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John Donne

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Holy Donne

John Donne was an English poet and probably the greatest metaphysical poets of all time. He was born in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family in London. His father died when John was young leaving his mother Elisabeth to raise him and his siblings. Throughout Donne’s life his experiences with religion were full of trials and tribulations, something that can be clearly seen in his poetry over time. He remained Catholic early in life while he attended both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Interestingly enough he never received a degree at either university because doing so would have required him to take the Oath of Supremacy, a doctrine that was the core of the Anglican religion recognizing the King as head of the church. Being Catholic, this would have gone completely against his beliefs. He went on to study law at Lincoln’s Inn during his twenties (Menon 1).

Donne received a comfortable inheritance when his mother died. It is said that he spent most of it on “wine, women, and song.” It was assumed that he would begin a career in law, but instead partook in a two-year naval expedition against Spain in 1596. When he returned he received a job as the private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, which was entitled, “Keeper of the Great Seal” (Ross 1).

During this time period Donne wrote two of his major works, the Satires and the Songs and Sonnets. It was also during this time that he met Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece to Sir Thomas Egerton. In 1601 they married, despite the disapproval of her family. Her father had Donne put in jail for a small amount of time for illegally wedding a minor, after he was released he lost his position with Sir Thomas Egerton. Thus the couple never received Anne’s dowry, which left them impoverished (Menon 1).

Donne did his best to make a living by writing poetry, but such an occupation did not have much to offer financially. Donne once described his life with Anne as “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone,” which has often been thought to be a clever way to imply that even though they were very much in love, their love brought them many struggles throughout their lives together. When Donne was twenty-two he made the decision to convert to Anglican after his closest brother Henry died in prison where he was being held for harboring a priest. John and Anne began their family only furthering their financial troubles. At this point Anne’s father finally reconciled with John and Anne and paid his daughter’s dowry. This helped the financial situation significantly and Donne also worked as a lawyer and continued to write, penning the Divine Poems in 1607.

During this time in his life Donne displayed a strong knowledge of the Anglican faith, and penned a few anti-Catholic poems, gaining him the respect of King James who encouraged him to become ordained. This position would drastically help his family’s financial status as his family had grown significantly. Done eventually accepted the position reluctantly.

In 1617 Anne died giving birth to her twelfth child, who was stillborn. Stricken with grief, Donne was prompted to write the Holy Sonnets that conveyed the love shared both physically and spiritually between Anne and himself. Donne never remarried, and raised his seven remaining children on his own. He became very prominent throughout London for his unique style of preaching, which many were very attracted to and found mesmerizing. In fact, many of his sermons went on to be published (Ross 1).

In 1621 Donne became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. However, it seemed his last ten years of life were plagued with an obsession of death. He suffered great illness and as he knew that his time of death grew nearer, much of his preaching and writing conveyed his fear of death, until Donne passed away in 1631 (Menon 1).

Donne’s literary works enjoyed great popularity and received great admiration during his lifetime and for a good generation after his death. His reputation as a writer was exclusively enjoyed by the intellectual elite. His sermons were greatly admired during his lifetime and frequently published during the following generation. Some works as the Pseudeo-Martyr and the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions attracted the attention of the privileged and powerful Kings James I and Charles I (Lovelock 12).

Some of John Donne’s literary accomplishments were his Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos, in which he argued that suicide is not essentially sinful. Whatever the subject, Donne’s poems reveal some characteristics that exemplify the work of the metaphysical poets. The incredible wordplay, often explicitly sexual; paradox; surprising contrasts; complex psychological analysis; and striking imagery selected from nontraditional areas such as law, physiology, philosophy, and mathematics (Melon 1).

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