John Donne Biography (Life and Works)
John Donne— A Short Biographical Sketch
Family background: John Donne was born some time in the first half of 1572 in the City of London. His father was a prosperous merchant of Welsh ancestry, who rose to be warden of the Ironmongers’ Company in 1574. Two years later he died. Donne’s mother was Elizabeth Heywood, daughter of John Heywood, epigrammatist and playwright. The family had a strong Roman Catholic tradition. Donne’s mother’s brothers, Ellis Heywood and Jasper, were both Jesuits who died in exile. His younger brother, Henry, died at the age of nineteen in 1593, having caught fever in the prison to which he had been committed for providing shelter to priest.
Education and early poems: In 1584, Donne matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford. As it was impossible for a Roman Catholic to take the oath of supremacy required at graduation, he left without taking a degree. According to Izaac Walton, Donne went to Cambridge on leaving Oxford. He entered as a law student at Thavies Inn, London, in 1591, and moved to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. He read voraciously and lived gaily. He was described as a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, and a great writer of conceited verses. Most probably he travelled extensively during the period between leaving Oxford and entering the rims of Court. According to one account, about the nineteenth year of his age he, being unresolved what religion to adhere to, put aside other studies m order to survey and consider the body of divinity. But the dandy and wit, and the serious student, are both reflected in the poems Donne wrote at this time. His poems, though not published until after his death, were circulated in manuscript, and like Wyatt’s and Surrey’s, had an immense influence on younger poets. Part of this poetry is in such classical forms as satires, elegies, and epistles (though its style has anything but classical smoothness), and part is written in lyrical forms of extraordinary variety.
Expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores: In 1596, Donne went on the Earl of Essex’s Cadiz expedition, an enterprise that ranked for daring with the repulse of the Armada. In 1597, he went on the voyage to the Azores. The Storm and The Calm, brilliant examples of poetical journalism, describe this second expedition. On his return he became Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper. He had, by this time, conformed to the Church of England (In other words, he had given up his Catholic faith).
Marriage and its consequences: In 1601, he fell passionately and seriously in love with Ann More, the young niece of the Lord Keeper and, by his secret marriage to her, ruined his chances of a promising diplomatic career. He was imprisoned for the offence of marrying a minor without her guardian’s consent, and the girl’s father, Sir George More, secured his dismissal from Egerton. On his release, he found himself without employment and, his wife without a dowry. For fourteen years after that he ate the bitter bread of dependence. He had spent his patrimony as a young man about town and the following years were years of poverty and humiliation. His marriage proved to be the great error of his life from the worldly point of view. In his mood of despair he yet wrote wittily to his wife: “John Donne, Ann Donne, Un-done.” At the beginning of his married life, Donne was lucky to be offered board and lodging at Pyrford by his wife’s cousin Sir Francis Wooley. In this quiet Surrey village, he spent three years of retirement increasing his knowledge, reading widely (chiefly in theology), away from the storms and glare of London, where during this time the great Elizabeth Age came slowly to its dose. Between 1590 and 1602 Donne must have written many of the secular poems we now admire. Residence with Wooley lasted from 1602 to 1604. After the death of Wooley, the Donnes took a house at Mitcham (also in Surrey), until such time (1609) as Sir Robert Drury took them under his protection.
Writings In verse and prose: The finest of Donne’s poems, the Songs and Sonnets, cannot be dated with any certainty. But some were certainly written after his marriage, since they assume a king upon the throne. The more serious and impassioned of them centre, in all probability, round Ann More. The more cynical and outrageous of these poems belong perhaps to the Lincoln’s Inn period. To the same period belong the Elegies, and the Paradoxes and Problems (in prose). These last, however, are a warning of the uncertainty of such a conjecture, since Donne was capable of amusing himself with this kind of witty trifling as late as 1607. Donne did not write for publication. He wrote to please himself and his friends. Original as the Songs and Sonnets are, many are brilliant variations on stock themes. The impulse behind any one of them may have been an artistic pleasure in making something new out of an old topic rather than a wish to express personal feeling. According to another view, however, most of these poems convey personal experiences of the author.
The end of financial worries: From 1602 to 1615 Donne struggled to find ways to support himself and his growing family. His wife bore him twelve children, seven of whom survived her. She died a premature death in 1617. At first he depended on charity, but after a few years he found a use for his extensive learning in helping Thomas Morton in his controversies with Roman Catholics. As early as 1607 Morton had urged Donne to take orders, but Donne had refused on grounds of personal unworthiness. Donne was probably also reluctant to give up all hope of a secular career. Sir George More at last relented over the dowry, and Donne found himself free from serious financial worry.
Friendships with Mrs. Herbert and the Countess of Bedford: Donne had a gift for friendship, and knew well many of the people who mattered most outside the narrow and exalted circle of the court itself. Among his friendships at this time it is pleasant and important to note one in particular: his association with the Herbert family, and especially with Magdalen Herbert, a remarkable woman and most virtuous. Donne wrote for this woman the lovely elegy The Autumnal where, he says, “affection takes reverence’s name.” The Autumnal is a characteristic metaphysical poem of Donne’s middle period, thoroughly secular in style. An even greater lady among Donne’s friends at this time was his patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford who lived at Twickenham and to whom Donne addressed some of his Verse Letters. Through her he came into contact with influential persons.
Two prose works: His first published work, Pseudo-Martyr (in prose), written to persuade Roman Catholics to take the oath of allegiance, appeared in 1610. It earned him an honorary degree of MA. at Oxford and also brought him to the notice of the King. This weighty work was followed by Ignatius his Conclave (1611), a brilliant and bitter little squib against the Jesuits.
His ordination: In 1610, Donne found a new patron in Sir Robert Drury who took him abroad from November, 1611 to August, 1612. On his return he courted the King’s powerful favourite Viscount Rochester. He wrote to Rochester expressing an intention to lake orders. But a later letter to a friend, asking him to use his influence with Rochester to secure a diplomatic post, shows him wavering. There is no doubt of Donne’s reluctance to take orders. But he finally gave way in obedience to King James’s direct pressure. He was ordained on the 23rd January, 1615 and at the age of forty-three began a new life as a priest. Shortly after his ordination Donne was, by royal command, made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge, and his fame as a preacher spread so rapidly that he was offered benefices in many parts of the country. He refused them all, for he did not wish to leave London. When in 1617 his wife died, leaving him with seven children to bring up, he withdrew from the world and became a solitary. “In this retiredness”, wrote Izaak Walton, “which was often from the sight of his dearest friends, he became crucified to the world, and all those vanities, those imaginary pleasures, that are daily acted on that restless stage: and they were perfectly crucified to him”
Poetic works of his middle years: During these middle years Donne wrote two poems for publication, the Anniversaries of 1611 and 1612, in commemoration of the death of Elizabeth Drury, the 15 year old daughter of his patron. He also composed funeral pieces, complimentary epistles, and two epithalamions : one for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, and the other for the wedding of Somerest and the Countess of Essex. Most of his “Divine Poems” belong to this period also, notably A Litany and two sets of sonnets: La Corona, a linked sequence on the mysteries of the Christian religion, and the Holy Sonnets, in which with intense feeling and great force of language he treats the age-old themes of meditation : sin, death, and judgment. After his ordination Donne wrote very little poetry. His creative impulse found a new outlet in preaching.
As a churchman: Donne felt a deep satisfaction in the exercise of his functions as a churchman, and was conscientious in performing his duties. Like all distinguished churchmen of his day, he was a pluralist, holding country livings as a non-resident and the city living of St. Dunstan-in-the-West. In 1616, he was appointed Reader in Divinity to the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn. In 1619, he went abroad as chaplain to Viscount Doncaster on a mission to the German princes in an effort to avert the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. In 1621, he became Dean of St. Paul’s. There was a proposal in 1630 to make him a bishop, but he was by then a very sick man. He died in London on the 31st March, 1631, and was buried in St. Paul’s, where his monument still stands.
A great preacher: Donne received many tributes to his impressiveness in the pulpit. He was a favourite preacher at court, and much approved by that learned theologian, King James. James’s more devout, if less learned, son, Charles I, chose Donne to preach the first sermon of his reign. But Donne’s finest sermons were preached in St. Paul’s on the great feasts. They are splendid examples of the formal sermon, preached under heads given by the dividing of the text and buttressed with massive scriptural and patristic quotations, full of flashes of poetic imagination. They also display a profound knowledge of the human heart and a firm grasp on the central doctrines of Christianity. A few sermons were printed in his life-time. His only other publication after his ordination was Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions – (1624), the fruit of a serious illness in the winter of 1623. During this illness, Donne wrote the ‘hymn to God the Father”, and “Hymn to God in My sickness”, although, according to another version, he wrote this last poems on his death-bed.
The last sermon: The monument: Donne was too ill to preach at Christmas 1630, but he was able to preach before the King on the 12th February, 1631. His appearance, as an obviously dying titan, made a deep impression and many said that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon. This last sermon, under the title “Death’s Duel”, was published shortly after his death. Between preaching this sermon and his death, Donne had his picture painted in his shroud and composed his epitaph. The picture was lie original of the engraved portrait prefixed to “Death’s Duel”, and from it Nicholas Stone carved the monument in St. Paul’s, where Donne stands in his shroud upon an urn.
Posthumous publications: Eighty sermons, which Donne had written out in full as a legacy to his son, were published by the latter in 1640, with the first version of Walton’s Life of Donne prefixed. A further fifty sermons appeared in 1649. The younger Donne also published Essays in Divinity and Letters to Several Persons Of Honur in 1651. The Poems, which had circulated widely in manuscript copies, appeared in 1633, and an enlarged edition in 1635. It is not known who was responsible for these editions. There were further editions in 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654, and 1669. Between the last of these and the appearance of Donne in John Bell’s Poets of Great Britain (1779), there is only Jacob Tonson’s edition of 1719.
Biographies by Izaac Walton and Edmund Gosse: Walton revised his Life of Donne (1640) in 1658 and again in 1670 and 1675. His declared purpose, to show the world “the best plain picture of the author’s life which my artless pencil, guided by the hand of truth, could present”, does not indicate the degree to which he was prompted by the desire to present his hero in the most edifying light. Sir Edmund Gosse’s Life and Letters of John Donne (1899) remains the only full biography, but it is extremely unreliable. All students of Donne have to be on their guard against Walton’s gift for charming and probable anecdote, and Gosse’s habitual inaccuracy and constitutional inability to distinguish between fact and conjecture.
The essential truth about Donne lies in these words of Izaak Walton. “He was by nature highly passionate, but more apt to reluct all the excesses of it. A great lover of the offices of humanity, and of so merciful a spirit, that he never beheld the miseries of mank ind without pity and relief”