THE LIFE AND TIMES
FOURTEEN YEARS before John Donne was born in London, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn ascended the throne of the Tudors. Sixteen years after his birth a storm-shattered Armada failed ignominiously in its assault upon England. Fifteen more electric years passed and the titian-haired queen was gone, and in her stead ruled the temporizing Stuart from across the northern border. Those three dates and all that transpired between them were of incalculable importance not only for John Donne but for all subsequent English letters.
There are epochs in human existence in which every moment is big with events; in which no idle wind that blows but contributes its share to the making or unmaking of historic destiny. Such was the case with the four decades and a half that intervened between the accession of Elizabeth and her death. Within those forty-five years the future of the English nation for three centuries and more was finally charted, and whatever of significance thereafter appeared, in the world of politics, or of economics, or of religion--or in the world of letters which has no separate existence but takes its form and spirit from these--can ultimately be explained in the light of happenings or thought currents which have their origin there. "Love," Masefield sang paradoxically, "makes many lovely customs end," but hate is an even greater innovator, and between love and hate the fabric of pre-Renaissance English life was, in the closing years of the sixteenth century, irreparably rent.
To the epoch in which he was horn John Donne belonged, body and soul; the intellectual keenness, the physical energy, the limitless ambition, these he possessed in the overflowing measure of the times, which is still the admiration and despair of succeeding ages; the moral obtuseness, the pettiness of heart, the hardening of the spiritual arteries, with these, too, in the disconcerting fashion of the day, he was afflicted. He was a great man, and at the same time he was a great contradiction, and neither the man nor the contradiction can be understood without a patient investigation of the influences to which he was subjected.
First and foremost in any study of Donne must come the reali-