John Donne was born in 1572 to a London merchant and his wife. Donne’s parents were both Catholic at a time when England was deeply divided over matters of religion; Queen Elizabeth persecuted the Catholics and upheld the Church of England established by her father, Henry VIII. The subsequent ruler, James I, tolerated Catholicism, but advised Donne that he would achieve advancement only in the Church of England. Having renounced his Catholic faith, Donne was ordained in the Church of England in 1615. Donne’s father died when he was very young, as did several of his brothers and sisters, and his mother remarried twice during his lifetime. Donne was educated at Hart’s Hall, Oxford, and Lincoln’s Inn; he became prodigiously learned, speaking several languages and writing poems in both English and Latin.
Donne’s adult life was colorful, varied, and often dangerous; he sailed with the royal fleet and served as both a Member of Parliament and a diplomat. In 1601, he secretly married a woman named Ann More, and he was imprisoned by her father, Sir George More; however, after the Court of Audiences upheld his marriage several months later, he was released and sent to live with his wife’s cousin in Surrey, his fortunes now in tatters. For the next several years, Donne moved his family throughout England, traveled extensively in France and Italy, and attempted unsuccessfully to gain positions that might improve his financial situation. In 1615, Donne was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church; in 1621, he became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a post that he retained for the rest of his life. A very successful priest, Donne preached several times before royalty; his sermons were famous for their power and directness.
For the last decade of his life, before his death in 1630, Donne concentrated more on writing sermons than on writing poems, and today he is admired for the former as well as the latter. (One of his most famous sermons contains the passage beginning, “No man is an island” and ending, “Therefore ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”) However, it is for his extraordinary poems that Donne is primarily remembered; and it was on the basis of his poems that led to the revival of his reputation at the beginning of the 20th century, following years of obscurity. (The renewed interest in Donne was led by a new generation of writers at the turn of the century, including T.S. Eliot.) Donne was the leading exponent of a style of poetry called “metaphysical poetry,” which flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Metaphysical poetry features elaborate conceits and surprising symbols, wrapped up in original, challenging language structures, with learned themes that draw heavily on eccentric chains of reasoning. Donne’s verse, like that of George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and many of their contemporaries, exemplifies these traits. But Donne is also a highly individual poet, and his consistently ingenious treatment of his great theme—the conflict between spiritual piety and physical carnality, as embodied in religion and love—remains unparalleled.