The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 2. His Life

The life of Donne—especially that part of it which concerns the student of his poetry—as well as the canon and text of his poems presents problems which are only in process of solution: some of them probably never will be solved. A full but concise statement of all that we know regarding his Lehr- and Wander-jahre is necessary both for the sake of what it contains, and because of the clearness with which it defines the questions that await further investigation.

John Donne (the name was pronounced so as to rime with “done” and was frequently spelt “Dun” or “Dunne”) was the eldest son of a London ironmonger—probably of Welsh extraction—and of Elizabeth, the third (not, as hitherto believed, the only) daughter of John Heywood, the famous dramatist of queen Mary’s reign, by his wife Elizabeth Rastell. This Elizabeth was herself the daughter of John Rastell and Elizabeth the sister of Sir Thomas More. Donne thus, on his mother’s side at any rate, came of a line of distinguished and devoted adherents of the old faith. He himself was bred in that faith, and, despite his conversion and later polemical writing and preaching, his most intimate religious poems indicate very clearly that he never ceased to feel the influence of his Catholic upbringing.

According to Walton and Anthony à Wood, Donne proceeded to Oxford in 1584 at the early age of eleven. Here, he formed a friendship with Henry Wotton, a friendship which counted for something in Donne’s later life. From Oxford, he passed to Cambridge, where, Walton tells us, he studied diligently till the age of seventeen, but, neither here nor at Oxford, endeavoured after a degree on account of the “averseness of his friends to some parts of the oath that is always tendered at those times.” Nevertheless, in 1610 he was entered in the Oxford registers as already an M.A. of Cambridge. Of these college years, no contemporary documentary evidence is extant.

Our first scrap of such evidence dates from 1592, the year of the first unmistakable reference to Shakespeare as a London actor and playwright. On the 6th of May in that year, Donne was entered at Lincoln’s inn, having been already, the document testifies, admitted at Thavies’s inn. Of his life between that year and his marriage in 1601, we have very few particulars, but these appear to indicate a life spent in England; a life similar to that led by many young members of the inns of court as Donne describes them,

  • Of study and play made strange hermaphrodites;
  • a life, too, of gradually broadening activity, which led him to the doorway of a public and political career.

    In Donne’s case, both the study and the play of these years were more than ordinarily intense. The record of the latter is his songs and elegies and earliest satires, the greater number of which were written, Donne told Jonson, before his twenty-fifth year. That he did not neglect law entirely for poetry, we know from his own statement, and this is corroborated by the poems themselves, in which legal metaphors abound. But the years 1593 and 1594 were also given to a serious and careful survey “of the body of divinity as it was then controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church.” “About his twentieth year,” Walton says, that is, apparently, in his twenty-first, he showed, to the then dean of Gloucester, all the works of Bellarmine, “marked with many weighty observations under his own hand.” Bellarmine’s Disputationes, indeed, were not published until 1593, and Rudde, who is the dean in question, ceased to hold that office in 1594, which gives but a short time for the study of such an important issue. But it is quite possible that Bellarmine’s work, in which Donne found the best defence of the Roman cause, may have fallen into his hands at the end, not (as Walton implies) at the beginning, of a course of theological and controversial reading. To a mind that worked with the rapidity of Donne’s, the analysis and digestion of an elaborate argument would not prove a lengthy task. Nor was his active adherence to the Anglican church precipitate. All that we can say with confidence is that when he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, in 1597, he cannot have been a professed Romanist, and, in 1601, he disclaimed indignantly “love of a corrupt religion.”

    Donne’s first approach to a public career was made by service as a volunteer in two combined military and naval expeditions. In 1595, Henry Wotton returned from a prolonged residence in Germany and Italy, to become at once an adherent of Essex, whom he had already served by his correspondence while abroad. The letters in verse and prose which passed between Donne and Wotton during the next few years (some of them yet unpublished) show that the intimacy begun at Oxford was renewed with ardour; and it is a fair conjecture, though only a conjecture, that it was Wotton’s influence which brought Donne into contact with Essex, and induced him to join his friend as a volunteer in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, and to the Azores in 1597. One of the letters referred to was written from Plymouth when the fleet, on the second of these expeditions, was driven back by press of weather; and Donne’s verse epistles to Christopher Brooke, a Cambridge friend, The Storm and The Calm, describe, with extraordinary vividness and characteristic extravagance of “wit,” the experiences of his voyage. They were the first of his poems, apparently, to attract attention outside the circle of his friends. Another verse epistle, dated 20 July, 1598, to Wotton, refers to their common adventure:

  • Here’s no more newes than vertue,
  • he cries, writing “At Court,”
  • I may as well
  • Tell you Cales or St. Michaels tales for newes, as tell
  • That vice doth heere habitually dwell.
  • On the second of these expeditions, Donne and Wotton were accompanied by another young volunteer, Thomas, eldest son of Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the great seal. By this young man, who was among those knighted for gallantry after the expedition, Donne was recommended to the lord keeper towards the close of 1597, and for four years was secretary to that influential statesman. The door which was thus opened to Donne leading to preferment, it might be even to wealth and station, was abruptly closed by his own rash action, a runaway marriage with Anne More, daughter of Sir George More of Losely and niece of the lord keeper’s second wife. It may be that, in Donne’s complex nature, love was blended with ambitious hopes of securing his position and strengthening his claims on Sir Thomas Egerton. If so, he was grievously disappointed. At the instance of Sir George More, he and his friends Christopher and Samuel Brooke, who assisted at the marriage, were thrown into prison; and, although Donne was soon released, and his father-in-law by degrees and perforce reconciled to the marriage, the poet’s hopes of preferment were blasted by his dismissal from the service of the lord keeper.

    This sketch of Donne’s earlier years would be incomplete without a reference to the problem of his residence abroad, a residence the effect of which on his work is palpable. Through Walton, we have Donne’s own authority for the statement that he visited Italy with the intention of proceeding to the east to view the Holy Sepulchre; that, prevented from doing so, he passed over into Spain; that he “made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manners of government, and returned perfect in their languages.” Walton assigns this episode to the years following the “Islands expedition”; but this is manifestly erroneous, for, during these years, Donne was actively employed as Egerton’s secretary. It is almost equally difficult to find a place for it in the years from 1592 to 1596, when he was studying law, theology and life in London. It is noteworthy that the earliest portrait of Donne, dated 1591, shows him in military dress and bears a Spanish motto. Again, in one of the three earlier satires, which Harleian MS. 5110 assigns to 1593, Donne describes his library as already lined with

  • Giddie fantastique poets of each land,
  • and, long afterwards, he declared that it contained more Spanish authors than of any other nation, “and that in any profession from the mistress of my youth, Poetry, to the wife of mine age, Divinity.” The books in a man’s library would not, to-day, be a safe index to his travels, but, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was not usual for a young man to have a considerable collection of foreign books unless, like Drummond and Milton, he had himself brought them home.

    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the time which Donne spent abroad must have been in the last years of his earlier education, when he was still a Catholic and under Catholic direction. If this were so, it would explain his silence about the exact circumstances of a voyage probably undertaken without the permission of the government, and, possibly, with the intention on the part of his guardians that he should enter a seminary, despite the law of 1585, or take service under a foreign ruler. With more light on this point, we might be able to see in the singularly emancipated moral tone of Donne’s mind and its complete openness on religious questions during the early years in London something of a reaction in his nature against a bent which others would have imposed upon it. Lastly, an early date fits best the evidence in the poems of foreign influence, which is not to be found specially in Donne’s “wit,” but in the spirit of Italian literature and life reflected in the frank sensuality of some, the virulent satire of others, of his elegies and songs. The spirit of the renascence in Latin countries, and a wide acquaintance with Spanish casuists and other religious writers, are the most palpable indications of foreign influence in Donne’s work. His direct indebtedness to any particular poet, Italian or Spanish, has not been established. Of all Elizabethan poets, he is, for good or evil, the most independent.

    From 1601 to 1615, Donne’s life was one of dependence on, and humiliating adulation of, actual or possible patrons. He lived at Pyrford on the charity of his wife’s cousin Francis Wooley; at Mitcham or in the Strand, on his wife’s allowance from her father; at the town house of Sir Robert Drury, whose patronage he had gained by writing on the death of Elizabeth Drury, a girl of sixteen whom he had never seen, the most elaborate and exalted of his Funerall Elegies. He twice went abroad, on the second occasion accompanying Sir Robert Drury to France and Spa. He assisted Thomas Morton, afterwards dean of Gloucester and bishop of Durham, in his controversies with Roman Catholics, for, though by no means yet a devoted adherent of the Anglican church, he heartily detested the Jesuits. He wrote courtly letters in verse and prose to the countess of Bedford and other great ladies, or elegies on the death of their friends and relatives. He found one patron in the person of lord Hay, later earl of Doncaster, and he courted another in the king’s favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, for whose marriage with the divorced countess of Essex he wrote a splendid epithalamium. Of his writings of this period, some are in the brilliant, but often coarse, satiric vein of his earlier satires and satiric elegies; one, BIA[char]ANATO[char], is an erudite, subtle and strangely mooded excursus into the field of casuistry; and one, Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610, is a more restrained and official contribution to the controversies of the day, a defence of the oath of allegiance, Donne’s first public appearance on the Anglican side, in which, however, he does not wander far from the single point at issue, and writes, not to convert Catholics, but to persuade them that they may take the oath.

    Such were Donne’s “steps to the altar.” As early as 1607, Morton, on being appointed dean of Gloucester, had urged upon his collaborator the advisability of taking orders. But Donne did not feel that the author of the popular and widely circulated Satyres and Elegies, the Paradoxes and Problems and The Progresse of the Soule, could become a “priest to the temple” without some scandal to the friends and admirers of the brilliant and irregular “Jack Donne,” not yet quite buried in the sage and serious husband and father, the controversialist and the courtly friend of Mrs. Herbert and lady Bedford. Ignatius his Conclave was written about this very year, the witty verses prefixed to Coryats Crudities in 1611, and he was yet to write the Epithalamium for Somerset. It is easier to respect, than to wonder at, such a decision, whether in 1607 or 1610. Moreover, it is doubtful, as Gosse has insisted, if, in his heart of hearts, Donne, by 1607 or 1610, was a convinced Anglican. As late as 1617, when he had been nearly three years in orders, he could write:

  • Show me, dear Christ, Thy Spouse so bright and clear.
  • What? Is it she who on the other shore
  • Goes richly painted? or who robb’d and tore
  • Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
  • Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
  • This is not the language of one who is walking in the Via Media with the intellectually untroubled confidence of Herbert.

    When Donne at length became a priest in Anglican orders, it was as one convinced that, for him, every other path to preferment was closed, not to be opened even by the influence of Somerset. The king had resolved that Donne should enter the church, and, on 25 January, 1615, he was ordained by bishop King of London. The period of privation and suitorship was over. In 1616, he became divinity reader at Lincoln’s inn, where many of his sermons were preached. In 1619 and 1620, he was in Germany as chaplain to his friend the earl of Doncaster, and preached before the unfortunate queen of Bohemia one of the noblest and most illuminating of his sermons. In 1621, king James appointed him dean of St. Paul’s, where his fame as a preacher attracted large audiences and rose to its height about the beginning of Charles’s reign. For a moment he fell under suspicion with the pedantic and imperious Laud. But the cloud soon passed and, had Donne lived, he would have been made a bishop. But, often ailing, he was stricken down at his daughter’s house in the late summer of 1630. The strange and characteristic monument which stands in St. Paul’s was prepared by his own directions while he lay ill. Some of the most intense and striking of his hymns were written at the same time. Once, he rose from his bed to preach the sermon entitled Death’s Duel. Six weeks later, on 31 March, 1631, he died.

    However blended the motives may have been which carried Donne into holy orders, he gave to the ministry a single-hearted and strenuous devotion. Whatever doubts may, at times, have agitated his secret thoughts, or found expression in an unpublished sonnet, they left no reflection in his sermons. He adopted and defended the doctrines of the church of England, and the policy in church and state of her rulers, in their entirety and without demur. His was a nature in which the will commanded, but was always able to enlist in the service of its final choice a swift and subtle intellect, an intense and vivid imagination and a vast store of varied erudition. And, while he made amends for his Catholic upbringing, and for a middle period of mental detachment, by the orthodoxy of his Anglicanism, the memory of the licence of his earlier life and wit was forgotten in his later asceticism and in the spiritual exaltation of the Sermons, the Devotions and the Divine Poems.