John Donne uses poetry to explore his own identity, express his feelings, and most of all; he uses it to deal with the personal experiences occurring in his life. Donne’s poetry is a confrontation or struggle to find a place in this world, or rather, a role to play in a society from which he often finds himself detached or withdrawn. His intellectual knottiness, his stress on poetry as speech rather than song, and his intense and irregular rhythms all required a good deal of getting used to, and there were many who could not or would not adjust their ears and minds to the wealth that his poetry contains. I am compelled to write about John Donne not just by the works that he has accomplished, but also because of his life full of struggle and the wonderful literature that he was able to produce during his life.
John Donne was born in England, the exact date of his birth is unknown but it is believed to be in the early year of 1572. He was the third child to be born out of family that eventually grew to 7 children. However, tragically only 3 of the children lived into maturity. His father, also John Donne, was a respected and prosperous ironmonger of the Welsh descent. His mother was Elizabeth Donne (Heywood), whose father ironically was the writer of many interludes, John Heywood. John Heywood participated in the development of British Drama before Shakespeare did. Heywoods wife was the Granddaughter of the sister of Sir Thomas More (just a little interesting fact).
Donne was born into the Catholic faith and when Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1570, his family along with all other catholic followers was subject to discrimination and persecution. His family was looked down upon and was so brutally persecuted that John Heywood eventually recanted his own faith, his two sons who were Jesuit Priest soon left their homeland of England to practice their faith elsewhere.
At the age of 4, in 1576, Donnes father suddenly died leaving his wife to raise her young children. Within 6 months of his fathers death, Elizabeth Donne remarried to Dr. Symmings. This at the time was not unusual for a widow with young children to remarry quickly to hopes to prevent government intervention. Symmings was a London medical practitioner who held degrees from Oxford and the University of Bologna, and who twice served as President of the Royal College of Physicians.
At a very young age Donne was privately taught, some believe that Jesuits possibly taught him because of Donnes vast knowledge of science and logic, but this is uncertain. In 1584, John, age twelve, and his brother Henry, age 11, enrolled at Hart Hall, Oxford. During this period, this was no unusual for children this young to attend college, their mother especially wished them to complete school by the age of sixteen due to the fact that by the age of sixteen all students had to swear their life to the Anglican Church, thereby hoping that if they could finish their schooling they would not have to dedicate their faith the Anglican Church and could continue to practice the Roman Catholic religion. After 3 years at Oxford, Donne decided that he didnt feel as though he was adjusting, so he transferred to the more liberal college of Cambridge. There was a problem however, since he was Catholic he wasnt allowed to receive a degree. In 1591, both John and Henry enrolled into the Thavies Inn in London; this was a Prep Law School. On May 6th, 1592, John was accepted to the Law School at Lincolns Inn. He continued his schooling at Lincolns Inn for several years, though it was never known if he ever received his Law Degree.
The year of 1593 may have been the most devastating year for the young John Donne. His brother was imprisoned at Newgate Prison for harboring a Catholic Priest. During his time in jail Henry developed a fever that was never treated, the fever turned out to be the symptoms of the plague that was spreading across the countryside, he eventually, and slowly succumbed to death. John was emotionally wrecked and felt a since of guilt because he thought as though he was a coward for not showing the same courage and honor that his brother did. This is where many of Johns struggles begin, and also end.
Next up for the admirable Donne was becoming a member of the Naval Expedition. This was quite odd for a person with such high intelligence and wit, especially after attending Cambridge and Lincoln Inn. His leader was Earl of Essex. Donne looked up to the Earl of Essex and hoped to advance his career in the Navy, but any hopes of this soon were washed away, once again another roadblock for Donne.Earl of Essex was soon thrown into jail for treason after an uprising of the Queen, in 1601 he was executed. Throughout his expeditions and journeys, Donne befriended a man by the name of Thomas Edgerton. Their friendship grew strong and Thomas saw something in Donne that many others did not and believed that Donne could do wonderful things for his country. Thomas soon recommended John to his father, and John quickly became the Secretary to Sir Thomas Edgerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. After many successful years at Sir Thomass secretary, Donne did something that would forever alter his life. At age 29 he married the 17-year-old Anne Moore, the niece of Sir Thomas Edgertons late wife. Donne was immediately dismissed from his position after Sir Thomas heard of this secret love, thus leading to his letter, John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-Done. Donne was briefly imprisoned. The courts upheld the marriage, and thus leading to more then a decade of financial struggle, and a life of pain.
Once he was dismissed from Secretary of Sir Thomas and basically exiled and forced to be and outcast, Donne was reborn. He was reborn to a master of the pen and paper. Though even his works are looked upon as masterful, and brilliant only 4 of his poems were published in his lifetime, 2 were later disavowed. In 1599, the government banned all satirical works, hence stopping the planned publishing of many of Donnes works. Donne never made any effort to publish his Songs and Sonnets. In Donne’s poems, the woman is never merely an object of desire (his love poems are famous for their lack of concern with the physical appearance of the beloved), but a person with her own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual existence. Many of Donnes writings and sonnets are related to death and the mystery of death. One of the Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud, presents the contradictory views of Donne. The opening lines, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so” demonstrates his own uncertainty on the issue, since that “some” he mentions includes him at times. However, he denies the power of death in the very next line, and proceeds to list several reasons why. The people whom death believes it kills do not “cease to live” (in order to avoid the use of the word death); death does not have such powers. Death is not all-powerful, since it is part of Gods creation. Furthermore, death is not an end to life. Rather, it is a kind of “sleep,” a middle stage to cross before being reunited with the creator.
Eventually, Donne attracted the notice of several benefactors, including Sir Robert Drury, who provided the poet and his growing family with living quarters, but also insisted that Donne accompany him and his wife on an extended trip to the continent in 1611-12, despite the objections of Donne’s pregnant wife. Some have assumed that the prospect of this journey was the occasion for the writing of “A Valediction.” Donne was ultimately able to attract the notice of King James I, who made it clear that he wished to see Donne take orders in the Anglican Church. Under such circumstances, ordination was Donne’s only path to advancement and financial security, and so Donne was ordained a deacon in 1614.
Though trapped in a church and religion that he hated and despised, Donne created some of his greatest works during his period as a Deacon. The sequence of Holy Sonnets shows that in his devotional poetry he was no less witty, original, and even shocking, as in the conclusion of “Batter my heart”, than he had been as a love poet. In his famous series of sermons, Donne displayed a continual sense of guilt and remorse. The inter-conflict and struggle lead to a self-hatred and disregard for his own self. He felt as though he had betrayed his faith and began to destroy his life. To add to his personal anguish, after 16 years of marriage and after 12 children, Anne passed away giving birth sometime during the month of August of 1617. Only 7 of her children were alive at the time of her death.
Donnes wifes death in 1617 was a prolific source of inspiration for Donne’s poetry. Another Holy Sonnet, XVII, is entirely dedicated to her loving memory. Once again he presents his belief of death as a mere transitory stage between the earthly and eternal life, and appears to be resigned to his fate. According to him, Anne has “paid her last debt” on earth. Her absence is not a cause for concern or pain, for “her soul early into heaven ravished/Wholly in heavenly is my mind set.” That is, her death has been beneficial, since it has allowed her to join God in the afterlife while freeing him from earthly concerns. Therefore, Donne profits from her death since he is able to concentrate his thoughts and love on God. By ascending to the skies, Anne ceases to be competition against the higher being for Donnes affection, although, as the end will prove, this does not assure his or her well being.
Donne was left to raise he young children on his own because of his decision not to remarry. He life was dedicated to Anne and could not allow himself to feel the touch of another woman. In 1621, Donne became Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London. Despite his deteriorating health, he held this position with distinction and growing fame, owing in large part to his eloquent sermons. Johns life was also threatened, Donne suffered a severe illness in 1623 and during his recovery began to write his Devotions, which was an acknowledgement of mortality, but he returned to his work in 1624 as vicar of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West, where one of his admiring parishioners was Izaak Walton. Donne was beginning to run down; his health was precarious by 1630 and on the first Friday of Lent, February 12th, 1631, he preached his last and most famous sermon, Death’s Duel, in the presence of King Charles 1; he knew that he was dying. The end came on 31 March 1631. Two years after his death, in 1633, the first volume of his poetry was published.
Donne’s poetry went out of fashion about the time of the Restoration, but he had effectively taken English verse out of the too-settled form of fluency and ease to which the Elizabethan fashion seemed to have directed it. His poetry is sharper and more concentrated and hardly seems to belong to the period at all. At his best he is remarkable, but his best was not consistent and readers coming to him for the first time may well be irritated by the self-conscious intellectual display, which are present in his poetry no less than in his prose and seem to be his resort when he is writing at less than his highest level. But his highest level gives him, indisputably, the rank of a major poet.