John Donne: The Greatest Metaphysical Poet

John Donne: The Greatest Metaphysical Poet

“For god’s sake hold your tongue and let me love”

If you love to read novels but not poems much, must have read “Shesher Kobita” by Rabindranath. Rabindranath used this line in that famous novel but do you know who are the actual writer of the line? Poems lovers like me has the answer only, yeah I am telling about John Donne.          

Early life

The greatest metaphysical poet  and Anglican cleric John Donne was born in 1572 to Roman Catholic parents, during a strong anti-Catholic period in England. I mean, when practicing that religion was illegal in England. His work is unique by its emotional and sonic enormity and its capacity to plumb the paradoxes of faith, human and divine love, and the possibility of salvation. Donne often employs conceits, or extended metaphors, to yoke together “heterogenous ideas,” in the words of Samuel Johnson, thus generating the powerful haziness for which his work is famous. After a resurgence in his popularity in the early 20th century, Donne’s standing as a great English poet, and one of the greatest writers of English prose, is now assured.


Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, depending heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1615 he was ordained deacon and then Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Holy Orders and only did so because the king ordered it. He also served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614.

Family and Struggle

Donne’s father, also named John, was a prosperous London merchant. His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the grand-niece of Catholic martyr Thomas More. Religion would play a tumultuous and passionate role in John’s life.

Donne’s father died in January 1576, when young John was only four, and within six months Elizabeth Donne had married John Syminges, an Oxford-educated physician with a practice in London. In October 1584 Donne entered Hart Hall, Oxford, where he remained for about three years. Though no records of his attendance at Cambridge are extant, he may have gone on to study there as well and may have accompanied his uncle Jasper Heywood on a trip to Paris and Antwerp during this time. It is known that he entered Lincoln’s Inn in May 1592, after at least a year of preliminary study at Thavies Inn, and was at least nominally a student of English law for two or more years. After sailing as a gentleman adventurer with the English expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores in 1596 and 1597, he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England. As Egerton’s highly valued secretary he developed the keen interest in statecraft and foreign affairs that he retained throughout his life.

Ann and life after marriage

His place in the Egerton household also brought him into acquaintance with Egerton’s domestic circle. Egerton’s brother-in-law was Sir George More, parliamentary representative for Surrey. More came up to London for an autumn sitting of Parliament in 1601, bringing with him his daughter Ann, then 17. Ann More and Donne may well have met and fallen in love during some earlier visit to the Egerton household; Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. Some months elapsed before Donne dared to break the news to the girl’s father, by letter, provoking a violent response. Donne and his helpful friends were briefly imprisoned, and More set out to get the marriage annulled, demanding that Egerton dismiss his amorous secretary.

The marriage was eventually upheld; indeed, More became reconciled to it and to his son-in-law, but Donne lost his job in 1602 and did not find regular employment again until he took holy orders more than 12 years later. Throughout his middle years he and his wife brought up an ever-increasing family with the aid of relatives, friends, and patrons, and on the uncertain income he could bring in by polemical hackwork and the like. His anxious attempts to gain secular employment in the queen’s household in Ireland, or with the Virginia Company, all came to nothing, and he seized the opportunity to accompany Sir Robert Drury on a diplomatic mission in France in 1612. From these frustrated years came most of the verse letters, funeral poems, epithalamiums, and holy sonnets, as well as the prose treatises Biathanatos (1647), Pseudo-Martyr, (1610), and Ignatius his Conclave (1611).

Legends never die

Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him by Nicholas Stone was erected with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. The memorial was one of the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is now in St Paul’s Cathedral. The statue was said by Izaak Walton in his biography to have been modelled from the life by Donne in order to suggest his appearance at the resurrection; it was to start a vogue in such monuments during the course of the 17th century. In 2012 a bust of the poet by Nigel Boonham was unveiled outside in the cathedral churchyard.

It is not possible to say about the whole life of a adventurous poet like John Donne in a sentence or two. I think I have to write for a month if I want to bring out his proper biography. It is hardly possible in that case also. Will come with some of his amazing poems in the next.     

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