John Donne (1572 – 1631) was an English poet, satirist, lawyer and a cleric in the Church of England. He left a body of work that included sonnets, songs, elegies, sermons, Latin translations and prose essays. His poetry was noted for 'its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially compared to that of his contemporaries'.
Donne was born in London, into a Roman Catholic family when practice of that religion was illegal in England. He was the third of six children. Donne's father died in 1576, when Donne was four years old, and Donne's mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after Donne's father died. Two of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, died in 1581.
Donne studied law and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court. Despite the deaths of his sisters, father and later his brother Henry, Donne's early life seemed quite carefree. During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel. He travelled across Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597). According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1658:
... he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.
At the age of 25, he was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. He fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More and they were married in 1601, against the wishes of Anne's father. This wedding ruined Donne's career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison, along with Samuel Brooke, who married them. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife's dowry.
After his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey. Over the next few years, he scraped a meagre living as a lawyer, depending on his wife’s cousin to house him, his wife, and their children. 'Because Anne Donne bore a new baby almost every year, this was a very generous gesture'.
Donne was in a constant state of financial insecurity. Anne bore John twelve children in sixteen years of marriage (including two stillbirths—their eighth and then, in 1617, their last child); indeed, she spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing. Three children (Francis, Nicholas, and Mary) died before they were ten. In a state of despair that almost drove him to kill himself, 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 defence of suicide. His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, being succeeded by King James I of Scotland. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave Donne a means to seek patronage. Although James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. At length, Donne acceded to the King's wishes and in 1615 was ordained into the Church of England. 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. He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen.
Donne's early poems are largely satirical. In his early years and the period of his marriage Donne was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed 'unconventional metaphors'. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style.
But after the deaths of his children and wife, he became far more thoughtful, covering the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. He argued that it was better to examine carefully one's religious convictions than to blindly follow any established tradition. His beliefs veered away from both Catholicism and Church of England and became more spiritual in nature. Donne's numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends and family all contributed to the development of this 'more somber tone', in fact a far deeper and inquiring tone.
What makes his poems interesting, is the increasing use of symbolism in them, a way of expressing his true beliefs whilst hiding them from those ignorant of the symbolism. And the symbolism he uses is very consistent with the symbolism I have managed to put together on this site – a sort of universal code that appears to have been used from China to the Americas.
In late November and early December 1623 he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be typhus. During his convalescence he wrote a series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness that were published as a book in 1624 under the title of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, took its title from a passage in Meditation XVII of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, 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. He had a very firm conviction that the Higher spirit survives death. Holy Sonnet X,
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”
Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul's Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud).
... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
—Donne, Meditation XVII
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.