John Donne was born in Bread Street, London in 1572 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family - a precarious thing at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England. His father, John Donne, was a well-to-do ironmonger and citizen of London. Donne's father died suddenly in 1576, and left the three children to be raised by their mother, Elizabeth, who was the daughter of epigrammatist and playwright John Heywood and a relative of Sir Thomas More. [Family tree.]
Donne's first teachers were Jesuits. At the age of 11, Donne and his younger brother Henry were entered at Hart Hall, University of Oxford, where Donne studied for three years. He spent the next three years at the University of Cambridge, but took no degree at either university because he would not take the Oath of Supremacy required at graduation. He was admitted to study law as a member of Thavies Inn (1591) and Lincoln's Inn (1592), and it seemed natural that Donne should embark upon a legal or diplomatic career.
In 1593, Donne's brother Henry died of a fever in prison after being arrested for giving sanctuary to a proscribed Catholic priest. This made Donne begin to question his faith. His first book of poems, Satires, written during this period of residence in London, is considered one of Donne's most important literary efforts. Although not immediately published, the volume had a fairly wide readership through private circulation of the manuscript. Same was the case with his love poems, Songs and Sonnets, assumed to be written at about the same time as the Satires.
Having inherited a considerable fortune, young "Jack Donne" spent his money on womanizing, on books, at the theatre, and on travels. He had also befriended Christopher Brooke, a poet and his roommate at Lincoln's Inn, and Ben Jonson who was part of Brooke's circle. In 1596, Donne joined the naval expedition that Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, led against Cádiz, Spain. In 1597, Donne joined an expedition to...