Childhood & Early Years
John Donne was born on 22 January 1573 in London. His father, also named John Donne, was a warden of the Ironmongers Company and a practicing Roman Catholic at a time, when adherence to the religion was a punishable offence.
His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, also from a recusant Roman Catholic family, was the daughter of the reputed playwright and poet John Heywood. He had several siblings including a brother named Henry and two sisters named Mary and Catherine.
In 1576, when John was not even four years old, his father died. His mother remarried Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, within a few months of her first husband’s death. Thus young John Donne was raised by his mother and stepfather.
Although there is no proof, it is generally believed that Donne began his education at home under a Jesuit. His maternal uncle, Jasper Heywood, was a Jesuit priest and that might have given rise to such ideas.
In 1583, as John Donne entered his eleventh year, he was admitted to Hart Hall, now Hertford College, University of Oxford. He studied there for three years and then shifted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for three more years.
However, at that time, to receive their degrees, graduates were required to take the Oath of Supremacy. As a Roman Catholic, he refused take any such oath and so he did not get his degrees. Thereafter in 1591, he entered Thavie's Inn to be trained as a barrister.
Later on 6 May 1592, he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court in London, the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales. By that time, he had inherited considerable fortune and so instead of practicing, he spent his wealth on women, literature and travel.
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Career & Later Life
In 1593, his brother Henry, a university student, was arrested for harboring William Harrington, a Catholic priest. Subsequently, he was lodged in Newgate prison, where he died of bubonic plague. The incident shook John Donne’s conviction in Roman Catholicism.
He then travelled across Europe, subsequently joining the Anglo-Spanish War. In 1596, he fought with Sir Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and witnessed the city being ransacked by the British troop.
Next in June 1597, he took part in the British expedition to Azores. Once the expedition failed, instead of returning to England with the armada, Donne spent some time in Italy and Spain before returning to the country.
By the time he returned to England in 1598, 25 year old John Donne was prepared for the diplomatic career. That very year, he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton.
It is plausible that he had by then become an Anglican; otherwise, he would not have been appointed to the post. He now started living in Egerton's London home, York House, in the Strand and was treated, not as a servant, but more as a friend.
It was here that John Donne met Lady Egerton’s niece Anne More, daughter of George More, the Chancellor of the Garter and fell in love with her. Knowing that there was little chance of getting her father’s blessings, they secretly got married in December 1601.
Enraged, George More made sure that Donne lost his position as Chief Secretary under Sir Egerton. Not satisfied with that, More had him thrown into the notorious Fleet Prison. The priest and the witness were also put under arrest.
Later, it was proved that the marriage was legally valid and consequently, all of them were released. However, Donne was now without any job and there was little scope for him to get another public office. As a result, his financial position was very precarious.
His wife’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, provided them with a small accommodation in Pyrford, Surrey. Sometime in 1602, Donne was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley. But since this was not a paid position, his financial condition improved very little.
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In the spring of 1605, Donne moved his family to Mitcham, London. Here he began to work as a lawyer, earning a meager income, still fighting poverty. In spite of such financial misery, he continued writing on theology, canon law, and anti-Catholic polemics, etc.
He also composed love lyrics, religious poetry, and complimentary and funerary verse. Thus he made many friends, who in 1607, urged him to take holy order in the Church of England.
However, he continued unsuccessfully to look for secular employment. In and around 1608, the condition became so bad that he even contemplated taking his own life. Instead, he wrote his famous poem, ‘Biathanatos', a work in which he defended suicide. Fortunately for him, good time was not far away.
In 1609 Anne’s father finally relented and provided them with her dowry. Moreover, with the succession of King James I of Scotland to the throne of England, coterie poetry became a fashion. Donne seized the opportunity and began to write poetries for wealthy friends and patrons.
In 1610, Donne published his anti-Catholic polemic ‘Pseudo-Martyr.’ In it, he established that Roman Catholics could support King James I without compromising their religious loyalty to the Pope. The poem won him the king’s favor and also the patronage from many prominent personalities.
Among them was MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted. Impressed by his talent, Drury became Donne's chief patron. In the following year, he took him on a tour across Europe. On their return, he provided Donne with an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane.
Donne now tried to get a place in the Court. Though King James I appreciated his poetries, he refused to give him the place. Instead he urged him to take up the holy order, which Donne finally did in 1615.
On January 23, 1615, John Donne was ordained deacon and priest. Soon, he was made a Royal Chaplain at the command of the king. In the same year, the Cambridge University conferred on him the degree of doctor of divinity.
In 1616, Donne was made a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn. Here he served as a minister of the Chapel, a position he held until 1622. Meanwhile, his wife died in 1617 and having lost his emotional anchor, he veered more towards his vocation.
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In 1618, he became Chaplain to James Hay, Viscount Doncaster. As Doncaster was sent on a mission to Germany, Donne accompanied him. He remained in Germany for about two years, returning to England in 1620.
On 22 November 1621, Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a position he held until his death. It was not only one of the most prestigious positions under the Church of England, but was also well-paying and he carried out his duties with efficiency and integrity.
Vey soon, his sermons began to attract a wide range of audiences and he became known as one of the foremost preachers of his time. Along with his Holy duties, he continued with his writing.
In 1623, John Donne became very ill. From his sickbed, he began contemplating on the relationship between physical and spiritual sickness. It culminated into a series of prose, covering death, rebirth, and the concept of sickness as a visit from God.
In 1624, these writings were published as ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.’ In the same year, he became vicar of St. Dunstan-in-the-West. In the following year, he was made a prolocutor to King Charles I.
Throughout his life, John Donne continued giving sermons, 160 of which survive till today. Among them most famous was ‘Death's Duell, or A Consolation to the Soul, against the dying Life and the living Death of the Body.’ It was delivered before King Charles I in February 1631 at the Palace of Whitehall, shortly before his own death.
Personal Life & Legacy
John and Anne Donne spent a major part of their married life in abject poverty. Yet, they were very close to each other. When Anne died on 15 August 1617, Donne vowed never to marry again and brought up his children single handedly.
In their sixteen years of married life, Anne bore him twelve children, two of whom were stillbirths. Their ten surviving children were Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy, Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret, and Elizabeth.
Towards the end of his life, John Donne was afflicted with what is believed to be stomach cancer and died on 31 March 1631. He was later buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. The John Donne Memorial, a bust statue sculpted from bronze by Nigel Boonham, was commissioned in the churchyard of the Cathedral in 2012.
Moreover, he has been 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.