John Donne a biography 1572 – 1631 (Shakespeare’s time) #
Donne’s birth date is not certain; it is either January or February 1572. Donne’s Father died when John was 3 years old and his brother Henry died of gaol fever for harbouring a Catholic priest. His mother remarried a wealthy man so Donne was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, but unable to graduate because he was a Catholic. He then studied Law but led the life of a young libertine; frequenter of plays and womanising.
Donne left the Catholic Church likely due to lack of any chance of advancement. Under Protestant rule, Catholics could not get work. Donne is presented as an apostate, neurotic and guilt-ridden, unable to detach himself emotionally from the Catholic faith but propelled into Anglicanism by a lust for power.
Donne’s theological studies had made him intensely aware of the transitional temper of the time: the Reformation was pushing Catholicism to the margins, alchemy was being discredited by the rise of empirical science, monarchical government was under question. Where, amidst such flux, was permanence to be found? The great love poems, such as “The Good Morrow” “The Sun Rising,” “The Canonization,” “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” and “The Ecstasy,” exalt the lovers into monarchs–indeed, into deities of an alternative universe given coherence by their relationship.
Donne became a priest reluctantly in 1615, realizing there was no other way out of his poverty and the need to provide for his family (they had seven children, the birth of the last effectively killing her with exhaustion 1617). Donne’s “dialogue of one” - Paul Dean
Donne trained as lawyer and many of his poems read like a prosecutor’s argument. Neither the fantastic nor the cynical nor the sensual occupies an excessive importance with Donne; the elements in his mind had an order and congruity. The range of his feeling was great, but no more remarkable than its unity. He was altogether present in every thought and in every feeling.
During his student days he led a dissolute rakish student life, writing his early poetry for light entertainment at court.
*A great visitor of ladies and a great frequenter of Playes” *Baker, in Smith 1975: 126
Donne was adventuresome and sailed on Cadiz expedition 1596.
Shortly later, he met Sir Thomas Egerton (son of Keeper of Seal Chancellor) Egerton was so impressed he appointed Donne as his secretary. Sir Thomas Egerton’s second wife was a sister to Sir George More. They brought with them their 15 year old niece Ann More. John fell madly in love with Ann.
When Sir George found out he was furious and Ann was taken to Surrey. Later John and Ann met secretly and were married in 1601. She was 16 and he 29. Sir George More had John Donne dismissed and imprisoned for two months. John Donne and Ann More lived in poverty for the next 10 yrs dependent on his writing of tracts. This led to Donne’s rueful saying: “John Donne, Ann Donne, undone.”
During this time Donne wrote much of his serious poetry extolling the power of love above all else.
Ann More gave birth to 12 children 7 surviving her. Ann More died in childbirth in 1617 after which his writing became more sombre and religious - “wholly on heavenly things my mind is set”.* * He devoted his life to writing the Holy Sonnets.
Donne’s writings attracted the notice of King James I and he gained favour again. His Devotions upon Emergent Occasions contained the famous sayings, *“No man is an Island”. *Donne says that because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all of us: *“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore *never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The line also suggests that we all will die: the bell will toll for each one of us.
It was his proclamation that Catholics could owe their allegiance to King James I, without forfeiting their loyalty to the Pope, that earned him a place at the court and promotion to higher positions in the church.
In 1615 after training for the priesthood he became dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most prestigious appointments in the Anglican Church. Often sickly, in his last few years, John Donne died in 1631.