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John Donne

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John Donne
John Donne
Born 1572
London, England
Died 31 March 1631
Occupation Poet, Priest, Lawyer
Nationality English
Genres Satire, Love poetry, Elegy, Sermons
Subjects Love, Sexuality, Religion, Death
Literary movement Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne, pronounced /ˈdʌn/ "dun" (21 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English Jacobean poet, preacher and a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period. His works are notable for their realistic and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially as compared to those of his contemporaries.

Despite his great education and poetic talents, he lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. In 1615 he became an Anglican priest and, in 1621, was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Early life

John Donne BBC News

A portrait of Donne as a young man, c. 1595. Artist unknown. In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.[2]

John Donne was born on Bread Street in London, England, into a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal in England.[3] 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 Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention out of fear of being persecuted for his religious faith.[4][5]

Donne's father died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their children.[5] Elizabeth Heywood, also from a noted Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Jasper Heywood, the translator and Jesuit. She was a great-niece of the Catholic martyr Thomas More.[6] This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne’s closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons.[7] Despite the obvious dangers, Donne’s family arranged for his education by the Jesuits, which gave him a deep knowledge of his religion that equipped him for the ideological religious conflicts of his time.[6] Donne's mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after Donne's father died. In 1577, his mother died, followed by two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, in 1581.

John Donne house Pyrford

Part of the house where John Donne lived in Pyrford.

Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years.[8] He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates.[6]

In 1591 he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court[6], where he held the office of Master of the Revels.[3] His brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, whom Henry betrayed under torture.[3] Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, and then was subjected to live disembowelment.[3] Henry Donne died in Newgate prison of bubonic plague, leading John Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.[5]

During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel.[4][6] Although there is no record detailing precisely where he traveled, it is known that he traveled across Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cádiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe.[1][5][9] According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1640:

... 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.

By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking.[9] 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 he fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were married just before Christmas [3] in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison, along with the priest who married them and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proven valid, and soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when he 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.

Following his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey.[6] Over the next few years he scraped a meagre living as a lawyer, depending on his wife’s cousin Sir Francis Wolly to house him, his wife, and their children. Since Anne Donne had a baby almost every year, this was a very generous gesture. Though he practised law and worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton, he was in a state of constant financial insecurity, with a growing family to provide for.[6]

Anne bore him 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 named Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (after Donne's patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret and Elizabeth. Francis, Nicholas and Mary died before they were ten. In a state of despair, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time Donne wrote, but did not publish, Biathanatos, his defense of suicide.[7] His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, including writing the 17th Holy Sonnet.[6] He never remarried; this was quite unusual for the time, especially as he had a large family to bring up.

Early poetry

Donne's earliest poems showed a developed knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers. His images of sickness, vomit, manure, and plague assisted in the creation of a strongly satiric world populated by all the fools and knaves of England. His third satire, however, deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. He argued that it was better to examine carefully one's religious convictions than blindly to follow any established tradition, for none would be saved at the Final Judgment, by claiming "A Harry, or a Martin taught [them] this."[7]

Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being compared to sex.[9] In Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII, he compared the gap between his lover's breasts to the Hellespont.[9] Donne did not publish these poems, although did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.[9]

Career and later life

Donne was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley in 1602, but this was not a paid position and Donne struggled to provide for his family, relying heavily upon rich friends.[6] The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave him a means to seek patronage and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially Sir Robert Drury, who came to be Donne's chief patron in 1610.[9] Donne wrote the two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul, (1612), for Drury. While historians are not certain as to the precise reasons for which Donne left the Catholic Church, he was certainly in communication with the King, James I of England, and in 1610 and 1611 he wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave.[6] Although James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders.[5] At length, Donne acceded to the King's wishes and in 1615 was ordained into the Church of England.[9]


A few months before his death, Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse.[10] He hung the portrait on his wall as a reminder of the transience of life.

Donne became a Royal Chaplain in late 1615, Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge University in 1618.[6] Later 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.[6] In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England and one he held until his death in 1631. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. It was in late November and early December of 1623 that he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by the seven-day relapsing 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. Meditation XVII later became well known for its phrase "for whom the bell tolls" and the statement that "no man is an island". In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a Royal Chaplain to Charles I.[6] He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death’s Duel sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.

Later poetry

... any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Some have speculated that Donne's numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more somber and pious tone in his later poems.[9] The change can be clearly seen in "An Anatomy of the World" (1611), a poem that Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. This poem treats Elizabeth's demise with extreme gloominess, using it as a symbol for the Fall of Man and the destruction of the universe.[9]

The poem "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day," being the shortest day of the year, concerns the poet's despair at the death of a loved one. In it Donne expresses a feeling of utter negation and hopelessness, saying that "I am every dead / Of absence, darkness, death." This famous work was probably written in 1627 when both Donne's friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and his daughter Lucy Donne died. Three years later, in 1630, Donne wrote his will on Saint Lucy's day (December 13), the date the poem describes as "Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight."

The increasing gloominess of Donne's tone may also be observed in the religious works that he began writing during the same period. His early belief in the value of skepticism now gave way to a firm faith in the traditional teachings of the Bible. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature. He quickly became noted for his sermons and religious poems. The lines of these sermons would come to influence future works of English literature, such as Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which took its title from a passage in Meditation XVII, and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, which took its title from the same source.

Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally. One example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, from which come the famous lines “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Even as he lay dying during Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death's Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.[7][9][11]


It is thought that his final illness was stomach cancer. He died on 31 March 1631 having written many poems in his lifetime (though only in manuscript - his poems would not be printed and published until two years after his death); but having left a body of work fiercely engaged with the emotional and intellectual conflicts of his age. John Donne is buried in St Paul's, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself.


John Donne was famous for his metaphysical poetry in the 17th century. His work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion. He did this through the use of conceits, wit and intellect — as seen in the poems "The Sun Rising" and "Batter My Heart".

Donne is considered a master of the metaphysical conceit, an extended metaphor that combines two vastly different ideas into a single idea, often using imagery.[7] An example of this is his equation of lovers with saints in "The Canonization." Unlike the conceits found in other Elizabethan poetry, most notably Petrarchan conceits, which formed clichéd comparisons between more closely related objects (such as a rose and love), metaphysical conceits go to a greater depth in comparing two completely unlike objects, although sometimes in the mode of Shakespeare's radical paradoxes and imploded contraries. One of the most famous of Donne's conceits is found in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" where he compares two lovers who are separated to the two legs of a compass.

Donne's works are also witty, employing paradoxes, puns, and subtle yet remarkable analogies. His pieces are often ironic and cynical, especially regarding love and human motives. Common subjects of Donne's poems are love (especially in his early life), death (especially after his wife's death), and religion.[7]

John Donne's poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry.[12] Donne is noted for his poetic metre, which was structured with changing and jagged rhythms that closely resemble casual speech (it was for this that the more classically-minded Ben Jonson commented that "Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging").[7]

Some scholars believe that Donne's literary works reflect the changing trends of his life, with love poetry and satires from his youth and religious sermons during his later years. Other scholars, such as Helen Gardner, question the validity of this dating - most of his poems were published posthumously (1633). The exception to these is his Anniversaries which were published in 1612 and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624. His sermons are also dated, sometimes specifically by date and year.

His work has received much criticism over the years, especially concerning his metaphysical form.[7] Donne's immediate successors in poetry tended to regard his works with ambivalence, while the Neoclassical poets regarded his conceits as abuse of the metaphor. He was revived by Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Browning, though his more recent revival in the early twentieth century by poets such as T. S. Eliot tended to portray him as an anti-Romantic.[13]


John Donne is commemorated as a priest in the calendar of the Church of England and in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31.[14]

Sylvia Plath, interviewed on BBC Radio in late 1962, said the following about a book review of her collection of poems titled The Colossus that had been published in the United Kingdom two years earlier: "I remember being appalled when someone criticized me for beginning just like John Donne but not quite managing to finish like John Donne, and I felt the weight of English literature on me at that point."[15]

The memorial to John Donne, modeled after the engraving pictured above, was one of the few such memorials to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and now appears in St Paul's Cathedral, where Donne is buried.

Donne in literature

Donne has appeared in several works of literature:

  • A dying John Donne scholar is the main character of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer prize-winning play Wit (1999), which was made into the film Wit starring Emma Thompson.
  • Donne's Songs and Sonnets feature in The Calligrapher (2003), a novel by Edward Docx.
  • John Donne appears, along with his wife Ann and daughter Pegge, in the award-winning novel Conceit (2007) by Mary Novik.
  • Donne and Ann's love is depicted in Maeve Haran's novel "The Lady and the Poet".



  • Poems (1634)
  • Poems on Several Occasions (2001)
  • Love Poems (1905)
  • John Donne: Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions and Prayers (1990)
  • The Complete English Poems (1991)
  • John Donne's Poetry (1991)
  • John Donne: The Major Works (2000)
  • The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (2001)


  • Six Sermons (1633)
  • Fifty Sermons (1649)
  • Paradoxes, Problemes, Essayes, Characters (1652)
  • Essayes in Divinity (1651)
  • Sermons Never Before Published (1661)
  • John Donne's 1622 Gunpowder Plot Sermon (1996)
  • Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel (1999; first published in 1624)
  • One Million Sermons (2009)

Critical works

  • John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, (London 1981)
  • A. L. Clements (ed.) John Donne's Poetry (New York and London, 1966)
  • Stevie Davies, John Donne (Northcote House, Plymouth, 1994)
  • T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets", Selected Essays, (London 1969)
  • G. Hammond (ed.) The Metaphysical Poets: A Casebook, (London 1986)
  • Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Bibliography of Donne, (Cambridge, 1958)
  • George Klawitter, The Enigmatic Narrator: The Voicing of Same-Sex Love in the Poetry of John Donne (Peter Lang, 1994)
  • Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986)
  • H. L. Meakin, John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine, (Oxford, 1999)
  • Joe Nutt, John Donne: The Poems, (New York and London 1999)
  • E.M. Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, (Oxford, 1962)
  • C. L. Summers and T. L. Pebworth (eds.) The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986)
  • John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination, (Oxford, 1991)
  • Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (Oxford 2008)
  • James Winny, A Preface to Donne (New York, 1981)
  • Francis William Teodoro, A New Tomorrow Needs Us
  • James Lyle Canda, Someone is Needing My Love
  • Pauline T.C Algas, Two Against My One Heart

See also

Cleanth Brooks,(2004) "The Language of Paradox" in Julie Rivkan, Michael Ryan (eds) Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd ed. pp. 28–39



  1. 1.0 1.1 Donne, John. Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Accessed 2007-2-19.
  2. The painting on the NPG's website.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Schama, Simon (2009-05-26). "Simon Schama's John Donne". BBC 2. Retrieved 2009-06-18. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Donne, John" by Richard W. Langstaff. Article from Collier's Encyclopedia, Volume 8. Bernard Johnston, general editor. P.F. Colliers Inc., New York: 1988. pp. 346–349.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Donne, John." Article in British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. The H.W. Wilson Company, New York: 1952. pp. 156–158.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 Jokinen, Anniina. "The Life of John Donne." Luminarium. 22 June 2006. Accessed 2007-1-22.[1]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton anthology of English literature, Eighth edition. W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. ISBN 0393928284. pp. 600–602
  8. Donne, John in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: Part VII: The Age of Reason Begins. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1961. pp. 154–156
  10. Lapham, Lewis. The End of the World. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 1997. page 98.
  11. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought by Terry G. Sherwood University of Toronto Press, 1984, page 231
  12. John Donne. Island of Freedom. Accessed 2007-2-19.
  13. The Best Poems of the English Language. Harold Bloom. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2004. pp. 138–139.
  14. (PDF) Evangelical Lutheran Worship - Final Draft. Augsburg Fortress Press. 2006. 
  15. Voices and Visions television documentary episode about Sylvia Plath telecast on PBS for the first time on August 14, 1988. Her recollection of the book revewier comparing her to John Donne is from an audio clip of one of her BBC radio appearances that she made in late 1962 after separating from her husband, poet Ted Hughes.

External links

bg:Джон Дън ca:John Donne cs:John Donne cy:John Donne da:John Donneeo:John Donnega:John Donne ko:존 던ku:John Donne hu:John Donne ml:ജോണ്‍ ഡണ്‍nds-nl:John Donne ja:ジョン・ダン no:John Donnept:John Donne ro:John Donne ru:Донн, Джон sk:John Donne sl:John Donne fi:John Donne sv:John Donne tr:John Donne uk:Джон Донн vi:John Donne zh:约翰·多恩

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