John Donne (dŭn, dŏn), 1572–1631, English poet and divine. He is considered the greatest of the metaphysical poets.
Life and Works
Reared a Roman Catholic, Donne was educated at Oxford, Cambridge, and Lincoln's Inn. He traveled on the Continent and in 1596–97 accompanied the earl of Essex on his expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores. On his return he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (later Baron Ellesmere), lord keeper of the great seal, and achieved a reputation as a poet and public personage. His writing of this period, including some of his Songs and Sonnets (others were written as late as 1617) and Problems and Paradoxes, consist of cynical, realistic, often sensual lyrics, essays, and verse satires.
Donne's court career was ruined by the discovery of his marriage in 1601 to Anne More, niece to Sir Thomas Egerton's second wife, and he was imprisoned for a short time. After 1601 his poetry became more serious. The two Anniversaries—An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612)—reveal that his faith in the medieval order of things had been disrupted by the growing political, scientific, and philosophic doubt of the times. He wrote prose on religious and moral subjects; a polemic against the Jesuits; Biathanatos (not published until 1644), a qualified apology for suicide; and the Pseudo-Martyr (1610), an argument for Anglicanism.
After a long period of financial uncertainty and desperation, during which he was twice a member of Parliament (1601, 1614), Donne yielded to the wishes of King James I and took orders in 1615. Two years later his wife died. The tone of his poetry, especially the Holy Sonnets, deepened after her death. After his ordination, Donne wrote more religious works, such as his Devotions (1624) and sermons. Several of his sermons were published during his lifetime. Donne was one of the most eloquent preachers of his day. He was made reader in divinity at Lincoln's Inn, a royal chaplain, and in 1621, dean of St. Paul's, a position he held until his death.
All of Donne's verse—his love sonnets and his religious and philosophical poems—is distinguished by a remarkable blend of passion and reason. His love poetry treats the breadth of the experience of loving, emphasizing, in such poems as
the root of spiritual love in physical love. The devotional poems and sermons reveal a profound concern with death, decay, damnation, and the possibility of the soul's transcendent union with God.
Original, witty, erudite, and often obscure, Donne's style is characterized by a brilliant use of paradox, hyperbole, and imagery. His most famous poems include
"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,"
"Go and catch a falling star,"
"Hymn to God the Father,"
and the sonnet to death (
"Death be not proud"
). Neglected for 200 years, Donne was rediscovered by 20th-century critics. His work has had a profound influence on a number of poets Including W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.
See biographies by R. C. Bald (1970, repr. 1986) and J. Stubbs (2007); studies by R. E. Hughes (1968), R. S. Jackson (1970), W. Sanders (1971), M. Roston (1974), T. Spencer, ed. (2d ed. 1986), C. J. Summers and T.-L. Pebworth, ed. (1986), F. J. Wamke (1987), D. A. Larson (1989), J. Carey (1981, rev. ed. 1991), A. L. Clements, ed. (2d ed., 1991), E. W. Tayler (1991), A. F. Marotti (1986 and as ed. 1994), A. J. Smith (2 vol., 1975, repr. 1996), P. M. Oliver (1997), J. Johnson (1999), A Mousley, ed. (1999), D. L. Edwards (2002), B. Saunders (2006), D. R. Dickson, ed. (2007), and R. Targoff (2009); centenary volumes edited by P. A. Fiore (1972) and A. J. Smith (1972).