John Donne was a famous English poet, satirist, lawyer and priest of his time. Known for his realistic and sensual style, his writings include a whole gamut of literary works right from sonnets, love poetry and religious poems to Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. As a representative of metaphysical poets, his collection of poetry is a complete stand out for their vibrant language and inventiveness of metaphor. One of the important themes of his poems was the idea of true religion. He wrote many secular poems which showed his considerable attention in religious beliefs. Apart from the metaphysical poetry, Donne also wrote erotic and love poems. His works were witty, had employed paradoxes, puns, and subtle analogies. His writings often carried ironic and cynical elements, especially regarding love and human motives. In later years of life, Donne became an Anglican priest following an order of King James I. After serving as a member of parliament twice in 1601 and 1614, he was appointed as the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London in 1621. He had earned reputation as an eloquent preacher and sermon reader. 160 of his sermons have survived till date.
John Donne was born in London, England on January 21, 1572 in a Roman Catholic family. His father, also named John Donne, was a warden at the Ironmongers Company in London. His mother, Elizabeth Heywood was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright and the sister of Rev. Jasper Heywood, a Jesuit priest and translator. Donne was the third of the six children of the pair. His father died in 1576 when he was only four. His mother remarried to Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower. But in a span of a year, his mother died along with his two sisters, Mary and Katherine. At the age of eleven, Donne took admission in Hart Hall, now Hertford College of Oxford. After spending three years in Oxford, he was admitted to University of Cambridge where he studied for next three years. But because of his Catholicism, he couldn’t attain a degree from either of the colleges, since it was necessary for graduates to take the Oath of Supremacy at that time.
At the age of nineteen, in 1591, Donne was taken as a student in Thavies Inn, a legal school. The following year he was accepted in Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court. Donne’s family always faced problems for their Catholic faith. His brother, Henry Donne was arrested in 1593 during his graduation days for harboring a Catholic priest, William Harrington. Henry was hanged but until not quite dead and then was subjected to disembowelment. He was sent to Newgate prison where he died of bubonic plague. This incident lead John Donne to consider over his Catholic faith. Donne spent his most of inherited wealth on women, literature, pastimes and travel during and after his education. There was not much record of his traveling but it was believed that Donne traveled to parts of Europe. It was also said that he fought with Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and the Azores in year 1596 and 1597 respectively.
Career & Later Life
When he turned 25, Donne was well prepared for the diplomatic career that he was looking forward to. 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 initial days of poetry, his poems showed his mastery over the language. They mostly reflected his critical view about the problems of the English society. He also dealt with the theme of eroticism, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors. John Donne was elected as the Member of Parliament in year 1602 but as this was not a paid job, it left him in the patronization of his rich friends. For the following years he wrote for his wealthy friends as a means to seek their patronage. “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) and “Of the Progress of the Soul” (1612) are examples when he had written for his patron, Sir Robert Drury.
After leaving the Catholic Church, Donne wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: “Pseudo-Martyr” and “Ignatius his Conclave”. Although King James I of England liked his work, he didn’t reinstate him in court. Instead, he was asked to take holy orders. In the year 1615, Donne became a Royal Chaplain in Church of England and the Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in following year. He became the chaplain to Viscount Doncaster which was an embassy to the princess of Germany in late 1618. In year 1621, Donne took the position of Dean of St Paul's in Church of England, which he held till his death. In late 1623, he suffered from a near fatal illness. During the period of his recovery, he wrote a number of prayers and meditations on health and pain which was published in 1624 with the title, “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”. This book became quite famous for its phrase "for whom the bell tolls" and for the golden statement that "no man is an island".
In 1625, Donne became a Royal Chaplain to Charles I. In last years of his life, tone of his poems changed to a more somber and pious level. This change was clearly evident in the poem, "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day" which he probably wrote on the death of Donne's friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and his daughter Lucy. His increased gloominess can also be seen in his later religious writings. After converted to Anglican Church, Donne started concentrating in religious literature and very soon became noted for his sermons and prayers. During his last days, his writings started challenging the death and established him as an eloquent preacher and sermon reader. He delivered his famous Death’s Duel sermon at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.
During his office as chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, John Donne fell in love with the Egerton's niece Anne More and they married in 1601. Since the marriage was against the wish of Egerton and Anne More’s father, George More, Donne had to go to Fleet Prison for a brief time. Donne was released soon after but had to live a retired country life in Pyrford, Surrey. Anne gave birth to 12 children in 16 years including two stillbirths. She died on August 15, 1617 after five days of the birth of their 12th child which was a stillbirth. John Donne never married again.
It was believed that Donne suffered from stomach cancer which was the most prominent reason of his death. He died on March 31, 1631 and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. A memorial statue of him was erected at the Cathedral with a Latin epigraph engraved on it.