John Donne (between 24 January and 19 June 1572 – 31 March 1631) 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 was born in 1573 (his father died in 1576) into a Roman Catholic family, and from 1584 to 1594 was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn, a highly regarded law school. Around 1584, he became an Anglican and aimed at a career in government. He joined with Raleigh and Essex in raids on Cadiz and the Azores, and became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. But in 1601 he secretly married Anne More, the 16-year-old niece of Egerton, and her enraged father had Donne imprisoned. The years following were years of poverty, debt, illness, and frustration. In 1615 he was ordained, perhaps largely because he had given up hope of a career in Parliament. From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne's professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love. His poetry, mostly written before his ordination, includes poems both sacred and secular, full of wit, puns, paradoxes, and obscure allusions at whose meanings we can sometimes only guess, presenting amorous experience in religious terms and devotional experience in erotic terms, so that I have seen one poem of his both in a manual of devotion and in a pornography collection.
After his ordination, his reputation as a preacher grew steadily. From 1622 until his death he was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and drew huge crowds to hear him, both at the Cathedral and at Paul's Cross, an outdoor pulpit nearby. His prose style is in some ways outdated, but his theme continues to fascinate: "the paradoxical and complex predicament of man as he both seeks and yet draws away from the inescapable claim of God on him."
Various collections of his sermons (a ten-volume complete edition and a one-volume selection) have been published. Most anthologies of English poetry contain at least a few of his poems. His friend Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) has written a biography.
Quotes by John Donne
Works by John Donne
This sermon, the last one Donne gave, was later described as his own funeral sermon. It portrays life as a slow descent into sickness and death, yet points towards the hope of redemption, salvation, and resurrection. As Donne battled illness towards his life's end, death remained a constant theme of both his pastoral and poetic works, including his classic Holy Sonnet X, “Death Be Not Proud.” While some, such as Samuel Johnson and John Dryden, have criticized Donne's work for being dry and passionless, Donne consistently wrote and spoke on matters deeply personal to him. In this sermon, at least, the then dying Donne's passion is clearly evident.
This volume of John Donne's writings begins with a biography of John Donne's life, as told by Donne's writer friend, Izaak Walton. Walton gives readers a close look at Donne's past, which was plagued with the loss of many close family members. This biographical information helps readers to make better sense of the somber devotions contained in this volume. In his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Donne concentrates on the miserable condition of man and the inevitability of death. The devotions are all structured the same, each beginning with a meditation followed by an expostulation and a prayer. These devotions serve as a preview for Donne's "Death's Duel Sermon," written near his death in 1631 as his funeral sermon. While "Death's Duel" paints a grave picture of earthly life tormented by pain and death, it hopes for a bright future in God's love through Christ's resurrection and ascension. Praised for his literary talent, Donna provides Christians with an introspective look at the nature of morality. It is from the great works in this collection that we find the origin of well-known phrases "For whom the bell tolls" and "No man is an island."
Most people who know the name “John Donne” remember the man for his poetry. During his lifetime, however, Donne had achieved fame for his sermons, and he expected they would remain his claim to fame as the centuries passed. Donne delivered this sermon at the Priory of St. Mary Without Bishopgate, a hospital and almshouse founded in 1197. Every year since the 14th century, a prominent English clergyman has come to the hospital to give a sermon, often on the topic of the Resurrection or the spread of Truth. In 1622, Donne spoke on learning the truth of God’s glory. To acquiring this great knowledge, he said, one must first learn that all the glory of the world is a “mere nothing.” Readers of Donne will recognize in this sermon the same theme of the tension between worldliness and spirituality they find throughout his poetry.
Most people who know the name “John Donne” remember the man for his poetry. During his lifetime, however, Donne had achieved fame for his sermons, and he expected they would remain his claim to fame as the centuries passed. Donne’s 1619 Easter sermon would later become one of his greatest achievements in spite of the fact that he had to give it on very short notice. At the time, King James I was ill enough that many feared for his life. When Donne delivered his sermon to the English nobility, his message about the inevitability of death fell on sympathetic ears. The sermon may remind readers of Donne’s poetry of one of the poet’s best-known sonnets, “Death Be Not Proud.”
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