John Donne: Poems

Biography

Early life

Donne was born in London, into a recusant Roman Catholic family when practice of that religion was illegal in England.[5] Donne was the third of six children. His father, also named John Donne, was of Welsh descent and a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London. Donne's father was a respected Roman Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention out of fear of persecution.[6][7]

His father died in 1576, when Donne was four years old, leaving his son fatherless and his widow, Elizabeth Heywood, with the responsibility of raising their children alone.[2] Heywood was also from a recusant Roman Catholic family, the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of the Reverend Jasper Heywood, a Jesuit priest and translator.[2] She was a great-niece of the Roman Catholic martyr Thomas More.[2] This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne's closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons.[8] Donne was educated privately; however, there is no evidence to support the popular claim that he was taught by Jesuits.[2] Donne's mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after Donne's father died. Donne thus acquired a stepfather. Two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, died in 1581. Donne's mother lived her last years in the Deanery after Donne became Dean of St Paul's, and died just two months before Donne, in January 1631.[9] In 1583, the 11-year-old Donne began studies at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford. After three years of studies there, Donne was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years.[10] However, Donne could not obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required to graduate.[11]

In 1591 Donne was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London.[2] On 6 May 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court.[2] In 1593, five years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and during the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), Queen Elizabeth issued the first English statute against sectarian dissent from the Church of England, titled "An Act for restraining Popish recusants". It defined "Popish recusants" as those "convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Service there, but forbearing the same contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf". Donne's brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, whom he betrayed under torture.[5] Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, and then subjected to disembowelment.[5] Henry Donne died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.[7]

During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel.[6] Although no record details precisely where Donne travelled, he did cross Europe 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.[2][12] According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1658:

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... 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.

— Izaak Walton[13]

By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking.[12] 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.

Marriage to Anne More

During the next four years Donne fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were secretly married just before Christmas[5] in 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and George More, who was Lieutenant of the Tower and Anne's father. Upon discovery, this wedding ruined Donne's career, getting him fired and put in Fleet Prison, along with the Church of England priest Samuel Brooke, who married them,[14] and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released shortly thereafter when the marriage was proven valid, and he soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when Donne 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.

After his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in a small house in Pyrford, Surrey, owned by Anne's cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, where they resided until the end of 1604.[2][3] In spring 1605 they moved to another small house in Mitcham, London, where he scraped a meager living as a lawyer,[15] while Anne Donne bore a new baby almost every year. Though he also worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton writing anti-Catholic pamphlets, Donne was in a constant state of financial insecurity.[2]

Anne gave birth to 12 children in 16 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. The 10 surviving children were Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (named after Donne's patron Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Three (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 mouth fewer to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time, Donne wrote but did not publish Biathanatos, his defense of suicide.[16] His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby.[2] Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.

Career and later life

In 1602 John Donne was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley, but membership was not a paid position.[2] Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, being succeeded by King James VI of Scotland as King James I of England. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave Donne a means to seek patronage, and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted (1575–1615), whom he met in 1610 and became Donne's chief patron, furnishing him and his family an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane.[12]

In 1610 and 1611 Donne wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave for Morton.[2] He then wrote two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul[17] (1612) for Drury.

Donne sat as an MP again, for Taunton, in the Addled Parliament of 1614 but though he attracted five appointments within its business he made no recorded speech.[18] Although James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders.[7] At length, Donne acceded to the king's wishes, and in 1615 was ordained priest in the Church of England.[12]

In 1615 Donne was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge University, and became a Royal Chaplain in the same year, and a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616,[2] where he served in the chapel as minister until 1622.[19] In 1618 he became chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620.[3] In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading and well-paid position in the Church of England, which he held until his death in 1631. During his period as dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. In late November and early December 1623 he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by a period of fever. 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. One of these meditations, Meditation XVII, later became well known for its phrases "No man is an Iland" (often modernised as "No man is an island") and "...for whom the bell tolls". In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a prolocutor to Charles I.[2] He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including Death's Duel, his famous sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.

Death

Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul's Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him by Nicholas Stone was erected with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. The memorial was one of the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is now in St Paul's Cathedral. The statue was claimed by Izaac Walton in his biography to have been modelled from the life by Donne in order to suggest his appearance at the resurrection; it was to start a vogue in such monuments during the course of the 17th century.[20] In 2012 a bust of the poet by Nigel Boonham was unveiled outside in the cathedral churchyard.[21]


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