The Life of John Donne

John Donne was an English poet, scholar, and secretary. John Donne is considered now to be the pre-eminent metaphysical poet of his time. He was born in Bread Street, London in 1572 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. His parents were Roman Catholics, and he was educated in their faith before going to Oxford and Cambridge. He entered the Inns of Court in 1592, where he mingled wide reading with the life of a dissolute man-about-town. He wrote his Satires, the Songs and Sonets, and the Elegies, but, though widely circulated in manuscript, they were not published until 1663, after his death. He entered the Anglican Chruch, after a severe personal struggle, and in 1621, became Dean of St. Paul’s, which position he held until his death in 1631. He was the first great Anglican preacher.

John Donne, Self-potrait

His Poetry

Donne was the most independent of the Elizabethan poets and revolted against the easy, fluent style, stock imagery, and pastoral conventions of the followers of Spenser. His poetry is forceful, Vigorous, and despite faults of rhythm, often strangely harmonious. His cynical nature and keenly critical mind led him to write satires, such as Of the Progres of the Soule (1601). His love poems, the Songs and Sonets, were written in the same period, and are intense and subtle analyses of all the moods of a lover, expressed in vivid and startling language, which is colloquial rather than conventional. His poems are all intensely personal and reveal a powerful and complex being. Among the best known and most typical of the poems of this group are Aire and Angels, A Nocturnall upon S.Lucies day, A Valediction: forbidding mourning, and The Extaise.

His religious poetry was written after 1610, and the greatest, the nineteen Holy Sonets, and the lyric such as A Hymn to GOD THE FATHER, after his wife’s died in 1617. They too are intense and personal and have a force unique in this class of literature. “He affects the metaphysics”, said Dryden of Donne, and the term ‘metaphysical’ has come to be applied to Donne and a group of poets who followed him. The most distinctive feature of the metaphysical is their imagery, which, in Donne, is almost invariably unusual and striking, often breath-taking, but sometimes far-fetched and fantastic.

His Prose

Donne’s prose work is considerable both in bulk and achievement. The Pseudo-Martyr (1610) was a defense of the oath of allegiance, while Ignatius His Conclave (1611) was a satire upon Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits. The best introduction to Donne’s prose is his Devotions (1614), which give an account of his spiritual struggles during a serious illness. His finest prose works are his Sermons, which number about 160. In seventeenth-century England, the sermon was a most important influence, and the powerful preacher in London was a public figure capable of Wielding great influence. Donne’s sermons, of which the finest is probably Death’s Duell (1630), contain many of the features of his poetry. Donne seems to have used a dramatic technique that had a great hold on his audiences.


Donne left a deep and pervasive influence on English poetry. The metaphysical lyricists owed a great debt to him. Sometimes, his followers excelled him in happy conceit, passion, and paradoxical reasoning. And yet he gave a sincere and passionate quality to the Elizabethan lyric. He is one of those great poets who have left a mark on the history of English poetry. At times, his poetry is strange, fantastic, bizarre, maybe repellent. Donne may not be capable at times of graceful love or sweetness of song, but he enriched Elizabethan poetry with sincerity, originality, and fullness of thought.