(1572-1631) poet, preacher
John Donne was born in London into a family with strong Catholic roots. His mother was related to Thomas more, famously beheaded by Henry VIII. Donne’s uncle was executed in 1594 for performing Masses, and his brother died while in prison for harboring a priest. Donne studied at both Cambridge and Oxford, and later acquired a promising post as secretary to Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Edger-ton. Then, in 1601, he abruptly ruined his career by eloping with Edgerton’s niece, Anne More. He spent much of his life away from London, helping raise his 12 children. During this period he read voluminously; wrote but did not publish a treatise on suicide, Biathanatos; and published two anti-Catholic tracts, Pseudo-martyr (1610) and Ignatius His Conclave (1611). In 1611 and 1612 he commemorated the death of Anne Drury, his patron’s 14-year-old daughter, with Anniversaries, two lengthy and enigmatic poems about the decay of the world and the progress of the soul.
Pseudo-martyr earned the admiration of King James, who urged Donne to enter the ministry. Donne took orders in 1615 and began a very successful ecclesiastical career. In the last decade of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s in London, he was the most famous preacher of his age.
In 1624 he published Devotions, a series of 24 prayerful meditations upon his near-fatal illness. Death was a frequent subject in his later meditations. He was said to have preached his own funeral sermon in Death’s Duel (1630), and near the very end he posed for his monument in his funeral sheets. Soon after his death, the poems on which much of his later fame rests were published as a book, accompanied by elegies penned by such poets as Ben jon-son and Thomas Carew. Donne’s elegies are rhymed erotic poems that address a lover, describe an amorous situation, or develop a philosophy of love. In “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” the speaker of the poem urges his beloved to undress, describes the process in ingenious images, and compares caressing her to the excitement of global exploration. Contemplating exploration in conjunction with caressing a woman’s body provokes thoughts of conquest and rule, sexual dominance, ideas of New World treasure, and finally expectations of honor.
Donne’s art is one of radical compression. In one of his great religious sonnets, he summarizes all the possible modes of death in two lines:
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain….
His logic, reaching out to extremely diverse areas of experience, asks the reader to pay attention, hold possibilities in suspension, and finally draw conclusions without explicit statement.
If Donne’s concise, compressed lyric poems are like miniature dramas so self-involved as to suggest someone acting in front of a mirror, then the sermons are lengthy performances that offer instruction and spiritual solace. For instance, trying to conceive of the angelic wisdom that the saved shall experience on Judgment Day, Donne argues. “There our curiosity shall have this noble satisfaction.” He then reviews at some length the human ways of knowing (school, books, experience) and uses a metaphor in which the world is a library. Despite the greatness of this library, however, it is nothing compared to the knowledge of God’s glory.
Despite a revival of interest in Donne’s work, spearheaded by the critic T. S. Eliot in the early part of the 20th century, Donne’s popularity has waned in the last few decades. One reason is the loss of interest in the lyric form of poetry in the current age. Another is Donne’s mode of masculine self-assertion, which some may equate with misogyny. Nevertheless, Donne remains a striking artist who left a work charged with intellectual energy. Through self-dramatization, he fashioned a persona, earthly and spiritual, that came alive through his works.
Other Works by John Donne
John Donne: The Complete English Poems. New York: Penguin, 1971.
John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels: With a Selection of Prayers and Meditations. Edited by Evelyn M. Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
The Sermons of John Donne. Edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Works about John Donne
Corthell, Ronald. Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: The Subject of Donne. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Edwards, David L. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Papazia, Mary Arshagouni, and Ronald Corthell, eds. John Donne and the Protestant Reformation: New Perspectives. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2003.