Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful," wrote Donne in one of the many memorable lines he gave us. "No man is an island, entire of itself," he also said. He wrote such things in the days of his gray hair. In the recklessness of youth he had lived and written in a different strain.
After frittering his small patrimony, gaining a reputation as a man about town and a poet of naughty lines, he sailed as a bold gallant with Lord Essex on the Cadiz expedition. The expedition did not go well and John returned home no richer than when he left. Lacking money, he eloped with his employer's niece. Perhaps he hoped for an allowance. Instead, he was dismissed into poverty. All doors to advancement closed before him. Forced onto the charity of friends and to whatever hackwork his pen could find, he summed up his sorry state of affairs in a famous epigram: "John Donne--Anne Donne--Undone."
Donne contemplated suicide. But when King James I assumed the English throne, Donne's hope returned. He sought preferment. The king agreed--and offered him a position in the church. Donne resisted. He had been reared Catholic: his brother had even died as a consequence of persecution, and Donne was unsure of his own motives and convictions. James awarded the position to another man.
After some years, Donne made a serious study of theology and accepted the reformed doctrine. James employed him as a private chaplain. Two years later, James elevated him. On this day, November 22, 1621, Donne became dean of St. Pauls. From this pulpit, his immense wit and intelligence touched the highest level of society. The church was crowded to overflowing when he spoke. Of the depth of his spiritual conviction no one can doubt who has examined his religious poetry and the moving "Hymn to God the Father" with its pun on his own name:
I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Donne's deep love for Anne left him permanently saddened when she died in her thirties. He was convinced that he caused her death by dragging her from a life of ease to poverty. Gloom entered his work and he became increasingly morbid. At the end he was so obsessed with death he even had his portrait painted in shroud. His lines against death have the ring of bravado.
If all men are diminished by the death of others, so were others diminished by the death of Donne. It was he wrote the eloquent line, "...never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." With lines like that to his credit, posterity declares him the greatest of the metaphysical poets.
- Collins, Rowland. Fourteen British and American Poets. New York: Macmillan, 1967, c1964.
- "Donne, John." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- "Donne, John." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- "Donne, John." Websters New World Companion to English and American Literature. New York: Popular Library, 1976.
- Gosse, Edmund. Life and Letters of John Donne. London: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1899. Source of the Portrait.
- Kunitz, Stanley L. British Authors Before 1800; a biographical dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952.
- Untermeyer, Louis. Lives of the Poets; the story of one thousand years of English and AMerican poetry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.
- Various encylopedia articles.
Last updated April, 2007.