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Biography of John Donne

Portrait of John Donne

John Donne was was a seventeenth century scholar, poet and cleric.

When and Where was he Born?

Between 22nd January 1572, London, England.

Family Background:

John Donne was born of Roman Catholic parents, John, a prosperous ironmonger and a warden of the Ironmongers Company and Elizabeth Donne, nee Heywood the daughter of a poet and playwright John Heywood. His mother was also a descendent of Sir Thomas More. His father was a prosperous merchant. He was the third of six children.

Education:

Hart Hall, later Hertford College, Oxford at the age of 11 and then Cambridge University to study law. As graduates at the time were required to take the Oath of Supremacy he refused, being a Catholic, and did not get his degree.

Timeline of John Donne

1576: Death of his father. His mother later marries Dr. John Syminges a wealthy widower who already had three children.

1577: Death of his sister Elizabeth.

1578: Death of his sisters Katherine and Mary.

1584: John Donne goes to Oxford University.

1588: Death of his stepfather John Syminges.

1589: He tours on the European continent.

1590: His mother marries again this time to Richard Rainford.

1591: He enters Thavie’s Inn to be trained as a barrister.

1592: Donne is admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on the 6th May to continue his law studies after inheriting a considerable sum of money he spent his time on extensive travel and literature.

1593: His brother Henry, who was a university student, is arrested for harbouring a catholic priest William Harrington. He is sent to Newgate prison where he dies of bubonic plague. Donne begins more travelling in Europe.

1595: See a portrait of John Donne from this year in the National Gallery, London.

1596: Donne fights with Sir Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and witnesses the city being ransacked by the British.

1597: In June he takes part in the British expedition to the Azores but instead of returning home immediately afterwards he spends time in Spain and Italy.

1598: He becomes Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. It is assumed that by now he had officially become a protestant otherwise he would not have been given the post. He takes up lodgings York House, Egerton’s London home, near The Strand.

1601: He secretly marries the niece of Lady Egerton, Anne More, the daughter of George More, the Chancellor of the Garter, as he knows she would not have had her father’s blessing. George More is angered and makes sure Donne loses his job and has him thrown into the Fleet Prison. Once it is established that he and the priest had taken part in a legal wedding they are released. His new wife’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, then provides them with lodgings in Pyrford, Surrey. 

1602: Donne is elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Brackley in Northamptonshire but as this was not a paid position at the time his financial circumstances are still very strained. 

1603: Daughter Constance is born. Son John is born.

1605: The family move to a larger house in the Spring at Mitcham in London. He begins work as a lawyer but also writes works on theology, canon law and a great deal of poetry. He travels to France and possibly Italy. His son George is born. 

1607: His friends urge him to take Holy Orders in the Church of England. His son Francis is born.

1608: Daughter Lucy is born.

1609: Anne’s father finally relents and allows his daughter a dowry which improves their financial situation. His daughter Bridget is born. First publication of “The Expiration”.

1610: Donne publishes his anti-Catholic polemic “Pseudo-Martyr” where he establishes that Roman Catholics could support King James I without compromising their religious loyalty to the Pope. This is looked on favourably by King James the First and commissions from many wealthy patrons start to come in. Member of Parliament Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted becomes his chief patron.

1611: Daughter Mary is born. Publication of “Ignatius his Conclave” and “The First Anniversary”. Donne goes on a tour of the Continent with Hawsted. On their return the Donne’s are given a large apartment in Drury Lane.

1612: His eighth child is stillborn.

1613: Son Nicholas is born but dies within a few months.

1614: John Donne becomes the Member of Parliament for Taunton, Somerset. Death’s of children Mary and Francis.

1615: He is ordained as a deacon and priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral and is later appointed as a Royal Chaplain by King James. Daughter Margaret is born. Cambridge University confer on him a Doctor of Divinity.

1616: Donne is made a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn in London and serves as a minister of the Chapel until 1622.

1617: He delivers his first sermon at St. Paul’s Cross. His twelfth child is still born and his wife Anne dies whilst giving birth.

1618: He becomes Chaplain to James Hay, Viscount Doncaster and travels with him to Germany. He remained in Germany for about two years, returning to England in 1620.

1620: He returns to England.

1621: He is appointed as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 22nd November, one of the highest paid offices in the church. His sermons begin to attract a wide audience.

1622: Publication of first two of Donne’s sermons.

1623: He is taken seriously ill.

1624: He becomes vicar of St. Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street, London. First publication of “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”. Meditation 17: “Now, this bell tolling softly for another says to me, Thou must die”: contains his most famous line “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.” This continues the bell theme seen in Meditation 16. This of course has been further enhanced by Ernest Hemingway using “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as a title for one of his novels in 1940.

1625: He is was made a prolocutor to King Charles the First. (In the Church of England, the Prolocutor is the chair of the lower house of the Convocations of Canterbury and York, the House of Clergy. The Prolocutor presides in that house and acts as a representative and spokesperson in the upper house).

1627: Death of his daughter Lucy.

1630: His final illness begins. Most of the poems known today were published posthumously as they were originally written for friends or patrons.

When and Where did he Die?

31st March 1631, London, England of stomach cancer.

Age at Death:

59.

Written Works:

1609: “The Expiration”.
1608: “Biathanatos”.
1610: “Ascension”. “Pseudo-Martyr”.
1611: “Ignatius his Conclave”. “An Anatomy of the World”. “The First Anniversary”.
1612: “The Second Anniversary: Of the Progress of the Soul”. “Break of Day”.
1623: “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”. “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”.
1624: “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”. (A free download of this work in .pdf format can be found here).
1625: “To Sir Henry Wotton”.
1631: “Death’s Duel”. “Poems”.
1633: “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. “Air and Angels”. “Lovers’ Infiniteness”. “The Anniversary”. “The Good Morrow”.
1635: “The Sun Rising”.
(1640): “Eighty Sermons”.
(1649): “Fifty Sermons”.
(1651): “Essays in Divinity”.
(1652): “Paradoxes, Problems, Essays, Characters”.

Marriage:

1601: Secretly marries the niece of Sir Thomas Egerton, Anne More.

Site of Grave:

He was buried in the Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral which was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. His memorial from there is currently in the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England.

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral, London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Old building, known by Donne, was burnt down in 1666 during the Great Fire of London).
British Library.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. (See more here).

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