Collection: John Donne

ARTIST: Br. Robert Lentz, OFM


John Donne is one of the great mystics of the Anglican Church. He was born into a Roman Catholic family, related to Sir Thomas More. After studying at Oxford and Cambridge, he entered the civil service and looked forward to a promising career. He married his patron’s daughter without permission, however, and was dismissed from his post. For ten years he and his wife lived in poverty. During this time he developed a deep spirituality which eventually led him to ordination as a priest in the Church of England. From 1621 until his death ten years later, he was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral of London.

John Donne helped bridge the Middle Ages and the modern world. Baconian science and modern astronomy were exploding medieval cosmology. Many people felt Christianity was no longer a viable spiritual path. John resisted the reductionist tendencies of his day, maintaining that reality would be robbed of its significance if it were to lose its transcendental dimension.

The years before his ordination convinced him that we live within the mystery of God. Each human being is called to be a living sacrament of Christ to the world, and in this icon Christ radiates from John’s heart in a fiery orb. As we face the even greater changes in our culture, John reminds us that Christ fills us and holds the world in being. All of life, he tells us, must be transfigured in Christ.

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John Donne was born in Bread Street, London in 1572 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family, a precarious thing at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England. His father, John Donne, was a well-to-do ironmonger and citizen of London. Donne's father died suddenly in 1576, and left the three children to be raised by their mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of John Heywood, epigrammatist, and a relative of Sir Thomas More. Donne's first teachers were Jesuits.

At the age of 11, Donne and his younger brother Henry were entered at Hart Hall, University of Oxford. He studied there for three years. He spent the next three yearsat the University of Cambridge, but took no degree at either university because he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required at graduation. He was admitted to study law as a member of Thavies Inn (1591) and Lincoln's Inn (1592), and it seemed natural that Donne should embark upon a legal or diplomatic career.

In 1593, Donne's brother Henry died of a fever in prison after being arrested for giving sanctuary to a proscribed Catholic priest. This made Donne begin to question his faith. His first book of poems, Satires, written during this period of residence in London, is considered one of Donne's most important literary efforts. Although not immediately published, the volume had a fairly wide readership through private circulation of the manuscript. The same was the case with his love poems, Songs and Sonnets, assumed to be written at about the same time as the Satires.

Having inherited a considerable fortune, young "Jack Donne" spent his money on womanizing, on books, at the theatre, and on travels. He had also befriended Christopher Brooke, a poet and his chamber-fellow at Lincoln's Inn, and Ben Jonson who was part of Brooke's circle of literary associates. In 1596, Donne joined the naval expedition that Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, led against Cádiz, Spain, and the following year joined an expedition to the Azores, where he wrote "The Calm." Upon his return to England in 1598, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, afterward Lord Ellesmere.

Donne was beginning a promising career. He sat in Queen Elizabeth's last Parliament, for Brackley. But in 1601, he secretly married Lady Egerton's niece, seventeen-year-old Anne More, daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower, and thereby ruined his own worldly hopes. Donne wrote to the livid father, saying: "Sir, I acknowledge my fault to be so great as I dare scarce offer any other prayer to you in mine own behalf than this, to believe that I neither had dishonest end nor means. But for her whom I tender much more than my fortunes or life (else I would, I might neither joy in this life nor enjoy the next) I humbly beg of you that she may not, to her danger, feel the terror of your sudden anger." Sir George had Donne thrown to Fleet Prison for some weeks, along with his friends Samuel and Christopher Brooke who had aided the couple's clandestine affair.

Egerton dismissed Donne from his post, and for the next dozen years the poet had to struggle to support his growing family. Donne later summed up the experience: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone." Anne's cousin offered the couple refuge in Pyrford, Surrey, and the couple was helped by friends like Lady Magdalen Herbert, George Herbert's mother, and Lucy, Countess of Bedford, women who also played a prominent role in Donne's literary life. It was not until 1609 that a reconciliation was effected between Donne and his father-in-law, and Sir George More was finally induced to pay his daughter's dowry.

During the next few years Donne made a meager living as a lawyer, serving chiefly as counsel for Thomas Morton, an anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteer, later Bishop of Durham. Donne may have collaborated with Morton in writing pamphlets that appeared under Morton's name from 1604 to 1607. Donne's principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos (posthumously published 1644). In the latter he argued that suicide is not intrinsically sinful.

As Donne approached forty, he published two anti-Catholic polemics Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius his Conclave (1611). They were final public testimony of Donne's renunciation of the Catholic faith. Pseudo-Martyr, which held that English Catholics could pledge an oath of allegiance to James I, King of England, without compromising their religious loyalty to the Pope, won Donne the favor of the King. In return for patronage from Sir Robert Drury of Hawstead, he wrote A Funerall Elegy (1610), on the death of Sir Robert's 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

The elegy won for Donne and his wife an apartment in Drury House. The two Anniversaries -- An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612) continued the patronage. In the poems, Elizabeth Drury's death represents to Donne the decay of the world, physically and morally; her entry into heaven signifies the hope of the

world's regeneration. Sir Robert encouraged their publication: The First Anniversary was published with the original elegy in 1611, and both were reissued with The Second Anniversary in 1612.

Donne had refused to take Anglican orders in 1607, but King James persisted, finally announcing that Donne would receive no post or preferment from the King, unless in the church. In 1615, Donne reluctantly entered the ministry and was appointed Royal Chaplain later that year. In 1616, he was appointed Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn (Cambridge had conferred the degree of Doctor of Divinity on him two years earlier).

Donne's style, full of elaborate metaphors and religious symbolism, his flair for drama, his wide learning and his quick wit soon established him as one of the greatest preachers of the era. Fully 160 of his sermons survive.

Just as Donne's fortunes seemed to be improving, Anne Donne died, on 15 August, 1617, aged thirty-three, after giving birth to their twelfth child, a stillborn. Seven of their children survived their mother's death.

Struck by grief, Donne wrote the seventeenth Holy Sonnet, "Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt." According to Donne's friend and biographer, Izaak Walton, Donne was thereafter 'crucified to the world.' Donne continued to write poetry, notably his Holy Sonnets (1618), but the time for love songs was over. In 1618, Donne went as chaplain with Viscount Doncaster in his embassy to the German princes. His Hymn to Christ at the Author's Last Going into Germany, written before the journey, is laden with apprehension of death. Donne returned to London in 1620, and was appointed Dean of St. Paul's in 1621, a post he held until his death. Donne excelled at his post, and was at last financially secure.

In 1623, Donne's eldest daughter, Constance, married the actor Edward Alleyn, then 58.

Donne's private meditations, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written while he was convalescing from a serious illness, were published in 1624. In 1624, Donne was made vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West. On March 27, 1625, James I died, and Donne preached a sermon before Charles I. But for his ailing health, (he was emaciated and suffering from infections of the mouth) Donne almost certainly would have become a bishop in 1630. Obsessed with the idea of death, Donne preached what was called his own funeral sermon, Death's Duel, just a few weeks before he died in London on March 31, 1631. The last thing Donne wrote was Hymne to God, my God, In my Sicknesses, written just before his death.

—Excerpts from the John Donne Society