Today we remember the birth of John Donne in 1572, considered now to be the preeminent metaphysical poet of his time. A group that also includes George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and John Cleveland. After a resurgence in his popularity in the early 20th century, Donne’s standing as a great English poet, and one of the greatest writers of English prose, is now assured. Born into a persecuted Catholic family he died as well respected and prestigious Anglican cleric. His poems reflect an emotional intensity and its capacity to plumb the paradoxes of faith, human and divine love, and the possibility of salvation made him famous.
Donne was born into a recusant family, that is a Catholic family who refused to attend Anglican services and were often fined or imprisoned for their lack of compliance, Donne himself would later become a cleric in the Church of England and under royal patronage, he was made Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. His writings reflect the two distinct stages of his life. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of English society of which he was very critical. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers. He also deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. In this early stage too his erotic poetry stood out, especially his elegies. Donne did not publish these poems, although they circulated widely in manuscript form.
Some have speculated that Donne's numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more sombre and pious tone in his later poems. The increasing gloominess of Donne's tone may also be observed in the religious works that he began writing during the same period. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne quickly became noted for his sermons and religious poems. Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally.
Donne was born in London the third of six children. His father, also named John Donne, married to one Elizabeth Heywood, a great-niece of St Thomas More. At the age of 11, he began studies at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford. After three years of studies there, Donne was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. Donne, however, could not obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required to graduate and went to legal school. The Oath of Supremacy required any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Failure to do so was to be treated as treasonable, the requirement to take the oath for Oxford University students was lifted by the Oxford University Act 1854.
It was a frenetic time the Spanish Armada had just been defeated and during the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War, Catholics where increasingly seen as the enemy within. Donne's brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, and died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith. Donne travelled, across Europe and later fought alongside Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and the Azores and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe. This prepared him for a diplomatic career and he was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton's London home, York House, Strand close to the Palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social centre in England.
He fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were secretly married just before Christmas in 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and George More, a wedding that ruined Donne's diplomatic career, getting him dismissed and put in Fleet Prison, along with the Church of England priest Samuel Brooke, who married them, and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. After his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in a small house in Pyrford, Surrey, but in a constant state of financial insecurity moved back to London. He was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley, but the post was not a paid position and started writing poems for wealthy friends or patrons, especially for MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted (who became his chief patron, furnishing him and his family an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane. King James was pleased with Donne's work, and urged him to take holy orders and he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. After a few years he was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading and well-paid position in the Church of England, which he held until his death in 1631.