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John Donne

c.1572-1631

John Donne

Known as the greatest of the metaphysical poets, John Donne was born in early 1572 in London. His father was a successful ironmonger, and his mother's family had ties to Sir Thomas More. Donne was educated at both Oxford and then Cambridge three years later, but left both institutions without a degree, perhaps because as a Catholic he was unable to swear the required oath of allegiance to the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. He later studied law, first at Thavies Inn in 1591 and then at Lincoln's Inn in 1592 before taking part in two naval expeditions with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. The first of these was to Cadiz in 1596 and the second to the Azores with Sir Walter Raleigh in 1597. Upon his return from the latter in 1598, Donne was appointed private secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. He was dismissed from that position and briefly thrown into prison in 1601 after marrying Egerton's niece, Anne More, without her father's permission. After his release, he struggled for nearly fourteen years to support his growing family that would eventually include twelve children, of which only seven would live to adulthood. However, in 1608, there was reconciliation between Donne and his father-in-law, and the couple was awarded Anne's dowry, which helped to relieve their poverty in part.

Although raised as a Roman Catholic, Donne denounced his faith, perhaps a decision made after seeing members of his family persecuted or possibly because he realized that it would be difficult to find work at Court (as he wished) while he openly retained his beliefs. He became a member of the Anglican Church in 1594, and this change was not likely to have been an easy transition, as his unfinished work Progresse of the Soule (1601) and the completed Satyre III show. After his short imprisonment, Donne moved first to Pyford and then to Mitcham in Surrey in the hope of being able to find work. While living on the support of his wife's cousins, he sought the favor of the Court, knowing that his chances of a civic job were slim after the circumstances surrounding his marriage. With the help of friends and patrons, he gained the notice of King James I, and though the king refused to give him work at Court, he did agree to find him work within the church, and Donne was appointed at the monarch's command.

Donne was charged to work under Thomas Morton (later to be Bishop), an anti-Catholic publisher of pamphlets echoing such sentiments. At the king's urging, Donne became more involved in the church and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1614. Following this, he received, at James's request, the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge. He traveled Europe, preaching in France, Spain and Germany, and after holding many offices, among them chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Germany, James appointed Donne the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1621. He was known for the eloquent sermons he gave there, some of which are still extant, including one of his final sermons, Death's Duell, sometimes referred to as his funeral sermon. Had it not been for his poor health, Donne may have become Bishop in 1630; instead he vacated his post as Dean of St. Paul's and died of stomach cancer in late March 1631.

Donne's writing can be separated into three distinct eras: 1590-1601, 1601-1614, and 1614 until his death, the period of his religious duties and ministry. His first writings were very passionate but sometimes cynical about their subjects. Much of his early work, both poetry and prose, involved religious matter, including the previously mentioned Progresse of the Soule.

After his marriage in 1601, Donne's writing style changed. He became more meditative in his work, and his personal religious trials still haunted him, as can be seen in the prose piece Biathanatos, a defense of suicide, and the sonnet Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God, For You. Another well-known prose work was Donne's Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610. The piece attacks the recusants' unwillingness to swear the oath of allegiance to the king, which Catholics were required to do after the attempt by Guy Fawkes to destroy Parliament on 5 November, 1605. The work impressed James I so much that he ordered Oxford to confer an honorary Master of Arts degree on Donne.

Following his wife's death in 1617 after the birth of a stillborn child, Donne's works reflected his deep emotions and spirituality. His writings of this time included La Corona, Holy Sonnets (which contained Death Be Not Proud) and a moving tribute to his wife written after her death. His writings also became more autobiographical, as shown in To God My God, in my Sicknesse and The Author's Last Going into Germany.

While the term 'metaphysical' can be applied to any poetry that explores spiritual or philosophical matters, it is usually used in reference to the poems of a group of 17th-century English poets that includes Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, among others. The term was first used by John Dryden in relation to Donne alone and then extended to others in the group by Samuel Johnson, but it is not entirely appropriate as these writers were often less concerned with the nature of reality than with how to regard God and women. The metaphysical poets are linked more by similarities of style - an intellectual tone and extended, disparate metaphors, for example - than by a common outlook.

Much of Donne's writing, as in the unfinished Progresse of the Soule, is not of the beautified language typical of Elizabethan poets; Donne's works contain many startling paradoxes, or conceits, typical of the metaphysical poets. Much of his work was considered too erotic or too cynical for the taste of his contemporaries; many of his peers thought it unpoetic, but more modern readers have been captivated by it. Donne's most widely read and largely accepted work is Songs and Sonnets, which is comprised of both religious and love poetry. Within these poems is a voice, uncommon for writers of his era, that transcends time and communicates to the reader the passion and the anguish felt by Donne as he wrote. Many of the poems in Songs and Sonnets were dedicated to his patroness, Lucy, Countess of Bedford; to his spiritual beliefs; and to his life-long problems with the renunciation of his Catholic faith.

Donne was not published widely during his lifetime; however, much of his poetry was published in the years immediately following his death, and his son published over 150 of his sermons in 1640, 1649 and 1661 in three folios. Donne was not truly appreciated until modern times when such notable writers as T.S. Eliot have given praise to his work.



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