John Donne (1572-1631) is considered one of the finest poets in the English language. His works include a wide range of forms, including sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires, and sermons. Compared to the other poets of this period, Donne’s work shines due to the language style he used and his expertise in using metaphors. One major theme in his poetry is the passage of time, as is evidenced in “Death Be Not Proud,” in which he discusses how death is akin to sleeping and how it will be banished forever, due to God’s bestowal of eternal life.
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Donne studied at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, beginning at age 11. After 3 years at Oxford, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another 3 years. He never obtained a degree nor did he graduate from either university; he declined to take the Oath of Supremacy, a requirement for all wishing to graduate. In 1591, Donne decided to study law and entered law school (they were Inns of Court at that time), and gained admittance to Lincoln’s Inn, another “law school” of 16th-century England.
Donne longed for a career in diplomacy and by age 25 he was well prepared. He received status when he became chief secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and took up residence at Egerton’s home, York House, which was in close proximity to the Palace of Whitehall, the most prominent social focal point in England. At some point during the next 48 months, he became romantic with Anne Moore, Egerton’s niece, eventually marrying in 1601 (to his superior’s consternation).
His early poems indicated a dazzling awareness of British culture attached to biting censure of its problems. His satires centered on ordinary themes, such as dishonest politicians and pedestrian writers, yet they maintain their comic strength even to this day. His early elegies were strikingly erotic, and he used eccentric metaphors (a biting flea is symbolic of marriage). A serious transformation occurred during the adverse years (1600-1610). He suffered financial setbacks and his closest friends died, leading to a more melancholy, but devout, poetic tone.
When he was young, Donne was skeptical of religious faith, but his views changed and he became pious. Although born a Roman Catholic, he converted to Anglicanism and eventually sought a position as a preacher. Soon thereafter, he grew prominent, and he was eventually appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
His later works challenged death, with the belief that those who die are sent to heaven to live eternally and thus, death should not be feared. Donne was expert in using the conceit, a figure of speech joining two opposite ideas into one, often using metaphors. His works are often witty, using literary devices like paradoxes, puns, and analogies; likewise, his works are frequently ironic and cynical, especially regarding the motives of humans and love. Donne used universal topics like love (more prevalent when he was young), death (primarily after his wife’s demise), and religion.
In 1631, Donne preached his final time, giving a sermon detailing his belief in the Creator. Afterward, he returned to his bed and died quietly on March 31, 1631.
Cary Stacy Smith and Li-Ching Hung
See also Dante Alighieri ; Geoffrey Chaucer; T. S. Eliot; Eternity; Kahlil Gibran; John Milton; Poetry; Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Carey, J. (1981). John Donne: Life, mind, and art. London: Oxford University Press.
Edwards, D. L. (2002). John Donne: Man of flesh and spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.