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John Donne's Life and Poetry

by William J. Long

Life. The briefest outline of Donne's life shows its intense human interest. He was born in London, the son of a rich iron merchant, at the time when the merchants of England were creating a new and higher kind of princes. On his father's side he came from an old Welsh family, and on his mother's side from the Heywoods and Sir Thomas More's family. Both families were Catholic, and in his early life persecution was brought near; for his brother died in prison for harboring a proscribed priest, and his own education could not be continued in Oxford and Cambridge because of his religion. Such an experience generally sets a man's religious standards for life; but presently Donne, as he studied law at Lincoln's Inn, was investigating the philosophic grounds of all faith. Gradually he left the church in which he was born, renounced all denominations, and called himself simply Christian. Meanwhile he wrote poetry and shared his wealth with needy Catholic relatives. He joined the expedition of Essex for Cadiz in 1596, and for the Azores in 1597, and on sea and in camp found time to write poetry. Two of his best poems, "The Storm" and "The Calm," belong to this period. Next he traveled in Europe for three years, but occupied himself with study and poetry. Returning home, he became secretary to Lord Egerton, fell in love with the latter's young niece, Anne More, and married her; for which cause Donne was cast into prison. Strangely enough his poetical work at this time is not a song of youthful romance, but "The Progress of the Soul," a study of transmigration. Years of wandering and poverty followed, until Sir George More forgave the young lovers and made an allowance to his daughter. Instead of enjoying his new comforts, Donne grew more ascetic and intellectual in his tastes. He refused also the nattering offer of entering the Church of England and of receiving a comfortable "living." By his "Pseudo Martyr" he attracted the favor of James I, who persuaded him to be ordained, yet left him without any place or employment. When his wife died her allowance ceased, and Donne was left with seven children in extreme poverty. Then he became a preacher, rose rapidly by sheer intellectual force and genius, and in four years was the greatest of English preachers and Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. There he "carried some to heaven in holy raptures and led others to amend their lives," and as he leans over the pulpit with intense earnestness is likened by Izaak Walton to "an angel leaning from a cloud."

Here is variety enough to epitomize his age, and yet in all his life, stronger than any impression of outward weal or woe, is the sense of mystery that surrounds Donne. In all his work one finds a mystery, a hiding of some deep thing which the world would gladly know and share, and which is suggested in his haunting little poem, "The Undertaking":

I have done one braver thing
Than all the worthies did;
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.

Donne's Poetry. Donne's poetry is so uneven, at times so startling and fantastic, that few critics would care to recommend it to others. Only a few will read his works, and they must be left to their own browsing, to find what pleases them, like deer which, in the midst of plenty, take a bite here and there and wander on, tasting twenty varieties of food in an hour's feeding. One who reads much will probably bewail Donne's lack of any consistent style or literary standard. For instance, Chaucer and Milton are as different as two poets could well be; yet the work of each is marked by a distinct and consistent style, and it is the style as much as the matter which makes the Tales or the Paradise Lost a work for all time. Donne threw style and all literary standards to the winds; and precisely for this reason he is forgotten, though his great intellect and his genius had marked him as one of those who should do things "worthy to be remembered." While the tendency of literature is to exalt style at the expense of thought, the world has many men and women who exalt feeling and thought above expression; and to these Donne is good reading. Browning is of the same school, and compels attention. While Donne played havoc with Elizabethan style, he nevertheless influenced our literature in the way of boldness and originality; and the present tendency is to give him a larger place, nearer to the few great poets, than he has occupied since Ben Jonson declared that he was "the first poet of the world in some things," but likely to perish "for not being understood." For to much of his poetry we must apply his own satiric verses on another's crudities:

Infinite work! which doth so far extend
That none can study it to any end.