Glossary entry for
Donne, John

John Donne (rhymes with "sun") was born in 1573 (his father died in 1576) into a Roman Catholic family, and from 1584 to 1594 was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn (this last a highly regarded law school). He became an Anglican (probably around 1594) and aimed at a career in government. He joined with Raleigh and Essex in raids on Cadiz and the Azores, and became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. But in 1601 he secretly married Anne More, the 16-year-old niece of Egerton, and her enraged father had Donne imprisoned. The years following were years of poverty, debt, illness, and frustration. In 1615 he was ordained, perhaps largely because he had given up hope of a career in Parliament.

His poetry, mostly written before his ordination, includes poems both sacred and secular, full of wit, puns, paradoxes, and obscure allusions at whose meanings we can sometimes only guess, presenting amorous experience in religious terms and devotional experience in erotic terms.

After his ordination, his reputation as a preacher grew steadily. From 1622 until his death in 1631 he was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and drew huge crowds to hear him, both at the Cathedral and at Paul's Cross, an outdoor pulpit nearby. His prose style is in some ways outdated, but his theme continues to fascinate: "the paradoxical and complex predicament of man as he both seeks and yet draws away from the inescapable claim of God on him."

Some of his works have produced common sayings, such as

No man is an Island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the
Continent, a part of the main.
(from "Devotions")

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.
(from "Devotions")

Death be not proud,
Though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so
(from Holy Sonnets")

Donne, like Van, had both a spiritual and a secular side, the latter aspect being shown by the following extract:

Come, Madam, come all rest my powers defy,
Until I labor, I in labor lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistening,
but a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear
That th'eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bedtime.
(from "Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going to Bed")

Some more samples of Donne's poetry are available at: Van references in:

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