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3.3: John Donne (1572-1631)

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    John Donne was born into a family of devout Roman Catholics at a time when Roman Catholics were greatly persecuted in England. His mother, Elizabeth, came from a family related to Thomas More. One of Donne’s uncles, who was a Jesuit, was imprisoned, sentenced to death, and exiled for heading a clandestine mission in England. Donne’s brother Henry was arrested for harboring a priest; Henry died of the plague in Newgate Prison. In effect, Donne was a member of a minority group. His family was wealthy enough to afford Donne the Grand Tour, but he was hindered by his religious faith.

    He was sent to Oxford at the age of eleven not because he was a child prodigy but because graduates at sixteen were supposed to pledge allegiance to the English monarch rather than the Pope. He matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford but was unable to earn a law degree because he was Roman Catholic. He also probably studied at Cambridge then traveled abroad. Upon returning to London, Donne studied law, the classics, divinity, and languages. He also lived somewhat as a libertine, a young man around town, frequenting plays and admiring women. And he wrote verses, sonnets, Ovidian elegies to love, satires that challenged literary tradition and religious authority, and essays dealing with paradoxes and problems.

    As a writer, Donne was both unique and original. He was a seeker, always accepting and rejecting ideas. He took a skeptical approach to reality, using awkward meter and a jumble of allusions and objects in his poems. Instead of perpetuating what he felt was the trite blandness of the typical Elizabethan metaphor in which a lady was described as a “fair flower,” her lips like rubies and her hair like gold, Donne used striking images and the metaphysical conceit, that is, a less ornamental but still often extravagant metaphor which points out an unusual parallel between what are usually highly dissimilar elements. He forces his readers to accept his conceits by surprising them with their aptness or causing them to see new details in an accepted analogy. Donne’s poems include a series of heterogeneous objects yoked masterfully, even violently, together. For he had an intellectual avidity, a hunger for the Absolute that would resolve all (often conflicting) particulars. For a time, love seemed to be that Absolute, that would make his “circle just” (“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” 35).

    In 1597, Donne was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (1540-1617), the keeper of the seal; he also served as a member of parliament. His career looked promising; he was a world traveler and a soldier who fought with Sir Walter Raleigh in the expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores. He fell in love with Anne More, the seventeen-year-old niece of Lord Egerton, and they secretly married. Their marriage was illegal, though, and Anne’s father, Sir George More, had Donne imprisoned. The marriage was later sanctioned, but Donne’s position in Egerton’s service was lost and his career in pieces.

    Donne (re)pieced together a career by writing anti-Catholic treatises, all the while hoping for political preferment. He was befriended by Sir Robert Drury, whom he accompanied to the Continent and who allowed Donne’s family a home on the Drury estate. He was offered a job as a benefice for the church, which he refused. Realizing that his only path to advancement lay in the Church of England, Donne converted to Anglicanism. Anne Donne died in 1617; Donne was ordained as a priest and became Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. He was a powerful preacher at a time when sermons were given extraordinary attention. Besides sermons, Donne wrote translations, elegies, satires, and holy sonnets devoted to God, the great Absolute that translates “all our scattered leaves” into an open book, made perfect before God (Meditation 17).

    Suffering from the fever that ultimately killed him, Donne preached his own funeral sermon. He also had his portrait taken, dressed in a shroud: he made a masterpiece of death.


    Donne's Works

    3.04.01: The Good-Morrow

    3.04.02: The Sun Rising

    3.04.03: The Indifferent

    3.04.04: Break of Day

    3.04.05: Love's Alchemy

    3.04.06: The Flea

    3.04.07: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

    3.04.08: Holy Sonnet 3

    3.04.09: Holy Sonnet 4

    3.04.10: Holy Sonnet 5

    3.04.11: Holy Sonnet 10

    3.04.12: Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation 17

    3.04.13: Reading and Review Questions

    This page titled 3.3: John Donne (1572-1631) is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bonnie J. Robinson & Laura Getty (University of North Georgia Press) .

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