John Donne by Isaac Oliver

John Donne (1572-1631). Portrait by Isaac Oliver (1556-1617). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne
John Donne
Born between 24 January and 19 June 1572
London, England
Died 31 March 1631 (aged 59)
Occupation Poet, Priest, Lawyer
Nationality English
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Genres satire, love poetry, religious verse, sermons
Subjects Love, sexuality, religion, death
Literary movement Metaphysical poets

Rev. John Donne (1572 - 31 March 1631) was a leading English poet of the metaphysical school. The Encyclopædia Britannica says that Donne "is often considered the greatest love poet in the English language. He is also noted for his religious verse and treatises and for his sermons, which rank among the best of the 17th century."[2]



Donne, was born in London, son of a wealthy ironmonger. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he was sent to Oxford and Cambridge, and afterwards entered Lincoln's Inn with a view to the law. Here he studied the points of controversy between Romanists and Protestants, with the result that he joined the Church of England. The next 2 years were somewhat changeful, including travels on the Continent, service as a private sec., and a clandestine marriage with the niece of his patron, which led to dismissal and imprisonment, followed by reconciliation. On the suggestion of James I, who approved of Pseudo-Martyr (1610), a book against Rome which he had written, he took orders, and after executing a mission to Bohemia, he was, in 1621, made Dean of St. Paul's. Donne had great popularity as a preacher. His works consist of elegies, satires, epigrams, and religious pieces, in which, amid many conceits and much that is artificial, frigid, and worse, there is likewise much poetry and imagination of a high order. Perhaps the best of his works is "An Anatomy of the World" (1611), an elegy. Others are "Epithalamium" (1613), "Progress of the Soul" (1601), and "Divine Poems." Collections of his poems appeared in 1633 and 1649. He exercised a strong influence on literature for over half a century after his death; to him we owe the unnatural style of conceits and overstrained efforts after originality of the succeeding age.[3]

Youth and educationEdit

Donnew was born in the parish of St Nicholas Olave, London. His father was a wealthy merchant, who next year became warden of the Company of Ironmongers, but died early in 1576. Donne’s parents were Catholics, and his mother, Elizabeth (Heywood), was directly descended from the sister of the great Sir Thomas More; she was the daughter of John Heywood the epigrammatist.[4]

As a child, Donne’s precocity was such that it was said of him that “this age hath brought forth another Pico della Mirandola.”[4]

He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in October 1584, and left it in 1587, proceeding for a time to Cambridge, where he took his degree. At Oxford he began his friendship with Henry Wotton, and at Cambridge, probably, with Christopher Brooke.[4]


Donne moved to London about 1590, and in 1592 he entered Lincoln’s Inn with the intention of studying law. When he came of age, he found himself in possession of a considerable fortune, and about the same time rejected Catholic doctrine in favor of the Anglican communion.[4]

He began to produce satires, which were not printed, but eagerly passed from hand to hand; the earliest 3 are known to belong to 1593, the 4th to 1594, while the other 3 are probably some years later.[4]

In 1596 Donne engaged himself for foreign service under the earl of Essex, and “waited upon his lordship” on board the Repulse” in the victory of 11 June. We possess several poems written by Donne during this expedition, and during the Islands Voyage of 1597, in which he accompanied Essex to the Azores.[4]

According to Izaak Walton, Donne spent some time in Italy and Spain, and intended to proceed to Palestine, “but at his being in the farthest parts of Italy, the disappointment of company, or of a safe convoy, or the uncertainty of returns of money into those remote parts, denied him that happiness.” There is some reason to suppose that he was on the continent at intervals between 1595 and the winter of 1597. His lyrical poetry was mainly the product of his exile, if we are to believe Ben Jonson, who told William Drummond of Hawthornden that Donne “wrote all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.”[4]

At his return to England he became private secretary in London to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper (afterwards Lord Brackley), in whose family he remained 4 years. During the latter part of his residence in Egerton’s house, Donne had composed the longest of his existing poems, "The Progress of the Soul" (not published until 1633).[4]


In 1600 Donne found himself in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne More, whom he married secretly in December 1601. As soon as this act was discovered, Donne was dismissed, and then thrown into the Fleet prison (February 1602), from which he was soon released. His circumstances, however, were now very much straitened. His own fortune had all been spent and “troubles did still multiply upon him.” Mrs. Donne’s cousin, Sir Francis Woolsey, offered the young couple an asylum at his country house of Pyrford, where they lived until the end of 1604.[4]

In the spring of 1605 we find the Donnes living at Camberwell, and a little later in a small house at Mitcham. Donne had by this time “acquired such a perfection” in civil and common law that he was able to take up professional work, and he now acted as a helper to Thomas Morton in his controversies with the Catholics. Donne is believed to have had a considerable share in writing the pamphlets against the papists which Morton issued between 1604 and 1607. In the latter year, Morton offered the poet certain preferment in the Church, if he would only consent to take holy orders. Donne, however, although he was by this time deeply serious on religious matters, did not think himself fitted for the clerical life.[4]

In 1607 Donne started a correspondence with Magdalen Herbert of Montgomery Castle, the mother of Edward and George Herbert. Some of these pious epistles were printed by Izaak Walton. These exercises were not of a nature to add to his income, which was extremely small. His uncomfortable little house he speaks of as his “hospital” and his “prison;” his wife’s health was broken and he was bowed down by the number of his children, who often lacked even clothes and food.[4]

In the autumn of 1608, however, his father-in-law, Sir George More, became reconciled with them, and agreed to make them a generous allowance. Donne soon after formed part of the brilliant assemblage which Lucy, countess of Bradford, gathered around her at Twickenham; we possess several of the verse epistles he addressed to this lady.[4]

In 1609 Donne was engaged in composing his great controversial prose treatise, the Pseudo-Martyr, printed in 1610; this was an attempt to convince Roman Catholics in England that they might, without any inconsistency, take the oath of allegiance to James I.

In 1610 Donne formed the acquaintance of a wealthy gentleman, Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted, who offered him and his wife an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane. Drury lost his only daughter, and in 1611 Donne published an extravagant elegy on her, entitled "An Anatomy of the World," to which he added in 1612 a "Progress of the Soul" on the same subject; he threatened to celebrate the “blessèd Maid,” Elizabeth Drury, in a fresh elegy on each anniversary of her death, but he happily refrained from the 3rd occasion onwards.[5]


In 1611 Donne wrote a curious and bitter prose squib against the Jesuits, entitled Ignatius his Conclave. To the same period, but possibly somewhat earlier, belongs the apology for the principle of suicide, which was not published until 1644, long after Donne’s death. This work, the Biathanatos,[4] is an attempt to show that “the scandalous disease of headlong dying,” to which Donne himself in his unhappy moods had “often such a sickly inclination,” was not necessarily and essentially sinful.[5]

At the close of 1611 Sir Robert Drury determined to visit Paris (but not, as Walton supposed, on an embassy of any kind), and he took Donne with him. When Donne left London, his wife was expecting an 8th child. It seems almost certain that her fear to have him absent led him to compose 1 of his loveliest poems:

Sweetest Love, I do not go
For weariness of thee.[5]

He is said while at Amiens to have had a vision of his wife, with her hair over her shoulders, bearing a dead child in her arms, on the very night that Mrs Donne, in London (or more probably in the Isle of Wight), was delivered of a still-born infant. He suffered, accordingly, a great anxiety, which was not removed until he reached Paris, where he received reassuring accounts of his wife’s health. The Drurys and Donne left Paris for Spa in May 1612, and traveled in the Low Countries and Germany until September, when they returned to London.[5]

In 1613 Donne contributed to the Lachrymae lachrymarum an obscure and frigid elegy on the death of the prince of Wales, and wrote his famous "Marriage Song for St Valentine’s Day" to celebrate the nuptials of the elector palatine with the princess Elizabeth.[5]

About this time Donne became close with Robert Ker, then Viscount Rochester and afterwards the infamous earl of Somerset, from whom he had hopes of preferment at court. Donne was now in weak health, and in a highly neurotic condition. He suggested to Rochester that if he should enter the church, a place there might be found for him. But he was more useful to the courtier in his legal capacity, and Rochester dissuaded him from the ministry. At the close of 1614, however, the king sent for Donne to Theobald’s, and “descended to a persuasion, almost to a solicitation of him, to enter into sacred orders,” but Donne asked for a few days to consider.[5]

Finally, early in 1614, King, bishop of London, “proceeded with all convenient speed to ordain him, first deacon, then priest.” He was, perhaps, a curate first at Paddington, and presently was appointed royal chaplain. His earliest sermon before the king at Whitehall carried his audience “to heaven, in holy raptures.”[5]

In the spring of 1616, Donne was presented to the living of Keyston, in Hunts., and a little later he became rector of Sevenoaks; the latter preferment he held until his death. In October he was appointed reader in divinity to the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn.[5]

His anxieties about money now ceased, but in August 1617 his wife died, leaving 7 young children in his charge. Perhaps in consequence of his bereavement, Donne seems to have passed through a spiritual crisis, which inspired him with a peculiar fervor of devotion. In 1618 he wrote 2 cycles of religious sonnets, La Corona and the Holy Sonnets, the latter not printed in complete form until by Edmund Gosse in 1899. Of the very numerous sermons preached by Donne at Lincoln’s Inn, 14 have come down to us.[5]

His health suffered from the austerity of his life, and it was probably in connexion with this fact that he allowed himself to be persuaded in May 1619 to accompany Lord Doncaster as his chaplain on an embassy to Germany. Having visited Heidelberg, Frankfort and other German cities, the embassy returned to England at the opening of 1620.[5]


In November 1621, James I, knowing that London was “a dish” which Donne “loved well,” “carved” for him the deanery of St Paul’s. He resigned Keyston, and his preachership in Lincoln’s Inn (Feb., 1622). In October 1623 he suffered from a dangerous attack of illness, and during a long convalescence wrote his Devotions, a volume published in 1624. He was now appointed to the vicarage of St Dunstan’s in the West.[5]

In April 1625 Donne preached before the new king, Charles I, a sermon which was immediately printed, and he now published his Four Sermons upon Special Occasions, the earliest collection of his discourses. When the plague broke out he retired with his children to the house of Sir John Danvers in Chiswick, and for a time he disappeared so completely that a rumor arose that he was dead. Sir John had married Donne’s old friend, Mrs Magdalen Herbert, for whom Donne wrote 2 of the most ingenious of his lyrics, “The Primrose” and “The Autumnal.”[5]

The popularity of Donne as a preacher rose to its zenith when he returned to his pulpit, and it continued there until his death. Walton, who seems to have met him in 1624, now became a close and adoring friend.[5]

In 1630 Donne’s health, always feeble, broke down completely, so that, although in August of that year he was to have been made a bishop, the entire breakdown of his health made it worse than useless to promote him. The greater part of that winter he spent at Abury Hatch, in Epping Forest, with his widowed daughter, Constance Alleyn, and was too ill to preach before the king at Christmas.[5]


It is believed that Donne's disease was a malarial form of recurrent quinsy acting upon an extremely neurotic system. He came back to London, and was able to preach at Whitehall on the 12 February 1631. This, his latest sermon, was published, soon after his demise, as Death’s Duel.[5]

He now stood for his statue to the sculptor, Nicholas Stone, standing before a fire in his study at the Deanery, with his winding-sheet wrapped and tied round him, his eyes shut, and his feet resting on a funeral urn. This lugubrious work of art was set up in white marble after his death in St Paul’s cathedral, where it may still be seen.[5]

Donne died on 31 March 1631, after he had lain “fifteen days earnestly expecting his hourly change.” His aged mother, who had lived in the Deanery, survived him, dying in 1632.[5]


Donne’s poems were originally collected in 1633, and afterwards in 1635, 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654 and 1669. Of his prose works, the Juvenilia appeared in 1633; the LXXX Sermons in 1640; Biathanatos in 1644; Fifty Sermons in 1649; Essays in Divinity, 1651; his Letters to Several Persons of Honour, 1651; Paradoxes, Problems and Essays, 1652; and Six and Twenty Sermons, 1661. Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne, an admirably written but not entirely correct biography, preceded the Sermons of 1640. The principal editor of his posthumous writings was his son, John Donne the younger (1604-1662), a man of eccentric and scandalous character, but of considerable talent.[5]

The 1st impression of an unbiassed reader who dips into the poems of Donne is unfavorable. He is repulsed by the intolerably harsh and crabbed versification, by the recondite choice of theme and expression, and by the oddity of the thought. In time, however, he perceives that behind the fantastic garb of language there is an earnest and vigorous mind, an imagination that harbors fire within its cloudy folds, and an insight into the mysteries of spiritual life which is often startling.[5]

Donne excels in brief flashes of wit and beauty, and in sudden daring phrases that have the full perfume of poetry in them. Some of his lyrics and elegies excepted, the Satires are his most important contribution to literature. They are probably the earliest poems of their kind in the language, and they are full of force and picturesqueness.[5] Their obscure and knotty language only serves to give peculiar brilliancy to the not uncommon passages of noble perspicacity.[6]

To the odd terminology of Donne’s poetic philosophy Dryden gave the name of “metaphysics,” and Johnson, borrowing the suggestion, invented the title of the “metaphysical school” to describe, not Donne only, but all the amorous and philosophical poets who succeeded him, who employed a similarly fantastic language, and who affected odd figurative inversions.[6]

Donne's earliest poems showed a developed knowledge of English society coupled with sharp criticism of its problems. His satires dealt with common Elizabethan topics, such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous courtiers. His images of sickness, vomit, manure, and plague assisted in the creation of a strongly satiric world populated by all the fools and knaves of England. His 3rd satire, however, deals with the problem of true religion, a matter of great importance to Donne. He argued that it was better to examine carefully one's religious convictions than blindly to follow any established tradition, for none would be saved at the Final Judgment, by claiming "A Harry, or a Martin taught [them] this."[7]

Donne's early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as a flea biting 2 lovers being compared to sex.[8] In Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, he poetically undressed his mistress and compared the act of fondling to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII, he compared the gap between his lover's breasts to the Hellespont.[8] Donne did not publish these poems, although did allow them to circulate widely in manuscript form.[8]

Some have speculated that Donne's numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more somber and pious tone in his later poems.[8] The change can be clearly seen in "An Anatomy of the World" (1611), a poem that Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk. This poem treats Elizabeth's demise with extreme gloominess, using it as a symbol for the Fall of Man and the destruction of the universe.[8]

The poem "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day" concerns the poet's despair at the death of a loved one. In it Donne expresses a feeling of utter negation and hopelessness, saying that "I am every dead / Of absence, darkness, death." This famous work was probably written in 1627 when both Donne's friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and his daughter Lucy Donne died. Three years later, in 1630, Donne wrote his will on Saint Lucy's day, the date the poem describes as "Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight."

The increasing gloominess of Donne's tone may also be observed in the religious works that he began writing during the same period. His early belief in the value of skepticism now gave way to a firm faith in the traditional teachings of the Bible. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature. He quickly became noted for his sermons and religious poems.

Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally. One example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, "Death be not proud, from which come the famous lines "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so." .[7][8][9]

Critical introductionEdit

by John W. Hales

Donne's contemporary reputation as a poet, and still more as a preacher, was immense; and a glance at his works would suffice to show that he did not deserve the contempt with which he was subsequently treated. But yet his chief interest is that he was the principal founder of a school which especially expressed and represented a certain bad taste of his day. Of his genius there can be no question; but it was perversely directed. One may almost invert Jonson’s famous panegyric on Shakespeare, and say that Donne was not for all time but for an age.

To this school Dr. Johnson has given the title of the Metaphysical; and for this title there is something to be said. "Donne," says Dryden, "affects the metaphysics not only in his Satires, but in his amorous verses where Nature only should reign, and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softnesses of love." Thus he often ponders over the mystery of love, and is exercised by subtle questions as to its nature, origin, endurance. But a yet more notable distinction of this school than its philosophising, shallow or deep, is what may be called its fantasticality, its quaint wit, elaborate ingenuity, far-fetched allusiveness; and it might better be called the Ingenious, or Fantastic School. Various and out-of-the-way information and learning is a necessary qualification for membership.

Donne in one of his letters speaks of his "embracing the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages." Eminence is attained by using such stores in the way to be least expected. The thing to be illustrated becomes of secondary importance by the side of the illustration. The more unlikely and surprising and preposterous this is, the greater the success. This is wit of a kind. From one point of view, wit, as Dr. Johnson says, "may be considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit thus defined they [Donne and his followers] have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtility surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires is seldom pleased."

And so in the following curious passage from Donne’s Dedication of certain poems to Lord Craven it should be observed how "wit" and "poetry" are made to correspond: "Amongst all the monsters this unlucky age has teemed with, I find none so prodigious as the poets of these late times [this is very much what Donne’s own critics must say], wherein men, as if they would level undertakings too as well as estates, acknowledging no inequality of parts and judgments, pretend as indifferently to the chair of wit as to the pulpit, and conceive themselves no less inspired with the spirit of poetry than with that of religion." Dryden styles Donne "the greatest wit though not the best poet of our nation."

The taste which this school represents marks other literatures besides our own at this time. It was "in the air" of that age; and so was not originated by Donne. But it was he who in England originally gave it full expression — who was its earliest vigorous and effective and devoted spokesman. And this secures him a conspicuous position in the history of our literature when we remember how prevalent was the fashion of conceits during the first half of the 17th century, and that amongst those who followed it more or less are to be mentioned, to say nothing of the earlier poems of Milton and Waller and Dryden, Suckling, Denham, Herbert, Crashaw, Cleveland, Cowley.

This misspent learning, this excessive ingenuity, this laborious wit seriously mars almost the whole of Donne’s work. For the most part we look on it with amazement rather than with pleasure. It reminds us rather of a "pyrotechnic display," with its unexpected flashes and explosions, than of a sure and constant light.... We weary of such unmitigated cleverness — such ceaseless straining after novelty and surprise. We long for something simply thought, and simply said.

His natural gifts were certainly great. He possesses a real energy and fervour. He loved, and he suffered much, and he writes with a passion which is perceptible through all his artificialities. Such a poem as "The Will" is evidence of the astonishing rapidity and brightness of his fancy.

He also claims notice as one of our earliest formal satirists. Though not published till much later, there is proof that some at least of his satires were written three or four years before those of Hall. Two of them (ii. and iv.) were reproduced — "versified" — in the last century by Pope, acting on a suggestion by Dryden: No. iii. was similarly treated by Parnell. In these versions, along with the roughness of the metre, disappears much of the general vigour; and it should be remembered that the metrical roughness was no result of incapacity, but was designed. Thus the charge of metrical uncouthness so often brought against Donne on the ground of his satires is altogether mistaken. How fluently and smoothly he could write if he pleased, is attested over and over again by his lyrical pieces.[10]

Critical reputationEdit

It is, indeed, singularly difficult to pronounce a judicious opinion on the writings of Donne.[5] His originality and the fervor of his imaginative passion made him extremely attractive to the younger generation of poets, who saw that he had broken through the old tradition, and were ready to follow him implicitly into new fields. His works were excessively admired by his own and the next generation, praised by Dryden, paraphrased by Pope, and then entirely neglected for a whole century. In the 18th century his reputation almost disappeared, to return, with many vicissitudes in the course of the 19th.[5] He was revived by Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Browning, though his more recent revival in the early 20th century by poets such as T.S. Eliot and critics like F.R. Leavis tended to portray him, with approval, as an anti-Romantic.[11]


Bust of John Donne (14074586548)

Bust of John Donne (1572-1631), St Paul's Cathedral churchyard. Photo by Matthew Black. Licensed under Creative Common, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In April 1614 ("not without much bad grace," says the Dictionary of National Biography), the University of Cambridge conferred a Doctor of Divinity degree on Donne.[5]

Donne is buried in St Paul's Cathedral, London, where a statue was built in his memory by Nicholas Stone based upon a drawing commissioned by Donne himself as he lay dying. It among the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. However, faint traces of scorching can be seen on the urn beneath.[12]

Donne is commemorated as a priest, in the calendars of saints of the Church of England and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on 31 March.[13]

During his lifetime several likenesses were made of the poet. The earliest was the anonymous portrait of 1594 now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which has been recently restored.[14] Among the earliest Elizabethan portraits of an author, the fashionably dressed poet is shown darkly brooding on his love. The portrait was described in Donne's will as "that picture of myne wych is taken in the shaddowes", and bequeathed by him to Robert Kerr, 1st Earl of Ancram.[15] Other paintings include a 1616 head and shoulders after Isaac Oliver, also in the National Portrait Gallery,[16] and a 1622 head and shoulders in the Victoria and Albert Museum.[17] In 1911 the young Stanley Spencer devoted a visionary painting to John Donne arriving in heaven (1911) which is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.[18]

8 of his poems ("Daybreak," "Song," "That Time and Absence proves," "The Ecstasy," "The Dream," "The Funeral," "A Hymn to God the Father," and "Death") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[19]

In literatureEdit

After Donne's death, a number of poetical tributes were paid to him, of which one of the principal (and most difficult to follow) was his friend Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "Elegy for Doctor Donne".[20] Posthumous editions of Donne's poems were accompanied by several "Elegies upon the Author" over the course of the next 2 centuries.[21] 6 of these were written by fellow churchmen, others by such courtly writers as Thomas Carew, Sidney Godolphin and Endymion Porter. In 1963 came Joseph Brodsky's "Great Elegy for John Donne".[22]

Beginning in the 20th century, several historical novels appeared taking as their subject various episodes in Donne's life. His courtship of Anne More is the subject of Elizabeth Gray Vining's Take Heed of Loving Me: A novel about John Donne (1963)[23] and Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (2010).[24] Both characters also make interspersed appearances in Mary Novik's Conceit (2007), where the main focus is on their rebellious daughter Pegge. English treatments include Garry O'Connor's Death's Duel: a novel of John Donne (2015), which deals with the poet as a young man.[25] He also plays a significant role in Christie Dickason's The Noble Assassin (2012), a novel based on the life of Donne's patron and (the author claims) his lover, Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford.[26] There is also Bryan Crockett's Love's Alchemy: A John Donne mystery (2015), in which the poet, blackmailed into service in Robert Cecil's network of spies, attempts to avert political disaster and at the same time outwit Cecil.[27]

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island both took their titles from Meditation XVII of Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Other mentions of Donne in literature include:

  • A dying John Donne scholar is the main character of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer prize-winning play Wit (1999), which was made into the film Wit starring Emma Thompson.
  • Donne's Songs and Sonnets feature in The Calligrapher (2003), a novel by Edward Docx.
  • In the 2006 novel The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, Donne's works are frequently quoted.
  • Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer prize-winning novel Gilead makes several references to Donne's work.
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the title of Philip Jose Farmer's first "Riverworld" science-fiction novel, is a phrase from Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7".
  • Sylvia Plath, interviewed on BBC Radio in late 1962, talked about a book review of her 1960 collection, The Colossus : "I remember being appalled when someone criticized me for beginning just like John Donne but not quite managing to finish like John Donne, and I felt the weight of English literature on me at that point."[28]

In musicEdit

There were musical settings of Donne's lyrics even during his lifetime and in the century following his death. These included Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger's ("So, so, leave off this last lamenting kisse" in his 1609 Ayres); John Cooper's ("The Message"); Henry Lawes' ("Break of Day"); John Dowland's ("Break of Day" and "To ask for all thy love");[29] and settings of "A Hymn to God the Father" by John Hilton the younger[30] and Pelham Humfrey (published 1688).[31] After the 17th century there were no more until the start of the 20th century with Havergal Brian ("A nocturnal on St Lucy's Day", originally performed in 1905), Eleanor Everest Freer ("Break of Day, published in 1905) and Walford Davies ("The Cross", 1909) among the earliest. In 1916–18, composer Hubert Parry set Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7" ("At the round earth's imagined corners") to music in his choral work, Songs of Farewell.[32] In 1945, Benjamin Britten set 9 of Donne's Holy Sonnets in his song cycle for voice and piano The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Among them is also the choral setting of "Negative Love" that opens Harmonium (1981), as well as the aria setting of "Holy Sonnet XIV" at the end of the 1st act of Doctor Atomic, both by John Adams.[33][34]

There have been settings in popular music as well; like the version of the song "Go and Catch a Falling Star" on John Renbourn's debut album John Renbourn (1966), in which the last line is altered to "False, ere I count one, two, three".[35] On their 1992 album Duality, English Neoclassical Dark Wave band In The Nursery used a recitation of the entirety of Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding mourning" for the track "Mecciano"[36] and an augmented version of "A Fever" for the track "Corruption."[37]

Prose texts by Donne have also been set to music. In 1954, Priaulx Rainier set some in her Cycle for Declamation for solo voice.[38] In 2009, the American Jennifer Higdon composed the choral piece On the Death of the Righteous, based on Donne's sermons.[39] [40] Still more recent is Russian minimalist Anton Batagov's "I Fear No More: Selected songs and meditations of John Donne" (2015).[41] Other intances of Donne in music include:

  • Tarwater, in their album called Salon des Refuses, have put "The Relic" to song.
  • Children of Bodom, in the song "Follow the Reaper" reference John Donne's Holy Sonnet 10
  • Metallica in the song "For Whom the Bell Tolls" reference Meditation 17 from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
  • Band Titus Andronicus, in their 2008 song "Albert Camus", quote from Donne's Holy Sonnet 10
  • Jethro Tull, in the song "Teacher" uses the line "No man is an Island" from Meditation 17 from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
  • Van Morrison pays homage to John Donne in "Rave on John Donne," from his album "Live at the Belfast Opera House.
  • Loudon Wainwright III, in his 1986 song Hard Day On The Planet, affirms "A man ain't an island; John Donne wasn't lying"
  • Indie Rock band mewithoutYou use words from "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in their song "Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt", from their album A-B Life.
  • Bob Chilcott has arranged a choral piece to John Donne's "Go and Catch a Falling Star".


  • Lost in Austen, the British mini series based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, has Bingley refer to John Donne when he describes taking Jane to America, "John Donne, don't you know? 'License my roving hands,' and so forth."
  • In the popular show Psychoville. the character David recites a John Donne poem to his dying mother, she asks him if he had just written that. He replied "No, John Donne" to which she corrected, "No David, its John Did", attempting to correct his cockney.





  • Pseudo-Martyr. London: W. Stansby, for Walter Burre, 1610.
  • Conclaue Ignati (in Latin). London, 1611
    • translated as Ignatius His Conclaue. London: N.O. for Richard More, 1611.
  • An Anatomy of the World. London: Samuel Macham, 1611.
  • The Second Anniuersarie: Of The Progres of the Soule (published with The First Anniuersarie: An Anatomie of the World. London: M. Bradwood for Samuel Macham, 1612.
  • A Sermon Vpon The XV Verse Of The XX Chapter Of The Booke Of Ivdges. London: William Stansby for Thomas Jones, 1622.
  • A Sermon Vpon The VIII Verse Of The I Chapter of The Acts Of The Apostles. London: Aug. Mat for Thomas Jones, 1622.
  • Encænia: The feast of dedication, celebrated At Lincolnes Inne, in a sermon there upon Ascension day, 1623. London: Aug. Mat. for Thomas Jones, 1623.
  • Three Sermons Vpon Speciall Occasions. London: for Thomas Jones, 1623.
  • Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. London: A. Mat for Thomas Jones, 1624.
  • The First Sermon Preached To King Charles. London: A. Mat for Thomas Jones, 1625.
  • Fovre Sermons Vpon Speciall Occasions. London: Thomas Jones, 1625.
  • A Sermon, Preached To The Kings Mtie. At Whitehall, 24. Febr. 1625. London: Thomas Jones, 1626.
  • Five Sermons Vpon Speciall Occasions. London: for Thomas Jones, 1626.
  • A Sermon Of Commemoration Of The Lady Dãuers. London: I.H. for Philemon Stephens & Christopher Meredith, 1627.
  • Deaths Dvell. London: Thomas Harper for Richard Redmer & Benjamin Fisher, 1632.
  • Juvenilia. London: E.P. for Henry Seyle, 1633.
  • Six Sermons Vpon Severall Occasions. London: Printers to the Universitie of Cambridge, sold by Nicholas Fussell & Humphrey Mosley, 1634.
  • Sapientia Clamitans. London: I. Haviland for R. Milbourne, 1638.
  • Wisdome crying out to Sinners. London: M.P. for John Stafford, 1639.
  • LXXX Sermons. London: Richard Royston & Richard Marriot, 1640.
  • BIATHANATO A Declaration of that paradoxe, or thesis that selfe-homicide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise. London: John Dawson, 1647.
  • Essays in Divinity. London: T.M. for Richard Marriot, 1651
  • Fifty Sermons. London: Printed by Ja. Flesher for M.F.J. Marriot & R. Royston, 1649.
  • XXVI Sermons. London: Printed by T.N. for James Magnes, 1660.
  • Donne's Sermons: Selected Passages (edited, with an introduction, by Logan Pearsall Smith). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919.
  • The Sermons of John Donne (10 volumes, edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson). Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953-1962.
  • Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels: With a selection of prayers and meditations (edited by Evelyn M. Simpson). Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963.
  • Donne's Prebend Sermons (edited by Janel M. Mueller). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (edited by Anthony Raspa). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975.
  • Biathanatos (edited by Ernest W. Sullivan II). Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1984.
  • John Donne (edited by John Carey). Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Collected editionsEdit


  • Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (edited by John Donne, Jr.). London: J. Flesher for Richard Marriott, 1651)
    • facsimile (with introduction by M. Thomas Hester). Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977.
  • A Collection of Letters, Made by Sr Tobie Mathews, Kt. (edited by John Donne, Jr.) London: Henry Herringman, 1660.
  • Life and Letters (edited by Edmund Gosse). (2 volumes), London: Heinemann, 1899.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[44]

Richard Burton reads John Donne's poem 'The Good Morrow'

Richard Burton reads John Donne's poem 'The Good Morrow'

See alsoEdit

The Flea by John Donne - Poetry Reading

The Flea by John Donne - Poetry Reading


  • R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life.. Oxford, UK: 1970.
  • Edward Le Comte, Grace to a Witty Sinner: A life of Donne. Walker, 1965.
  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Donne, John". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 417-419. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 26, 2020.
  • Kit Lim, John Donne: An Eternity of Song. Penguin, 2005.
  • John Stubbs, Donne: The reformed soul. Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-91510-6
  • Frank J. Warnke, John Donne. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.


  1. Donne, John. Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition
  2. Patricia Garland Pinka, "John Donne," Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., Web, Sep. 3, 2012.
  3. John William Cousin, "Donne, John," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 119. Web, Jan. 5, 2018.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 Gosse, 417.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 5.20 5.21 5.22 Gosse, 418.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gosse, 419.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton anthology of English literature Eighth edition. W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. ISBN 0-393-92828-4. p. 600.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Will and Ariel Durant. The Age of Reason Begins
  9. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought by Terry G. Sherwood University of Toronto Press, 1984, p. 231
  10. from John W. Hales, "Critical Introduction: John Donne (1572–1631)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 8, 2016.
  11. The Best Poems of the English Language. Harold Bloom. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2004. pp. 138-139.
  12. John Donne, Poets' Graves. Web, Mar. 26, 2020.
  13. (PDF) Evangelical Lutheran Worship - Final Draft. Augsburg Fortress Press. 2006. 
  14. Cooper, Tarnya (16 May 2012). "John Donne nearly finished... –". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  15. "John Donne". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  16. "John Donne". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  17. "Portrait of John Donne (1573–1631) at the age of 49". V&A. 
  18. Spencer, Stanley (1911). "John Donne Arriving in Heaven". Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  19. Alphabetical list of authors: Daniel, Samuel to Hyde, Douglas. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  20. "Elegy for Doctor Donne". Poetry Explorer. 
  21. Donne 1633, p. 373.
  22. Maxton 1983, pp. 62–64.
  23. Hollander, John (2 April 1964). "This Is Your Life, John Donne". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  24. Haran 2009.
  25. O'Connor, Garry (2015). Death's Duel: A Novel of John Donne. Endeavour. ASIN B019E0NQ1G. 
  26. Dickason 2011.
  27. Crockett 2015.
  28. Voices and Visions television documentary, episode about Sylvia Plath telecast on PBS, 14 August 1988. Her recollection of the book revewier comparing her to John Donne is from an audio clip of a BBC radio appearances that she made in late 1962 after separating from her husband, poet Ted Hughes.
  29. To ask for all thy love performed by John Dowland on YouTube
  30. Wilt Thou Forgive? performed by Connor Burrowes on YouTube
  31. Hymn to God the Father, music composed by Pelham Humfrey on YouTube
  32. Shrock, Dennis (2009). Choral Repertoire. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 9780195327786. 
  33. A choral setting of "Negative Love" on YouTube
  34. An aria setting of "Holy Sonnet XIV" on YouTube
  35. John Renbourn on YouTube
  36. Mecciano on YouTube
  37. In the Nursery - Corruption on YouTube
  38. Priaulx Rainier - Cycle for Declamation on YouTube
  39. Webster, Daniel (31 March 2009). "Two stirring requiems: One old, the other new". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 14 September 2015. 
  40. On the Death of the Righteous on YouTube
  41. Fear no more:Selected songs and meditations of John Donne performed by Anton Bagatov on YouTube
  42. The poetical works of Skelton & Donne, Volume II (1855), Internet Archive. Web, Aug. 31, 2013.
  43. Essays in Divinity (1855), Internet Archive. Web, Aug. 31, 2013.
  44. John Donne 1572-1631, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 3, 2012.

External linksEdit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.. Original article is at: Donne, John

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