This portrait portrays John Donne (1572–1631), aged 18, as a young man poised for adventure. He is dressed in a dark padded doublet and holds the hilt of a sword, with his face just showing the traces of a thin new moustache. Amidst his long curling dark hair you can glimpse a cross-shaped earring – a daring sign of Donne’s Catholic faith in Elizabeth I’s Protestant England.
This engraving by William Marshall was based on a lost miniature painting produced in 1591, probably by Nicholas Hilliard, a successful miniaturist at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
John Donne: youth and old age
The engraving seems to celebrate John Donne’s boyish self-assurance. But it was only published after his death in the second edition of his Poems, printed in 1635 and again in 1639.
The image bears a Spanish inscription, Antes muerto que mudado, meaning ‘Sooner dead than changed’. Yet the text underneath it, written by Donne’s biographer Izaac Walton, declares how much the poet changed from a youth full of ‘Mirth, & wit’, to an older man with a ‘pure mind’.
The young Donne might have been a Catholic rebel and flirt. But by 1600 he had converted to the Church of England, and in 1622 he was honoured with the role of Dean of St Paul’s, writing sermons and holy poems. Despite the youthful picture, Walton’s text insists that Donne’s ‘best Dayes’ were his ‘last’ ones.