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 work, is often quoted as poetic: "No man is an island."
Donne has enjoyed a rather cyclical popularity with critics and the reading public, going through phases of celebration and ignorance. He is, for most readers, a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.
A division in Donne's poetry can be drawn between his early, sensual love poetry (often full of Christian imagery but carnal in tone) and his later, largely sacred poetry. There are exceptions, but this is a generally useful distinction. It will be noted that in almost no edition of Donne's works are dates hazarded for most of his poems, and it is difficult in some cases to make even this basic division. Even though publication dates may be available for some poems during Donne's lifetime, it is important to remember that his poems were often circulated for many years in manuscript before publication was sought. Therefore, the dates of printing are meaningless as origination dates except as the latest possible date for any particular poem.
Donne had had several reverses in his life, including the deaths of his parents, the deaths of several of his children at birth and under the age of ten, financial difficulties and, perhaps most poignantly, the early death of his wife. His hardships as an adult would eventually change him from the young spendthrift and sometime soldier who wrote "The Sunne Rising" to the somber, almost death-obsessed writer of the Holy Sonnets and the Meditations of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
Useful generalizations about so large and varied a body of work as Donne's are not easy. He was a profoundly religious poet, with a peculiarly strong hold on and interest in the physical things of life. He used a unique lens to view his world, creating spectactularly unlikely comparisons that enlightened the reader on the nature of both of the things compared, sometimes in surprising ways. He continues to be read and discussed today, four hundred years after he lived.