Poet Profile: John Donne (1572-1631)

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safelist when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, My Empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee[.]
– ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’

Following the familiar pattern of crappy-childhood-produces-great-literary talent, John Donne (born London, England in 1572) lost his father, also named John, when he was just four. John the Younger gets bonus crappy-childhood points for being born into a recusant Roman Catholic family (i.e. Roman Catholics who refused to convert to Anglicanism or attend Anglican church services) at a time when this could get you killed – as it did, in fact, do for a number of his extended family members.

JohnDonne
John Donne

Fortunately for the world of poetry, this unfortunate persecution (side-note: elements of legal discrimination against Catholicism continued in English law until the 19th century, and anti-Catholic prejudice persisted well into the 20th) ultimately succeeded in tainting Donne’s view of religion, but not his love for God, and he is in some ways an English answer to the medieval Middle-Eastern poet Rumi (1207-1273), his poems, both secular and sacred, often laced with the same earthy and sensual imagery.

His life of extreme ups and downs included a Cambridge education – and the denial of a degree because he was Catholic – a womanising youth, a secret marriage to Anne More, a career derailed by an angry father-in-law, imprisonment, poverty, the birth of twelve children and the deaths of six, depression, conversion to Anglicanism and a reluctant career as an Anglican priest, two terms as a Member of Parliament, and a near-fatal illness in 1623 which appears to have been the catalyst for the deep spiritual experiences which inspired much of his later poetry.

for whom the bell tolls
Originally a meditation in prose from ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions’, 1624

Donne’s early poetry often satirised contemporary people and preoccupations, including lawyers, hypocritical priests, and unrealistic portrayals of romantic love. Prior to his marriage inspiration was also provided by various amorous encounters and the contradictory force of an ingrained awareness of the sinfulness of his actions – ’Catholic guilt’ – although his attitude towards both women and love seems to have changed significantly once he met Anne (ah, the love of a good woman!). As years of poverty took their toll many of his poems may have been produced with the pragmatic goal of attracting wealthy patronage, and in his later years spiritual themes come to dominate. John Donne died in London in 1631, at the age of 59.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic spright,
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My worlds both parts, and oh! both parts must die.
You, which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it, if it must be drowned no more:
But oh! it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.
– Holy Sonnet V

Have you encountered John Donne’s work before? What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Poet Profile: John Donne (1572-1631)

  1. So great to read your concise biographies that give simple, accessible histories. Donne has never really interested me even though he is regarded as one of the “important” literary figures. I understand him better now.

    Like

    1. Yes, I think Donne’s work was very much the product of a social and historical context that is so remote from our own that it can be difficult to understand where he’s coming from.

      Liked by 1 person

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