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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By John Donne (1572–1631)

“THE MEMORY of Dr. Donne must not, cannot die, as long as men speak English,” wrote Izaak Walton, “whilst his conversation made him and others happy. His life ought to be the example of more than that age in which he died.”

Born in 1572, all the influences of the age in which Donne lived nourished his large nature and genius. Shakespeare and Marlowe were nine years older than he; Chapman fourteen; Spenser, Lyly, and Richard Hooker each twenty; while Sir Philip Sidney counted one year less. Lodge and Puttenham were grown men, and Greene and Nash riotous boys. In the following year Ben Jonson “came forth to warm our ears,” and soon after we have his future co-worker Inigo Jones. It was the time of a multitude of poets,—Drayton, the Fletchers, Beaumont, Wither, Herrick, Carew, Suckling, and others. Imagination was foremost, and was stimulated by vast discoveries. Debates upon ecclesiastical reform, led by Wycliffe, Tyndale, Knox, Foxe, Sternhold, Hopkins, and others, had prepared the way; and the luminous literatures of Greece and Italy, but recently brought into England, had made men’s spirits receptive and creative. It was a period of vast conceptions, when men discovered themselves and the world afresh.

Under such outward conditions Donne was born, in London, “of good and virtuous parents,” says Walton, being descended on his mother’s side from no less distinguished a personage than Sir Thomas More. In 1584, when he was eleven years old, with a good command both of French and Latin, he passed from the hands of tutors at home to Hare Hall, a much frequented college at Oxford. Here he formed a friendship with Henry Wotton, who, after the poet’s death, collected the material from which Walton wrote his tender and sincere ‘Life of Donne.’

After leaving Oxford he traveled for three years on the Continent, and on his return in 1592 became a member of Lincoln’s Inn, with intent to study law; but his law never, says Walton, “served him for other use than an ornament and self-satisfaction.” While a member of Lincoln’s Inn he became one of the coterie of the poets of his youth. To this time are to be referred those of his ‘Divine Poems’ which show him a sincere Catholic. Stirred by the increasing differences between the Romanist and the Anglican denominations, Donne turned toward theological questions, and finally cast his lot with the new doctrines. His large nature, impetuously reacting from the asceticism to which he had been bred, turned to excess and overboldness in action, and an occasional coarseness of phrasing in his poems.

The first of his famous ‘Satires’ are dated 1593, and all were probably written before 1601. During this time also he squandered his father’s legacy of £3000. In 1596, when the Earl of Essex defeated the Spanish navy and pillaged Cadiz, Donne, now one of the first poets of the time, was among his followers. “Not long after his return into England … the Lord Ellesmere, the Keeper of the Great Seal,… taking notice of his learning, languages, and other abilities, and much affecting his person and behavior, took him to be his chief secretary, supposing and intending it to be an introduction to some weighty employment in the State;… and did always use him with much courtesy, appointing him a place at his own table.” Here he met the niece of Lady Ellesmere,—the daughter of Sir George More, Lord Lieutenant of the Tower,—whom at Christmas, 1600, he married, despite the opposition of her father. Sir George, transported with wrath, obtained Donne’s imprisonment; but the poet finally regained his liberty and his wife, Sir George in the end forgiving the young couple. “Mr. Donne’s estate was the greatest part spent in many chargeable travels, books, and dear-bought experience, he [being] out of all employment that might yield a support for himself and wife.” The depth and intensity of Donne’s feeling for this beautiful and accomplished woman are manifested, says Mr. Norton, in all the poems known to be addressed to her, such as ‘The Anniversary’ and ‘The Token.’

Of ‘The Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ Walton declares:—“I beg leave to tell that I have heard some critics, learned both in languages and poetry, say that none of the Greek or Latin poets did ever equal them;” while from Lowell’s unpublished ‘Lecture on Poetic Diction’ Professor Norton quotes the opinion that “This poem is a truly sacred one, and fuller of the soul of poetry than a whole Alexandrian Library of common love verses.”

During this period of writing for court favors, Donne wrote many of his sonnets and studied the civil and canon law. After the death of his patron Sir Francis in 1606, Donne divided his time between Mitcham, whither he had removed his family, and London, where he frequented distinguished and fashionable drawing-rooms. At this time he wrote his admirable epistles in verse, ‘The Litany,’ and funeral elegies on Lady Markham and Mistress Bulstrode; but those poems are merely “occasional,” as he was not a poet by profession. At the request of King James he wrote the ‘Pseudo-Martyr,’ published in 1610. In 1611 appeared his funeral elegy ‘An Anatomy of the World,’ and one year later another of like texture, ‘On the Progress of the Soul,’ both poems being exalted and elaborate in thought and fancy.

The King, desiring Donne to enter into the ministry, denied all requests for secular preferment, and the unwilling poet deferred his decision for almost three years. All that time he studied textual divinity, Greek, and Hebrew. He was ordained about the beginning of 1615. The King made him his chaplain in ordinary, and promised other preferments. “Now,” says Walton, “the English Church had gained a second St. Austin, for I think none was so like him before his conversion, none so like St. Ambrose after it; and if his youth had the infirmities of the one, his age had the excellences of the other, the learning and holiness of both.”

In 1621 the King made him Dean of St. Paul’s, and vicar of St. Dunstan in the West. By these and other ecclesiastical emoluments “he was enabled to become charitable to the poor and kind to his friends, and to make such provision for his children that they were not left scandalous, as relating to their or his profession or quality.”

His first printed sermons appeared in 1622. The epigrammatic terseness and unexpected turns of imagination which characterize the poems, are found also in his discourses. Three years later, during a dangerous illness, he composed his ‘Devotion.’ He died on the 31st of March, 1631.

“Donne is full of salient verses,” says Lowell in his ‘Shakespeare Once More,’ “that would take the rudest March winds of criticism with their beauty; of thoughts that first tease us like charades, and then delight us with the felicity of their solution.” There are few in which an occasional loftiness is sustained throughout, but this occasional excellence is original, condensed, witty, showing a firm and strong mind, clear to a degree almost un-English. His poetry has somewhat of the stability of the Greeks, though it may lack their sweetness and art. His grossness was the heritage of his time. He is classed among the “metaphysical poets,” of whom Dr. Johnson wrote:—“They were of very little care to clothe their notions with elegance of dress, and therefore miss the notice and the praise which are often gained by those who think less, but are more diligent to adorn their thoughts.” It was in obedience to such a dictum, and to Dryden’s suggestion, doubtless, that Pope and Parnell recast and re-versified the ‘Satires.’

The first edition of Donne’s poems appeared two years after his death. Several editions succeeded during the seventeenth century. In the more artificial eighteenth century his harsh and abrupt versification and remote theorems made him difficult to understand. The best editions are by Dr. Alexander Grosart (1872); Charles Eliot Norton (1895); E. K. Chambers (1896); H. J. C. Grierson (1912). See also ‘Life and Letters’ by Edmund Gosse (1899). The citations in this volume are taken from Norton’s text.