He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially compared to that of his contemporaries. Donne's style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. These features, along with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax and his tough eloquence, were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne's poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering and about which he often theorized. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. In 1615 he was ordained deacon and then Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Holy Orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. He also served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614.
Donne was born in London, into a recusant Roman Catholic family when practice of that religion was illegal in England. 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.
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. 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. She was a great-niece of the Roman Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne's closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons. Donne was educated privately; however, there is no evidence to support the popular claim that he was taught by Jesuits. 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. 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. 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.
In 1591 Donne was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. On 6 May 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court. 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. Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, and then subjected to disembowelment. Henry Donne died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.
During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel. 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. According to Izaak Walton, who wrote a biography of Donne in 1658:
... 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
By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking. 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.
During the next four years Donne fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were secretly married just before Christmas 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, 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. In spring 1605 they moved to another small house in Mitcham, London, where he scraped a meager living as a lawyer, 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.
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. His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.
In 1602 John Donne was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley, but membership was not a paid position. 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.
In 1610 and 1611 Donne wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave for Morton. He then wrote two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612) for Drury. Although James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. At length, Donne acceded to the king's wishes, and in 1615 was ordained priest the Church of England.
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, where he served in the chapel as minister until 1622. 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. 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. 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.
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. In 2012 a bust of the poet by Nigel Boonham was unveiled outside in the cathedral churchyard.
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 reflected his strongly satiric view of a 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."
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. In "Elegy XIX: To His Mistris 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. Donne did not publish these poems, although he did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.
... 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..— Donne, Meditation XVII[a]
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. 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 of Hawstead, Suffolk. 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.
The poem "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day", 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 thing ... re-begot / 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 (13 December), 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 scepticism 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 and devotional works 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 of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 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, "Death Be Not Proud", 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; death becomes merely another process of life, in which the 'winding sheet' of the womb is the same as that of the grave. Hope is seen in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.
His work has received much criticism over the years, especially concerning his metaphysical form. Donne is generally considered the most prominent member of the metaphysical poets, a phrase coined in 1781 by Samuel Johnson, following a comment on Donne by John Dryden. Dryden had written of Donne in 1693: "He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love." In Life of Cowley (from Samuel Johnson's 1781 work of biography and criticism Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets), Johnson refers to the beginning of the seventeenth century in which there "appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets". Donne's immediate successors in poetry therefore tended to regard his works with ambivalence, with the Neoclassical poets regarding his conceits as abuse of the metaphor. However 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 and critics like F R Leavis tended to portray him, with approval, as an anti-Romantic.
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. 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. One of the most famous of Donne's conceits is found in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" where he compares two lovers who are separated like 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.
John Donne's poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry. 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 classical-minded Ben Jonson commented that "Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging").
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.
During his lifetime several likenesses were made of the poet. The earliest was the anonymous portrait of 1594 now in the National Portrait Gallery, London which has been recently restored. One of the earliest Elizabethan portraits of an author, the fashionably dressed poet is shown darkly brooding on his love. The portrait was described in Donne's will as "that picture of myne wych is taken in the shaddowes", and bequeathed by him to Robert Kerr, 1st Earl of Ancram. Other paintings include a 1616 head and shoulders after Isaac Oliver, also in the National Portrait Gallery, and a 1622 head and shoulders in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1911 the young Stanley Spencer devoted a visionary painting to John Donne arriving in heaven (1911) which is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
After Donne's death, a number of poetical tributes were paid to him, of which one of the principal (and most difficult to follow) was his friend Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "Elegy for Doctor Donne". Posthumous editions of Donne's poems were accompanied by several "Elegies upon the Author" over the course of the next two centuries. Six of these were written by fellow churchmen, others by such courtly writers as Thomas Carew, Sidney Godolphin and Endymion Porter. In 1963 came Joseph Brodsky's "The Great Elegy for John Donne".
Beginning in the 20th century, several historical novels appeared taking as their subject various episodes in Donne's life. His courtship of Anne More is the subject of Elizabeth Gray Vining's Take Heed of Loving Me: A novel about John Donne (1963) and Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (2010). Both characters also make interspersed appearances in Mary Novik's Conceit (2007), where the main focus is on their rebellious daughter Pegge. English treatments include Garry O'Connor's Death's Duel: a novel of John Donne (2015), which deals with the poet as a young man. He also plays a significant role in Christie Dickason's The Noble Assassin (2012), a novel based on the life of Donne's patron and (the author claims) his lover, Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford. Finally there is Bryan Crockett's Love's Alchemy: a John Donne Mystery (2015), in which the poet, blackmailed into service in Robert Cecil's network of spies, attempts to avert political disaster and at the same time outwit Cecil.
There were musical settings of Donne's lyrics even during his lifetime. These included Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger's ("So, so, leave off this last lamenting kisse" in his 1609 Ayres); John Cooper's ("The Message"); Henry Lawes' ("Break of Day"); John Dowland's ("Break of Day" and "To ask for all thy love"); and settings of "A Hymn to God the Father" by John Hilton the younger and Pelham Humfrey (1688). After the 17th century there were no more until the start of the 20th century with Havergal Brian ("A nocturnal on St Lucy's Day", first performed in 1905), Eleanor Everest Freer ("Break of Day, published in 1905) and Walford Davies ("The Cross", 1909) among the earliest. In 1945, Benjamin Britten set nine of Donne's Holy Sonnets in his song cycle for voice and piano The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Lieder.net currently lists 162 settings of 62 texts by Donne. Among them is also the choral setting of "Negative Love" that opens Harmonium (1981) by John Adams..
There have been settings in popular music as well. One is the version of the song "Go and Catch a Falling Star" on John Renbourn's debut album John Renbourn (1966), in which the last line is altered to "False, ere I count one, two, three". On their 1992 album Duality, the English Neoclassical Dark Wave band In The Nursery used the entirety of Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" for the track "Mecciano" and an augmented version of "A Fever" for the track "Corruption."
Prose texts by Donne have also been set to music. In 1954, Priaulx Rainier set some in her Cycle for Declamation for solo voice. In 2009, the American Jennifer Higdon composed the choral piece On the Death of the Righteous, based on Donne's sermons. Still more recent is the Russian minimalist Anton Batagov's " I Fear No More, selected songs and meditations of John Donne" (2015).
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