John Donne is most commonly known as the founder of the "Metaphysical Poets." The term "metaphysical poetry" was first used by Samuel Johnson in 1744. It refers to the fact that the poetry dealt with philosophical specluation and abstract ideas, along with a great deal of irony, paradox, and striking comparisons of dissimilar things.
JOHN DONNE - THE EARLY YEARS
John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England. His father, John Donne Sr., and mother, Elizabeth, were both raised in well-to-do families in London. The family were devout Roman Catholics, and Mrs. Donne was, in fact, related to Sir Thomas More.
John Donne (Jr.) was first sent to school at Hart Hall, University of Oxford, at the age of eleven. Following three years of study there he went on to study another three years at Cambridge. However, because of the requirement that graduating students in England take what was known as the "Oath of Supremacy," Donne was unable to be granted a degree from either university. This oath required that all graduating students, as well as all persons taking any public or church office in England, swear allegiance to the sitting monarch as the "Supreme Governor of the Church of England." As a Roman Catholic, Donne was unwilling to swear this allegiance. Unable to graduate, he went on to study law at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn in 1591/1592.
In 1853,John's brother, Henry Donne, died in prison convicted of the crime of protecting a Catholic priest. It was at this time that Donne began questioning his Roman Catholic faith. His first book of poetry, "Satires", was written at this time and is now considered one of his most important works, as was his book of love poems, "Songs and Sonnets" which he wrote at about the same time.
Donne, living well on the family fortune which fell to him upon the death of his brother, took to spending most of his time in reading and travel. It was also during this period that he became close friends with Christopher Brooke, a poet.
Donne eventually made his way into a life of public service. In 1596, Donne joined Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex, on a naval campaign against Cádiz, Spain. Upon the campaign's completion, he joined a year-long expedition to the Azores, where he wrote "The Calm".
Upon his return to England, he was given a respected position as private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, who was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Moving up the political ladder, in 1601 he became a Member of Parliament and sat in the last Parliament of Queen Elizabeth. It was during that same year that he took a path that was to lead to his financial ruin. In secret, he married the niece of Lady Egerton, Anne More, the daughter of Sir George More who was serving as Lieutenant of the Tower at the time. Enraged at the marriage, Sir George had Donne sentenced to Fleet Prison for several weeks, refused to pay Anne's dowry, and had Donne dismissed from his public post.
Donne was eventually released from prison, but he and Anne were continually living on the edge of total poverty. They had to depend on the assistance of several sympathetic relatives to keep a roof over their heads and feed themselves and the children that ultimately came along. During this time, Donne took to the practice of law and writing. His "Divine Poems" and "Biathanotos works are from this period. Finally, in 1609 Donne and Sir George More were reconciled.
JOHN DONNE - THE LATER YEARS
In his late 30's, Donne published two works which were strongly anti-Catholic in nature - "Pseudo-Martyr" (1610) and "Ignatius his Conclave" (1611). In these works he essentially renounced the Catholic faith, which restored him to a position of favor with Elizabeth's successor, James I. It was also during this period that he was taken under the wing of Sir Robert Drury of Hawstead. While under Drury's patronage, Donne wrote "A Funerall Elegie", which commemorated the death of Drury's young daughter Elizabeth. This was followed by what are referred to as the two "Anniversaries" - "An Anatomy of the World" (1611) and "Of the Progress of the Soul" (1612).
Following these accomplishments, Donne was more or less forced into taking Anglican orders by King James, who refused him any public employment until Donne took orders. So, in 1615, Donne reluctantly entered the ministry, and King James appointed him Royal Chaplain later that same year. The following year he was appointed Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn, having finally been made a Doctor of Divinity by Cambridge. He was soon established as one of the greatest preachers of the time.
Sadly, Anne Donne died in childbirth in mid-August 1617. Devastated by her loss, he continued to write poetry. In 1620, Donne returned to London and was appointed Dean of Saint Paul's the following year. He was to maintain this post until his death.
Donne's next group of works, collectively known as "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions", were published in 1624 and portions of them are some of the works we remember best today. The well-known lines "No man is an island" and "never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee" are drawn from Donne's "Meditation 17."
As Donne approached old age, he became quite obsessed with the idea of his. He wrote and began preaching his work "Death's Duel", which many came to refer to as his own funeral sermon. Even more eerily, he had a portrait painted of himself in a death shroud. Donne died in London on March 31, 1631. His memorial in St. Paul's Cathedral is the only one that survived the 1666 'Great Fire" that destroyed the old cathedral.
JOHN DONNE - A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Songs and Sonnets (1601)
Divine Poems (1607)
An Anatomy of the World (1611)
Ignatius his Conclaue (1611)
The Second Anniuersarie. Of The Progres of the Soule (1611)
An Anatomie of the World (1612)
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
Deaths Dvell (1632)
Sapientia Clamitans (1638)
Wisdome crying out to Sinners (1639)
Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651)
A Collection of Letters, Made by Sr Tobie Mathews, Kt. (1660)
A Sermon Vpon The VIII. Verse Of The I. Chapter of The Acts Of The Apostles (1622)
A Sermon Vpon The XV. Verse Of The XX. Chapter Of The Booke Of Ivdges (1622)
Encania. The Feast of Dedication. Celebrated At Lincolnes Inne, in a Sermon there upon Ascension day (1623)
Three Sermons Upon Speciall Occasions (1623)
A Sermon, Preached To The Kings Mtie. At Whitehall (1625)
The First Sermon Preached To King Charles (1625)
Fovre Sermons Upon Speciall Occasions (1625)
Five Sermons Vpon Speciall Occasions (1626)
A Sermon Of Commemoration Of The Lady Dãuers (1627)
Six Sermons Vpon Severall Occasions (1634)
LXXX Sermons (1640)
Biathanatos: A Declaration of that Paradoxe, or Thesis that Selfe-homicide is not so (1644)
Naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise (1647)
Essayes in Divinity (1651)