John Donne 1572-1631

Family background and education

John Donne was born in 1572.

His ambition was to embark on a political or diplomatic career and he became a law student in London.

He also travelled widely on the Continent and became secretary to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton, one of the highest officials in Elizabeth's government.

Donne seemed to have opportunities for a political or diplomatic career, but he ruined them by marrying Ann More, a relative of Egerton's, without permission.

He was imprisoned, lost his job and had to face a long period of poverty.

Before getting married he had been admitted to the Church of England and from 1621 till his death he was Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.


John Donne lived in an age of transition when the new science and religious controversies were destroying the unity of the medieval world. He led two distinct lives: he was an Elizabethan courtier and, in the later part of his life, a famous preacher.

Donne's first poems were his Satires of the 1590s: the target was urban London society and the social evils of the time.

His love lyrics were first published in 1633 as Songs and Sonnets while his religious poetry- Divine Poems- which include the Holy Sonnets, began to appear in 1609.

His love and religious lyrics are often in the form of a dialogue with his wife of with God.

In the last seventeen years of his life Donne devoted all his energies to his weekly sermons. Sermons formed the largest category of printed books in that period. Their prose is imaginative and intellectually complex.

Donne is the originator of the Metaphysical school and to understand his poetry you have to be familiar with three terms: wit, conceit, metaphysical.

The conceit is the hallmark of Donne's poetry in particular and of metaphysical poetry in general.

We owe the critical term "metaphysical " to John Dryden who complained that Donne used the language of philosophical speculation (metaphysics) in contexts (love poetry) where it sounded inappropriate: Donne thus engaged the mind while he should have engaged only the heart.

Characteristics of Donne's poetry

The first is the argumentative quality of his love poems. Donne often argues with the woman addressed and tries to persuade her to share this or that point of view.

Then there is the dramatic quality of his poems. They originate in actual or imaginary experiences or situations: two lovers have just woken up in bed or have to part. The language is colloquial and the lines are of unequal length.

Donne's poems are constantly witty and abound in similes, metaphors, conceits, puns, paradoxes which are used to prove a point in a logical manner, to reason and draw a conclusion

In A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning he compares the relationship of two parting lovers to the interdependent movements of the legs of a pair of compasses.

Donne draws his imagery from a wider range of subjects than the stock images of courtly love poets (gardens, flowers, birds).

His love poetry analyses an intensely physical love and his women are real. So, it departs from the idealized views of love and woman of the Elizabethan poetry.

Donne's originality lies in his rejection of standard poetic forms and language and the attitudes of the courtly world. His tone is not tender but often cynical and self- confident.

Donne was not widely appreciated in the 18th and 19th centuries but returned to favour in the present century thanks to the critical appreciation of T.S. Eliot.

-Dora Manto

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