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JOHN DONNE

1573-1631
English

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent. "

John Donne was born in 1572, in London, England, into a Roman Catholic family at a time when open practice of that religion was illegal in England. Donne's father died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their children. Elizabeth Heywood, also from a recusant Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Rev. Jasper Heywood, a Jesuit priest and translator.

Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates. In 1591 he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court.

By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking.  He was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton’s London home, York House, Strand, close to the Palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social centre in England. During the next four years he fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were married just before Christmas 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and Anne's father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This ruined his career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison, along with the priest who married them and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proven valid, and soon secured the release of the other two. Anne bore him 12 children in 16 years of marriage (including two stillbirths). Indeed, she spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing.

Donne's earliest poems showed a developed knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers. Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting two lovers being compared to sex. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. See; The Collected Poems of John Donne.

Donne became a Royal Chaplain in late 1615, Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge University in 1618. Later in 1618 he became chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620. In 1621, Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England and one he held until his death in 1631. During his period as Dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen.