‘Make me new’: the multiple reinventions of John Donne

‘Make me new’: the multiple reinventions of John Donne

  • Article by: Andrew Dickson
  • Themes: Renaissance writers, Poetry
  • Published: 31 Mar 2017
John Donne's work includes passionate and explicit love poems and intense religious meditations. Andrew Dickson explores the poet's many identities, from Catholic child to Protestant adult, from womaniser to devoted husband, and from trainee lawyer, secretary and Member of Parliament to Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral.

It is difficult to do justice to the life and work of John Donne – not least because Donne had many more lives than most. Born into a family of staunchly pious Catholics, he turned his back on that upbringing and became one of the most original love lyricists of the late-Elizabethan era, notorious for his lifestyle as much as the passionate explicitness of his writing. That transformation complete, in later life Donne successfully remade himself once again, this time into an Anglican priest. Under James I, he became one of the most respected divines of the age.[1]

His reputation over the last four centuries has been equally full of contrasts: honoured as one of the greats at his death in 1631, he was dismissed as eccentric and over-ingenious by 18th-century critics such as Samuel Johnson, and for much of the 19th century was ignored. Only after being championed by avant-garde poets such as William Butler Yeats – then, famously, T S Eliot – was Donne resurrected, acclaimed as a mould-breaking talent and one of the earliest forerunners of modernism.[2]

Catholicism and Rome

Donne’s early life was dominated by one thing: the religion into which he was born in 1572. His father John was a wealthy businessman, while his mother Elizabeth was a daughter of the poet and playwright John Heywood and via him had close links to the circle of the Catholic martyr Thomas More and his children. The Donne family likewise held firmly to the old faith, and when John senior died in 1582, Elizabeth remarried another prominent Catholic, Dr John Syminges.

Although technically it was legal to live as a ‘recusant’ during Elizabeth I’s Protestant reign – the term was applied to Catholics who refused to recant their beliefs and convert to the Church of England – this meant paying heavy fines and living under permanent suspicion from the authorities. Donne himself, despite entering Oxford University at the unusually early age of 12 and later studying at Cambridge, was barred from being awarded a degree at either institution because of his background.

Broadside on Popish Plots and Treasons

Broadside on Popish Plots and Treasons

This broadside is a reminder of the fierce religious strife in late 16th-century England. It celebrates the violent defeat of Catholic plots and treasons in the Protestant reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

View images from this item  (1)

Although he converted to Protestantism at some point during the 1590s – the precise date is hazy, as are the circumstances – this childhood experience of religious persecution clearly affected the poet profoundly. In his first published book, the 1610 prose work Pseudo-Martyr, he would write, ‘I beleeve, no family … hath endured or suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the Teachers of Romane Doctrine, then [mine] hath done’.[3] Nonetheless, the book was a pointed attack on recusancy, indicating how far Donne had distanced himself from his origins.

After leaving university, Donne probably travelled in Europe, like many of his worldly and well-to-do contemporaries, before studying law in London, first at Thavies Inn (1591), then at Lincoln’s Inn (1592–94). His passion for military adventure soon got the better of him, however, and by 1596 he had volunteered for an expedition to attack the Spanish port of Cadiz under the command of the Earl of Essex. The following year, he travelled to the Azores with another anti-Spanish fleet, this one led by Sir Walter Raleigh. Upon returning to London, Donne continued his smooth ascent up the Elizabethan political ladder, initially as secretary to the courtier Sir Thomas Egerton, then becoming a Member of Parliament.

Portrait of John Donne, aged 18

Portrait of John Donne, aged 18

In this painting, Donne holds the hilt of a sword and wears a cross-shaped earring as a daring sign of his Catholic faith. The engraving by William Marshall is based on a lost miniature painting produced in 1591.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms: Public Domain

‘A great writer of conceited Verses’

Even in his twenties, Donne was writing prolifically, and his womanising was similarly energetic: according to one of his contemporaries, he was ‘a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses’.[4]

Although only a handful of Donne’s poems can be dated with any certainty – most of them were not published until 1633, two years after his death – it seems likely that a number of satires, elegies and a good percentage of his love poetry was written during the 1590s. ‘Conceited’ is certainly the word one might use to describe Donne’s work, not simply in the sense that Elizabethans usually used the term (i.e. to mean highly ingenious and elaborate), but also because few poets of this period place themselves and their emotions centre stage so brazenly:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour prentices.
(‘The Sunne Rising’, ll. 1–6)[5]

A barnstorming riff on the controversial theories of Copernicus (who in 1543 had published evidence suggesting the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around), Donne’s narrator asks why the ‘unruly Sun’ should intrude upon the actions of himself and his lover. As well as managing the unlikely feat of bringing brand-new scientific theory into the rarefied world of the love lyric, the piece is genuinely funny.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

First editon of John Donne's Poems, 1633

Donne’s witty verse, ‘The Sun Rising’, was first printed in this edition of his Poems (1633).

View images from this item  (29)

Usage terms: Public Domain

Other love lyrics are equally audacious, drawing on themes as varied as travel, war, colonialism, legal affairs and spirituality to map out the territory of sexual desire (‘The Good Morrow’ compares lovers to ‘sea-discoverers’, while ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ likens the couple to ‘stiff twin compasses’, divided yet connected). One of Donne’s most brilliantly bizarre works is ‘The Flea’, which describes an insect feasting on two lovers in bed together, and contrives to turn this bloodthirsty image into an erotic, even loving act (‘And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be’, l. 4).

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

‘The Flea’ is one of the poems in this hand-written anthology made for Sir William Cavendish, the first Duke of Newcastle.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms: The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the work of his near-contemporary, the Italian painter Caravaggio, whose thrilling sense of drama and expressive handling of light and dark echoes Donne’s own fascination with the extremities of experience. The term ‘metaphysical’ would not be applied to poetry until after his death, but the qualities it signifies – impressive intellect, fierce wit and what Samuel Johnson later called ‘heterogeneous ideas … yoked by violence together’ – are unmistakable.[6] So too is Donne’s poetic voice which, despite the multiple influences that animate it, is impossible to mistake for anyone else. A portrait thought to date from the mid-1590s illustrates the Donne of this period well: clad in fashionable black and with his arms crossed, the poet looks broodingly sensitive, yet also coolly self-aware.[7]

Portrait of John Donne, c. 1595

Portrait of John Donne, c. 1595

This is one of the first known portraits of an Elizabethan author, made by an unknown artist. Donne self-consciously styles himself as a melancholy lover – a fashionable image for young men at that time.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: Some rights reserved
Held by: © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘Such a nothing’

A major shift came in 1601, when Donne secretly wed Sir Thomas Egerton’s niece, Ann More. Appalled that one of his juniors should presume to marry into his own family, Egerton promptly sacked Donne and had him briefly imprisoned, then barred from public office altogether. The couple eventually had 12 children (five of whom died in infancy), which placed tremendous pressure on the household finances. Donne repeatedly attempted to wangle a well-paid position at court, particularly after James I came to the throne in 1603, but found it impossible. Money worries were constant.

Letters from John Donne about his secret marriage to Ann More

Letters from John Donne about his secret marriage to Ann More

In this letter, sent from Fleet Prison on 12 February 1602, Donne pleads with Sir Thomas Egerton to ‘excuse’ his ‘offence’, and save him from ‘destruction’.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms: Folger Source call numbers: L.b.526 & L.b.528. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Despite what he claimed were feelings of abject misery (in one mournful 1601 letter he wrote, ‘I am become so little, or such a nothing, that I am not a subject good enough for one of my own letters’), during the next decade Donne continued to write vigorously, pouring out a torrent of love lyrics and religious poetry, which circulated widely in manuscript form.[8] He also composed prose on a number of different topics, among them religious matters, which had begun to obsess him more and more.

At some point the idea of being ordained and becoming a minister in the Church of England was suggested to him. Donne’s final decision to do so in 1615 was perhaps encouraged by the death of his child Mary the year before and his own battles with ill-health – though the move was, as ever, also deeply self-conscious. In a poem written in 1614 Donne proclaimed that his muse had ‘spoke her last’, and his 'Essays in Divinity', perhaps composed around this time, read like experiments in a new and more meditative key.[9] Whatever the precise motivations, Donne’s transition to divine life was astute in career terms; he was rapidly granted a doctor of divinity from Cambridge at the command of James I and made royal chaplain, and given commissions to travel in Europe as a religious diplomat.

When Ann died in 1617, five days after bearing another stillborn child, Donne himself preached the funeral sermon. According to his first biographer, Izaak Walton, Donne’s ‘sighs and tears, exprest in his Sermon, did so work upon the affections of his hearers, as melted and moulded them into a companionable sadness’.[10] Four years later, Donne was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and used his remarkable theatrical gifts to win acclaim as one of the greatest preachers of the age. His sermons were published posthumously in three volumes (1640, 1649 and 1661), and contain some of the finest and most carefully crafted committed to print in the 17th century.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

First editon of John Donne's Poems, 1633

An engraving of the poet with a beard and classical robes. It is based on a painting made when Donne was 49, just before he became Dean of St Paul’s.

View images from this item  (29)

Usage terms: Public Domain

‘It tolls for thee’

Although the subject matter of his late work is strikingly different from the love lyrics he composed from the 1590s onwards – Donne himself was only too keen to advertise this conversion – its torrid, turbulent energy is not:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
(ll. 1–4)

In this, one of the so-called ‘Holy Sonnets’, Donne infuses his subject with shockingly violent language, figuring the Holy Trinity as a kind of army that will overrun, then crush, the soul of the narrator. Even here, there is the hint of something more sexual, too: the last lines of the poem are, ‘I, / Except You enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me’.

One of his last major works, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and severall Steps in my Sickness (published in 1624), turns the focus inwards, describing a near-death experience that occurred earlier that year and combining it with meditations and prayers. 'Meditation 17', a contemplation on the ringing of a bell that contains the famous lines ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee’, demonstrates that, though he was physically frail, Donne’s prose was as full of life as ever.[11]

The poet’s final years were spent battling with a series of illnesses, most likely related to the stomach cancer that eventually killed him. Characteristically, even his death had a whiff of choreography; having preached his final sermon on 25 February 1631 on the subject of mortality, he posed for an unnamed artist wearing his burial shroud. The startling marble monument that the sculptor Nicholas Stone created still stands in St Paul’s Cathedral, its head tilted east in expectation of Christ’s resurrection – testament not merely to the intensity of Donne’s fervour, but to his uncanny gift for self-presentation.[12]

Death's Duel by John Donne

Death's Duel by John Donne

Donne posing in his burial shroud before his death. This engraving by Martin Droeshout was printed at the start of Death's Duell (1632), the last sermon given by Donne, later described as his ‘owne funerall sermon’.

View images from this item  (10)

Usage terms: Public Domain

Drawing of the monument to John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral

Drawing of the monument to John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral

This pen and ink drawing shows Stone’s white marble statue of Donne, probably based on the same lost picture used by Martin Droeshout.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms: The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.

Footnotes:

[1] Among full-length accounts of Donne’s life, the best and most recent – especially vivid on the poet’s London context – is John Stubbs, Donne: The Reformed Soul (London: Penguin, 2006). John Carey’s more interpretative John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (London: Faber, rev. edn, 1990), also contains much valuable information. Andrew Mousley (ed.)’s New Casebooks: John Donne (Houndmills: Palgrave, 1999), is also excellent. Among online resources, the Poetry Foundation’s brief biographical essay on Donne is a great place to start, and has useful suggestions for further reading and links to other information. See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/john-donne.

[2] T S Eliot’s celebrated reappraisal of Donne in the Times Literary Supplement in October 1921 is available online at: http://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/eliot_metaphysical_poets.htm. Eliot’s 1932 essay, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, is reprinted in Selected Essays, 3rd edn (London: Faber, 1966).

[3] John Donne, Pseudo-Martyr (London, 1610), ‘Advertisement to the Reader’.

[4] The contemporary was Richard Baker; cited in Stubbs, p. 26.

[5] John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed. by C.A. Patrides (London: Everyman, rev. edn, 1991). Further references to the poetry are to this edition.

[6] Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81) . The relevant passage on the metaphysical poets is available online at: http://www.bartleby.com/209/775.html.

[7] The portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. See: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw111844/John-Donne

[8] Izaak Walton, The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson, ed. by G. E. B. Sainsbury (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927), p. 40.

[9] ‘Obsequies to the Lord Harrington, Brother to the Lady Lucy, Countesse of Bedford’, l.258. The Essays in Divinity are available in an edition by Evelyn M. Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).

[10] Walton, Lives, p. 52.

[11] Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. by John Sparrow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 98.

[12] A fascinating essay on the monument by Philip Cottrell – which points out that it also miraculously survived the Great Fire of 1666 – is online at: http://churchmonumentssociety.org/Monument%20of%20the%20Month%20Archive/2010_11.html.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.