1902 Encyclopedia > John Donne

John Donne
English poet and cleric

JOHN DONNE (1573-1631), poet and divine of the reign of James I., was born in London in 1573 of Catholic parents. His father was a wealthy and influential merchant, a Welshman by descent; his mother claimed relationship with Sir Thomas More and Heywood the epigrammatist. Brought up under a tutor at home until his tenth year, he proceeded to Oxford, and was entered at Hart Hall about 1583. At the university his learning was extraordinary, and he was compared, for juvenile erudition, with Pico della Mirandola. In 1587 he was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, but he took no degree there or at Oxford, his scruples as a Catholic standing in the way. In 1590 he went up to London and was admitted into Lincoln's Inn. His father presently died, and left his son £3000. Until he came of age, he was under his mother's care, and it is supposed that this was the period to which he refers in Pseudo-Martyr, in which an increasing conviction of the truth of Protestantism struggled with the old faith and the familiar surroundings. Walton has given an interesting account of Donne's change of faith, which probably took place about 1592. Before this he must have been writing, for many of the Divine Poems, and of these not the worst, are obviously written by a sincere Catholic. The rebound from Catholic asceticism was a severe trial to an ardent nature ; it seems that he plunged into various excesses, and that his father's legacy was rapidly squandered. In 1593, however, he had already laid the foundation of his poetic reputation. The first three of his famous Satires exist in a MS. dated 1593, and the rest appear to have been composed at various times before 1601. In 1594 he commenced his travels, wandering over Europe, and accompanying the earl of Essex at the taking of Cadiz in 1596, and again in the expedition of 1597. It has been thought that he was engaged in military service in Holland in 1596. He did not return to England until he had seen Italy, and was planning an excursion into Palestine, when the difficulty of travelling in the East diverted his thoughts to Spain. In both Italy and Spain he took considerable pains to master the language and existing literature of each country, as the notes to his works testify. It is possible that the fantastic Spanish school of conceits, which takes its name from Gongora, may have affected the style of Donne. Beturning to England, he secured the patronage of Sir Thomas Egerton, afterwards Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, who appointed him his chief private secretary, and took so much delight in his company and conversation that he made him lodge under his roof. The young poet was five years in Egerton's house, with every prospect of a successful career. He had the misfortune, however, to fall in love with the daughter of Sir George More of Loxly, lord lieutenant of the Tower, who was visiting in the house. Donne's love was returned, but her father violently objected. Recalling her to Loxly, he was enraged to find that the young couple had already been privately married. In his anger, Sir George More not only persuaded Lord Ellesmere to dismiss his secretary, but threw Donne, with his friend Christopher Brooke, the poet, who had given the bride away, into prison. They were soon released, but the father was inexorable, and the young couple would have suffered from penury if it had not been for the generosity of Sir Francis Wooley, who invited them to reside at his house. During these later years Donne had written much in prose and verse. He had completed his Satires, and in 1601 he had written his extraordinary poem of The Progress of the Soul, which De Quincey has so warmly praised. In 1602 ten sonnets, addressed to Philomel, were printed in Davison's Poetical Rhapsody. It is probable that many of his miscellaneous elegies aud lyrics date from the same period of early manhood. Among his early works, too, we know was the singular treatise called Biathanatos [Gk.], in praise of suicide, of which he was afterwards ashamed, and which was not printed until long after his death, in 1648. The early follies of his career were now, however, played out, and his temperament was become so grave and earnest that it attracted the attention of Morton, afterwards bishop of Durham, who was staying in the house of Sir Francis Wooley in 1607, and who offered the poet certain preferment in the church, if he would only consent to take holy orders. Donne, however, had conscientious scruples against taking such a step. His generous patron soon after died, and the Donnes took a house at Mitcham, where they resided for two years. It was here that in 1610 he published his prose work against the Catholics, Pseudo-Martyr, and in 1611 a still more bitter polemical treatise, Ignatius his Conclave. In 1611, moreover, appeared Donne's first poetical work, The Anatomy of the World, of which revised and enlarged editions appeared in 1612, 1621, and 1625. This was but a pamphlet, however. He was urged by Sir Robert Drury to come with his wife and their eleven children to reside in his mansion in Drury Lane ; after some demur this offer was accepted, but when, almost immediately after their arrival, Sir Robert desired Donne to travel on the Continent with him, Mrs Donne, who was in feeble health, strongly objected. It seems almost certain that this objection caused him to compose one of his loveliest poems—

Sweetest Love, I do not go For weariness of thee.

He permitted himself to be persuaded, however, and accompanied his patron to Paris, where he is said to have had a vision 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, was delivered of a still-born infant. This was in 1612. In 1613 he published An Elegy on the Death of Prince Henry. Efforts were made to gain him preferment at court, but James I., who had conceived a high opinion of Donne's theological gifts, refused to give him a single post out of the church. The poet's scruples were at last removed, and in 1614 he preached in orders before the king at Whitehall. Within a single year fourteen good livings were offered to him; but he refused them all, simply accepting the post of lecturer at Lincoln's Inn. In 1617 the death of his wife was a blow under which his health no far suffered that he was persuaded by his friends to go abroad, and to spend more than a year in Germany. In 1619 he returned, with the expectation of the deanery of Canterbury. This he did not gain, but in 1620 he was appointed dean of St Paul's. To the kindness of the earl of Dorset he owed the vicarage of St Dunstan in the West. In 1624 he was elected prolocutor to Convocation, and the same year was attacked by an illness that threatened to prove immediately fatal, but from which he rallied. He continued in feeble health for some years, and preached for the last time before Lent 1630, an oration which the king called " the Dean's own funeral sermon," and which was printed, under the title of Death's Duel, in 1632. On the 31st of March 1631, he died, having previously wrapped himself in his winding sheet to have his portrait taken. He was buried in St Paul's cathedral. Very few of Dr Donne's writings were published during his lifetime. It is supposed that an edition of the Satires may have been printed before the close of the 16th century, but if so, it has entirely disappeared. His poems were first collected in 1633, and afterwards in 1635,1639,1649, 1650,1654, and 1669, of which editions the second and last appear to be tolerably trustworthy. Of his prose works the Juvenilia appeared in 1633; the LXXX. Sermons, with an admirable life of the author by Izaak Walton, in 1640; the Essays in Divinity in 1650 ; and the Letters to Several Persons of Honour in 1651. No very excellent modern biography of the poet or edition of his works has been issued. Dr A. B. Grosart's privately printed edition of the poetical works is very complete. It is 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 first 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 brilliancy to the not uncommmon 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. (E. W. G.)

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