Born and raised in a Roman Catholic family , Donne was educated at both Oxford (Hertford College) and Cambridge. As a young man he travelled on the Continent and in 1596–97 accompanied the earl of Essex on his expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores. On his return he became secretary to Baron Ellesmere and began to achieve a reputation as a poet. His writings of this period include many of his songs and sonnets, and they are notable for their realistic and sensual style. Donne also composed many satirical verses, betraying a cynical outlook.
A public scandal in 1601 (concerning Donne's clandestine marriage to Anne More, niece to Baron Ellesmere Egerton's second wife) ruined Donne's public reputation, and afterwards his poetry became more serious. The two "Anniversaries" — "An Anatomy of the World" (1611) and "Of the Progress of the Soul" (1612)— reveal that his faith in the medieval order of things had been disrupted by the growing political, scientific, and philosophic doubt of the times. His 1611 satire Ignatius his Conclave, described below, was probably the first English work to mention Galileo.
After a long period of financial uncertainty and desperation, during which he was twice a member of Parliament (1601, 1614), Donne heeded the wishes of King James I and was ordained in 1615. With the death of his wife in 1617 the tone of his poetry deepened, particularly in the "Holy Sonnets".
After his ordination, Donne wrote a number of religious works, such as his Devotions (1624) and various sermons. Several of these sermons were published during his lifetime. Donne was also regarded as one of the most eloquent preachers of his day. In 1621, Donne was made dean of St. Paul's, a position he held until his death.
DONNE, JOHN: Clergyman and poet, dean of St. Paul's; b. in London - 1573; d. there Mar. 31, 1631.
He studied at Hart Hall, Oxford (M.A. by convocation, 1610), and in 1592 was admitted to Lincoln's Inn. He immediately became an intimate of the intellectual leaders of the time and had soon won for himself a great reputation as a wit and poet. In 1596 he took part in the expedition to Cadiz, under the Earl of Essex, and on his return was appointed secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal. About 1600 he lost this position through a clandestine marriage with a niece of the lord keeper.
As early as 1592 he had renounced the Roman Catholic faith, and in 1610 he published in London Pseudo-Martyr, a treatise against Catholicism. He wrote the book at the suggestion of James I., and it is probable that he was well paid for it. This was followed (1610 or 1611) by Conclave Ignatii: sive ejus in nuperis inferni comitiis inthronizatio and an English Ignatius his Conclave; or his Inthronization in a Late Election in Hell (1611). Both works were republished later with titles changed. The original Latin is now extremely rare. As his sovereign was unable to do anything for him immediately in the way of political preferment, Donne continued in civil pursuits till 1615, when he took orders. He was urged to do this by James, who immediately made him royal chaplain. On the insistence of the king the University of Cambridge reluctantly conferred the degree of doctor of divinity on Donne in March of the same year.
Many livings were offered him throughout the country, but he preferred to remain in London. However, in 1616 he accepted the rectory of Keyston, in Huntingdonshire, and later in the same year that of Sevenoaks. He never resided in either parish, remaining in London, where he was appointed divinity reader of Lincoln's Inn.
During the next few years he came to be recognized as one of the first preachers of his time, and in 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul's. He was chosen prolocutor of the convocation in 1623, and again in 1624. In the spring of the latter year he was given the rectory of Blunham, in Bedfordshire, and the vicarage of St. Dunstan's-in-the-West, London.
Donne's ability as a preacher continued to increase, and his popularity grew in proportion. He surpassed all others; and, indeed, the editor of his last sermon claims that Donne finally surpassed even himself. This sermon, called by Donne "Death's Duel," was preached just five weeks before his death. He was buried in St. Paul's.
Donne's reputation rests on his poetry. He wrote much verse, but it was usually handed around in manuscript, little of it being published in his lifetime, though his poems were greatly admired by his contemporaries. A collection of his poetry was published in 1633. It contains satires, elegies, epigrams, letters, etc.
He is usually classified as a "metaphysical poet," and occupies an important place in English literature. He set a style in English poetry that continued dominant till the time of Dryden; and even in Browning's ruggedness and obscurity may be detected the influence of Donne.
His sermons were published in various forms, including three volumes edited by his son, John Donne the Younger (London, 1640, 1649, 1660). As many as 180 are now known. They are marked by poetic, imaginary, and philosophic insight, and with Donne's other literary works constitute a memorial of great industry and rare talents.