John Donne was an English poet, satirist, lawyer and priest. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially compared to that of his contemporaries. Donne's style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. These features, along with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax and his tough eloquence, were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of British society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering and theorising about. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne Moore, with whom he had twelve children. In 1615, he became an Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Anglican orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. He also served as a member of parliament in 1601 and in 1614.
Donne was born in London, into a Roman Catholic family when practice of that religion was illegal in England. Donne was the third of six children. His father, also named John Donne, was of Welsh descent and a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London. Donne's father was a respected Roman Catholic who avoided unwelcome government attention out of fear of persecution.
Donne's father died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising their children. Elizabeth was also from a recusant Roman Catholic family, the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of the Reverend Jasper Heywood, a Jesuit priest and translator. She was a great-niece of the Roman Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among Donne’s closer relatives, many of whom were executed or exiled for religious reasons. Donne was educated privately; however, there is no evidence to support the popular claim that he was taught by Jesuits. Donne's mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children, a few months after Donne's father died. Two more of his sisters, Mary and Katherine, died in 1581. Donne's mother, who had lived in the Deanery after Donne became Dean of St. Paul's, survived him, dying in 1632.
Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates.
In 1591 he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. On 6 May 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court. His brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, whom Henry betrayed under torture. Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, then was subjected to disembowelment. Henry Donne died in...