One of the most intriguing personalities of the 17th century, John Donne was born in London in 1572. His father was a prosperous merchant; his mother was the daughter of the playwright John Heywood. He was educated in the Roman Catholic faith, and soon learned what it meant to be a Catholic in England in that peiod: his maternal uncles died in exile because they were Jesuits; his younger brother was imprisoned for sheltering a priest, and died in jail at the age of 19.
He himself had to leave Oxford without a degree because he refused to take the oath of supremacy.
In 1591 Donne entered the Inns of Court to study law, but also read widely in philosophy and thelogy. His good knownledge of Italian and Spanish poetry could be evidence of some visits to Italy and Spain. In the period between 1592 and 1596 he wrote Elegies, Satires, and the prose Paradoxes and problems.
Brilliant, fashionable, erudite, he combined the qualities of the dandy, and those of the serious student. His contemporaries described him as a “great visitor of ladies”. He was certainly ambitious, and attempted the diplomatic career. In 1596 he went on the Cadiz expedition with the Earl of Essex, and took part in another naval expedition – the Islands voyage – in 1597. Soon afterwords he was appointed secretary to the lord keeper of the Great Seal. It seems certain that, by this time, he had conformed to the Church of England.
He seemed to be destined to a splendid career, when there was a tunning point in his life. He fell passionately in love with Ann More, the young niece of the lord keeper’s wife, and in 1601 secretly married her without her guardian’s consent. As a result, he was imprisoned and, when released, he lost his position. The following years saw him fighting with poverty, illness and discomfort. He had to depend on charity keep a family costantly growing – Ann bore him twelve children, only seven of whom survived – but in spite of the hardships the passionate and costant love for his wife was always the reference point of Donne’s life.
There is no certainty about the composition of his finest poems, the Songs and Sonnets, but some of them were written after his marriage, because they celebrate the happy fulfilment of love. As a rule he did not write for publication, but to please himself and his friends. His first published work, Pseudo-Martyr, appeared in 1610. It was an attack against the jesuits and Puritans, and it was aimed at persuading Roman Catholics to take the oath of allegiance. This work gave him a great reputation and the attention of the king. Ignatius his Conclave, a satire against the Jesuits, appeared in 1611. One or two years earlier the poet had written – but not published – Biathanatos, a treatise considering the possible lawfulness of suicide.
This work reveals another aspect of Donne’s intriguing personality: this brilliant, witty, passionate man was not exempt from depression, the “melancholy” which was to inspire Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, and so many 18th century and 19th century writers. Under James I’s pressure Donne took orders in 1615, and proved assiduous in performing the duties of his ministry. A year later he was appointed preacher at Lincoln’s Inn.
1617 marked another crucial moment in his life: his wife died at the age of 33. It was a tremendous blow for him, and he expressed his feelings in some lyrics of the Holy sonnets. This collection, mostly dealing with themes like sin, death and judgement, is part of the Divine poems, together with another group of sonnets called La Corona. These poems were written between 1617 and 1618. From now on he devoted himself almost exclusively to preaching.
Donne’s intellectual vigour, wide and wit made him a magnificient, impressive preacher; the best society assembled to hear his splendid sermons, only a few which, however, were printed during his life. The only other work that he published in this last period was Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, in prose (1624).