"When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language."
- "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions," Meditation 17, 1624.
Donne was born in London; at the age of 11 he entered the University of Oxford, where he studied for three years. According to some accounts, he spent the next three years at the University of Cambridge but took no degree at either university. He began the study of law at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1592. About two years later, presumably, he relinquished the Roman Catholic faith, in which he had been brought up, and joined the Anglican church. His first book of poems, Satires, written during this period of residence in London, is considered one of Donne's most important literary efforts. Although not immediately published, the volume had a fairly wide readership through private circulation of the manuscript, as did his love poems, Songs and Sonnets, written at about the same time as the Satires.
In 1596, Donne joined the naval expedition that Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, led against Cádiz, Spain. On his return to England, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal, in 1598. Donne's secret marriage in 1601 to Egerton's niece, Anne More, resulted in his dismissal from this position and in a brief imprisonment. A cousin of his wife offered the couple refuge in Pyrford, Surrey. While there, Donne wrote his longest poem, The Progresse of the Soule (1601), which ironically depicts the transmigration of the soul of Eve's apple.
During the next few years Donne made a meager living as a lawyer, serving chiefly as counsel for Thomas Morton, an anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteer. Donne may have collaborated with Morton in writing pamphlets that appeared under Morton's name from 1604 to 1607. Donne's principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos (posthumously published 1644). In the latter he argued that suicide is not intrinsically sinful. In 1608 a reconciliation was effected between Donne and his father-in-law, and his wife received a much-needed dowry. His next work, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), is a prose treatise maintaining that English Roman Catholics could, without breach of their religious loyalty, pledge an oath of allegiance to James I, king of England. This work won him the favour of the king. Donne became a priest of the Anglican church in 1615 and was appointed royal chaplain later that year. He attained eminence as a preacher, delivering sermons that are regarded as the most brilliant and eloquent of his time.
Donne continued to write poetry, notably his Holy Sonnets (1618), but most of it remained unpublished until 1633. In 1621 James I appointed him dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral; he held that post until his death. His friendship with the essayist and poet Izaak Walton, who later wrote a moving (although somewhat inaccurate) biography of Donne, began in 1624. While convalescing from a severe illness, Donne wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623-1624), a prose work in which he treated the themes of death and human relationships; it contains these famous lines: "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." It is almost certain that Donne would have become a bishop in 1630 but for his poor health. During his final years he delivered a number of his most notable sermons, including the so-called funeral sermon, Death's Duell (1631), delivered less than two months before his death in London.
The poetry of Donne is characterized by complex imagery and irregularity of form. He frequently employed the conceit, an elaborate metaphor making striking syntheses of apparently unrelated objects or ideas. His intellectuality, introspection, and use of colloquial diction, seemingly unpoetic but always uniquely precise in meaning and connotation, make his poetry boldly divergent from the smooth, elegant verse of his day. The content of his love poetry, often both cynical and sensuous, represents a reaction against the sentimental Elizabethan sonnet, and this work influenced the attitudes of the Cavalier poets. Those 17th-century religious poets sometimes referred to as the metaphysical poets, including Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan, drew much inspiration from the imagery and spirituality of Donne's religious poetry. Donne was almost forgotten during the 18th century, but interest in his work developed during the 19th century, and his popularity reached new heights after the 1920s, when Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot acknowledged his influence. Donne also wrote the Anniversaries, an elegy in two parts (1611-1612); collections of essays; and six collections of sermons.
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