drury on the first two anniversaries of his fifteen-year-old daughter's death. These poems earned Donne the patronage of Drury, who took the poet to France in 1611 on a diplomatic mission. It was during this time in France that Donne, missing Anne, wrote “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1611).
The Priesthood Upon his return to England, Donne was increasingly pressured by King James to become a priest in the Church of England. Despite his reluctance, the former Catholic was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615. For some time, he wrote no poetry but focused on his new duties, writing and delivering sermons in a style that impressed many members of the royal court. Donne's mastery of prose is directly linked to his evolution into a great preacher. His unique blend of verbal command, emotional and psychological insight, expansive knowledge, and imaginative range set him apart from his clerical peers. In 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, where he soon began attracting large crowds with his brilliant oratory.
When he suffered an attack of spotted fever in 1623, Donne believed that he was dying. This attack prompted him to write Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Severall Steps in My Sickness, a collection of somber meditations that includes the prose work “No Man Is an Island” and the poems “Hymn to God the Father” and “Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Despite his fears, Donne escaped death on this occasion, but such would not be the case a few years later. During Lent in 1631, Donne delivered his last sermon, “Deaths Duell.” He died on March 31, 1631.
Works in Literary Context
Metaphysical Poetry Reacting against the traditions of Elizabethan love poetry, Donne and other Metaphysical poets shunned classical or romantic allusions, attempting instead to portray the complexities and uncertainties of everyday life. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by complex, witty, and far-fetched sudden—even jarring—paradoxes and contrasts; strong imagery that combines the ornate with the mundane; and contemplations of the natural world's unity with the divine. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor or simile in which the poet draws an ingenious comparison between two very unlike objects.
Peggy Nightingale found “A Valediction” to be a good example of the elements found in Donne's style: “An expression of intense feeling carried by a series of clever and witty comparisons; the speaking voice of the poem addresses an imagined listener directly; and generally that voice employs a fairly natural syntax, frequently settling for halfrhymes.” “A Valediction” ends with one of Donne's most famous Metaphysical conceits: The lover compares their souls to the feet of a drawing compass, parting and then coming together again.
“Holy Sonnet 14” is also characteristic of metaphysical poetry, showing wit, energy, and psychological drama. However, this sonnet in particular goes beyond those qualities in its outrageous daring. “Holy Sonnet 14” addresses God in blatantly sexual terms—as the bridegroom of the soul. Highly dramatic, the poem begins with both an angry demand that God remake the speaker and a complaint that God has so far not been using all his force to eliminate the speaker's sinfulness. Proclaiming deep love and desire for God, the speaker resorts to tenderness and pleading and confesses to being “betrothed” to God's enemy and, therefore, in need of rescue. The speaker then prays urgently for such release in clearly sexual terms, using sexual love as a metaphor for spiritual love amidst several paradoxes that shows the power of God, who resolves all paradoxes.
Donne apparently loved the intellectual challenges of paradox, one of the key characteristics of metaphysical poetry. He constructs “Holy Sonnet 10” around one of the central paradoxes of Christianity: that Christ's sacrifice will ultimately mean the death of Death. Systematically, the poem instructs Death to give up its pride, since it will ultimately be defeated. Further, even though Death has power, its power is severely limited. Death unknowingly does God's work, since only through Death can humanity achieve the eternal life God promises.
Works in Critical Context
Once considered the story of an abrupt transformation from worldly audacity to Christian conformity, Donne's life and career are today seen in terms of an artistically sensitive man's spiritual growth in a lifelong search for meaning and wholeness. Undeniably, there was the younger Donne who wrote the lighthearted Songs and Sonets, the Donne of middle years who wrote to please his patrons and gain favor with influential readers, and the older Donne concerned with the meaning of sanctity.
Criticism Through the Years The critical history of Donne's works is, noted A. J. Smith, “the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other body of great poetry has fallen so far from favor for so long and been generally condemned as inept and crude.” The first collection of Donne's poetry was not published until two years after the author's death. Entitled Poems (1633), this collection was prefaced with elegies by contemporaries of Donne, who represented one side of early criticism of Donne's poetry—those who honored Donne as a master. Thomas Carew eloquently lamented the passing of “a King, that rul'd as hee thought fit / the universall Monarchy of wit.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Donne's famous contemporaries include:
Ben Jonson (1572–1637): English Renaissance playwright and poet, Jonson is known for his lyric poems and satirical plays.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603): During her reign, the Queen reestablished Protestantism (the Church of England) as England's official religion.
William Laud (1573–1645): Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged King Charles I to believe in a “divine right” to rule (which suggested the monarchy was accountable only to God, not to the people).
Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643): An English Puritan dissenter, Hutchison immigrated to the New World, where she was one of the first settlers of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687): This Dutch poet and composer was one of the major intellectuals of the Dutch Golden Age.
A different view was first voiced by Ben Jonson in his famous recorded conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1618 or 1619. While praising Donne's poetry, Jonson also faulted it for its profanity and innovative meter. He disparaged the Anniversaries as obsequious. Jonson's criticisms were adopted by critics of Donne's poetry for nearly next two centuries. In “A Discourse on the Original and Progress of Poetry” (1693), John Dryden used the term “metaphysical” for the first time to describe Donne's poetry, characterizing Donne as more a wit than a poet.
Over the next decades, scholars declared more negative criticism, with Samuel Johnson eventually writing a crushing critique of Donne's poetry in his “Life of Cowley” (1779). In this famous essay, Johnson used the term “metaphysical” as a term of abuse to describe poets whose aim, he believed, was to show off their own cleverness and learning and to construct paradoxes so outlandish and pretentious as to be ludicrous, indecent, or both. Predominantly negative assessments of Donne's poetry continued into the early nineteenth century.
The early nineteenth century saw growing interest in Donne's poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning, and Thomas De Quincey were especially instrumental in focusing a favorable light on the works. Coleridge praised the power and vivacity of the poems; Browning publicly acknowledged Donne as a major influence; and De Quincey hailed Donne's skill as a rhetorician. When Donne's complete works were published in 1839, his sermons and devotions began to be discussed. Edmund Gosse's Life and Letters of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's (1899), the first biography of Donne since 1640, prepared the way for a definitive edition of the poems, which were published in 1912. Major literary figures reviewed these works at length, bolstering a period of popular and critical interest in Donne.
In 1921, T. S. Eliot wrote a major article, “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he focused attention on Donne and the Metaphysicals as poets of stature who had been to their age what the twentieth-century modernists were to theirs. Like the modernists, who were constructing complex, distanced poetry to reflect the spiritual vacuum at the center of modern life, Eliot argued, the Metaphysicals had written complex, emotionally charged celebrations of the joys, sorrows, and dilemmas of their own age, an age of both fleshliness and faith. Not all criticism of Donne's work was favorable at this time, however. C. S. Lewis, for example, a literary traditionalist and longtime nemesis of Eliot, found Donne's love poetry vastly overrated. From midcentury to the present day, Donne's canon has been scrutinized according to the methods of various critical schools, with representatives of the New Critics, the deconstructionists, and others offering diverse interpretations of the works. Twentieth-century writers have used phrases from Donne's poetry to adorn their own works in the form of epigrams and titles. A phrase from Donne's best-known religious devotion was adopted by Ernest Hemingway as the title of his novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
Holy Sonnets Donne's best religious poems are found in Holy Sonnets, written during periods of meditation and concerned with the individual believer's efforts at making peace with God. The line “What if this present were the world's last night?” typifies the intense, personal, and desperate tone of these sonnets. Frank J. Warnke argued, “The Holy Sonnets are, to be blunt about it, not edifying from an orthodox Christian point of view.” He continued, “There is little hope in Donne's Holy Sonnets, and not very much trust. What one encounters, rather, is naked fear: the speaker desperately wishes to go to Heaven and—even more markedly—to escape Hell. The concentration on the self is extreme, and the terrified eloquence of that self, unforgettable.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Donne is famous for his love poems. Here are some other works of poetry that address love in a variety of ways:
“Ode to Aphrodite” (c. 600 bce), a poem by Sappho. This poem is a plea to the goddess Aphrodite to make Sappho's beloved return her passion.
// Canzoniere (1327), a poetry collection by Petrarch. This collection of 366 poems was written about Laura, the Italian poet's object of unrequited love; the first section is devoted to Laura in life, and the second is to Laura in death.
Divan (1368), a collection of poetry by Hafiz. Hafiz was a Persian poet who creates an ambivalent lyrical world of love in which readers can sense both love of God and passion for a romanticized person.
“Come as You Are” (1913), a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. This poem urges the beloved to hurry to him, even if her appearance is not perfect.
“Episode” (1968), a poem by Zbigniew Herbert. In this poem, the speaker mourns an argument with his beloved.
Responses to Literature
- In every culture, great works of literature, art, and architecture have been created to honor religion. However, religion has also been the cause of much warfare and bloodshed. In today's world, do you think having an official religion for a country, as in Donne's time, is a good idea? Would it bring people closer together or create divisions in society?
- It can be difficult to live up to our family's expectations of us. John Donne was descended from a famous Catholic martyr, but Donne eventually converted to Protestantism. For you, would having a famous relative—for example, in politics, art, literature, sports, science—make you more or less interested in that person's world?
- Look up the definition of “epigram.” Research examples of epigrams from Donne's time to the present and take note of what these poems might have in common. Then, write an original epigram on the topic of your choice. It should be at least five lines long.
- Read some of Donne's love poetry, as well as some of the poems listed in “Common Human Experience.” In your view, what makes an effective love poem? Should it praise only the beloved, or should it include some conflict? Write an essay arguing your point of view. Include examples from these works, as well as examples of contemporary song lyrics if you like.
Andreasen, N. J. C. John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Everett, Barbara. Donne: A London Poet. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Hughes, Richard E. The Progress of the Soul: The Interior Career of John Donne. New York: William Morrow, 1968.
Nightingale, Peggy. Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed. London: St James Press, 1991.
Smith, A. J., ed. John Donne: Essays in Celebration. London: Methuen, 1972.
Warnke, Frank J. John Donne. New York: Twayne, 1987.
Eliot, T. S. “The Metaphysical Poets.” Times Literary Supplement (October 20, 1921) 669–70.
Kermode, Frank. “Dissociation of Sensibility.” Kenyon Review (Spring 1957): vol. 19: 169–94.
Leavis, F. R. “The Influence of Donne on Modern Poetry.” Bookman (March 1931): vol. 79: 346–47.
Lein, Clayton D. “Donne's ‘The Storme': The Poem and the Tradition.” English Literary Renaissance(Winter 1974): vol. 4: 137–63.
English poet and divine; b. London, 1572; d. there March 31, 1631. As Donne once said himself in Biathanatos, he had his "first breeding and conversation with men of a suppressed and afflicted Religion." On his mother's side, he was related to the More, Rastell, and heywood families, who had suffered severely for their adherence to the Old Faith (see more, thomas, st.; more, school of). It is quite clear from his education that he was brought up as a Catholic, for he attended both Oxford and Cambridge, but went down without taking a degree, since he could not make the necessary religious commitments. He probably traveled on the Continent (1591?) and then went up to London to study at the Inns of Court, at Thavies Inn (1591) and Lincoln's Inn (1592–94), a course taken frequently by recusants at this time.
Religious Situation of the Period. There has been a good deal of speculation as to just how much his upbringing differed from that of the average Englishman of his means and connections at this period. To hazard even a guess about that, one has to remember the complexity of the Recusant situation at this time. In Donne's boyhood, in the seventh and eighth decades of the 16th century, some Catholics made token appearances at the Anglican parish churches, a course of action that brought upon them severe criticism from the leaders of the Recusant exiles on the Continent. Others did not pretend to conform, but nevertheless thought the English Mission of 1580 a mistake, because under the leadership of the Jesuits it boldly challenged the status quo, and thus militated against the hope that the Elizabethan government, reassured by the loyalty of the Catholics, might grant some amelioration of their hard circumstances. Not all the clergy in England by any means supported the English Mission. (see persons, robert; campion, edmund, bl.; elizabeth i, queen of england.)
Many, however, welcomed the mission and cooperated with it once they were satisfied that its purposes were strictly religious and not political. Donne's mother, a shadowy figure at best, would seem to have belonged to this group, for she held to the Old Faith even until her death in the deanery of St. Paul's, and so would Donne's younger brother Henry, for he lost his life from jail fever in Newgate as a result of having sheltered a priest. Moreover, Donne's uncle, Jasper Heywood, was a leader in the Jesuit effort, and it is reasonable to assume that the young Donne felt his influence. The fact that Donne seems to have had a special animus against the Jesuits, as expressed in Ignatius His Conclave (1611), would suggest that his uncle had put some pressure on his brilliant nephew to join him as a Jesuit.
Temperament and Character. A surviving picture of young Donne eloquently suggests a proud, ambitious, self-confident young man with a very hungry look about him, as he himself admitted, and a great thirst for learning and experience. It is quite clear that despite the handicap of his religion, he was ambitious for a career in public life. He had a number of most promising friends among the landed gentry and the wealthy professional classes, and his wit and brilliant address would enable him to make the most of any opportunities they opened to him. Although one must always be a little suspicious of the remembered sins of notable converts, there is no reason to doubt that Donne was a very gay young man about town. The character of his earliest verses would do nothing to diminish his reputation, and he seems to have done all the things fashionable young Elizabethans did, even to taking part in Essex's expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores in 1596 and 1597. Like other young men about town, too, Donne seems to have run through a substantial patrimony, and thus to have been left dependent on the favor of patrons, a situation by no means abnormal for young aspirants to a place at court.
Reversals and Brightening Career. During these years the brilliant young Donne was busily laying the foundations of a promising career. He may have been employed in the diplomatic service of Robert Cecil; he certainly became the secretary of Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper, in 1597 and 1598. It is probable that at this time he conformed at least nominally to the Established Church. His prospects must certainly have seemed promising,
for Sir Thomas was later to become the lord chancellor as Baron Ellesmere. At this juncture, however, one of the first of the dramatic ironies that punctuated the career of Donne interrupted his brilliant progress. For now the young poet who had cut such a dashing figure as a careless cynic in matters of love threw away his burgeoning career for love, when he not only won the niece of Lady Egerton, Ann More, but eloped with her in December 1601. Her father, in the heaviest tradition of the heavy father, not only had Donne imprisoned for a time, but also insisted that Egerton discharge his secretary; he himself did nothing to help the young couple. Years of privation and hardship followed for Donne and his growing family, in an exile from the great world enforced by poverty. Donne was quite literally in a desperate situation with all his consciousness of great powers doomed to rust unused. It says much for his charm that he found patrons and patronesses to help him in these dark days, and much, too, for the depth of his affection for his wife that it survived these frustrations. Some of his loveliest verses are usually thought to have been addressed to her.
Donne had been a great reader of theological literature even in his early man-about-town days. He seems never to have been in any way irreligious, but there is evidence that he was long uncertain as to the identity of the true church. Tradition has it that he found employment at some time between 1605 and 1607 aiding Bp. Thomas Morton in his controversies with Catholics; if so, Donne certainly must have swung clear out of his earlier religious orbit to undertake that role, and yet when in 1607 Morton offered him ecclesiastical preferment, he declined. At that point, religious allegiance could hardly have determined his action; that question must already have been settled, but apparently Donne still hoped for secular preferment at court. It may also have been true that, in view of his earlier career, he did not feel himself the right kind of person for holy orders. But his admirer King James made it clear that only in the Church would he offer preferment, and would do so gladly once Donne bowed to the inevitable. Donne yielded, was ordained in 1615, and preferment followed soon after. By that time he must have decided that he could with a clear conscience accept the Anglican position with regard to the national church and its spiritual headship. The death of his wife in 1617 seems to have wearied him with worldly ambition, and helped him to focus all his powers on the Anglican ministry. In 1621 King James nominated him dean of St. Paul's.
Donne's Religious Stance. If one takes his later verse, his devotional writings, and his sermons as a whole, it is clear that he accepted the position that the Church of England was the reasonable mean between the two extremes of Geneva and Rome, and that it was the duty of the Englishman to accept the religious settlement of his country. Such a decision would certainly solve the problem of divided religious and civic loyalties; indeed, if a man could accept it, he would find his religious and his civic loyalties knit up in a whole that would unify his world for him and give him a great sense of security and pride. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Donne's conviction, however slowly it was arrived at, and however convenient it proved to him in a worldly fashion.
And yet, though Donne accepted the thirty-nine articles, he took a position much closer to Rome than to Geneva on the issue of predestination and good works. He moved back and forth from the Church Fathers to medieval doctors and authorities with more ease than did many of his colleagues, and he quoted medieval writers with a freedom that a man like John Foxe would hardly have tolerated. Some of his earlier devotional habits persisted, as may be seen (Helen Gardner has pointed this out) in the influence of ancient liturgical forms in poems like the La Corona series. In his devotional prose, too, the influence of earlier patterns of meditation has been detected. And in the "Holy Sonnets" and in the hymns, he approached the theme of death with rather more of Catholic uncertainty about the sureness of perseverance unto the end than with Protestant confidence in his election. Clearly, that was an issue on which he had thought long, and on which he never lost a certain lack of confidence in himself, however encouraging he might be to his flock. But he certainly brought all his gifts of mind, imagination, intellectual passion, and eloquence to the service of the men and women who flocked to hear him preach in St. Paul's.
Reputation and Significance. After a century and a half of repudiation and then almost complete neglect, Donne's verse began to be appreciated at the end of the 19th century and won deeper regard with the advance of the 20th. Indeed, many things in Donne's verse especially commended themselves to the temper of the opening years of the 20th century. The highly dramatic, realistic, and brilliant expression of the reaction of a very complex self-awareness to the impact of various facets of Renaissance experience stirred the curiosity and the admiration of the post–World War I generation. The range of his conceits from near blasphemy almost to ecstasy, his candor about sex, his consciousness of a thoroughly upset intellectual world, his homeliness, his metaphysical sweep, his tough determination to bend all the resources of learning and language to the expression of a wide range of intellectual and passional purposes—all these appealed greatly to the generation of the 1920s. His analysis of almost every state of a wide-ranging and highly complex consciousness fascinated young people who had had their psychological awareness extended by Freud and Frazer. His rebellious daring, too, was highly attractive to a generation that was to prove less resolute in action than they had perhaps dreamed. His use of scientific data for imagery captured the attention of many who did not always realize that Donne's exploitation of science, like much of his use of scholastic philosophy, was only a means to an end. In the long run Donne cared much less about the external world than the internal, and God was always of much more concern to him than the world He had made.
But whatever the limitations of the understanding of Donne in the first two-fifths of the 20th century, there was no question of his prestige and his influence. Critics like T. S. Eliot joined scholars like the late Sir Herbert Grierson in making known to the general reading public the wonders of Donne, and poets like T. S. Eliot did not hesitate to claim the authority of Donne and his followers for their own innovations and experiments. Soon a host of lesser poets endeavored to imitate the techniques of Donne and his imitators, particularly the tension of wit in many of his apt but far-fetched comparisons, and the brilliant use of recondite learning intermixed with the commonplaces of human nature and the daily round on this quite mundane earth. The modern metaphysical movement is a striking example of how a scholarly revival can have a very stimulating effect not only on criticism but on creative work as well.
In spite of the great interest in religion of the present century, Donne's prose was much slower in making its way. Perhaps the sheer weight and volume of, say, the LXXX Sermons of 1640, dismayed all but the man interested in ideas, and, later on, in the development of prose style. Some of the finest work of recent years has centered on the study of Donne's prose. The application of the techniques of the new criticism has done a good deal to open up the majestic beauties of Donne's prose style, to say nothing of its liveliness and its pervasive wit. Donne in preaching to his congregation at St. Paul's preached himself, and one learns much more about the social and the personal factors in these great expressions of what was something like the central position of the Church of England in his time.
And yet in Donne the medieval background comes so often and so much alive in the Renaissance context that the Catholic reader may well find riches in his pages that most of the preacher's fellow Anglicans would miss. For to Donne the basic human issues were the issues that most mattered—how one could draw near to God in his own spirit, how he could forcibly concentrate his often distracted consciousness upon that high endeavor, how he could cooperate with the grace of God that God's purpose might be wholly fulfilled in him. Donne was far too persistently self-conscious ever to lose himself in the high contemplations of the mystics, but at his best he has caught a far-off gleam of their serene heights, and it is to their land that he would come, one feels, when all the preoccupations of this engaging world were washed away in death.
Bibliography: j. donne, Poems, ed. h. j. c. grierson, 2 v. (Oxford 1912); 1 v. (1929); Divine Poems, ed. h. l. gardner (Oxford 1952); Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. j. sparrow (Cambridge, Eng. 1923); ibid., ed. w. h. draper (London 1926; pa. Ann Arbor 1959); Sermons, ed. g. r. potter and e. m. simpson, 10v. (Berkeley 1953–62); LXXX Sermons … with Author's Life by Izaak Walton (London 1640), enl. as i. walton, Life of Dr. J. Donne (London 1658); The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson, ed. s. b. carter (London 1951). e. w. gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne, 2 v. (New York 1899; reprint Gloucester, Mass. 1959). t.s. eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (new ed. New York 1950). A Garland for John Donne, 1631–1931, ed. t. spencer (Cambridge, Mass. 1931; reprinted Gloucester, Mass. 1958). j. b. leishman, The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne (5th ed. London 1962). a. stein, John Donne's Lyrics: The Eloquence of Action (Minneapolis 1962). j. webber, Contrary Music: The Prose Style of John Donne (Madison 1963). e. s. le comte, Grace to a Witty Sinner: A Life of Donne (New York 1965). j. carey, John Donne: His Life, Mind, and Art (New York 1981). p.r. sellin, John Donne and Calvinist Views of Grace (Amsterdam 1984).
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John Donne (1572-1631), English metaphysical poet, Anglican divine, and pulpit orator, is ranked with Milton as one of the greatest English poets. He is also a supreme artist in sermons and devotional prose.
John Donne's masculine, ingenious style is characterized by abrupt openings, paradoxes, dislocations, argumentative structure, and "conceits"—images which yoke things seemingly unlike. These features in combination with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax, and his tough eloquence were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. Since Donne's times such poetry has been unaptly called "metaphysical"—a term more appropriate for the philosophical verse of Lucretius.
Son of a prosperous ironmonger of Welsh ancestry, Donne was born between Jan. 4 and June 19, 1572, and was bred a Londoner and a Roman Catholic. His mother, a great niece of Sir (later St.) Thomas More, came from a cultured, devout family: her father, John Heywood, wrote interludes; her brother Jasper was a Jesuit; and her son Henry, John's brother, died in 1593 of a fever caught in Newgate Prison, where he was incarcerated for harboring a Roman Catholic priest. Donne's father died when John was 4, and his mother married a prominent physician.
After some years at Oxford (from 1584) and possibly Cambridge, Donne studied law at Lincoln's Inn (1592-1594) and became one of the first to write in English formal verse satires in the classical mode. It was also in the 1590s that he wrote many of his amatory poems. Most of them are dramatic monologues expressive of attitudes toward love, ranging from cynical fleshly realism to platonic idealism. It is sounder to see them not as autobiographical but as exposing the extremes of carnal and spiritual love and as putting in a favorable light love in which they are complementary. He also composed verse letters, elegies, epithalamia, and epigrams; they were published after his death as Songs and Sonnets.
Donne partook in the Earl of Essex's expeditions against the Spanish in Cadiz and the Azores in 1596-1597 and reflected this military experience in his poems "The Storm" and "The Calm." By 1597-1598, when he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper, he had dissociated himself from Roman Catholicism. In 1601 he blasted the promise of a successful career by secretly marrying Lady Egerton's niece, Ann More. He was dismissed from his post and temporarily imprisoned, and for about a decade he and his ever-increasing family were largely dependent on relatives and patrons.
During this middle period Donne wrote Biathanatos, a treatise on instances of justifiable suicide which may have been intended as a satire on casuistry; it was published by his son in 1646. His Pseudo-Martyr (1610) accused Roman Catholics of fostering false martyrdom for secular ends. Ignatius His Conclave (1611) was popular in both English and Latin versions: it brilliantly satirized the Jesuits but is interesting today because it reflects the then new astronomy of Galileo and toys with the notion of colonizing the moon.
Donne continued to write secular poems and, about 1609-1610, a powerful series of "Holy Sonnets," in which he meditated on sickness, death, sin, and the love of God. In 1611 he composed two companion poems, The Anniversaries, on the Idea of woman, the decay of the physical universe, the vanity of this world, and, in contrast, the permanence of God and spiritual values. These commemorated the death of little Elizabeth Drury and won him the patronage of her father, with whom Donne traveled to France and Germany. He briefly served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and again in 1614.
About 1606 Thomas Morton offered Donne a benefice if he would take Anglican orders. But it was not until 1615, after long pious and practical hesitations, that he was ordained a priest. Appointed a royal chaplain in the same year, he also received a doctor of divinity degree from Cambridge. In 1616-1622 he was reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn, where he preached regularly. He was desolated in 1617 by the death of his wife: she had borne him 12 children, 5 of whom died. He preached frequently at court and in 1619 was an embassy chaplain in Germany. In 1621, on James I's nomination, he became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, attracting huge congregations with his brilliant oratory. A serious illness in 1623 gave rise to his Devotions, those moving meditations on sickness, death, and salvation from which Ernest Hemingway derived the title For Whom the Bell Tolls.
On Feb. 25, 1631, Donne left his sickbed to preach his last and most famous sermon, "Death's Duel." On March 31 he died. An effigy of him wrapped in funeral shrouds which survived the burning of St. Paul's in the Great Fire of 1666 is preserved in the present cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren. The effigy is that of an old, seasoned man who has thought and suffered greatly but has achieved some peace of soul. His youthful portraits show black hair, clear skin, intense eyes, an ample brow, and a pointed, bearded chin. His later pictures reveal the same intensity and alertness.
Donne's was a complex personality, an unusual blend of passion, zeal, and brilliance; God and women were his favorite themes, but his subject matter otherwise ranged over the pagan and the pious, the familiar and the esoteric, the cynical and the sincere, the wittily bright and the theologically profound.
Largely because of Izaak Walton's charming but somewhat unreliable Life of Dr. John Donne (1681) and because of the risqué elements in Donne's secular poetry, a myth grew up contrasting a youthful Jack Donne the rake with a pious and repentant Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's. That in his younger days he was an attractive conversationalist, socialite, and courtier is undeniable, but his works reveal that he was always a serious student and a seeker after truth; and there is no sound evidence to support the myth. Certainly after his ordination he dedicated his remarkable genius wholeheartedly to the service of God and thus became one of the most brilliant stars in that hierarchy of extraordinary Anglican priests—among them, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, and Robert Burton—whose exceptional literary genius was dedicated to the glory of God and the welfare of man.
Biographies of Donne written before 1960 are unreliable. Robert C. Bald's definitive John Donne: A Life (1970) supersedes all previous biographies. The frequently reprinted work by Izaak Walton, Life of Dr. John Donne (many editions) should be read as great literature, more imaginative than accurate. Edward LeComte, Grace to a Witty Sinner: A Life of Donne (1964), is written for the general reader.
Among the studies of Donne's work, K. W. Gransden's concise John Donne (1954; rev. ed. 1969) and Frank Kermode, John Donne (1957), are introductions for beginners. James B. Leishman, The Monarch of Wit (1951; 6th ed. 1962), and Clay Hunt, Donne's Poetry (1954), provide solid foundations for interpreting the poems. Arnold Stein, John Donne's Lyrics (1962), emphasizes Donne's style and wit. Varied approaches are collected in Helen Gardner, ed., John Donne (1962), and Leonard Unger further illuminates such approaches in Donne's Poetry and Modern Criticism (1950). Judah Stampfer, John Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture (1970), is impressionistic but stimulating. Far more reliable is Donald L. Guss, John Donne, Petrarchist (1966), which relates Songs and Sonnets to their Italian influences; N. J. C. Andreasen, John Donne, Conservative Revolutionary (1967), also relates the poetry to tradition. Evelyn M. Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works (1924; 2d ed. 1948), is fundamental. Also excellent are William R. Mueller, John Donne, Preacher (1962), and Joan Webber, Contrary Music: The Prose Style of John Donne (1963). For the scientific background, Charles M. Coffin, John Donne and the New Philosophy (1937), and Marjorie Hope Nicolson, The Breaking of the Circle (1950; rev. ed. 1960), still have value. Wilbur Sanders, John Donne's Poetry (1971), is a judicious survey. Among the more general works relating to Donne are George Williamson, The Donne Tradition (1930); Helen C. White, The Metaphysical Poets (1936); Joseph E. Duncan, The Revival of Metaphysical Poetry (1959); and, of outstanding importance, Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1945; rev. ed. 1962), and Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (1954; rev. ed. 1962). □
Died: March 31, 1631
English poet and priest
John Donne—English poet, Anglican (Church of England) minister, and public speaker—is ranked with John Milton (1608–1674) as one of the greatest English poets. He was also a gifted artist in sermons and devotional writing.
The son of a prosperous ironmonger (a person who sells iron or objects made from iron) of Welsh ancestry, John Donne was born in London, England, between January 4 and June 19 (the exact day is unknown), 1572, and was raised a Londoner and a Roman Catholic. His mother, Elizabeth, a great niece of Sir (later Saint) Thomas More (1477–1535), came from a cultured, devout family: her father, John Heywood, wrote interludes (short plays that are put on during breaks in other entertainment); her brother Jasper was a Jesuit (a person who belongs to a Roman Catholic religious group called the Society of Jesus whose members are concerned with spreading their religious message and teaching); and her son Henry, John's brother, died in 1593 of a fever caught in Newgate Prison, where he was imprisoned for sheltering a Roman Catholic priest. Donne's father died when John was four, and his mother married a well-known physician. Donne was educated at home by Roman Catholic tutors until he was twelve years old. John and his brother Henry were then admitted to Oxford University, where he spent approximately three years.
After some years at Oxford (from 1584) and possibly Cambridge, Donne studied law at Lincoln's Inn from 1592 to 1594. It was also in the 1590s that he wrote many of his love poems. He also composed poetic letters, funeral songs, and witty remarks, which were published after his death as Songs and Sonnets.
Donne took part in the Earl of Essex's crusades against the Spanish in Cadiz, Spain, and the Azores in 1596 and 1597 and wrote about this military experience in his poems "The Storm" and "The Calm." By 1598, when he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, he left the Roman Catholic Church. In 1601 he ruined the promise of a successful career by secretly marrying Lady Egerton's niece, Ann More, a union not approved by More's father. He was dismissed from his post and temporarily imprisoned, and for about a decade he and his growing family were largely dependent on relatives and patrons.
During this middle period Donne wrote Biathanatos, which was published after his death by his son in 1646. His Pseudo-Martyr (1610) accused Roman Catholics of promoting false martyrdom (when a person or a group of people suffer or are killed for the sake of their religion) for financial gain. Ignatius His Conclave (1611) was popular in both English and Latin versions: it brilliantly mocks the Jesuits but is interesting today because it reflects the new astronomy of Galileo (1564–1642) and toys with the notion of colonizing the moon.
Donne continued to write worldly poems and, about 1609 or 1610, he produced a powerful series of "Holy Sonnets," in which he reflected on sickness, death, sin, and the love of God. In 1611 he composed two companion poems, which honored the death of little Elizabeth Drury and won him the support of her father, with whom Donne traveled to France and Germany. He briefly served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and again in 1614.
In 1615 Donne was ordained (to be officially installed as a member of the clergy in the church) a priest. Selected a royal chaplain (a member of the clergy who is chosen to carry out religious duties and services for the royal court) in the same year, he also received a doctor of divinity (the study of religion) degree from Cambridge. From 1616 to 1622 he was reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn, where he preached regularly. He was widowed in 1617 by the death of his wife: she had borne him twelve children, five of whom died. He preached frequently at court and in 1619 was an embassy chaplain in Germany. In 1621, on James I's (1566–1625) selection, he became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, attracting huge congregations with his brilliant public speaking. A serious illness in 1623 inspired his Devotions, which are moving meditations on sickness, death, and salvation.
On February 25, 1631, Donne left his sickbed to preach his last and most famous sermon, "Death's Duel." On March 31, 1631, he died. A statue of him wrapped in funeral shrouds is preserved at St. Paul's Cathedral. The figure is that of an old, seasoned man who has thought and suffered greatly but has achieved some peace of mind.
Donne's was a complex personality, an unusual blend of passion, zeal, and brilliance; God and women were his favorite themes, but his subject otherwise ranged over the pagan (people who do not worship the Christian God) and the religious, the familiar and the unclear, the sarcastic and the sincere, the wittily bright and the religiously wise.
Largely because of Izaak Walton's (1593–1683) charming but somewhat unreliable Life of Dr. John Donne (1681) and because of the risqué elements in Donne's worldly poetry, a myth grew up contrasting his younger days as an attractive conversationalist and socialite with his older, more religious and devout self. His works reveal that he was always a serious student and a seeker after truth; and there is no sound evidence to support the myth. Certainly after his ordination he dedicated his remarkable genius wholeheartedly to the service of God and thus became one of the most brilliant stars of the Anglican priests, whose exceptional literary genius was dedicated to the glory of God and the welfare of man.
For More Information
Donne, John. Selections From Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions, and Prayers. Edited by John Booty. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
Kermode, Frank. John Donne. London; New York: Longmans, Green, 1957.
LeComte, Edward. Grace to a Witty Sinner: A Life of Donne. New York: Walker, 1965.
Of all the forces that shaped the life and writing of John Donne, his Catholic upbringing was certainly the most important. His family traced their origins back to Wales, although his father was a successful ironmonger in London, who died when the young John was still a baby. Donne's mother married a Catholic physician, and the family saw that Catholic tutors initially schooled the young boy at home. When he was eleven, he entered Hertford Hall at Oxford University, an institution that Catholics often attended at the time. Later, he may have also attended Cambridge, although his Catholicism prevented him from receiving a degree. In the years following his education, Donne played the "man about town" on the London scene. He was not known for leading a wild and dissolute life, but instead for being a careful dresser who enjoyed the company of prominent London ladies. In these years he studied law at the Inns of Court, the medieval guild charged with representing clients in the royal courts and the center of legal education in the English capital. In 1593, he renounced his Catholicism not, as some formerly claimed, in a calculated maneuver to receive important professional positions, but after careful study of the differences between the teachings of Catholicism and Anglicanism. He continued to remain at odds with some groups in the Church of England; he was never drawn toward Puritanism, but instead envisioned Anglicanism's benefits as consisting of a compromise between the hard-edged doctrinal religions of radical Protestants and Catholics.
Adventure and an Unfortunate Marriage.
In the mid-1590s, Donne embarked on a short period of adventure in the company of Sir Walter Raleigh and his "Sea Dogs." In the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, these sailors continued their efforts to discourage Spanish trade by conducting raids against the country's ports and trading outposts. Donne accompanied Raleigh on at least two missions, first to storm the port of Cadiz in Spain in 1596, and one year later to track down Spanish galleons laden with New World gold in the Azores. He soon retired from these exploits and, returning to London, he accepted a position as a secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, an important royal official. In 1601, Egerton saw to it that Donne was elected to Parliament from a district he controlled in the north of England. Donne's patron became displeased with his young charge, however, when he discovered that Donne had secretly married his wife's niece, Ann More. For contracting the illegal marriage (More had been a minor), Egerton had Donne imprisoned for a time. Eventually, he was released, and although the union with More survived, he was politically disgraced. During the years that followed, he continually tried to rehabilitate himself, but was always unsuccessful. He and More survived on the gifts and patronage of friends. Finally, in 1615, Donne took a suggestion of King James I to heart and he entered the church. James also saw to it that Cambridge University awarded Donne his degree, and he gave him a position as a chaplain. In the years that followed, Donne also received other appointments in the Church of England, eventually rising to serve as dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul's in London, one of the most important ecclesiastical positions in the English capital. In this capacity, Donne became one of the country's most famous preachers and he helped to establish a following for his particular brand of Anglican spirituality. That religion was opposed to what it perceived as "doctrinal hairsplitting" among the Puritans; churchmen like Donne instead promoted an ideal of Christian holiness. They counseled their audiences to search their lives to unearth sins, amend their paths, and concentrate their attentions on the great Christian drama of redemption.
Donne had been a poet since his earliest years on the London scene, and in the period of his disgrace he had written works for his patrons. He did not publish these, apparently preferring to remain aloof from the public world of poetry that was at the time dominated by figures like William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and other playwrights anxious to turn a profit. In his years as dean of the St. Paul's Cathedral, he continued to write poetry, and at his death his son John collected and published his works. Even before his death, his style was credited with producing changes in English poetry. In contrast to the melodic lines favored by poets of the Elizabethan years, Donne's verse was recognized for its forceful style that bristled with intellectual insights. His poems were difficult to understand, yet filled with rewarding conceits and metaphors for those that struggled to excavate their meanings. In this regard they have remained a significant source of inspiration for later writers of English, although works like his Holy Sonnets (1609–1611) still prove vexing to literary critics. These works were undertaken during a period of illness. Like most of Donne's greatest literary endeavors, they display a fascination with death and the life that lies beyond the grave. In his popular sermons delivered at St. Paul's he continued to call his audience to meditate on these themes. One of his greatest literary achievements were the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions he published in 1624. That book contains his celebrated Meditation XVII, where Donne develops his famous observations on the themes "No man is an island" and "never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Such rhetoric was a significant force in attracting greater devotion to the Church of England on London's scene in the 1620s, although the country's religious divisions grew wider in the years following Donne's death in 1631. His reputation as a poet and a devotional writer continued to be considerable, although by the eighteenth century critics like Samuel Johnson had less regard for the puzzling and quixotic nature of his poetry. Johnson identified Donne as the source of inspiration for a school of "metaphysical poets" in early seventeenth-century England. Although modern literary critics have come to discount this notion of a school, they have continued to see Donne's influence as important in fashioning one direction followed by other early Stuart poets and writers of prose.
P. Brewer, Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan (Rochester, N.Y.: Brewer, 2000).
J. Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
F. Kermode, ed., The Poems of John Donne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
P. Milward, A Commentary on the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (London: Dance Books, 1996).
Donne, John (1572–1631)
Donne, John (1572–1631)
English poet, essayist, and Anglican priest, Donne was born in London to a well to-do ironmonger. His mother was the daughter of playwright John Heywood and a great niece of Sir Thomas More. Donne was educated by members of the Catholic Jesuit order and began attending the University of Oxford in England at the age of eleven. After three years, he entered the University of Cambridge. He failed to attain a university degree, as he refused to take the required Oath of Supremacy that recognized the monarch of England as supreme head of the Anglican church. After his university career, Donne entered Lincoln's Inn in London to train as a lawyer. He was often tormented by questions of religious faith and dogma, and his religious doubt intensified when his brother Henry died in 1593 while in prison, where he had been sent for harboring a priest. In this period he was also writing poetry that explored the physical and emotional intensity of love.
Donne took part in an expedition led by the Earl of Essex in 1596 against the Spanish at Cadiz and the Azores. After this adventure he was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Queen's Lord Keeper of the Seal. However, Donne's public career was ended by his secret marriage in 1601 to Ann More, the niece of Egerton's wife. For this Donne was sacked from his position, arrested, and briefly imprisoned. After his release he moved to Surrey, where he eked out a bare living as a lawyer and depended on friends and family to support his growing family.
Donne wrote satires of English manners and also meditations on suicide (Biathanatos ) and religion, including Pseudo-Martyr, a criticism of the Catholic tradition of martyrdom. A series of “Holy Sonnets” expressed his views on death and sin. In 1601 Donne was elected a member of parliament. He had gained a wealthy patron in Sir Robert Drury, for whom he wrote Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World, a work that memorialized Sir Drury's daughter, Elizabeth, and Of the Progress of the Soul in 1612. Another satire of Catholicism, Ignatius His Conclave, reflected the new astronomy of Galileo Galilei and proposed sending a colony of settlers to the moon. Although he petitioned the king to return to public service, he was refused. On the king's recommendation, however, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1615. By this time Donne had become a deeply religious man, attaining the post of reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn, and was changing his focus to religion. Donne became the royal chaplain in 1615, and finally earned a doctor of divinity degree from Cambridge in 1618. His rising status in the Church of England did not relieve a deep grief felt at the death of his wife in childbirth in 1617. In 1621 he was appointed the dean of Saint Paul's, where his eloquent sermons drew large audiences to the cathedral. After falling ill in 1623, he wrote the Devotions, essays on death and salvation. His most famous speech, the “Death's Duel” sermon, was delivered before King Charles I in 1631, at a time when Donne was already on his own deathbed.
Donne's poetry is inventive, eloquent, often paradoxical, and filled with surprising, vivid metaphors and “conceits,” which combine radically different ideas and imagery. His poetic rhythms discarded the measured, traditional style in favor of abrupt and jarring rhythms that were meant to remind the reader of everyday speech. His elegies, epigrams, and letters in verse were published after his death in Songs and Sonnets.
A. S. Hargreaves