John Donne

Portrait of John Donne, c. 1595
Portrait of John Donne by unknown artist, c. 1595 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Biography

John Donne is now best known as a poet, but in Jacobean England he was most famous for the powerful oratory of his sermons, and for his public role as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Birth, upbringing and religion

Donne was born in London in 1572, the third child of John Donne and Elizabeth Heywood. Elizabeth was the daughter of the Catholic Tudor playwright John Heywood and Joan Rastall, niece of Sir Thomas More. Donne was brought up as a Catholic, and his early life would have been marked by the deprivations and isolation of those who did not subscribe to Protestantism in a Protestant country.

Donne attended Hart Hall, Oxford, between 1584 and 1589, leaving without a degree. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, where he studied law and participated in its lively literary culture. Donne never worked as a lawyer, but his knowledge of the law informs all of his poetry and thinking.

Early career, marriage and scandal

Donne had left Lincoln’s Inn by 1596, and was working as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton by the end of 1597. In Egerton’s household Donne met Ann More, the niece of Lady Egerton, and they married in secret in 1601. The marriage caused a scandal when it was revealed the following year, and Donne lost his position and was briefly imprisoned. Donne and Ann would have to rely on friends and sympathetic family members for accommodation and financial support for their growing family for many years afterwards.

Later life, conversion to Protestantism and death

Donne spent the next 14 years unsuccessfully seeking public office, and writing poetry as well as polemical prose tracts and paradoxes such as Pseudo-Martyr, and Biathanatos. The anti-Jesuit Pseudo-Martyr argues that Catholics can take the Oath of Allegiance to James I with clear consciences, and shows that Donne had moved from Catholicism to Protestantism. He was eventually ordained in the Church of England in 1615, and became a royal chaplain to James. In 1617 Ann died following a stillbirth, and a heartbroken Donne vowed never to marry again. His fame as an eloquent and emotional preacher of powerful and learned sermons grew rapidly, and he was made Dean of St Paul’s in 1621. He spent the next decade preaching and writing, before falling ill in the autumn of 1630. After preaching one final sermon, he died on 31 March 1631.

Donne’s poetry

During his lifetime, Donne’s poetry circulated almost exclusively in manuscript among a select group of friends and patrons. Donne had no interest in making his poems generally available, and scorned the idea of printing them, as he considered it beneath his dignity as a gentleman. He did not want to be thought of primarily as a poet, or as an author writing for money. He regretted allowing his long poems the Anniversaries to be printed in 1611 and 1612, remarking that it was an error ‘to have descended to print anything in verse … I wonder how I declined to it, and [I] do not pardon myself’.

Donne’s preference for ‘publishing’ his poems in manuscript also makes most of them difficult to precisely date. His Satires and Elegies are likely to date from his time at Lincoln’s Inn in the 1590s, as may some of his love poems. Many of his Holy Sonnets, and perhaps his love poetry, were probably written from the time of his marriage in 1601 to his ordination in 1615.

The worldly paradoxes and potentially blasphemous conceits of many of Donne’s devotional poems (the speaker of Holy Sonnet 14 claims that he will never be ‘chaste’ unless God ‘ravish me’) perhaps do not easily reconcile with Donne’s public identity as a sober Anglican cleric after 1615. He seems to have produced little poetry after his ordination, in favour of sermons and other devotional prose writings, though one poem composed in 1625 survives.

Donne’s poetic reputation, then and now

Although at the time of his death Donne’s poetry was celebrated and highly sought after by readers, within a few decades it fell out of favour. From the end of the 17th century his poems were judged as metrically irregular and indecorous, and his work did not reach a wide audience. Donne’s reputation increased in the 19th century, and in the 20th poets such as T S Eliot celebrated him as a proto-modernist. Today he is celebrated as one of the leading ‘metaphysical’ poets of the English Renaissance.


Further information about the life of John Donne can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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