John Donne

1573-1631. English poet and dean of St. Paul's. Born a Catholic and with Jesuit relatives, he did not go abroad to Douai but went instead to Hart Hall, Oxford, then to Trinity College, Cambridge, and afterward studied law at Lincoln's Inn. He joined the household of Egerton, the lord chancellor, with whose niece, Anne More, he eloped in 1601. Their marriage resulted in Donne's dismissal from Egerton's service and his imprisonment. After failure to secure advancement in other directions, he acceded to the king's desire, took orders in 1615, and became dean of St. Paul's six years later.

Donne is the first and greatest of the group known as the Metaphysical poets. His Songs and Sonnets and Elegies are variations on the theme of love, but they are not the conventional outpourings of the usual Elizabethan love- poet. They are surprising, even outrageous, in the range of experience they treat and the language used to describe it. Whether autobiographical or not, both they and the Divine Poems are marked by an unsurpassed intensity of passion, which issues in most elaborate and original “conceits”-lovers compared to compasses or the body to a map, for example.

Donne abounds in paradox, and the imagery of religion is cited in the love-poems, that of sexual experience in the religious. His religious poetry is permeated by his deep sense of sin and his awareness of judgment. As T.S. Eliot has said, he “was much possessed by death,” and some of his most powerful sermons, powerful alike in vision and in argument, vividly illustrate Donne's almost medieval awareness of dissolution: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Sermons, sel. and ed. T. Gill (1958); W.R. Mueller, John Donne, Preacher (1962); R.C. Bald, John Donne (1970).