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Biography of John Donne

John Donne

John Donne was born in 1572 sometime between January 24 and June 19. He was a English poet, satirist, lawyer, and priest. Today, he is seen as one of the greatest English poets of all-time and is commemorated as a priest in the calendar of the Church of England and the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31 every year.

Donne was raised by a Roman Catholic family. He was relatives of two men who were punished for their belief in Catholicism. His brother died from fever inside a prison for harboring a priest and his uncle, a Jesuit, was executed. Queen Elizabeth often punished and harassed Catholics for their beliefs.

Since Donne was a catholic, he was banned from graduating. Nonetheless, he was educated at Oxford and Cambridge. When he was still a young man, he traveled across Europe. Between 1596 and 1597, he was accompanied by the Earl of Essex while on an expedition to Cádiz and the Azores. While traveling, he became secretary to Baron Ellesmere while his reputation as a poet was still growing. His writings were seen as realistic and having a caustic outlook. During this period, much of his writings were that of songs and sonnets.

After being part of military expeditions, Donne became secretary of Sir Thomas Egerton, a prominent member of the royal court, and fell in love with Egerton's niece, Anne Moore and married her in secret. When her father found out about their marriage, he used his influence to imprison Donne and his two friends--one who presided over the wedding and the other acting as a witness. Egerton then fired Donne.

Around this time, Donne finished two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612) for his chief patron, Sir Robert Drury. The two poems show his faith over those of medieval order which was polluted by political, scientific, and philosophical doubts.

Once Donne was released from prison, he reunited with his wife and settled in Surrey on land owned by Moore's cousin. The couple struggled financially until Moore's father reconciled with them and gave Donne dowry for his daughter.

As Donne's family grew, he was asked to seek favors from the King. In 1610 and 1611, he wrote two anti-Catholic polemics--Ignatius his Conclave which was the first English work to mention Galileo. King James was so pleased, but refused to give financial offerings and instead gave ecclesiastical preferment. Donne resisted, but after more bouts with financial uncertainty he gave in. He served twice as a member of Parliament (1601 and 1614) and was ordained in 1615.

In 1617, Donne's wife died. After her death, Donne's poetry became deepened in tone, especially seen in Holy Sonnets.

Donne continued to write religious works until his death on March 31, 1631. Throughout his life, he became known as one of the most eloquent preachers and was made dean of St. Paul's during the last ten years of his life.

Poems by John Donne