The English poet and politician John Donne is considered to the founding figure of the metaphysical poetry movement. He is celebrated for his robust and sensual way of working with words and for his lushly constructed elegies, songs, satires and sermons. He was born in London, in 1572, to a Roman Catholic family at a time when the religion was outlawed. He died, in 1631, after a struggle with what is now thought to have been cancer.
The poet and cleric was a true artist when it comes to the metaphysical conceit and it shows in pieces like The Canonisation, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, and An Anatomy of the World. His early work is admired for its vivacity of language and its playfulness, particularly in comparison to the work of his peers. In fact, Donne was a deeply political poet at heart and he used style and form to rail against tradition.
The young Donne was brought into the world in the midst of great theological conflict throughout Europe. The near constant clashes between Catholics and Protestants could hardly have escaped him, because Donne was born to a family still practising an illegal religion. It is no surprise then that his future work would repeatedly return to spiritual issues and his own personal interactions with God.
During his teens, Donne spent time studying at Cambridge and Oxford. However, he felt both without formal qualifications, because in order to be awarded a degree, he had to subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles – the doctrine which governed Anglicanism. In 1593, his brother Henry Donne was arrested for hiding a Catholic priest and later died in prison of the plague.
Following the brutal treatment and eventual death of his sibling, Donne started to assess the value of such devotion to the Catholic Church – he certainly started to wonder if it was worth his life. After a great deal of emotional turmoil, he gave in and subscribed to the Anglican Church. He wrote the majority of his romantic lyrics, erotic poetry, and religious works during this period (1590s) – two key anthologies were published, Satires and Songs and Sonnets.
In 1598, Donne was made private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. It was here that he would fall in love, becoming taken with the sixteen year old niece of his employer. In 1601, the pair wed in secret, but life would not be kind to Donne and Anne Moore. At first, Thomas Egerton so deeply abhorred the marriage that he actually had Donne jailed – naturally, he refused to pay a dowry for the nuptials either.
This meant that the couple started their life as newlyweds with very little money. Once Donne was released from prison, he and his wife moved to Surrey and into the home of his cousin Sir Francis Wolley. This was an extremely kind thing for Wolley to do, because even though Donne was earning a small wage as a lawyer, the couple produced a remarkable amount of children in a relatively short space of time (twelve in sixteen years).
The family lived within a state of near constant anxiety about money and there was at least one occasion, following a second stillborn delivery, after which Donne talked of suicide. In fact, he wrote (but did not publish) a critical defence of the act of suicide in Bianthanatos. In 1617, Anne Donne died – the 17th Holy Sonnet tells of his grief for her passing.
In 1621, he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet, Donne continued to be wracked by guilt, grief, and a fear of his own mortality and his later works make this very clear. The collection Devotions upon Emergent Occasions was penned during a time of serious sickness. In 1631, Donne passed away (probably of stomach cancer) in London.