John Donne (1572-1631) was the most outstanding of the English Metaphysical Poets and a churchman famous for his spellbinding sermons.
Donne was born in London to a prominent Roman Catholic family but converted to Anglicanism during the 1590s. At the age of 11 he entered the University of Oxford, where he studied for three years. According to some accounts, he spent the next three years at the University of Cambridge but took no degree at either university. He began the study of law at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1592, and he seemed destined for a legal or diplomatic career. Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal, in 1598. His secret marriage in 1601 to Egerton's niece, Anne More, resulted in his dismissal from this position and in a brief imprisonment. During the next few years Donne made a meager living as a lawyer.
Donne's principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos (c. 1608, posthumously published 1644), a half-serious extenuation of suicides, in which he argued that suicide is not intrinsically sinful. Donne became a priest of the Anglican Church in 1615 and was appointed royal chaplain later that year. In 1621 he was named dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. He attained eminence as a preacher, delivering sermons that are regarded as the most brilliant and eloquent of his time.
Donne's poetry embraces a wide range of secular and religious subjects. He wrote cynical verse about inconstancy, poems about true love, Neoplatonic lyrics on the mystical union of lovers' souls and bodies and brilliant satires and hymns depicting his own spiritual struggles. The two "Anniversaries" - "An Anatomy of the World" (1611) and "Of the Progress of the Soul" (1612)--are elegies for 15-year-old Elizabeth Drury.
Whatever the subject, Donne's poems reveal the same characteristics that typified the work of the metaphysical poets: dazzling wordplay, often explicitly sexual; paradox; subtle argumentation; surprising contrasts; intricate psychological analysis; and striking imagery selected from nontraditional areas such as law, physiology, scholastic philosophy, and mathematics.
Donne's prose, almost equally metaphysical, ranks at least as high as his poetry. The Sermons, some 160 in all, are especially memorable for their imaginative explications of biblical passages and for their intense explorations of the themes of divine love and of the decay and resurrection of the body. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) is a powerful series of meditations, expostulations, and prayers in which Donne's serious sickness at the time becomes a microcosm wherein can be observed the stages of the world's spiritual disease.
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.
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