“I’ve always thought it a mistake, to think of two John Donnes: The maker of love poems and a scourge of sin. They were one and the same. The love poetry had always had a deep reach into the soul and the holy poems throb with physical force..." Simon Schama
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English poet and a cleric in the Church of England.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne is as famous for his religious writing as he is for his love and erotic poetry. He is considered to be the leading metaphysical poet and a master of the extended metaphor.
At a time when Catholicism was illegal, Donne was born in London into a Catholic family with lineage to Sir Thomas More (King Henry VIII’s councilor, and later, executed opponent to the Reformation). Donne studied at Oxford and Cambridge but true to his religious roots, chose to leave before graduation rather than declare the mandatory oath rejecting Catholicism. When his older brother was jailed for his Catholic beliefs and later died in prison, Donne began to question his faith, prompting some of his best religious writing. He had a promising career ahead of him, appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England and becoming a Member of Parliament in 1601. However Donne secretly married Sir Thomas’s 16-year-old niece, Anne More; a marriage neither parents approved of, resulting in Donne’s imprisonment until the marriage was validated. John and Anne lived in poverty and struggled until they received his wife's dowry, finally reconciled with Anne’s father in 1609. Donne declared his renunciation of Catholicism in 1610, with his first published work, the anti-Catholic Pseudo-Martyr, winning him the king’s favour and patronage from members of the House of Lords. By 1615, Donne had converted to the Church of England and was appointed Royal Chaplain, leading him to be respected as a great preacher. After the death of his wife in 1617, Donne focused on his religious work. In 1621, Donne became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624, contains the familiar phrases ‘No man is an island’ and ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’
His poetry was never published in his lifetime, only shared in manuscript form within a small circle. The popularity of Donne’s work was re-established in the 20th century thanks to prominent admirers T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.
Interesting John Donne links:
John Donne’s Erotica By Carolyn Kormann in The New Yorker Magazine
Simon Schama's John Donne - BBC Poetry Season
In Our Time: The Metaphysical Poets. Melvyn Bragg & guests discuss.