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The Life and Works of John Donne
Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition
DONNE, JOHN (1573-1631), English poet and divine of the reign of James I., was born in 1573 in the parish of St Nicholas Olave, in the city of London. His father was a wealthy merchant, who next year became warden of the Company of Ironmongers, but died early in 1576. Donne’s parents were Catholics, and his mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was directly descended from the sister of the great Sir Thomas More; she was the daughter of John Heywood the epigrammatist. As a child, Donne’s precocity was such that it was said of him that “this age hath brought forth another Pico della Mirandola.” He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in October 1584, and left it in 1587, proceeding for a time to Cambridge, where he took his degree. At Oxford he began his friendship with Henry Wotton, and at Cambridge, probably, with Christopher Brooke. Donne was “removed to London” about 1590, and in 1592 he entered Lincoln’s Inn with the intention of studying the law.
When he came of age, he found himself in possession of a considerable fortune, and about the same time rejected the Catholic doctrine in favour of the Anglican communion. He began to produce Satires, which were not printed, but eagerly passed from hand to hand; the first three are known to belong to 1593, the fourth to 1594, while the other three are probably some years later. In 1596 Donne engaged himself for foreign service under the earl of Essex, and “waited upon his lordship” on board the “Repulse,” in the magnificent victory of the 11th of June. We possess several poems written by Donne during this expedition, and during the Islands Voyage of 1597, in which he accompanied Essex to the Azores. According to Walton, Donne spent some time in Italy and Spain, and intended to proceed to Palestine, “but at his being in the farthest parts of Italy, the disappointment of company, or of a safe convoy, or the uncertainty of returns of money into those remote parts, denied him that happiness.” There is some reason to suppose that he was on the continent at intervals between 1595 and the winter of 1597. His lyrical poetry was mainly the product of his exile, if we are to believe Ben Jonson, who told Drummond of Hawthornden that Donne “wrote all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.” At his return to England he became private secretary in London to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper (afterwards Lord Brackley), in whose family he remained four years. In 1600 he found himself in love with his master’s niece, Anne More, whom he married secretly in December 1601. As soon as this act was discovered, Donne was dismissed, and then thrown into the Fleet prison (February 1602), from which he was soon released. His circumstances, however, were now very much straitened. His own fortune had all been spent and “troubles did still multiply upon him.” Mrs Donne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, offered the young couple an asylum at his country house of Pyrford, where they resided until the end of 1604.
During the latter part of his residence in Sir Thomas Egerton’s house, Donne had composed the longest of his existing poems, The Progress of the Soul, not published until 1633. In the spring of 1605 we find the Donnes living at Camberwell, and a little later in a small house at Mitcham. He had by this time “acquired such a perfection” in civil and common law that he was able to take up professional work, and he now acted as a helper to Thomas Morton in his controversies with the Catholics. Donne is believed to have had a considerable share in writing the pamphlets against the papists which Morton issued between 1604 and 1607. In the latter year, Morton offered the poet certain preferment in the Church, if he would only consent to take holy orders. Donne, however, although he was at this time become deeply serious on religious matters, did not think himself fitted for the clerical life. In 1607 he started a correspondence with Mrs Magdalen Herbert of Montgomery Castle, the mother of George Herbert. Some of these pious epistles were printed by Izaak Walton. These exercises were not of a nature to add to his income, which was extremely small. His uncomfortable little house he speaks of as his “hospital” and his “prison;” his wife’s health was broken and he was bowed down by the number of his children, who often lacked even clothes and food. In the autumn of 1608, however, his father-in-law, Sir George More, became reconciled with them, and agreed to make them a generous allowance. Donne soon after formed part of the brilliant assemblage which Lucy, countess of Bradford, gathered around her at Twickenham; we possess several of the verse epistles he addressed to this lady. In 1609 Donne was engaged in composing his great controversial prose treatise, the Pseudo-Martyr, printed in 1610; this was an attempt to convince Roman Catholics in England that they might, without any inconsistency, take the oath of allegiance to James I. In 1611 Donne wrote a curious and bitter prose squib against the Jesuits, entitledIgnatius his Conclave. To the same period, but possibly somewhat earlier, belongs the apology for the principle of suicide, which was not published until 1644, long after Donne’s death. This work, the Biathanatos, is an attempt to show that “the scandalous disease 418of headlong dying,” to which Donne himself in his unhappy moods had “often such a sickly inclination,” was not necessarily and essentially sinful.
In 1610 Donne formed the acquaintance of a wealthy gentleman, Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted, who offered him and his wife an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane. Drury lost his only daughter, and in 1611 Donne published an extravagant elegy on her, entitled An Anatomy of the World, to which he added in 1612 a Progress of the Soul on the same subject; he threatened to celebrate the “blessèd Maid,” Elizabeth Drury, in a fresh elegy on each anniversary of her death, but he happily refrained from the third occasion onwards. At the close of 1611 Sir Robert Drury determined to visit Paris (but not, as Walton supposed, on an embassy of any kind), and he took Donne with him. When he left London, his wife was expecting an eighth child. It seems almost certain that her fear to have him absent led him to compose one of his loveliest poems:
“Sweetest Love, I do not go
For weariness of thee.”
He is said to have had a vision, while he was at Amiens, of his wife, with her hair over her shoulders, bearing a dead child in her arms, on the very night that Mrs Donne, in London (or more probably in the Isle of Wight), was delivered of a still-born infant. He suffered, accordingly, a great anxiety, which was not removed until he reached Paris, where he received reassuring accounts of his wife’s health. The Drurys and Donne left Paris for Spa in May 1612, and travelled in the Low Countries and Germany until September, when they returned to London. In 1613 Donne contributed to the Lachrymae lachrymarum an obscure and frigid elegy on the death of the prince of Wales, and wrote his famous Marriage Song for St Valentine’s Day to celebrate the nuptials of the elector palatine with the princess Elizabeth. About this time Donne became intimate with Robert Ker, then Viscount Rochester and afterwards the infamous earl of Somerset, from whom he had hopes of preferment at court. Donne was now in weak health, and in a highly neurotic condition. He suggested to Rochester that if he should enter the church, a place there might be found for him. But he was more useful to the courtier in his legal capacity, and Rochester dissuaded him from the ministry. At the close of 1614, however, the king sent for Donne to Theobald’s, and “descended to a persuasion, almost to a solicitation of him, to enter into sacred orders,” but Donne asked for a few days to consider. Finally, early in 1614, King, bishop of London, “proceeded with all convenient speed to ordain him, first deacon, then priest.” He was, perhaps, a curate first at Paddington, and presently was appointed royal chaplain.
His earliest sermon before the king at Whitehall carried his audience “to heaven, in holy raptures.” In April, not without much bad grace, the university of Cambridge consented to make the new divine a D.D. In the spring of 1616, Donne was presented to the living of Keyston, in Hunts., and a little later he became rector of Sevenoaks; the latter preferment he held until his death. In October he was appointed reader in divinity to the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn. His anxieties about money now ceased, but in August 1617 his wife died, leaving seven young children in his charge. Perhaps in consequence of his bereavement, Donne seems to have passed through a spiritual crisis, which inspired him with a peculiar fervour of devotion. In 1618 he wrote two cycles of religious sonnets, La Corona and the Holy Sonnets, the latter not printed in complete form until by Mr Gosse in 1899. Of the very numerous sermons preached by Donne at Lincoln’s Inn, fourteen have come down to us. His health suffered from the austerity of his life, and it was probably in connexion with this fact that he allowed himself to be persuaded in May 1619 to accompany Lord Doncaster as his chaplain on an embassy to Germany. Having visited Heidelberg, Frankfort and other German cities, the embassy returned to England at the opening of 1620.
In November 1621, James I., knowing that London was “a dish” which Donne “loved well,” “carved” for him the deanery of St Paul’s. He resigned Keyston, and his preachership in Lincoln’s Inn (Feb., 1622). In October 1623 he suffered from a dangerous attack of illness, and during a long convalescence wrote his Devotions, a volume published in 1624. He was now appointed to the vicarage of St Dunstan’s in the West. In April 1625 Donne preached before the new king, Charles I., a sermon which was immediately printed, and he now published his Four Sermons upon Special Occasions, the earliest collection of his discourses. When the plague broke out he retired with his children to the house of Sir John Danvers in Chiswick, and for a time he disappeared so completely that a rumour arose that he was dead. Sir John had married Donne’s old friend, Mrs Magdalen Herbert, for whom Donne wrote two of the most ingenious of his lyrics, “The Primrose” and “The Autumnal.” The popularity of Donne as a preacher rose to its zenith when he returned to his pulpit, and it continued there until his death. Walton, who seems to have known him first in 1624, now became an intimate and adoring friend. In 1630 Donne’s health, always feeble, broke down completely, so that, although in August of that year he was to have been made a bishop, the entire breakdown of his health made it worse than useless to promote him. The greater part of that winter he spent at Abury Hatch, in Epping Forest, with his widowed daughter, Constance Alleyn, and was too ill to preach before the king at Christmas. It is believed that his disease was a malarial form of recurrent quinsy acting upon an extremely neurotic system. He came back to London, and was able to preach at Whitehall on the 12th of February 1631. This, his latest sermon, was published, soon after his demise, as Death’s Duel. He now stood for his statue to the sculptor, Nicholas Stone, standing before a fire in his study at the Deanery, with his winding-sheet wrapped and tied round him, his eyes shut, and his feet resting on a funeral urn. This lugubrious work of art was set up in white marble after his death in St Paul’s cathedral, where it may still be seen. Donne died on the 31st of March 1631, after he had lain “fifteen days earnestly expecting his hourly change.” His aged mother, who had lived in the Deanery, survived him, dying in 1632.
Donne’s poems were first collected in 1633, and afterwards in 1635, 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654 and 1669. Of his prose works, the Juvenilia appeared in 1633; the LXXX Sermons in 1640; Biathanatos in 1644; Fifty Sermons in 1649; Essays in Divinity, 1651; his Letters to Several Persons of Honour, 1651; Paradoxes, Problems and Essays, 1652; and Six and Twenty Sermons, 1661. Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne, an admirably written but not entirely correct biography, preceded the Sermons of 1640. The principal editor of his posthumous writings was his son, John Donne the younger (1604-1662), a man of eccentric and scandalous character, but of considerable talent.
The influence of Donne upon the literature of England was singularly wide and deep, although almost wholly malign. His originality and the fervour of his imaginative passion made him extremely attractive to the younger generation of poets, who saw that he had broken through the old tradition, and were ready to follow him implicitly into new fields. In the 18th century his reputation almost disappeared, to return, with many vicissitudes in the course of the 19th. It is, indeed, singularly difficult to pronounce a judicious opinion on the writings of Donne. They were excessively admired by his own and the next generation, praised by Dryden, paraphrased by Pope, and then entirely neglected for a whole century. The first impression of an unbiassed reader who dips into the poems of Donne is unfavourable. He is repulsed by the intolerably harsh and crabbed versification, by the recondite choice of theme and expression, and by the oddity of the thought. In time, however, he perceives that behind the fantastic garb of language there is an earnest and vigorous mind, an imagination that harbours fire within its cloudy folds, and an insight into the mysteries of spiritual life which is often startling. Donne excels in brief flashes of wit and beauty, and in sudden daring phrases that have the full perfume of poetry in them. Some of his lyrics and one or two of his elegies excepted, the Satires are his most important contribution to literature. They are probably the earliest poems of their kind in the language, and they are full of force and picturesqueness. Their obscure and knotty language only serves to give peculiar 419brilliancy to the not uncommon passages of noble perspicacity. To the odd terminology of Donne’s poetic philosophy Dryden gave the name of “metaphysics,” and Johnson, borrowing the suggestion, invented the title of the “metaphysical school” to describe, not Donne only, but all the amorous and philosophical poets who succeeded him, and who employed a similarly fantastic language, and who affected odd figurative inversions.
Izaak Walton’s Life, first published in 1640, and entirely recast in 1659, has been constantly reprinted. The best edition of Donne’s Poems was edited by E. K. Chambers in 1896. His prose works have not been collected. In 1899 Edmund Gosse published in two volumes The Life and Letters of John Donne, for the first time revised and collected.