John Donne (1572-1631) was born to a prominent London family. He was the grandson, on his mother’s side, of the dramatist John Heywood; he was the nephew of Jasper Heywood, who led the Jesuit mission to England in the 1580s; and he was a great-great-nephew of the Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas More. After an early education from the Jesuits, in 1584 Donne began his studies at Oxford but, as Oxford required him to renounce his Catholic faith, he left Oxford and pursued legal studies at the Inns of Court in London. During this youthful period, he wrote many epigrams (see below) which were shared among his literary friends but which remained unpublished during his lifetime.
After completing his law degree in 1596, Donne travelled through Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597). This was not a success, and he returned to England a year later almost penniless. He became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and was enthralled, smitten by his sixteen-year-old niece, Ann More, whom he secretly wed. Ann’s wealthy, titled father raged at Donne and his impecunious lifestyle. Donne sought Sir George More’s forgiveness: “Though perchance yow intend not utter destruction, yet the way through which I fall towards yt is so headlong, that being thus push’d, I shall soone be at bottome.” Instead, he was sent to prison. If he had hoped for advancement, he was disappointed. He was destined for poverty. Perhaps he had hoped for an allowance. Even after he left prison, he was sustained only by the charity of his friends and whatever hack work he could find. He summed up his sorry state of affairs in a famous epigram: “John Donne–Anne Donne–Undone.”
From 1602 to 1615 Donne was only able to support Ann and their twelve children through the generosity of friends and patrons. During that period he wrote, but did not publish, the Holy Sonnets and the love poetry which has endured to this day. It was an exceedingly diverse body of work ranging from such erotic poems as “The Flea” and “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” in which he celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, to the difficult poetic meditations on his faith, suffering and subservience to God, such as “Batter My Heart” and “Hymn to God the Father.” In 1615 he was ordained in the Anglican Church, reluctantly, when it became clear that King James I would advance him through the Church. He became the King’s chaplain; and the next year he was made divinity reader at Lincoln’s Inn.
Ann died in childbirth in 1617. In 1621, Donne became Dean of St. Paul’s, and his sermons became widely heard and admired. He stated that he was happy in the rejection of “the mistress of my youth, Poetry” for “the wife of mine age, Divinity.” Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature and he was soon celebrated for his sermons and religious poems which continue to have an enduring influence through such works as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (the title is from a Donne meditation) and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island (from the same source).
When he was struck with a fever in 1623 and thought he was dying, he wrote “Hymn to God the Father” and “Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many. One such example is “Death Be Not Proud” (“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”) Even as he lay dying during Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death’s Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.
John Donne died in 1631, having written many poems, most of which were circulated in manuscript form. Less than ten of them were published during his lifetime. By the time of his death, he was better known as a preacher and a writer of prose, especially sermons. He seems not to have been sure of the value of the poetry he wrote before he became a priest. It was 1633 before his first collection of poetry was published. After his death Donne was buried in the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. Donne’s monument survived the 1666 fire, and is on display in the present St. Paul’s.
THE EPIGRAMS OF JOHN DONNE
There are diverse views on the value of John Donne’s epigrams. The enotes site is dismissive of these epigrams:
In addition to the fully developed satires, Donne wrote a small number of very brief epigrams. These mere witticisms are often on classical subjects and therefore without the occasional focus that turns Ben Jonson’s epigrams into genuine poetry. This is the only place where Donne makes any substantial use of classical allusion.
On the other hand M. Thomas Hester not only relates Donne’s epigrams to those of his forebears, Sir Thomas More and John Heywood but demonstrates the epigram’s compression and wit to be essential qualities of Donne’s mind.
My own view is that a poem like “Hero and Leander” is a mini-masterpiece of wit, balance, concision, metaphoric resonance and emotional power. Not all of the epigrams are of this quality, or of the quality of his best poems, but they are certainly worth a second glance.
Brief Poems by John Donne
HERO AND LEANDER
Both robb’d of air, we both lie in one ground ;
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown’d.
PYRAMUS AND THISBE
Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear,
Slain, cruel friends, by parting have join’d here.
By children’s births, and death, I am become
So dry, that I am now mine own sad tomb.
A LAME BEGGAR
I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move ; if he say true, he lies.
Your mistress, that you follow whores, still taxeth
‘Tis strange that she should thus confess it, though ‘t
A LICENTIOUS PERSON
Thy sins and hairs may no man equal call ;
For, as thy sins increase, thy hairs do fall.
If in his study he hath so much care
To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.
Thy father all from thee, by his last will,
Gave to the poor ; thou hast good title still.
Thy flattering picture, Phryne, is like thee,
Only in this, that you both painted be.
AN OBSCURE WRITER
Philo with twelve years’ study hath been grieved
To be understood ; when will he be believed?
Klockius so deeply hath sworn ne’er more to come
In bawdy house, that he dares not go home.
Why this man gelded Martial I muse,
Except himself alone his tricks would use,
As Katherine, for the court’s sake, put down stews.
Compassion in the world again is bred ;
Ralphius is sick, the broker keeps his bed.
DONNE’S PRISON EPIGRAM
John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.
The Luminarium Site which includes all the epigrams.
The Bartleby page on the epigrams.
A detailed essay by M. Thomas Hester on the epigrams.
The Captive Faith page on the prison epigram.