John Donne

(1572 - 1631)


John Donne was born in Bread Street, London. His father was a well to do ironmonger, who died suddenly in 1576 (4), his mother the daughter of John Heywood. She numbered Sir Thomas More amongst her other ancestors. His mother’s family was very strongly Roman Catholic and two of her brothers were Jesuits.


Donne’s early education was undertaken by Jesuits. In 1583 (11) he entered Hart Hall, Oxford, and in 1586 (14) he moved to Cambridge, where he studied for a further three years. He received no degree as he would not take the Oath of Supremacy. Between 1589 (17) and 1591 (19) he travelled in Europe, visiting both Italy and Spain. On his return he began to read law first at Thavies Inn in 1591 (19), then Lincoln’s Inn in 1592 (20). His younger brother Henry also entered Thavies Inn, where he was arrested along with a Catholic priest, William Harrington, and both were imprisoned. Henry died soon after in an epidemic in the prison, and Harrington was publicly executed at the beginning of 1594 (22).

Adventure and first poem

Donne decided not to pursue his legal career, disappearing from the records of Lincoln’s Inn at the end of 1594, but his bawdy tale, Epithalamium, was probably written for a celebration at Lincoln’s Inn in 1595 (23). He joined in the Earl of Essex’s raid on Cadiz in 1596 (24), according to one of his letters, partly out of a desire for personal profit, and partly to forget an unfortunate love affair. He made a second sea expedition with the Earl of Essex, this time to the Azores, in 1597 (25), at the conclusion of which he wrote :

Long voyages are long consumptions

And ships are carts for executions.

Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and second poem

During this second voyage he had made the acquaintance of the son of Sir Thomas Egerton, and, on his return to England, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas. Around 1600 (28) he began a long poem called Metempsychosis, The Progresse of the Soul, but abandoned it after 520 lines.

Falls in love and is undone

At the same time he fell in love with his employer’s niece, Anne More. He was thirty, she fifteen. She was also his social superior, and when her father learnt of their secret marriage some two months after the event, he had the bridegroom, the officiating priest and the lawyer who had acted as witness thrown into prison. Donne was soon released, but Egerton dismissed him from his post, and he now found himself an outsider.

Unemployment and suicidal thoughts

By 1606 (34) Anne’s father relented somewhat, and provided a small income for their upkeep, but Donne was unable to find suitable employment. He refused a living in a rural parish near York in 1607 (35), and it was at this time that he wrote Biathanatos (Violent Death), in which he discussed and attempted to justify suicide. The essay was not published until 1647 (d16).

Pamphlets and coarse exercises in flattery

In 1610 (38) he published the pamphlet Pseudo-Martyr, in which he argued that Roman Catholics could swear the new (1605) Oath of Allegiance without compromising their religious duty to the Pope. Dedicated to James I, it brought him favourably to the new monarch’s attention, and it appears that he was again offered a position in the Church of England, but again refused. Another pamphlet, Ignatius His Conclave, appeared in 1611 (39), satirising the Jesuits. Also in 1611 (39) he obtained a position as secretary to Sir Robert Drury, for whom he wrote two long Anniversaries, poems consoling him for the loss of his fourteen year old daughter Elizabeth, which Ben Jonson condemned as coarse exercises in flattery, and which he later regretted bringing to publication.

The pursuit of patronage

He pursued the patronage of Robert Carr, a favourite of James I, providing him with a poem celebrating his controversial marriage to Frances Howard in 1613 (41), and it was almost certainly at Carr’s recommendation that he was made MP for Taunton in 1614 (42), though Parliament was soon dissolved, and not recalled for another seven years.

He takes holy orders

In 1614 (42) he made up his mind to take holy orders, and, having obtained an audience with the king in November, he was ordained as a deacon and priest in January 1615 (43). He was almost immediately made one of the King’s 48 chaplains, and awarded a doctorate by a reluctant Cambridge University on the King’s orders. Being the King’s chaplain enabled him to draw income from two parishes without being present in either.

Death of wife

Anne Donne died in 1617 (45) at the age of 33 after giving birth to their twelfth child, who was stillborn.

Mission to Central Europe

He accompanied Viscount Doncaster on a mission on behalf of James I to try to avert war between Protestants and Catholics in Central Europe in 1619 (47), during which trip he met Johannes Kepler.

He becomes a popular preacher at court and is appointed Dean of St Pauls

He was back in London by 1620 (48), and from then on he preached regularly to the court. His sermons were much admired, and some 160 survive. In 1621 (49) he was appointed Dean of St Pauls.

Serious illness

In the winter of 1623 (51) a serious illness, from which it was thought he would die, prompted him to write his Devotions on Emergent Occasions (1624, 52), which included his famous words : ‘No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promonterie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; Any Man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’12

Final sermon and death

He preached his final sermon to the court in Whitehall Palace on 25th February 1631 (59), a sermon which became known as Death’s Duell, and he died on 31st March, having posed in a shroud for a sketch portrait, from which an engraving was made for the frontispiece of Death’s Duell. It was also used by Nicholas Stone in producing his funerary monument, which now stands in St Paul’s Cathedral.

His epitaph, which he wrote himself, reads :

John Donne

Doctor of Divinity

after varied studies, pursued from early years

with perseverance and not without success,

entered into holy Orders

under the influence and pressure of the Holy Spirit

and by the advice and exhortation of King James,

in the year of his Jesus 1614 and of his age 42.

Having been invested with the Deanery of this church

on 27 November 1621,

he was stripped of it by death on the last day of March 1631.

He lies here in the dust but beholds Him

whose name is Rising.