John Donne (pronounced ‘done’ or ‘dunn’) did more in his 58 years than most people do in a lifetime. He had careers as a politician, a lawyer, a poet and a priest. He eloped with a teenage bride and had eleven children in sixteen years. His poetry explored love, religion and death, often intertwining two or more of these themes. He is still among the great metaphysical poets of the English language.
Born in 1572, John Donne was raised in a prominent Catholic family—in the newly Protestant England. Donne witnessed and experienced persecution for his faith. After studying law for three years each at Cambridge and Oxford, he was denied a degree because he would not take the Oath of Supremacy, in which he would have had to swear allegiance to the Queen as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Meanwhile, his personal faith was faltering after watching close family members suffer and die.
John Donne fought the Spanish with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1590s. He was then appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. However, his appointment was short-lived; Donne soon fell in love with the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal’s teenage niece, Ann More. Despite objections from Ann’s father and uncle (Donne’s employer), Donne and Ann eloped in 1601. This cost Donne his appointment—and even landed him in prison for a short term.
During his university studies, Donne spent much of his inheritance in various frivolous pursuits. The extravagance of his youth would come back to haunt him as he spent many years of his married life struggling financially. Because he still objected to their marriage, Ann’s father withheld her dowry from Donne for eight years.
One famous poem from this period sums up Donne’s emotional state. He is purported to have written this on the window of his home shortly after marrying:
Donne practiced law and wrote poetry during this time, but as their family grew to include eleven children he constantly struggled to provide for them. Even after being elected to Parliament, Donne had to take in work on the side (as MP was an unpaid position at the time). Rich friends frequently helped the family. Eventually, some of these rich friends became patrons of Donne’s poetry. Sir Robert Drury became his chief patron in 1610.
At King James I’s urgings, Donne entered the Anglican priesthood in 1615, having turned against his childhood faith at least five years earlier. Within six years, he achieved great status within the church. However, during that time he also suffered deep personal trauma. In 1617, Ann died in childbirth with their twelfth child, who was stillborn. After this time, death became a recurring theme in his prose, poetry and church writings.
Donne was most notable for his contributions to figurative language, meter and personal expression through poetry. Rather than rigidly adhering to classical forms (despite his sonnet series), Donne focused on personal expression and reflecting the patterns of speech, not imposing artificial meters. As a metaphysical poet, John Donne is remembered for is his use of conceit, or extended metaphors developed throughout a poem.
John Donne died in 1631.
Find all of John Donne's poetry in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne.
Read more about the life of John Donne in John Donne: The Reformed Soul: A Biography by John Stubbs.