Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
The Life of Dr. Donne
In the first and most blessed times of Christianity, when the clergy were looked upon with reverence, and deserved it, when they overcame their opposers by high examples of virtue, by a blessed patience and long suffering, those only were then judged worthy the ministry whose quiet and meek spirits did make them look upon that sacred calling with an humble adoration and fear to undertake it; which indeed requires such great degrees of humility, and labour, and care, that none but such were then thought worthy of that celestial dignity. And such only were then sought out, and solicited to undertake it. This I have mentioned, because forwardness and inconsideration
Such strifes as these St. Austin had, when St. Ambrose endeavoured his conversion to Christianity; with which he confesseth he acquainted his friend Alipius. Our learned author—a man fit to write after no mean copy—did the like. And declaring his intentions to his dear friend Dr. King, then Bishop of London, a man famous in his generation, and no stranger to Mr. Donne’s abilities,—for he had been chaplain to the Lord Chancellor at the time of Mr. Donne’s being his Lordship’s secretary,—that reverend man did receive the news with much gladness; and, after some expressions of joy, and a persuasion to be constant in his pious purpose, he proceeded with all convenient speed to ordain him first deacon, and then priest not long after.
And now all his studies, which had been occasionally diffused, were all concentered in divinity. Now he had a new calling, new thoughts, and a new employment for his wit and eloquence. Now, all his earthly affections were changed into divine love; and all the faculties of his own soul were engaged in the conversion of others; in preaching the glad tidings of remission to repenting sinners, and peace to each troubled soul.
To these he applied himself with all care and diligence; and now such a change was wrought in him, that he could say with David, “O how amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord God of Hosts!” Now he declared openly, “that when he required a temporal, God gave him a spiritual blessing.” And that “he was now gladder to be a door-keeper in the house of God, than he could be to enjoy the noblest of all temporal employments.”
Presently after he entered into his holy profession, the King sent for him, and made him his chaplain in ordinary, and promised to take a particular care for his preferment.
And though his long familiarity with scholars and persons of greatest quality was such as might have given some men boldness enough to have preached to any eminent auditory, yet his modesty in this employment was such that he could not be persuaded to it, but went usually accompanied with some one friend to preach privately in some village, not far from London, his first sermon being preached at Paddington. This he did, till his Majesty sent and appointed him a day to preach to him at Whitehall; and, though much were expected from him, both by his Majesty and others, yet he was so happy—which few are—as to satisfy and exceed their expectations: preaching the Word so, as showed his own heart was possessed with those very thoughts and joys that he laboured to distil into others; a preacher in earnest; weeping sometimes for his auditory, sometimes with them; always preaching to himself, like an angel from a cloud, but in none; carrying some, as St. Paul was,
There may be some that may incline to think—such indeed as have not heard him—that my affection to my friend hath transported me to an immoderate commendation of his preaching. If this meets with any such, let me entreat, though I will omit many, yet that they will receive a double witness for what I say; it being attested by a gentleman of worth,—Mr. Chidley, a frequent hearer of his sermons,—in part of a funeral elegy writ by him on Dr. Donne; and is a known truth, though it be in verse—
That summer, in the very same month in which he entered into sacred orders, and was made the King’s chaplain, his Majesty then going his progress, was entreated to receive an entertainment in the University of Cambridge; and Mr. Donne attending his Majesty at that time, his Majesty was pleased to recommend him to the University, to be made doctor in divinity. Dr. Harsnett, after Archbishop of York, was then Vice-Chancellor, who, knowing him
His abilities and industry in his profession were so eminent, and he so known and so beloved by persons of quality, that within the first year of his entering into sacred orders he had fourteen advowsons of several benefices presented to him; but they were in the country, and he could not leave his beloved London, to which place he had a natural inclination, having received both his birth and education in it, and there contracted a friendship with many, whose conversation multiplied the joys of his life: but an employment that might affix him that place would be welcome, for he needed it.
Immediately after his return from Cambridge his wife died, leaving him a man of a narrow, unsettled state, and—having buried five—the careful father of seven children then living, to whom he gave a voluntary assurance never to bring them under the subjection of a step-mother; which promise he kept most faithfully, burying with his tears all his earthly joys in his most dear and deserving wife’s grave, and betook himself to a most retired and solitary life.
In this retiredness, which was often from the sight of his dearest friends, he became crucified to the world, and all those vanities, those imaginary pleasures, that are daily acted on that restless stage; and they were as perfectly crucified to him. Nor is it hard to think—being, passions may be both changed and heightened by accidents—but that that abundant affection which once was betwixt him and her, who had long been the delight of his eyes and the companion of his youth; her, with whom he had divided so many pleasant sorrows and contented fears, as common people are not capable of;—not hard to think but that she being now removed by death, a commensurable grief took as full a possession of him as joy had done; and so indeed it did; for now his very soul was elemented of nothing but sadness; now grief took so full a possession of his heart, as to leave no place for joy: if it did, it was a joy to be alone, where, like a pelican in the wilderness, he might bemoan himself without witness or restraint, and pour forth his passions like Job in the days of his affliction: “Oh that I might have the desire of my heart! Oh
His first motion from his house was to preach where his beloved wife lay buried,—in St. Clement’s Church, near Temple Bar, London,—and his text was a part of the Prophet Jeremy’s Lamentation: “Lo, I am the man that have seen affliction.”
And indeed his very words and looks testified him to be truly such a man; and they, with the addition of his sighs and tears, expressed in his sermon, did so work upon the affections of his hearers, as melted and moulded them into a companionable sadness; and so they left the congregation; but then their houses presented them with objects of diversion, and his presented him with nothing but fresh objects of sorrow, in beholding many helpless children, a narrow fortune, and a consideration of the many cares and casualties that attend their education.
In this time of sadness he was importuned by the grave Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn—who were once his companions and friends of his youth—to accept of their lecture, which, by reason of Dr. Gataker’s removal from thence, was then void; of which he accepted, being most glad to renew his intermitted friendship with those whom he so much loved, and where he had been a Saul,—though not to persecute Christianity, or to deride it, yet in his irregular youth to neglect the visible practice of it,—there to become a Paul, and preach salvation to his beloved brethren.
And now his life was a shining light among his old friends; now he gave an ocular testimony of the strictness and regularity of it; now he might say, as St. Paul adviseth his Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me, as I follow Christ, and walk as ye have me for an
The love of that noble society was expressed to him many ways; for, besides fair lodging that were set apart, and newly furnished for him with all necessaries, other courtesies were also daily added; indeed so many, and so freely, as if they meant their gratitude should exceed his merits: and in this love-strife of desert and liberality, they continued for the space of two years, he preaching faithfully and constantly to them, and they liberally requiting him. About which time the Emperor of Germany died, and the Palsgrave, who had lately married the Lady Elizabeth, the king’s only daughter, was elected and crowned King of Bohemia, the unhappy beginning of many miseries in that nation.
King James, whose motto—Beati pacifici—did truly speak the very thoughts of his heart, endeavoured first to prevent, and after to compose, the discords of that discomposed State: and, amongst other his endeavours, did then send the Lord Hay, Earl of Doncaster, his ambassador to those unsettled Princes; and, by a special command from his Majesty, Dr. Donne was appointed to assist and attend that employment to the princes of the union; for which the Earl was most glad, who had always put a great value on him, and taken a great pleasure in his conversation and discourse: and his friends at Lincoln’s Inn were as glad, for they feared that his immoderate study and sadness for his wife’s death would, as Jacob said, “make his days few,” and, respecting his bodily health, “evil” too; and of this there were many visible signs.
At his going he left his friends of Lincoln’s Inn, and they him, with many reluctations; for, though he could not say as St. Paul to his Ephesians, “Behold, you, to whom I have preached the Kingdom of God, shall from henceforth see my face no more,” yet he, believing himself to be in a consumption, questioned, and they feared it: all concluding that his troubled mind, with the help of his unintermitted studies, hastened the decays of his weak body. But God, who is the God of all wisdom and goodness, turned it to the best; for this employment—to say nothing of the event of it—did not only divert him from those too serious studies and sad thoughts, but seemed to give him a new life, by a true occasion of joy, to be an eye-witness
About fourteen months after his departure out of England, he returned to his friends of Lincoln’s Inn, with his sorrows moderated, and his health improved; and there betook himself to his constant course of preaching.
About a year after his return out of Germany, Dr. Carey was made Bishop of Exeter, and by his removal the Deanery of St. Paul’s being vacant, the King sent to Dr. Donne, and appointed him to attend him at dinner the next day. When his Majesty sat down, before he had eat any meat, he said after his pleasant manner, “Dr. Donne, I have invited you to dinner; and, though you sit not down with me, yet I will carve to you of a dish that I know you love well; for, knowing you love London, I do therefore make you Dean of St. Paul’s; and, when I have dined, then do you take your beloved dish home to your study, say grace there to yourself, and much good may it do you.”
Immediately after he came to his deanery he employed workmen to repair and beautify the chapel; suffering, as holy David once vowed, “his eyes and temples to take no rest till he had first beautified the house of God.”
The next quarter following, when his father-in-law, Sir George More—whom time had made a lover and admirer of him—came to pay to him the conditioned sum of twenty pounds, he refused to receive it; and said, as good Jacob did when he heard his beloved son Joseph was alive, “‘It is enough;’ you have been kind to me and mine. I know your present condition is such as not to abound, and I hope mine is, or will be such as not to need it: I will therefore receive no more from you upon that contract;” and in testimony of it freely gave him up his bond.
Immediately after his admission into his deanery, the vicarage of St. Dunstan in the West, London, fell to him by the death of Dr. White, the advowson of it having been given to him long before
By these, and another ecclesiastical endowment which fell to him about the same time, given to him formerly by the Earl of Kent, 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 and quality.
The next Parliament, which was within that present year, he was chosen Prolocutor to the Convocation, and about that time was appointed by his Majesty, his most gracious master, to preach very many occasional sermons, as at St. Paul’s Cross, and other places. All which employments he performed to the admiration of the representative body of the whole clergy of this nation.
He was once, and but once, clouded with the King’s displeasure, and it was about this time; which was occasioned by some malicious whisperer, who had told his Majesty the Dr. Donne had put on the general humours of the pulpits, and was become busy in insinuating a fear of the King’s inclining to Popery, and a dislike of his government; and particularly for the King’s then turning the evening lectures into catechising, and expounding the Prayer of our Lord, and of the Belief and Commandments. His Majesty was the more inclinable to believe this, for that a person of nobility and great note, betwixt whom and Dr. Donne there had been a great friendship, was at this very time discarded the court—I shall forbear his name, unless I had a fairer occasion—and justly committed to prison; which begot many rumours in the common people, who in this nation think they are not wise unless they be busy about what they understand not, and especially about religion.
The King received this news with so much discontent and restlessness, that he would not suffer the sun to set and leave him under this doubt; but sent for Dr. Donne, and required his answer to the accusation; which was so clear and satisfactory, that the King said “he was right glad he rested no longer under the suspicion.” When the King had said this, Dr. Donne kneeled down and thanked his Majesty, and protested his answer was faithful, and free from all collusion, and therefore, “desired that he might not rise till, as in
He was made dean in the fiftieth year of his age; and in his fifty—fourth year a dangerous sickness seized him, which inclined him to a consumption: but God, as Job thankfully acknowledged, preserved his spirit, and kept his intellectuals as clear and perfect as when that sickness first seized his body; but it continued long, and threatened him with death, which he dreaded not.
In this distemper of body, his dear friend, Dr. Henry King,—then chief residentiary of that church, and late Bishop of Chichester,—a man generally known by the clergy of this nation, and as generally noted for his obliging nature, visited him daily; and observing that his sickness rendered his recovery doubtful, he chose a seasonable time to speak to him to this purpose:
“Mr. Dean, I am, by your favour, no stranger to your temporal estate, and you are no stranger to the offer lately made us, for the renewing a lease of the best Prebend’s corps belonging to our church; and you know ’twas denied, for that our tenant being very rich, offered to fine at so low a rate as held not proportion with his advantages: but I will either raise him to a higher sum, or procure that the other residentiaries shall join to accept of what was offered; one of these I can and will by your favour do without delay, and without any trouble either to your body or mind: I beseech you to accept of my offer, for I know it will be a considerable addition to your present estate, which I know needs it.”
To this, after a short pause, and raising himself upon his bed, he made this reply:
“My most dear friend, I most humbly thank you for your many favours, and this in particular; but in my present condition I shall
The reply to this was only a promise to observe his request.
Within a few days his distempers abated; and as his strength increased, so did his thankfulness to Almighty God, testified in his most excellent Book of Devotions, which he published at his recovery; in which the reader may see the most secret thoughts that then possessed his soul, paraphrased and made public: a book that may not unfitly be called a sacred picture of spiritual ecstasies, occasioned and applicable to the emergencies of that sickness; which book, being a composition of meditations, disquisitions, and prayers, he writ on his sick-bed; herein imitating the holy patriarchs, who
This sickness brought him so near to the gates of death, and he saw the grave so ready to devour him, that he would often say his recovery was supernatural: but that God that then restored his health continued it to him till the fifty-ninth year of his life; and then, in August 1630, being with his eldest daughter, Mrs. Harvey, at Abury Hatch, in Essex, he there fell into a fever, which with the help of his constant infirmity—vapours from the spleen—hastened him into so visible a consumption that his beholders might say, as St. Paul of himself, “He dies daily;” and he might say with Job, “My welfare passeth away as a cloud, the days of my affliction have taken hold of me, and weary nights are appointed for me.”
Reader, this sickness continued long, not only weakening, but wearying him so much, that my desire is he may now take some rest; and that before I speak of his death, thou wilt not think it an impertinent digression to look back with me upon some observations of his life, which, whilst a gentle slumber give rest to his spirits, may, I hope, not unfitly exercise thy consideration.
His marriage was the remarkable error of his life—an error which, though he had a wit able and very apt to maintain paradoxes, yet he was very far from justifying it; and though his wife’s competent years, and other reasons, might be justly urged to moderate severe censures, yet he would occasionally condemn himself for it; and doubtless it had been attended with an heavy repentance, if God had not blessed them with so mutual and cordial affections, as in the midst of their sufferings made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly than the banquets of dull and low-spirited people.
The recreations of his youth were poetry, in which he was so happy, as if nature and all her varieties had been made only to exercise his sharp wit and high fancy; and in those pieces which were facetiously composed and carelessly scattered—most of them being written before the twentieth year of his age—it may appear by his choice metaphors that both nature and all the arts joined to assist him with their utmost skill.
It is a truth, that in his penitential years, viewing some of those pieces that had been loosely—God knows, too loosely—scattered in
I have the rather mentioned this hymn, for that he caused it to be set to a most grave and solemn tune, and to be often sung to the organ by the choristers of St. Paul’s Church, in his own hearing, especially at the evening service; and at his return from his customary devotions in that place, did occasionally say to a friend, “The words of this hymn have restored to me the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness, when I composed it. And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and
After this manner the disciples of our Saviour, and the best of Christians in those ages of the church nearest to his time, offer their praises to Almighty God. And the reader of St. Augustine’s life may there find that towards his dissolution he wept abundantly, that the enemies of Christianity had broke in upon them, and profaned and ruined their sanctuaries, and because their public hymns and lauds were lost out of their churches. And after this manner have many devout souls lifted up their hands and offered acceptable sacrifices unto Almighty God, where Dr. Donne offered his, and now lies buried.
But now, O Lord! how is that place become desolate!
Before I proceed further, I think fit to inform the reader, that not long before his death he caused to be drawn a figure of the body of Christ extended upon an anchor, like those which painters draw when they would present us with the picture of Christ crucified on the cross: his varying no otherwise, than to affix him not to a cross, but to an anchor—the emblem of hope;—this he caused to be drawn in little, and then many of those figures thus drawn to be engraven very small in Heliotropium stones, and set in gold; and of these he sent to many of his dearest friends, to be used as seals, or rings, and kept as memorials of him, and of his affection to them.
His dear friends and benefactors, Sir Henry Goodier and Sir Robert Drewry, could not be of that number; nor could the Lady Magdalen Herbert, the mother of George Herbert, for they had put off mortality, and taken possession of the grave before him: but Sir Henry Wotton, and Dr. Hall, the then late deceased Bishop of Norwich, were; and so were Dr. Duppa, Bishop of Salisbury, and Dr. Henry King, Bishop of Chichester—lately deceased,—men in whom there was such a commixture of general learning, of natural eloquence, and Christian humility, that they deserve a commemoration by a pen equal to their own, which none have exceeded.
And in this enumeration of his friends, though many must be omitted; yet that man of primitive piety, Mr. George Herbert, may
I return to tell the reader that, besides these verses to his dear Mr. Herbert, and that hymn that I mentioned to be sung in the choir of St. Paul’s Church, he did also shorten and beguile many sad hours by composing other sacred ditties; and he writ an hymn on his death-bed which bears this title:
If these fall under the censure of a soul whose too much mixture with earth makes it unfit to judge of these high raptures and illuminations, let him know, that many holy and devout men have thought the soul of Prudentius to be most refined, when, not many days before his death, “he charged it to present his God each morning and evening with a new and spiritual song;” justified by the example of King David and the good King Hezekiah, who, upon the renovation of his years paid his thankful vows to Almighty God in a royal hymn, which he concludes in these words: “The Lord was ready to save; therefore I will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of my life in the temple of my God.”
The latter part of his life may be said to be a continued study; for as he usually preached once a week, if not oftener, so after his sermon he never gave his eyes a rest, till he had chosen out a new text, and that night cast his sermon into a form, and his text into divisions; and the next day betook himself to consult the fathers, and so commit his meditations to his memory, which was excellent. But upon Saturday he usually gave himself and his mind a rest from the weary burthen of his week’s meditations, and usually spent that day in visitation of friends, or some other diversions of his thoughts; and would say, “that he gave both his body and mind that refreshment, that he might be enabled to do the work of the day following, not faintly, but with courage and cheerfulness.”
Nor was his age only so industrious, but in the most unsettled days of his youth his bed was not able to detain him beyond the hour of four in the morning; and it was no common business that drew him out of his chamber till past ten; all which time was employed in study; though he took great liberty after it. And if this seem strange, it may gain a belief by the visible fruits of his labours; some of which remain as testimonies of what is here written: for he left the resultance of 1400 authors, most of them abridged and analysed with his own hand; he left also six score of his sermons,