Last reviewed: June 2018
Between January 24 and June 19, 1572
March 31, 1631
John Donne (duhn), born in London, probably early in 1572, was the son of a prosperous London tradesman. His mother, from a more distinguished family, was a Roman Catholic, and the poet was educated in that faith. His claim that his family had suffered for the faith is borne out by the fact that his brother died in prison after being charged with concealing a priest; his own career may well have been hindered by his recusancy. Jesuit training left permanent traces on his mind. In a book on suicide (Biathanatos) he said that his interest in the subject stemmed from firsthand knowledge of the persecuted Jesuits; in another book (Pseudo-Martyr) he analyzed and condemned the Jesuits’ desire to achieve martyrdom at the hands of the civil authorities. Leaving Oxford University without a degree, because to do so would require that he swear to the Anglican Articles of Faith, Donne studied law at the Inns of Court in the 1590’s. At that time he also read widely in theology. He was trying to decide which of the two churches that claimed to be truly Catholic—the Roman and the Anglican—was the right one. The date of his decision in favor of the Church of England is uncertain, but it certainly came later, after intense study, and was not merely to clear the way to worldly advancement. John Donne
Study was not his whole life at the Inns of Court. He also took his place in the world of wit and fashion, made friends with the gifted youth of his time, and became “a great visitor of ladies.” Despite his reputation for hard study in many languages and many subjects, early in his career he also began a series of highly original, occasionally improper, love poems. These circulated widely in manuscript and grew famous, in spite of his later avowed distaste for them. They were published in 1633, after his death. In modern times these Songs and Sonets (in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death) have achieved a remarkable celebrity. They are often very difficult—even Ben Jonson, Donne’s friend, found them so—and some of the most difficult are also the most profound, such as the “Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day.” Many of them, however—this applies also to the Elegies—are merely learned jokes about love, such as “The Flea,” or paradoxes ridiculing conventional morality, such as “Elegy xvii.” Others are apparently serious love poems, such as “The Feaver”; yet even these are, as John Dryden complained, calculated to “perplex the minds of the fair sex with the nice speculations of philosophy.” One or two poems seem to be addressed to Donne’s wife. In fact there is a variety of occasions and moods, but nearly all the poems are alike in abjuring the usual smoothness of Elizabethan love poetry. They are harsh, to use Donne’s word, extremely rapid, witty, and compressed. This quality will disturb modern readers less than the obscurity of the thought; most need help from a learned edition to understand these poems.
When he left the Inns of Court, Donne traveled in Italy and Spain and took part in two naval expeditions (1596 and 1597). He was trying to make his way in the world. In 1598 he became secretary to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton but ruined his chances by secretly marrying Lady Egerton’s niece, Ann More, in December, 1601. He went to prison and lost his job. Forgiven but not reinstated, he lived for some years in relative poverty and discomfort at Mitcham, then a village outside London, with his rapidly growing family. Being poor, he sought patronage, writing complimentary and elegiac verse, some of it excellent, for the great countess of Bedford, Sir Robert Drury, and others. He “ghosted” for the bishop of Durham in anti-Romanist controversy but refused to enter the Church. When the belated payment of his wife’s dowry gave him a spell of leisure, he wrote Pseudo-Martyr and the witty Ignatius His Conclave against the Jesuits and a work of theology, Essayes in Divinity, written about 1614 but not published until 1651. Biathanatos was also written at this time.
Eventually the king made it clear that Donne would not achieve advancement outside the Church, and in 1615, at the age of nearly forty-three, he was ordained and granted an honorary doctorate of divinity from Cambridge University at the king’s insistence. Thenceforth he wrote little verse, and that of relatively small importance; his religious poetry belongs mostly to the period from 1607 to 1615. Instead he wrote and preached sermons which established him as one of the greatest of preachers in an age of great pulpit oratory. His wife died in 1617, and he celebrated her memory in a magnificent sermon and a fine sonnet. In 1621 he became dean of St. Paul’s. He had become a somber priest much given to thoughts of death but as often finding solace in contemplation of divinity. In 1623, seriously ill, he wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a set of religious meditations on his disease which, for all their solemnity, show that he remained in his strange way the wittiest of writers. During Lent, 1631, he preached the famous and terrible sermon called “Deaths Duell” before Charles I and then ordered the grim monument of himself in his shroud, which survived the great fires of 1666 and 1940, and may still be seen in St. Paul’s. Donne died in London on March 31, 1631.
Donne’s reputation as a poet faded rapidly and was not fully revived until the twentieth century. His influence on modern poetry has been considerable, poets admiring the intellectual vigor of his work, his range of learned reference, and his wit. It has also been thought, not quite correctly, that his attitude toward the new science of his time (for example, to the Copernicus’s discoveries) was that of a man who saw an older and more stable world disintegrating, so that his mood resembled that of some twentieth century intellectuals. This is a distorted view, but distortion is probably inevitable because Donne wrote a large body of works, and not much of it is read.
What is well known is the love poetry and the religious poetry. Of the love poetry the modern reader, with an effort, can recover some of the delight and surprise it must have given to Donne’s friends. The religious poetry, much of it based on Catholic techniques of meditation in use by Anglo-Catholics at that time, has an equal appeal. It is characterized by the same agility of intellect, here associated with religious passion. Although it sometimes declines into clever trifling that offends modern taste, it remains a remarkable record of spiritual turbulence. At the core of Donne’s literary and sermonic productions is the question of faith and the problem of knowing, with certainty, the status of one’s soul.