John Donne was born in Bread Street, London, sometime between January 23 and June 19 in 1572. His Welsh-descended father, also called John Donne, was a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London and a respected Roman Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention, out of fear of being persecuted for his Catholicism. John Donne Sr. died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their son. Elizabeth Heywood, also from a noted Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Jasper Heywood, the translator and Jesuit. She was also distantly related to the Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne’s closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons. Despite the obvious dangers, Donne’s family arranged for his education by the Jesuits, which gave him a deep knowledge of his religion that equipped him for the ideological religious conflicts of his time.
Part of the house where John Donne lived in Pyrford.
Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates. In 1591, he was accepted as a student at the Thaives Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Court in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, another of the Inns of Court legal schools. His brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1591 for harbouring a Catholic priest. Henry Donne died in prison of bubonic plague, leading John Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.
During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel. Although there is no record detailing precisely where he travelled, it is known that he visited the Continent and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe, and her crew. By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking. He was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton and was established at Egerton’s London home, York House, Strand close to the Palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social centre in England. During the next four years he fell in love with Egerton's 17 year old niece, Anne Moore, and they were married in 1602 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George Moore, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife's dowry.
Following his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey. Though he practiced law and worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton, he was in a state of constant financial insecurity, with a growing family to provide for. Before her death, Anne bore him twelve children (not counting miscarriages). In a state of despair, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time Donne wrote, but did not publish, Biathanatos, his daring defense of suicide.
Donne's earliest poems showed a brilliant knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers, yet stand out due to their intellectual sophistication and striking imagery. His images of sickness, vomit, manure, and plague assisted in the creation of a strongly satiric world populated by all the fools and knaves of England. His third satire, however, deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. Donne argued that it was better to carefully examine one's religious convictions than to blindly follow any established tradition, for none would be saved at the Final Judgment by claiming "A Harry, or a Martin taught [them] this."
Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being equated to marriage. In Elegy XIX, "To His Mistress Going to Bed," he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII he compared the gap between his lover's breasts to the Hellespont. Donne did not publish these poems, although he did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.
Career and Later Life
Donne was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley in 1602, but this was not a paid position and Donne struggled to provide for his family, relying heavily upon rich friends. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave him a means to seek patronage and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially Sir Robert Drury, who came to be Donne's chief patron in 1610. It was for Sir Robert that Donne wrote the two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul, (1612). While historians are not certain as to the precise reasons for which Donne left the Catholic Church, he was certainly in communication with the King, James I of England, and in 1610 and 1611 he wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave. Although James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. Altough Donne was at first reluctant due to feeling unworthy of the a clerical career, Donne finally acceded to the King's wishes and was ordained into the Church of England in 1615.
A few months before his death, Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse.
He hung the portrait on his wall as a reminder of the transience of life.
On August 15, 1617, Anne Donne died giving birth to her twelfth child, who was stillborn. Her grief-stricken husband would later write the 17th Holy Sonnet with this event in mind.
Donne became a Royal Chaplain in late 1615, Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge in 1618. Later in 1618 Donne became the chaplain for the Viscount of Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620. In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England and one he held until his death in 1631. In 1624 he became vicar of St. Dunstan's-in-the-West, and 1625 a Royal Chaplain to Charles I. He earned a reputation as an impressive, eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death’s Duel sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631. He died on March 31, 1631 having never published a poem in his lifetime but having left a body of work fiercely engaged with the emotional and intellectual conflicts of his age.
His numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more somber and pious tone in his later poems. The change can be clearly seen in "An Anatomy of the World," (1611), a poem that Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. This poem treats the death of the girl in an extremely morose mood, expanding her death to the Fall of Man and the destruction of the universe.
This change may also be observed in the religious works that Donne began writing during the same period. His early belief in the value of skepticism now gave way to a firm faith in the traditional teachings of the Bible. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature. He quickly became noted for his deeply moving sermons and religious poems. The passionate lines of these sermons would come to influence future works of English literature, such as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which took its title from a passage in Meditation XVII, and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, which took its title from the same source.
Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally. One example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, from which come the famous lines “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Even as he lay dying on Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death's Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.
John Donne is commemorated as a priest by in the Calendar of Saints of the Anglican Communion and in the calendar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31.
John Donne is considered a master of the conceit, an extended metaphor that combines two vastly unlike ideas into a single idea, often using imagery. Unlike the conceits found in other Elizabethan poetry, most notably Petrarchan conceits, which formed clichéd comparisons between more closely related objects (such as a rose and love), Metaphysical conceits go to a greater depth in comparing two completely unlike objects, although sometimes in the mode of Shakespeare's radical paradoxes and imploded contraries. One of the most famous of Donne's conceits is found in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning where he compares two lovers who are separated to the two legs of a compass.
Donne's works are also witty, employing paradoxes, puns, and subtle yet remarkable analogies. His pieces are often ironic and cynical, especially regarding love and human motives. Common subjects of Donne's poems are love (especially in his early life), death (especially after his wife's death), and religion.
John Donne's poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry. Donne is noted for his poetic metre, which was structured with changing and jagged rhythms that closely resemble casual speech (it was for this that the more classically-minded Ben Jonson commented that "Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging").
John Donne was famous for his metaphysical poetry in the 17th century. His work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion. He did this through the use of conceits, wit and intellect – as seen in the poems “The Sunne Rising” and “Batter My Heart.” His work has received much criticism over the years, with very judgemental responses about his metaphysical form. Donne's immediate successors in poetry tended to regard his works with ambivalence, while the Neoclassical poets regarded his conceits as abuse of the metaphor. He was revived by Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Browning, though his more recent revival in the early twentieth century by poets such as T.S. Eliot tended to portray him as an anti-Romantic.
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- Poems (1633)
- Poems on Several Occasions (2001)
- Love Poems (1905)
- John Donne: Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions and Prayers (1990)
- The Complete English Poems (1991)
- John Donne's Poetry (1991)
- John Donne: The Major Works (2000)
- The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (2001)
- Six Sermons (1634)
- Fifty Sermons (1649)
- Paradoxes, Problemes, Essayes, Characters (1652)
- Essayes in Divinity (1651)
- Sermons Never Before Published (1661)
- John Donne's 1622 Gunpowder Plot Sermon (1996)
- Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel (1999)
- John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, (London 1981)
- A.L. Clements (ed.) John Donne's Poetry (New York and London, 1966)
- G. Hammond (ed.) The Metaphysical Poets: A Casebook, (London 1986)
- T.S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets", Selected Essays, (London 1969)
- Joe Nutt, John Donne: The Poems, (New York and London 1999)
- C.L. Summers and T.L. Pebworth (eds.) The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986)
- John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination, (Oxford, 1991)
- Stevie Davies, John Donne (Northcote House, plymouth, 1994)
- ^ a b Donne, John. Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Accessed 2007-2-19.
- ^ a b "Donne, John" by Richard W. Langstaff. Article from Collier's Encyclopedia, Volume 8. Bernard Johnston, general editor. P.F. Colliers Inc., New York: 1988. pages 346-349.
- ^ a b c d e "Donne, John." Article in British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. The H.W. Wilson Company, New York: 1952. pages 156-158.
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Jokinen, Anniina. "The Life of John Donne." Luminarium. 22 June 2006. Accessed 2007-1-22.
- ^ a b c d e f g h Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton anthology of English literature Eighth edition. W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. ISBN 0393928284. pages 600–602
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: Part VII: The Age of Reason Begins. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1961. pages 154-156
- ^ Lapham, Lewis. The End of the World. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 1997. page 98.
- ^ Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought by Terry G. Sherwood University of Toronto Press, 1984, page 231
- ^ (2006) Evangelical Lutheran Worship - Final Draft. Augsburg Fortress Press.
- ^ John Donne. Island of Freedom. Accessed 2007-2-19.
- ^ The Best Poems of the English Language. Harold Bloom. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2004. pages 138-139.