John Donne was born in Bread Street, London, England, sometime between January 23 and June 19 in 1572, the third of six children. His father, of Welsh descent, 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 children. 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 a great-niece of 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. Elizabeth Donne nee Heywood married Dr John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after John Donne Sr's death. The next year, 1577, John Donne's sister Elizabeth died, followed by two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, in 1581. Before the future poet was ten years old he had thus experienced the deaths of four of his immediate family. 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 1593 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. According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1640: “ ... 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. ”
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 (some say 14 or 16) year old niece, Anne More, and they were secretly married in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison along with the priest who married them and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proved valid, and soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when he wrote to his wife to tell her about losing his post, he wrote after his name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. 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. Over the next few years he scraped a meagre living as a lawyer, depending on his wife’s cousin Sir Francis Wolly to house him, his wife, and their children. Since Anne Donne had a baby almost every year, this was a very generous gesture.
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 eleven children (including still births). The nine living were named Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (after Donne's patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas and Margaret. Francis and Mary died before they were ten. 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.
 Early poetry
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 carefully to examine one's religious convictions than blindly to 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.
Because love-poetry was very fashionable at that time, there are different opinions about whether the passionate love poems Donne wrote are addressed to his wife Anne, but it seems likely. She spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing, so they evidently had a strong physical relationship. On August 15, 1617, his wife died five days after giving birth to a still-born baby, their eleventh child in sixteen years of marriage. Donne mourned her deeply and never remarried. This was quite unusual for the time, especially as he had a large family to bring up.
 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. Although Donne was at first reluctant due to feeling unworthy of 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.
After Anne Donne's death in 1617, 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. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. 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. John Donne is buried in St Paul's, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself.
 Later poetry
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. It is interesting to note that Donne wrote his will on St Lucy's Day (December 13th) 1630. His poem 'A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, being the shortest day' concerns his despair at the death of a loved one. Donne expresses a feeling of utter negation and hopelessness, saying that "I am every dead thing...re-begot Of absence, darkness, death". Although it is probable that this poem was written in 1627 when both his friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford and his daughter Lucy Donne died, it seems fitting that three years later he chose to write his will on the date he had described as "Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight."
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.
 Sexual desire in the Holy Sonnets
While Donne's Holy Sonnets may have appeared markedly different from his earlier poetry with the shift from addressing the speaker's mistress to complete devotion to God; the two remain very similar in terms of sexuality. Donne's earlier poetry, specifically the Elegies, are obsessed with the speakers fleshy lust for his mistress and the desire to sexually dominate her, while the Holy Sonnets are concerned with the speakers complete religious devotion to God, yet still the speaker's desire for a sexual relationship. In fact, the speaker of the Holy Sonnets equates complete religious devotion with a sexual experience, and this time wishes to be the sexually dominated.
Ben Saunders, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oregon and the author of Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation claims that, "John Donne was not above addressing God himself in tones of 'immoderate desire' variously adopting the postures of demand, seduction, desperation, fidelity, and abjection in his poetic prayers" (Saunders 1). One of Donne's most famous Holy Sonnets, Sonnet 14, has that violently sexual religious tone. Here the speaker pleads with God, in lines 11-14 to, "Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,/ Take me to You, imprison me, for I/ Except You enthral me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me (Black 926). In this Holy Sonnet, the speaker demands God to completley fill his life, yet the desire of the speaker becomes one that seems to be asking to be violently raped by God. The speaker even goes so far as to ask God to "ravish" him. This sonnet reveals Saunders assertion that Donne, "wrote constantly about the desires that racked and delighted him" (Saunders 1).
Professor Frank Warnke, professor and head of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia as well as a prominent Donne scholar, argues that, "The speaker in the Holy Sonnet lavishes upon God all the ingenuity and eloquence he had once devised for his earthly mistresses (Warnke 105). In Holy Sonnet 18, the speaker is again very interested in Christ as a sexual figure. In this poem the speaker alludes to a sexual relationship between himself, Christ, and the Church when in lines 11-14 the speaker says, "Betray, Kind husband, Thy spouse to our sights,/ And let mine amorous soul court Thy mild dove,/ Who is most true and pleasing to Thee men/ When she's embraced and open to most men (Black 927). Warnke claims that in these lines, "The sonnet concludes with the paradox that Christ, the bridegroom of the Church, is pleased when His bride is sexually possessed by as many men as possible. He thus becomes a wittold, or cooperative cuckold - to the Renaissance mind (or to earthly conceptions) the most contemptible of beings (Warnke 110).
Black, Joseph ed., Supplement to Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2007.
Warnke, Frank. John Donne. Kinney, Arthur F., ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Saunders, Ben. Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
 Feminist criticism of Donne
Critics debate over the actual role of the lady audience in John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets. While at surface value, they are of romantic nature directed at a female audience held in high regard by the speaker, there are some critics that see the lady as marginal to the poems’ speaker, who focuses strictly on his own feelings. Some call him “an egocentric sensualist who ignored the feelings of the woman, ”1 while others see in Donne’s work “his own intense personal moods, as a lover, a friend, an analysis of his own experiences worldly and religious.” 2 Depending on the interpretation of the text, Donne may be seen as a doting lover or chauvinistic narcissist. Still, there is a third point in the center of this spectrum, understanding both extremes. To compromise these two viewpoints is the opinion that, “self-consciousness can easily seem like self-absorption, an inclination to attitudes of withdrawn egocentricity.” 3 A famous criticism of Donne came from fellow poet John Dryden, saying that Donne “perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with softnesses of love.” 4 In an ironic twist, Dryden’s critique of Donne’s work stands on the assumption that the women being praised in the poems were shallow and dim-witted, unable to understand the high praises Donne was giving to them.
1 Kenneth Muir, ed., Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), p. xxix.
2 Sir Herbert Grierson, “Donne and Metaphysical Poetry,” John Donne’s Poetry, ed. A.C. Clements (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 122; Crofts, p. 82.
3 Illona Bell, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 1, The English Renaissance. (Winter, 1983), p. 113-129.
4 John Dryden, A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), cited in A.C. Clements, ed., John Donne’s Poetry (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 106.
 Interpretation of John Donne’s Meditation XVII
In the most famous passage of Meditation XVII, the arrangement of words physically becomes the nature of the idea. Consider the passage, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (Donne). The words of this passage flow into each other; they follow each other perfectly, without pause. There is a string of descriptions that all tie beautifully into one whole. This structure conveys that man flows onto man. Every death, every birth, every inkling of pain of any one human is infinitely felt in the conscience of mankind. No man is exiled; no man is alone; he cannot be; he is part of a whole in this earth, and in the next, he is united with God. This passage is a physical mirror of its context. According to Douglas Trevor’s article “John Donne and Scholarly Melancholy”, “Donne often describes ecstatic religious experience with the same metaphors of earthly instability and material metamorphoses he uses to catalogue his melancholic, self-destructive inclinations”. I don’t believe that Donne’s writing, especially in Meditation XVII, can be interpreted as self-destructive. Donne is genuine; he is harsh by saying that nothing else but God can save man. He makes a strong argument against the veneration of material possessions, but this is in no sense self-destructive. It is a humbling of man before God, a warning to man that he will not find salvation in earthly gain. But rather, salvation is rooted in our realization of the soul and spirit that connects us with all other human beings, and ultimately to God. According to Paul Harland’s article “Dramatic Technique and Personae in Donne’s Sermons”, even though the author is referring specifically to the sermons, I believe that the thought could be applied to Meditation VXII as well, “For Donne, the grandeur of the human condition could be found in the fact that, by accepting or denying God’s grace, individuals might elect or change their natures. The happiness of human beings is God’s abiding purpose, but the quality of that happiness depends upon wholly voluntary service.” An example of this is, “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less” (Donne). This is a significant idea. A clod, a little piece of dirt, washed away by the sea, can lessen all of Europe. As a man, one little man, you can influence, can touch, can affect all of mankind. It is a beautiful idea, it gives man purpose; it gives him meaning, a reason for being. You are not only you, but part of a whole, part of something greater, part of God. In Meditation XVII, not only through his rhetoric, but through his ideas, Donne shows man’s connection to his fellow man, to every object on this earth, and ultimately, to God.
Harland, W. Paul. “Dramatic Technique and Personae in Donne’s Sermons,” ELH Vol. 53, No. 4. (Winter, 1986), pp. 709-726.
Trevor, Douglas. “John Donne and Scholarly Melancholy,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 81-102.
John Donne is commemorated as a priest in the Calendar of Saints of the Anglican Communion and in the calendar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31.
The memorial to John Donne, modeled after the engraving pictured above, was one of the only such memorials to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and now appears in St Paul's Cathedral south of the quire.
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. An example of this is his equation of lovers with saints in "The Canonization." 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 judgmental 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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