|John Donne Portrait, Artist Unknown|
Writer of passionate love poetry, devotional verse and brilliant sermons, John Donne's work and life made a mockery of the conventions of his age.
Poet, John Donne, (1572-1631) had no difficulty in reconciling his two great loves, religion and womanising. Because he was equally comfortable with both, the two subjects frequently inform each other in his poetry. His love poems sometimes contain religious imagery, while the religious and spiritual poems are often steeped in sexual metaphors.
"Donne perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love," claimed John Dryden.
Early Life of John Donne
Donne was born in Bread Street, London. His father was an ironmonger, his mother was the daughter of John Heywood, the dramatist. He was also related, on his mother's side, to Sir Thomas More. Sadly his father died when he was four years old and his mother married again six months' later to a Catholic physician, Dr. John Syminges.
Donne was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, which he left in 1584 and it's believed he later attended Cambridge, but his religion prevented him from taking a degree at either university. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1592, but shortly after he renounced his faith when his brother, Henry, was imprisoned for protecting and harbouring a Catholic priest.
It is believed Donne travelled extensively, and in 1596, he sailed with the Earl of Essex to sack Cadiz. The following year, he hunted Spanish treasure ships in the Azores with Sir Walter Raleigh. Two poems commemorate these events, "The Storm" and "The Calme". Steady employment followed, when Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal, engaged Donne as his secretary. The poet was moving up in the world, and in 1601, he became MP for Brackley, Northamptonshire.
Marriage - on the Sly
Later, that year, he married, in secret, Lady Egerton's niece, Ann More and as a result, was dismissed from his post with Egerton and thrown into prison for a brief period of time. The disgrace prevented him finding decent employment and he had to rely on his friends for his living for around fourteen years.
For a while the growing family lived in Mitcham in Surrey but in 1612, they moved to London to a house in Drury Lane. Around three years later, King James I put pressure on Donne to enter the church. This proved a good career move when he became a chaplain. Cambridge University, much to its disgust, was forced by King James I to make Donne a DD (Doctor of Divinity.) By 1621, he had become the Dean of St. Paul's, a celebrated preacher, a great poet and a highly-esteemed writer of brilliant sermons. He also continued to be a great womaniser, although by now he was a widower, his wife having died in 1617 giving birth to their twelfth child, who was stillborn.
A Poetry of Puns, Conceits, Sex and Religion
One of his most popular poems today (among others) is "The Sun Rising" with its irreverent lines: "Busy old fool, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus, / Through windows, and through curtains call on us? / Must to thy motions lovers' season run? / Saucy pedantic wretch, go childe / Late school-boys and sour prentices." The poem is literally an impudent rant against the sun for waking up the lovers after their night of blissful sexual indulgence. "You don't need to follow all the niceties of Donne's metaphysical conceit to appreciate this poem as a glorious celebration of sexual fulfilment," says Daisy Goodwin.
Another poem, "Song" begins: "Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root, / Tell me, where all past years are, / Or who cleft the Devil's foot." This poem is another rant, but of a different nature. Donne is expressing his anger at faithless women. The reference to a mandrake is a sexual one, as people truly believed that a woman could become pregnant by this strange plant with its divided root. (They also believed that a mandrake root screamed when wrenched from the ground.) In the third stanza of the poem Donne expresses the wish to find a faithful woman, and says, "If thou findst one, let me know, / Such a pilgrimage were sweet." He sees this search for faithfulness almost as a "holy" project - a pilgrimage.
(A conceit is a term that establishes a relationship between two things that are remote from each other. It is meant to surprise the reader with this bizarre, outrageous and elaborate relationship. However, conceits, although they begin in absurdity, should be seen to become appropriate.)
A Sermon Fit for a King
Little of his poetry was published in his lifetime, although his son published his Collected Poems in 1633. He wrote most of his love poetry in his youth and his religious poetry in his middle and old age. His love poetry is passionate, intellectual, energetic and indulges in punning and wordplay. His devotional verse reveals uncertainties and his struggles to suppress his doubts and achieve true faith.
After James I died on 27 March 1625, John Donne achieved the distinction of preaching his first sermon before the new king, Charles I. Following a period of ill-health including a series of debilitating infections of the mouth, Donne died on 31 March, 1631.
John Donne Selected Poems, Editor: Richard Gill, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Poems to Last a Lifetime, Editor: Daisy Goodwin, Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2004.
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Editor: Ian Ousby, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Editor: Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 1985.