John Donne — March 31

Young John Donne by an unknown artist ca. 1595

Bible connection

I am a rose of Sharon,
    a lily of the valleys.

As a lily among brambles,
    so is my love among maidens.

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
    so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
    and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
    and his intention toward me was love. — Song of Solomon 2:1-4

All about John Donne (1572-1631)

During his 10-year service as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Black Plague repeatedly swept through London—three waves—killing tens of thousands with each recurrence. For months Donne thought he would surely be a victim of the disease, himself. This period was just one of his many trying times. Throughout his life, he withstood financial ruin, the destruction of his family, religious persecution, and other plagues. Yet, he became one of England’s greatest love poets, and one of the greatest preachers of the 1600s.

John Donne was born to an old Roman Catholic family when anti-Catholicism was running high in England. At age 2, his grand-uncle was hanged for being a priest. His father died of more natural causes when he was 4. His younger brother Henry died in prison, having been arrested for sheltering a priest. Donne himself, a noteworthy student at both Oxford and Cambridge, was refused a degree at both schools because of his faith.

Donne’s youthful response to these calamities was to reject his Catholicism. But neither did he accept the Protestantism of his family’s persecutors. Instead, he walked the line between cynical rebellion and honest truthseeker, listing the pitfalls of various denominations and sects in his first book of poetry, Satires [see complete works online]. At the same time, he lived a brazenly sexual life, writing some of the most erotic English poetry ever written.

Sometime during this period, Donne converted to the Church of England, and in 1596 sailed as a gentleman-adventurer on a naval expedition against Spain. When he returned, he was appointed the private secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, sat in Queen Elizabeth I’s last Parliament, made connections, and continued his lustful ways. Then England’s greatest love poet fell in love.

Her name was Anne More—the niece (by marriage) of the wife of his boss. As she was only 17 (Donne was then nearly 30), they married in secret. Her father was furious and had Donne immediately thrown into jail and removed from his post. Imprisoned, he wrote a characteristic pun, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.”

Donne was quickly released. The lovers reunited and lived in poverty for the next 13 years. Adding to their poverty, Anne bore 12 children (five of whom died in childhood). Donne, plagued by headaches, intestinal cramps, and gout, fell into a deep depression. His longest literary work during that period was an essay endorsing and contemplating suicide: “Whensoever any affliction assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.”

During this time, he also began studying religion more closely. One of two anti-Catholic works he published, Pseudo-Martyr, earned him the favor of King James I because it argued Catholics could pledge allegiance to the king without renouncing their faith.

The object of his poetry now became God, and he employed the same degree of ardor and amorousness as ever, since, He reasoned, “God is love.” He took a page from Solomon, whom he observed “was amorous, and excessive in the love of women: when he turned to God, he departed not utterly from his old phrase and language, but … conveys all his loving approaches and applications to God.”

Thus, even some of his “Holy Sonnets” had amorous overtones:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new …
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Friends encouraged Donne, deemed by some critics to be a pornographer, to become a priest in the Church of England. Donne repeatedly refused, lamenting that “some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men.” But when King James refused to employ him anywhere but the church, Donne relented. He was granted a doctorate of divinity from Cambridge and took his first parish job in 1616.

The following year, Anne died. Grief-stricken, Donne pledged never to marry again and threw himself at his work. It seems to have done wonders for his vocation. By 1621 he was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the foremost preacher of his day. One hundred sixty of his sermons still survive.

Older John donne — Late 17th century copy of Isaac Oliver portrait.

In 1623 John Donne fell seriously ill and believed he was dying of the plague. Unable to read but able to write, he penned his famous Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. In it, he records hearing church bells tolling a declaration of death, which he mistook to be an announcement of his own demise. When he realized they were for another, he penned one of literature’s most famous lines: “No man is an island, entire of himself; … therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Eight years later, the bell did toll for Donne, who died of stomach cancer about a month after preaching his famous “Death’s Duel” sermon. Though he has occasionally been accused of an obsession with death (a claim backed up by his 54 songs and sonnets, 32 of which center on the topic), his poetry, sermons, and other writings clearly show his affinity for what lay beyond the tolling bells:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Poetry Foundation bio

David Barnes reads the Holy Sonnets

An interesting bio from an English magazine editor:

What do we do with this?

Donne is nothing if not passionate. Consider how you FEEL about God and others⁠—and your own plight in this world. There is the sense in Donne’s work of personal, heartfelt relationships⁠—even in the poems there is often a dialogue going on, sometimes internal, often with a person outside the poem. What are your internal dialogues, in particular like? And how do they lead you to relate to God?

Write a poem yourself. What literary art would you use to express your longing for God and the feelings you feel when you live among the tragedies of life?

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