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An accomplished master of both prose and poetry, John Donne was a controversial seventeenth-century English poet whose life and work are often perceived as a study in contrasts. His secular verses portray him as a man who celebrates the joys of physical union. His poems of divinity, however, reveal him to be a serious Christian humanist who contemplated mortality and humanity’s submissiveness to God’s will. Donne led the Metaphysical poetry movement and was a major influence on modernist writers of the first half of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Catholic Upbringing
John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England, into a devout Roman Catholic family. His father was a prosperous London merchant, and his mother was a relative of Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. Donne was educated at home by Catholic tutors until age eleven, when he went to Hart Hall, Oxford. Donne attended Oxford University but he did not take a degree. Graduation required signing an oath of allegiance to the English monarch, which would have compromised his Catholic beliefs requiring him to swear allegiance only to the pope. He entered law school at Lincoln’s Inn in 1592.
Donne was born during the reign of Elizabeth I, an era now recognized as one of the most bountiful periods of art and literature in the history of England. The Elizabethan era was characterized by exploration in foreign lands and expansion of the British Empire, relative peace between Protestants and Catholics (though she decreed that all citizens were required to attend a Church of England Sunday service), and a flowering of English poetry and theater. Some writers who lived during this time were William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser.
Donne may not have been the first to imitate classical satire, but his pieces constitute the finest from the outpouring of satiric verse in the 1590s. Behind his satire lies a contempt for the shallowness and hypocrisy of contemporary life, particularly life at court. In “Satyre 3,” having observed the activities and goals of his countrymen, Donne concludes that his compatriots, content with false achievement, have the ”courage of straw.” Nowhere in society does he find dedication to what he considers life’s only meaningful quest: the quest for religious truth. This search took on new meaning for Donne when, in 1593, his youngest brother died in prison after being arrested for harboring a Catholic priest. It was around this time that Donne renounced his Catholic faith.
Sonnets and Sails
It was also in the 1590s that Donne wrote many of his love poems, most of which are dramatic monologues. In these poems, Donne explores different conceptions of love, ranging from cynical realism to platonic idealism and presents the extremes of both physical and spiritual love in a favorable light. During these years, Donne also composed letters, elegies, wedding songs, and epigrams that were published after his death as Songs and Sonets (1635).
Donne volunteered to sail with the Earl of Essex to sack Cadiz in 1596 and with Sir Walter Raleigh to hunt Spanish treasure ships in the Azores in 1597. Donne celebrated these experiences in the poems The Storm” and ”The Calm.” One of his companions on these voyages was the son of Sir Thomas Egerton, a judge and adviser to Queen Elizabeth. The young Egerton helped Donne gain employment as his father’s secretary.
Marriage and Jail
In December 1601, when he was nearly thirty, Donne eloped with Anne More, Egerton’s seventeen-year-old niece. He severely underestimated the reaction and influence of his wife’s father, Sir George More, who was a member of Parliament and a favorite of the queen. More was enraged not only because Donne had obtained his daughter in an underhanded way, but also because Donne had an unsavory reputation, and his family was identified with the Catholic underground. More had Donne thrown into jail, and he destroyed Donne’s career by forcing Egerton to dismiss him. Released from prison in 1602, Donne had little chance of obtaining gainful employment. He spent the next thirteen years in poverty, desperately seeking patronage to support his wife and rapidly growing family. (Anne Donne died while giving birth to the couple’s twelfth child in 1617.)
The Church of England
After embracing the Church of England—the only church officially recognized by King James I and his wealthy supporters—Donne gained the patronage of Sir Thomas Morton, a prominent member of the Protestant clergy, who hired him to write anti-Catholic pamphlets. Pseudo-Martyr (1610), Donne’s first published guide, was written to persuade English Catholics to renounce their allegiance to Rome and instead take the oath of allegiance to the British crown. This work captured the attention of King James I. The anti-Jesuit polemic Ignatius His Conclave followed in 1611. Donne then wrote Biathanatos, a treatise defending suicide, for which Donne admitted a sickley inclination.” (The subject matter of this poem made it unsuitable for publication at the time; it was not published until 1646.)
An Anatomie of the World” and Of the Progres of the Soule,” together known as the Anniversaries (1611), were poems composed for Sir Robert Drury on the first two anniversaries of his fifteen-year-old daughter’s death. These poems earned Donne the patronage of Drury, who took the poet to France in 1611 on a diplomatic mission. It was during this time in France that Donne, missing Anne, wrote ”A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1611).
Upon his return to England, Donne was increasingly pressured by King James to become a priest in the Church of England. Despite his reluctance, the former Catholic was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615. For some time, he wrote no poetry but focused on his new duties, writing and delivering sermons in a style that impressed many members of the royal court. Donne’s mastery of prose is directly linked to his evolution into a great preacher. His unique blend of verbal command, emotional and psychological insight, expansive knowledge, and imaginative range set him apart from his clerical peers. In 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he soon began attracting large crowds with his brilliant oratory.
When he suffered an attack of spotted fever in 1623, Donne believed that he was dying. This attack prompted him to write Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Severall Steps in My Sickness, a collection of somber meditations that includes the prose work No Man Is an Island” and the poems Hymn to God the Father” and Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Despite his fears, Donne escaped death on this occasion, but such would not be the case a few years later. During Lent in 1631, Donne delivered his last sermon, ”Deaths Duell.”
He died on March 31, 1631.
Works in Literary Context
Reacting against the traditions of Elizabethan love poetry, Donne and other Metaphysical poets shunned classical or romantic allusions, attempting instead to portray the complexities and uncertainties of everyday life. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by complex, witty, and far-fetched sudden—even jarring— paradoxes and contrasts; strong imagery that combines the ornate with the mundane; and contemplations of the natural world s unity with the divine. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor or simile in which the poet draws an ingenious comparison between two very unlike objects.
Peggy Nightingale found ”A Valediction” to be a good example of the elements found in Donne’s style: ”An expression of intense feeling carried by a series of clever and witty comparisons; the speaking voice of the poem addresses an imagined listener directly; and generally that voice employs a fairly natural syntax, frequently settling for half rhymes. ”A Valediction ends with one of Donne s most famous Metaphysical conceits: The lover compares their souls to the feet of a drawing compass, parting and then coming together again.
”Holy Sonnet 14” is also characteristic of metaphysical poetry, showing wit, energy, and psychological drama. However, this sonnet in particular goes beyond those qualities in its outrageous daring. ”Holy Sonnet 14” addresses God in blatantly sexual terms—as the bridegroom of the soul. Highly dramatic, the poem begins with both an angry demand that God remake the speaker and a complaint that God has so far not been using all his force to eliminate the speaker s sinfulness. Proclaiming deep love and desire for God, the speaker resorts to tenderness and pleading and confesses to being ”betrothed to God s enemy and, therefore, in need of rescue. The speaker then prays urgently for such release in clearly sexual terms, using sexual love as a metaphor for spiritual love amidst several paradoxes that shows the power of God, who resolves all paradoxes.
Donne apparently loved the intellectual challenges of paradox, one of the key characteristics of metaphysical poetry. He constructs ”Holy Sonnet 10” around one of the central paradoxes of Christianity: that Christ s sacrifice will ultimately mean the death of Death. Systematically, the poem instructs Death to give up its pride, since it will ultimately be defeated. Further, even though Death has power, its power is severely limited. Death unknowingly does God s work, since only through Death can humanity achieve the eternal life God promises.
Works in Critical Context
Once considered the story of an abrupt transformation from worldly audacity to Christian conformity, Donne s life and career are today seen in terms of an artistically sensitive man s spiritual growth in a lifelong search for meaning and wholeness. Undeniably, there was the younger Donne who wrote the lighthearted Songs and Sonets, the Donne of middle years who wrote to please his patrons and gain favor with influential readers, and the older Donne concerned with the meaning of sanctity.
Criticism Through the Years
The critical history of Donne’s works is, noted A. J. Smith, ”the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other body of great poetry has fallen so far from favor for so long and been generally condemned as inept and crude. The first collection of Donne s poetry was not published until two years after the author’s death. Entitled Poems (1633), this collection was prefaced with elegies by contemporaries of Donne, who represented one side of early criticism of Donne s poetry—those who honored Donne as a master. Thomas Carew eloquently lamented the passing of ”a King, that rul’d as hee thought fit / the universal! Monarchy of wit.” A different view was first voiced by Ben Jonson in his famous recorded conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1618 or 1619. While praising Donne s poetry, Jonson also faulted it for its profanity and innovative meter. He disparaged the Anniversaries as obsequious. Jonson s criticisms were adopted by critics of Donne s poetry for nearly next two centuries. In ”A Discourse on the Original and Progress of Poetry (1693), John Dryden used the term ”metaphysical for the first time to describe Donne s poetry, characterizing Donne as more a wit than a poet.
Over the next decades, scholars declared more negative criticism, with Samuel Johnson eventually writing a crushing critique of Donne’s poetry in his ”Life of Cowley” (1779). In this famous essay, Johnson used the term ”metaphysical” as a term of abuse to describe poets whose aim, he believed, was to show off their own cleverness and learning and to construct paradoxes so outlandish and pretentious as to be ludicrous, indecent, or both. Predominantly negative assessments of Donne’s poetry continued into the early nineteenth century.
The early nineteenth century saw growing interest in Donne’s poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning, and Thomas De Quincey were especially instrumental in focusing a favorable light on the works. Coleridge praised the power and vivacity of the poems; Browning publicly acknowledged Donne as a major influence; and De Quincey hailed Donne’s skill as a rhetorician. When Donne’s complete works were published in 1839, his sermons and devotions began to be discussed. Edmund Gosse’s Life and Letters of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s (1899), the first biography of Donne since 1640, prepared the way for a definitive edition of the poems, which were published in 1912. Major literary figures reviewed these works at length, bolstering a period of popular and critical interest in Donne.
In 1921, T. S. Eliot wrote a major article, ”The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he focused attention on Donne and the Metaphysicals as poets of stature who had been to their age what the twentieth-century modernists were to theirs. Like the modernists, who were constructing complex, distanced poetry to reflect the spiritual vacuum at the center of modern life, Eliot argued, the Metaphysicals had written complex, emotionally charged celebrations of the joys, sorrows, and dilemmas of their own age, an age of both fleshliness and faith. Not all criticism of Donne’s work was favorable at this time, however. C. S. Lewis, for example, a literary traditionalist and longtime nemesis of Eliot, found Donne’s love poetry vastly overrated. From midcentury to the present day, Donne’s canon has been scrutinized according to the methods of various critical schools, with representatives of the New Critics, the deconstructionists, and others offering diverse interpretations of the works. Twentieth-century writers have used phrases from Donne’s poetry to adorn their own works in the form of epigrams and titles. A phrase from Donne’s best-known religious devotion was adopted by Ernest Hemingway as the title of his novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
Donne’s best religious poems are found in Holy Sonnets, written during periods of meditation and concerned with the individual believer’s efforts at making peace with God. The line ”What if this present were the world’s last night?” typifies the intense, personal, and desperate tone of these sonnets. Frank J. Warnke argued, ”The Holy Sonnets are, to be blunt about it, not edifying from an orthodox Christian point of view.” He continued, ”There is little hope in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and not very much trust. What one encounters, rather, is naked fear: the speaker desperately wishes to go to Heaven and—even more markedly—to escape Hell. The concentration on the self is extreme, and the terrified eloquence of that self, unforgettable.”
- Andreasen, N. J. C. John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.
- Everett, Barbara. Donne: A London Poet. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
- Hughes, Richard E. The Progress of the Soul: The Interior Career of John Donne. New York: William Morrow, 1968.
- Nightingale, Peggy. Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed. London: St James Press, 1991.
- Smith, A. J., ed. John Donne: Essays in Celebration. London: Methuen, 1972.
- Warnke, Frank J. John Donne. New York: Twayne, 1987.
- Eliot, T. S. ”The Metaphysical Poets.” Times Literary Supplement (October 20, 1921) 669-70.
- Kermode, Frank. ”Dissociation of Sensibility.” Kenyon Review (Spring 1957): vol. 19: 169-94.
- Leavis, F. R. ”The Influence of Donne on Modern Poetry.” Bookman (March 1931): vol. 79: 346-7.
- Lein, Clayton D. ”Donne’s ‘The Storme’: The Poem and the Tradition.” English Literary Renaissance(Winter 1974): vol. 4: 137-63.
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