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On this day in history in 1631, died John Donne.
Donne was the principal poet of the Metaphysical school, noted for his love poetry and treatises on death.
John Donne was born in 1572, at London to a prosperous merchant family. His father was an ironmonger, his mother of respectable parentage, a lineal descendant of Sir Thomas More. The family were Catholic and persisted in their faith, despite the restrictions placed on that religion in Elizabethan London. Donne was four when his father died, but his mother soon married John Syminges, who raised the children. In 1584, Donne went up to Oxford, and after three years left for Cambridge and from then to Lincoln's Inn. One of Donne’s major pursuits at University was the comparative examination Catholic and Protestant theology.
In 1596, he enlisted with Essex's successful expedition against Cádiz and, in 1597, sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh in the disastrous expedition, seeking out the Spanish Eldorado. Upon his return to London in 1597, Donne was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, a prominent member of the royal court and soon fell for Egerton’s niece, Anne More, who he secretly married in 1601. The secret soon became public knowledge and when Anne’s father, Sir George More found out, he had Donne imprisoned and dismissed from his post with Egerton. Although Donne was soon released, he was denied Anne's dowry, leaving him in abject poverty and unable to secure employment in public office.
Donne spent the next 10 years dependant on the charity of Anne's cousin. Anne bore 12 children, 5 of whom died in childhood, while Donne tried to eke out a living as producing works on theology, canon law, and religious treatises. It is clear from these writings that Donne had converted to Anglicism. He also found time for writing love poetry, religious verse, and flattering funerary verse for his clients.
In 1614, Donne petitioned James I for a post at court but was refused. However, the king said that he would allow him a position in the church, provided that he took holy orders. Donne readily agreed and was ordained in 1615. He was made one of royal chaplains and received a doctorate from Cambridge. Donne had now achieved financial security, but his success was marred by the sudden death of his wife, who died in childbirth in 1617.
After his wife’s death, the character of his poetry intensified. His work explored paradoxes of love and death. Although it was often ironic and occasionally cynical, human emotions and their inconsistency and contradictions are evaluated by Donne’s unique style of imagery, as for instance in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, where separated lovers are likened to the opposing points of a compass. His most famous lines come from Meditation XVII:
‘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 promontory were, 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.’
In 1623, Donne fell ill with cancer, but left his sickbed to preach a final sermon, which was published posthumously as Death's Duell. After preaching for the final time, Donne had a drawing made of himself, in his shroud, as an aid to meditation on his own death. This drawing was used to construct a marble effigy in St Paul's Cathedral.
Donne died on 31st March 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His effigy was the only monument to survive the Great Fire of London of 1666. The scorch marks from the fire are visible on the monument.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Stubbs, John. John Donne: The Reformed Soul.
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