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John Donne Poetry: Analysis & Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
John Donne, a metaphysical poet of the 17th century, found popularity amongst his contemporaries, but sadly fell out of fashion after his death until the 20th century, when his work was applauded by such writers as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. In this lesson we'll look at his life and work.

John Donne

John Donne's Early Life

John Donne was born in 1572 to wealthy parents. When John was only four, his father - a successful merchant - died, and his mother was remarried to a man of ample means. Young John was ill as he grew up, and struggled with illness throughout his lifetime. John's family was Catholic, and this is significant because England opposed Catholicism during this time. However, it is safe to say that John was highly influenced by his Catholic roots. In fact, because he was a Catholic, he was never given the degree he earned from Oxford University (which he entered at age 11) or from the University of Cambridge, where he finished his education.

A few years later, John decided to pursue law at Lincoln's End, and worked towards becoming a great statesman. He did spend a great deal of money on women and travel during these years while writing love poems, and he also wrote two works, 'Satires,' and 'Songs and Sonnets,' a noteworthy accomplishment as he was not yet 21. However, none of Donne's writings were officially published until after his death. Here is one of his early poems:

The Flea
Flea

'Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is ;

It suck'd 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 pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;

And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, yea, more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.'

Family Life

Tragically, when John was 21, his brother Henry was imprisoned for his Catholic beliefs. Henry died in prison, and Henry's death led to a season of introspection for John. He questioned his Catholic beliefs and wrote some of his most famous religious poetry during this time. A few years later, when John was 25, Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, hired him to be his private secretary. This went well until John eloped with Ann More, the 17-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Ann's father, George, did not approve of the marriage, and withheld a much-needed dowry from the couple. In addition, Sir Thomas Egerton actually had John imprisoned for some weeks! George More eventually relented, giving John and Ann the dowry after all, as they struggled financially through their first years of marriage. Ann gave birth to 12 children, but sadly died during the birth of her last child in 1617.

His Career

In 1615, it is significant to note that John Donne officially converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism and was appointed as Royal Chaplain of the Anglican Church, bringing him favor in England. People loved his dramatic preaching style and use of metaphors. John became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1621, and wrote 'Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.' Here is an excerpt from that work, from which the famous line 'for whom the bell tolls' is derived:

'PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.'

John Donne soon became Vicar of Dunstan's-in-the-West. His preaching became more and more polished, and yet his health began to decline. In fact, he became fixated on death, and knowing his own death was imminent, Donne actually preached his own pre-funeral service entitled 'Death's Duel.' John died in 1631, in London, the place of his birth.

Analysis

Oddly, although John Donne's writing was well-liked during his lifetime, about thirty years after his death his works faded into obscurity. Then in the late 19th century, poet and playwright Robert Browning praised Donne's work, much to people's surprise. For a few hundred years, people simply did not like Donne's style, but in 1919, Donne's poems and prose became more popular; from that point on, he has been regarded as a master writer.

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