John Donne, Priest and Poet
John Donne was born into a Catholic family in 1572, during a strong anti-Catholic period in England. Donne’s father, also named John, was a prosperous London merchant. His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the grand-niece of Catholic martyr, Thomas More. Religion would play a tumultuous role in John’s life.Donne’s father died in 1576, and his mother remarried a wealthy widower.
Donne entered Oxford University at age 11 and later, Cambridge, but never received degrees, due to his Catholicism. At age 20, Donne began studying law at Lincoln’s Inn and seemed destined for a legal career. During the 1590s, he spent much of his inheritance on women, books and travel and wrote most of his love lyrics and erotic poems during this time. His first books of poems, “Satires” and “Songs and Sonnets,” were highly prized among a small group of admirers.
In 1593, John’s brother, Henry, was convicted of Catholic sympathies and later died in prison. This led John to question his Catholic faith and inspired some of his best writing on religion. At age 25, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England and he became a Member of Parliament in 1601. The same year, he married 16-year-old Anne More, the niece of Sir Egerton. Both Lord Egerton and Anne’s father, George More, strongly disapproved of the marriage, and, as punishment, More did not provide a dowry. Lord Egerton fired Donne and had him imprisoned for a short time. The eight years following Donne’s release was a struggle for the couple until Anne’s father finally paid her dowry.
In 1610, John Donne published his anti-Catholic polemic “Pseudo-Martyr,” renouncing his faith and he proposed the argument that Roman Catholics could support James I without compromising their religious loyalty to the pope. This won him the king’s favour and patronage from the House of Lords. In 1615, Donne converted to Anglicanism and was appointed Royal Chaplain. His elaborate metaphors, religious symbolism and flair for drama soon established him as a great preacher.
In 1617, John Donne’s wife died shortly after giving birth to their 12th child and Donne devoted his writing to religious subjects. In 1621, Donne became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. During a period of severe illness, he wrote “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,” published in 1624. This work contains the immortal lines “No man is an island” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” That same year, Donne was appointed Vicar of St.Dunstan’s-in-the-West and became known for his eloquent sermons.
As John Donne’s health continued to fail him, he became obsessed with death. Shortly before he died on March 31st, 1631, he delivered a pre-funeral sermon, “Death’s Duel.” John Donne, leading English poet of the Metaphysical school, is often considered the greatest loved poet in the English language.