John Donne’s poetry and prose still resonate today with their meditations upon love and death, religion and politics. His poetry, characterized by its intensity, passion word-play, and complexity is still widely read.
Well-known as both a writer and important religious figure in the years leading up to the English Civil War, Donne is considered one of the greatest love poets in the English language. He is also noted for his religious verse and treatises and for his sermons, which rank among the best of the 17th century
John Donne was born in London in 1572 into a prosperous Roman Catholic family. While anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England at the time, Donne’s father made a success of himself; had become a wealthy and prominent citizen of the city and married a descendant of Sir Thomas More. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long to enjoy the fruit of his labours and died in 1576 leaving his wife, Elizabeth, to raise three sons.
Donne was educated by Jesuits until the age of 11 when was packed off to Hart Hall at the University of Oxford. After three years of study, he moved onto the University of Cambridge. After three further years of study Donne left and returned to London. As a Catholic, Donne refused to take the Oath of Supremacy upon graduation and was this denied a degree. Back in the capital Donne began to study law.
In 1593, Donne’s brother Henry died in prison after being arrested for giving sanctuary to a Catholic priest. This event caused a crisis of faith for Donne and the young law student began to take some solace in writing poetry.
His first collection of poems, Satires, was not published but was circulated among friends and colleagues. His second collection, Songs and Sonnets, was distributed in a similar way and his reputation grew among a select group of admirers.
Around this time Donne inherited a considerable amount of money and grew another reputation, that of womanizing, bon vivant. Travel, wine and women soon reduced his fortune and Donne sought work in the diplomatic corps.
In 1596, Donne joined a naval action against the Spanish and the following year traveled as part of a expedition to the Azores. Upon his return, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, a prominent politician in Queen Elizabeth’s government.
Three years later, Donne himself entered politics and became a member of parliament. His promising career came to abrupt halt when it was revealed Donne had secretly married Anne, the 17-year old daughter of Lord Egerton. The incensed Lord had Donne thrown in jail, along with his accomplices, although the charges were never followed through and he was released some weeks later. The scandal effectively ended Donne’s political career. “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.” He would quip. The following ten years saw Donne struggle, surviving on handouts from wealthy friends and benefactors and law work he managed to acquire in the city.
He continued to write poetry, however, and his output during this time of obscurity and near poverty included some of his most interesting work. Divine Poems was published in 1607 and Biathanatos, which was circulated widely but not published until 40 years later, argued that suicide was not a sin.
The Donnes finally moved to Surrey in a house lent by one of Anne’s cousins and Donne lived in obscurity until 1609 when he managed to reconcile with Lord Egerton. The reconciliation also brought with it a regular income in the form of a dowry and Donne was free to write.
Donne’s earlier crisis of faith was compounded by the tribulations of the previous ten years and his next works were not poems but anti-Catholic polemics. The first of these, Pseudo-Martyr, which stated that English Catholics should be able to pledge an oath of allegiance the King of England without compromising their religious loyalty to the Pope, drew the attention of King James I and Donne was suddenly back in the good graces of the establishment.
He was commissioned to write poems and elegies for wealthy benefactors but the King seeing an opportunity to propagandize Donne’s anti catholic sentiment was insistent that Donne take holy Orders in the Anglican church.
In 1615, a reluctant John Donne was appointed Royal Chaplain and Reader in Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn law school. The University of Cambridge also belatedly conferred upon him a Doctor of Divinity degree).
Donne’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise again and the Chaplain gained a reputation as a dramatic and eloquent speaker. But two years into his new career, his beloved wife died whilst giving birth to their twelfth child. Donne’s poems now took on a more mournful tone and the great love poems on which he had made his reputation were finished.
In 1618, Donne published one his most important works Holy Sonnets and traveled to Germany as part of an embassy. Upon his return to London Donne was appointed Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral, a post he held until 1623.
In 1624 a serious illness forced Donne from his post at St. Paul’s. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written following this serious illness, was published in 1624 are metaphysical prose meditation on life, death and immortality. The most famous of these writings, Meditation 17, includes the famous lines “No man is an island” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Donne was appointed a Vicar at a London church in 1624 and he continued to preach and write. By 1630, constant sickness was affecting Donne and he was becoming obsessed with death and dying. An official portrait had him portrayed in a shroud and he even wrote and preached his own elegy, called Death’s Duel, which he read in his church with King Charles I in the audience a few weeks before his death. Donne died in London in 1631 and was buried in St. Paul’s.