His Majesty the Best Poet Ever: John Donne

Biographical Information


John Donne (1572-1631) was born to a London Catholic family, the son of an ironmonger and descended on his mother’s side from Sir Thomas More (author of Utopia). He was highly influenced by the anti-Catholic movements which took place in England throughout his life. He entered Cambridge at the age of fourteen, but due to his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy (an act tantamount to committing apostasy of his Catholic faith), he did not graduate or receive a diploma. Expected to attend law school, Donne began questioning his faith when his brother Henry died in 1593. He spent the next few years of his life as a rake, living on an inheritance and spending money on women and entertainment. After a couple years in the Navy sailing under the Earl of Essex, Donne returned to England and began a career as a courtier, sitting in Queen Elizabeth’s last court. A secret marriage to Anne More in 1601 destroyed his career, landed him in prison for four months, stripped him of his secretarial position under Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and forced him to live in the home of his brother-in-law for three years while he sought work. One of the people known to have helped him through his difficult times was Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Donne soon renounced his Catholicism completely. Later in life, after the publication of his first folio, he reluctantly joined the ministry of the Anglican church at the suggestion of Reverend Dr. Thomas Morton. There, he became a well-known preacher for his use of imagery and metaphors. Donne died on March 31 1631. The Holy Sonnets were written between 1609-1611, when he attempted to consolidate his opinion of himself, to determine whether he believed he was redeemable or not. For this reason, the sonnets all reflect on death, posing questions to and about God.

Literary Works

“The readings of these poems, especially those most representative of their respective chapters- ‘Satire 4’, ‘The Nocturnall,’ ‘Obsequies for the Lord Harrington,’ ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ and lastly, the verse letters and the ‘Hymn to God my God in my sickness’- should, I hope, go some way toward revising the commonly held perception of Donne as strictly verbal poet and of early modern England as a culture lacking in visual sophistication.” (John Donne’s Poetry and Early Modern Visual Culture; Page 206.)

The Holy Sonnets

"When he looked at himself, he saw a creature that would die. And when he looked within himself, he saw a ‘black soul’ that was already being dragged to the inferno. Donne had many reasons for refusing to become a priest. Not the least of them were his love of freedom, his irregular lifestyle, his worldly ambitions; but important too was a reluctance to compound his earlier sins by preaching salvation as one of the damned."
(Stubbs 260)

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward: relates time and space in a strange manner. The narrator is riding from London to Ludlow on the same day that the Passion of the Christ in Jerusalem was occurring. Instead of engaging in a pilgrimage eastward to the Holy Lands, he rides west, away from Christ. The separation of locations allows Donne to play with the relationship between soul and body. “Donne, who certainly valued ceremony and ritual (as documented by the many passages cited throughout this study), disturbs even the conventional alignment by privileging both ceremony and interiority, and in "Good Friday" in particular.” (JD Poetry; 152)

Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness: was written when Donne was ill. Scholars argue whether it was composed on his deathbed in 1630 or during a fever he contracted in 1623. “Donne himself is very much in view — in face, his ailing body is the central focus of meditation on mortality and redemption, just as it was in his Devotions.” (Cambridge; 163). Donne utilizes the word “straits” often within this sonnet. While "straits" refer to the bodies of water he speaks of, it can also represent personal struggle. Straits generally lead to “treasure-lands” so this could imply that Donne is focusing on physical exploration and discovery.

Hymn to God the Father: deals specifically with the sin of fear, which Donne believes is not only the last, but most dominant sin. The ending line’s message, that he will fear no more, comes across as a promise. “'A Hymn to God the Father' is perhaps the best known of Donne’s poems of deferred certainty. It is a confession of overwhelming sinfulness (the word “sinne” is used eight times within the space of thirteen lines), and the refrain in the first two stanzas sets the poet himself, through the pun on his own name, at the heart of this recurring principle of incompleteness: ‘When thou hast done, thou has not done’ (5,11).” (Cambridge: Page 164)

Sonnet #4: uses apocalyptic references to imagine Donne's fate as a sinner. He emphasizes that the righteous “shall behold God and never taste death’s woe” (8) and pleads that God will teach him repentance so that he may be sanctified. This pleading reveals Donne’s struggle with memories of his “sinful” past.

Sonnet #5: Here, Donne’s octet and sestet constitute an argument within himself. He indignantly questions why he can be damned for sins while the things that cause him to sin — “that tree whose fruit threw death on else immortal us” (1-2) and “envious” snakes (3) — are considered innocent. He judges that this is because humanity is gifted with “intent” and “reason” (5).
In his sestet, he castigates himself for questioning God’s authority and thanks the deity for being willing to forget his “sin’s black memory” (12). Internal disputes like this demonstrate how divinity consumed Donne’s thoughts and poems; his writing reveals a tortured soul, striving to make sense of many spiritual paradoxes. We saw this expressed vividly, too, in his third satire.

Sonnet #6: mocks death and its fearful influence over men, remembering that after people die, they live a peaceful eternity in heaven. While his assertions about the ease of death seem sincere, taken in context with the rest of the Holy Sonnets it seems that Donne wrote this sonnet as an attempt to convince himself, more than anyone else, to be unafraid.

Sonnet #17: While the essence of this poem is straightforward — Donne recognizes following his wife’s death that he is freer to seek God and resigns himself to celibacy — its second line is puzzling. Of question is how Donne felt about his marriage to Anne. It no doubt cost him his career in the court and he struggled endlessly until her death and afterward to recover the reputation he lost because of the union. Read one way, the line says that Donne’s goodness has died along with Anne’s when she passed away. Read another way it says that her death was good for Donne, a harsh comment considering their sixteen years of marriage and the twelve children she bore him.

Sonnet #18: Donne writes on a similar topic as in Satire 3; he wonders which church is the correct one. Ultimately, his answer appears in the final two lines: the best church is the one that allows in the largest number of men. This idea of a universal church is the topic of Meditation 17.

Other Works

A Valediction: Of Weeping: As Donne tearfully bids his lover farewll, he contemplates (in typical Donne form) the metaphysical significance of their shared tears. This poem uses an unusual rhyme scheme of 'abba/ccddd.' According to John Stubbs, “Donne’s cadences are those of someone thinking as they speak, making emphases that go against the stipulations of prosody. He does not set out to create an unrealistically even flow of speech that could sound artificial.” (29)

The Flea: After finding a flea on his chaste quarry’s person, Donne uses the vermin as an object lesson about marriage in an attempt to seduce her. When she squashes the bug, between lines 19 and 20, he argues that no more honor will be taken from her in lying with him than life was drawn from her by the flea’s death.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest day: Donne employs metaphors drawn from alchemy to describe himself before love, during love and now that his love has died. The alchemic metaphors certainly add to the poem’s mythic imagery.

The Bait: This is among the most metrically “common” poems from today’s reading, probably because it intentionally parodies one by Christopher Marlowe, who was among Donne’s favorite poets (Stubbs 29). Its tone varies from stanza to stanza, building comical crescendo through stanza four but turning more serious afterward.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning: In this goodbye salutation, Donne assures his wife Anne that while they will be separated during his diplomatic trip to France in 1611, their love will continue strong, grow stronger, and he will come back to her.

The Funeral: Here, the speaker imagines the scene of his burial. Line 3’s “subtle wreath of hair” is a lock of hair, which a lady has given him to temper the effect of her blunt rejections of his sexual advances. It is her refusal of him that has caused his death: “That since you would save none of me, I bury some of you.” (24) A.J. Smith reads lines 11-13: “Because these hairs grew upwards (towards heaven and a purer condition) and draw virtue from a brain better endowed to preserve against corruption.” (Smith 377)

The Relic : We may presume that line 6’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” is the same lock of hair mentioned in "The Funeral". Donne here imagines that someone may dig up his body, see the hair around his wrist, assume him to be a saint (possibly Jesus Christ himself), and have his bones declared relics. A.J. Smith dates this poem to Donne’s relationship with Lady Mary Herbert, which began around 1607 (376-77). Donne was married for 6 years at the time and there is no evidence that they had an affair.

Elegies and Satires

Elegy XX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: We see that this is another one of Donne’s famous ‘coercing’ poems. This poem is incredibly direct. For example: “…I may know, / As liberally as to thy midwife show / Thyself ; cast all, yea, this white linen hence…” (43-5). The explicit nature of the poem comes off as shocking, and in that shock factor, Donne presents his case well. However, it is likely that physical lust is taking precedence over love.

Satire III: Donne is speaking to God in this poem. He asks how he can be expected to choose on religion when so many seemingly offer the same benefits. Observe lines 93-5: “Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied / To man's laws, by which she shall not be tried / At the last day?”

A Funeral Elegy : While the mood of the poem begins in mourning, the progression offers the idea of death as a metamorphosis into something more beautiful: “May 't not be said, that her grave shall restore / Her, greater, purer, firmer than before?” (45-6). His use of imagery in explaining this idea is superb.

Meditation 17: This comes from a collection entitled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1627) which considers the different stages of an illness. Donne wrote it in 1626, when he was violently ill with fever and believed he was soon to die. For months he lay in his bed at St. Paul’s church, hearing the city of London around him, especially the various bells which sounded perpetually throughout the day. While most Londoners were perhaps accustomed to the din, Donne focused his typical ultra-analysis (á la "The Flea") toward what those bells might say.

Suggested Further Readings:

Dwight Cathcart, “Doubting Conscience: Donne and the Poetry of Moral Argument,” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.

Louis I. Bredvold, "The Naturalism of Donne in Relation to Some Renaissance Traditions," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 22, no. 4 (1923): 471-502.

Richard E. Hughes, The Progress of the Soul: The Interior Career of John Donne (New York: William Morrow, 1968).

Edward LeComte, Grace to a Witty Sinner: A Life of John Donne (New York: Walker, 1965).


1. Luminarium.org
2. The Poetry of John Donne: An Explication. By Doniphan Louthan
3. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Edited by Achsah Guibbory
4. Crossref-it.info
5. John Donne’s Poetry and Early Modern Visual Culture. Ann Hollinshead Hurley
6. Donne, John, and A. J. Smith. The Complete English Poems. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
7. Jokinen, Anniina. "The Life of John Donne." Luminarium.
22 June 2006. [March 14, 2011].
8. Stubbs, John. John Donne: the Reformed Soul. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007. Print.
9. Image: http://www.hanscomfamily.com/09%20John%20Donne.jpg
10. Poems from: Luminarium.org. <http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm>.

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