John Donne, 1572-1631


Biographical note

Poet and divine, son of a wealthy ironmonger in London, where he was born Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he was sent to Oxford and Cambridge, and afterwards entered Lincoln’s Inn with a view to the law. Here he studied the points of controversy between Romanists and Protestants, with the result that he joined the Church of England. The next two years were somewhat changeful, including travels on the Continent, service as a private secretary, and a clandestine marriage with the niece of his patron, which led to dismissal and imprisonment, followed by reconciliation. On the suggestion of James I., who approved of Pseudo–Martyr [1610], a book against Rome which he had written, he took orders, and after executing a mission to Bohemia, he was, in 1621, made Dean of St. Paul’s.

Donne had great popularity as a preacher. His works consist of elegies, satires, epigrams, and religious pieces, in which, amid many conceits and much that is artificial, frigid, and worse, there is likewise much poetry and imagination of a high order. Perhaps the best of his works is An Anatomy of the World [1611], an elegy. Others are Epithalamium [1613], Progress of the Soul [1601], and Divine Poems. Collections of his poems appeared in 1633 and 1649. He exercised a strong influence on literature for over half a century after his death; to him we owe the unnatural style of conceits and overstrained efforts after originality of the succeeding age.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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