Writing life sketches of poets, philosophers, politicians, and saints offers space for learning and honing critical thinking skills.
Anti-Catholicism in England
John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572, at the time in world history when anti-Catholicism was gaining influence in England. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a well-to-do ironworker. His mother was a relative of Sir Thomas More, and her father was John Heywood, the playwright. The future poet was only four years old when his father died in 1576, and his mother struggled to raise John and his two siblings by herself.
John and his younger brother, Henry, began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John was eleven years old at the time. John continued his studies at Hart Hall for the next three years, after which he enrolled at Cambridge University. John refused to vow to a supremacy oath declaring King Henry VIII the head of the church because such vows were considered blasphemous to devout Catholics. John was, therefore, not allowed to graduated because of that refusal. Later, John began studying law as a member of Thavies and Lincoln’s Inn. Jesuit influence continued to play a part in John’s worldview through his days as a student.
Reconsidering His Faith
After his brother, Henry, died in prison, John began to reconsider his faith in Catholicism. Henry had been arrested, charged, and imprisoned for assisting a Catholic priest. John's first collection of works titled Satires focuses on the issue of the effectiveness of professing faith. It was during this same time frame that he began writing his love poems, which might more accurately be labeled "lust poems," titled Songs and Sonnets. Many of Donne’s most widely anthologized poems are taken from this collection, including "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."
Known by the nickname, "Jack," Donne, spent a portion of his youth, and a large portion of an inherited income, on traveling and womanizing. On naval expeditions, John often journeyed to Cádiz, Spain, with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Later, Donne took up another journey with an additional expedition to the Azores, where he was inspired to compose his piece titled "The Calm." After arriving back in England, he took a post as private secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Thomas Egerton.
Marriage to Anne More
John Donne and Anne More were secretly married in 1601; at the time, Anne was only 17 years old. Because of this marriage, John Donne’s government positions ended. And worse, yet for the couple, Anne’s father enjoined a conspiracy to have John arrested and imprisoned. Mr. More had also imprisoned the friends of the couple, who had helped keep Donne’s courtship with Anne secret. For the next decade as John remained unable to gain employment, the couple struggled in poverty to raise their twelve children.
Because he had renounced his Catholic faith under James I, Donne entered the ministry. He had completed a doctorate in divinity at Lincoln’s Inn and Cambridge. Even though he had practiced law for a number of years, his family continued to live at the subsistence level. His being offered a position as Royal Chaplain seemed to suggest that the couple’s financial situation would be improving. However, after giving birth to their twelfth child on August 15, 1617, Anne unexpectedly died.
Concentration on Faith
Anne’s death took its toll on John and exerted a very strong influence on his poetry. He lived primarily through his poems, searching for answers to spiritual questions that could not be answered any other way than through faith. Three of his most widely anthologized and studied poems of faith include "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee." It was also during this time that he began what became his crowning classic sequence of poems titled The Holy Sonnets.
Donne’s concentration on spiritual works continued with his private meditations; his collection, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, was published in 1624. His "Meditation 17" from this collection has become widely noted for such famous quotations as "No man is an island" and "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."
In that same year 1624, John began serving as the vicar of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West, where he continued to minister for the rest of his life. Finishing his life as a man of deep faith after beginning as a material-minded, lustful womanizer, he preached a sermon titled "Death’s Duel," which has been touted as his own funeral sermon because he preached it only a few weeks prior to his death on March 31, 1731.
A Reading of "Death's Duel"
Examples of Contrasting Poems
The following two poems demonstrate the vast difference between Donne’s earlier scandal-producing themes and his later ones of deep, abiding faith.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
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Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;v
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Commentary on "The Flea"
The speaker in Donne's "The Flea" is employing a twisted, disingenuous play on logic. In this poem, the speaker is suggesting that because the blood of the potentially copulating couple is already mingling in the flea's body, their copulation could not be considered "a sin, nor shame," and, therefore, cannot be considered loss of virginity. While such a notion remains a very creative and clever one, it is, of course, ludicrous; if the originator of such a concocted notion cannot not realize it at the time he proposed it, he will certainly become capable of understanding the perversity of it after he takes up his position as a spiritual aspirant, concentrating on compositions such as the following.
A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Commentary on "A Hymn to God the Father"
The prayer/poem, "A Hymn to God the Father," begins with the speaker acknowledging the original sin of having been born into human flesh. Because of that condition, he now comprehends that he carries a karmic burden which he must overcome. He is aware that he has sown sinful seeds and is now reaping what he has sown. The speaker has become painfully aware that sin-consciousness indicates that he is making progress on the path to self-awareness.
Instead of using his energy as he did in his younger days to seduce young women, he is now searching for soul-awareness and wishes to live a clean, faithful life of meditation and prayer, as he dedicates his life to the Divine Belovèd. Even as he has continued to be confronted by the lust of the flesh, he now understands where he must go to seek aid in subduing those animal lusts. The speaker now detests his earlier sin, and he has become aware that he needs God’s guidance as he strives to control and overcome his proclivity for lust.
- Anniina Jokinen. "The Life of John Donne." Luminarium. June 22, 2006.
- Patricia Garland Pinka. "John Donne." Britannica. Accessed January 28, 2021.
© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 29, 2021:
Audrey, thank you for your response! Yes, John Donne is one of the most fascinating characters of the poetry world. The contrast between his earlier works and later ones remains a marvel; many profound studies could result from focusing on that contrast alone. While I find "The Flea" a truly clever conceit, I always come away from it thinking how silly it is and wondering what Donne might have thought of it as he was writing the Holy Sonnets—the mindset of those two is worlds apart. Of course, mature thinking is always different from adolescent thinking. Still, one can never deny that the clever and precise metaphorical language of Donne's early works exemplifies a true brilliant thinking craftsman.
Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 28, 2021:
Thank you, Linda, for this interesting Biographical Sketch. "The Flea" is a favorite of mine. Your analysis brought an understanding that I had over-looked.