John Donne is so widely quoted that he ranks near the top of the canon of well-known authors, not far behind his near contemporary, William Shakespeare. Perhaps his best-known line, from Meditation 17 in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a prose...
John Donne was born in London in 1572 into the family of the successful and wealthy ironmonger John Donne. His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was descended from the family of Sir Thomas More. His mother was an accomplished literary woman, the author of epigrams and interludes, although she did not live long enough to teach John much about poetry or writing. Both sides of Donne's family were respected Catholics in an England in which the dominant religion had become Anglicanism.
When Donne was very young (ages four and five) his parents died in rapid succession. He was put in the care of Dr. John Syminges, whom his mother had married after the death of John Donne senior. The young Donne was, like most children of his class at this time, educated at home until he went to Hart Hall (now Hertford College), Oxford, in 1583. After three years there he went on to Cambridge for another three. Since he was a Catholic, neither university would grant him a degree. He left university and studied law at Lincoln's Inn in 1592.
As a young man Donne was, by any standard and certainly by those of a future clergyman, wild and even dissipated. His early poems, "many of them outspokenly sensual and at times cruelly cynical" (Chambers 413), do not reconcile easily with much of the divine literature of his later life. There is some evidence that he had at least one affair with a married woman, and also that he frittered away a large portion of his inheritance in unworthy pursuits.
Donne traveled in Europe for a time, and he was part of the English military force, headed by the Earl of Essex, which fought the Spanish at Cadiz. He spent a few years in Spain and then in Italy, returning to England at the age of twenty-five. In England he was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, who was the Lord-Keeper of the Great Seal (a high government office). This brought Donne into contact with many influential and important people in governmental, court, literary, and church circles. A great amount of Donne's poetry was written during this time, but he did not attempt to publish any of it. It was passed from hand to hand.
While in Egerton's service, Donne met and fell in love with the Lord-Keeper's niece, Anne More. In 1601, when Donne was twenty-nine and Anne was seventeen, the two secretly married, presumably because if they had married openly they would have met opposition from her family. This action lost Donne his position with the Lord-Keeper, and he was thrown into Fleet Prison for several weeks. What followed were several years of poverty for the couple, with Donne trying, unsuccessfully, to attach himself to another high official in the government. Doubtless his Catholic faith and his willingness to deceive authority figures did not help his career at this time.
Donne was elected to Parliament for Brackley in 1602, but since Members were not paid it did not help the Donne family's finances. Donne continued to write, including some poetry which might be considered "on commission" for his rich friends.
By 1610 Donne had begun to write polemics against his own faith, Catholicism. It is not clear exactly what turned Donne away from this faith which his family had so famously adhered to in the face of adversity in years past. Perhaps Donne did have a true spiritual change of heart, or perhaps the difficulties of his faith and the needs of his growing family made him accept (or at least pretend to accept) the dominant faith of his time.
After their marriage the Donnes had a baby almost every year, and for a long time they were dependent on Anne Donne's cousin, Sir Francis Wolly. Financial security and success would not come until Donne had joined the Anglican Church. Notably during this time, Donne wrote Biathanos (a defense of suicide), the Holy Sonnets, and other divine poems.
In 1611 Donne printed his first poem, an elegy for Sir Robert Drury's daughter. This was followed by other published poems, and the Drurys took Donne into their home as well as abroad with them to Paris. Donne's anti-Catholic writing had attracted the notice of King James I, who encouraged him to enter the clergy of the Anglican church. Finally, in 1615, Donne did so. He was almost instantly successful as a clergyman, being offered several posts during the first year of his divinity (Chambers 414). In this year Donne became a Royal Chaplain, and within three years he obtained his Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge.
Anne Donne died after giving birth to their twelfth child (stillborn) in 1617. His surviving children numbered ten, although three died before they were ten years old. Donne never remarried, though it would have been in his best interest to do so for his large family. It is apparent both from his poetry and from historical writing about him that he mourned her deeply.
After Anne's death, Donne devoted himself wholeheartedly to religion and theology, and he became a successful clergyman and a highly sought sermonist. In 1621 Donne became the Dean of St. Paul's (St. Paul's Cathedral in London), which was a very well paid and extremely influential post within the Church of England. He held this post until his death in 1631. During the last ten years of his life his literary output was mostly sermons.
As was the fashion and custom of the day, Donne's poems were mostly circulated in manuscript form. A collection of them was not made until after his death in 1633. His earliest poetry, which is often graphically sensual in nature, might have embarrased the staid and respected Dean of St. Paul's in his later life. The fashion of poetry was slowly changing from the Elizabethan freedom of expression to a more restrained style. Donne's existing ouevre spans his early sensuality and intellectual experimentation up to his most dogmatic and theological works of his later years. His style, though recognizable throughout, changed with his changes in status and the events around him.
Spanning the Elizabethan and Renaissance worlds, Donne can be viewed as a transitional poet: both sensual and divine, constrained and free. He has been studied consistently since his death, weathering fashions in poetry and criticism, and his poetry and prose have provided food for thought across many successive generations.