Known as the father of metaphysical poetry, John Donne was an English poet, essayist, and theologian who served as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Born in London in 1572, Donne was named for his father, a successful ironmonger. His mother Elizabeth Heywood was the grandniece of Catholic martyr Sir Tho­mas More.* Donne was raised a Catholic, and issues of faith are prominent in his writing. Donne attended Oxford (1584) before matriculating to Lincoln's Inn to study law (1592). Donne's writings prove him ambitious and eager for ad­vancement. It is believed that a number of Donne's Songs and Sonnets, elegies, paradoxes, and epigrams were written during his years at Lincoln's Inn and were circulated among a coterie of friends. Donne's poetry is characterized by intellect and wit and has been labeled "metaphysical." Metaphysical poetry also employs unusual conceits and relies on irony or paradox. Such characteristics are featured in the body of Donne's work.
In 1596 Donne accompanied the earl of Essex's expedition to Cadiz, and in 1597 he joined the expedition to the Azores. He became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper, in 1597. Though Donne's career looked promising, his success was short-lived. Donne secretly married Ann More, Egerton's niece, in December 1601. As a result, Donne was thrown in jail and dismissed from Egerton's service. Though Donne's prison stay was brief, his sufferance was not. He never regained his position, and the couple faced the next fourteen years relying on the kindness of Donne's friends and patrons. His most notable patrons included Robert Drury; Lucy, countess of Bedford; and Magdalen Herbert, mother of George Herbert. Donne's patrons were well connected at court, but Donne could not secure employment. He continued to write during these years, and the majority of Donne's religious lyrics are attributed to this time. Mean­while, his family was increasing, beginning with the birth of his first son, John, in 1604. More gave birth to a total of twelve children until her own death in childbirth in 1617.
Donne finally attracted the attention of King James's* court with the publi­cation of Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius His Conclave (1611), both texts actively Anglican. James I encouraged him to take holy orders, and Donne was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1615. Donne's motives for conversion to the Protestant church are unclear: did he experience a spiritual awakening, or was he desperate for employment? In the year of his ordination, he was made a royal chaplain, deacon and priest at St. Paul's Cathedral, and doctor of divinity at Cambridge. Donne was frequently invited to deliver sermons before the king and members of the royal family. He was appointed dean of St. Paul's in 1621. Donne preached his last sermon there on 25 February 1631 and died in March of that year.
Donne has been called the "unidentifiable Donne" because his writings reveal a complexity of thought and character. From the erotic elegies of his youth to the tortured inquiries of his Divine Meditations, Donne's work is celebrated for its intellect and its immediacy. His contemporary Ben Jonson* thought him "the first poet in the world in some things," and Thomas Carew crowned him king of the "universal monarchy of wit." The metaphysical aspects of Donne's work, along with his intense explorations of faith, significantly influenced the work of George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne.
R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life, 1970.
J. Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art, 1981.
Michele Osherow

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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