Born: Early in 1572, in Bread Street, London, England
Died: March 31, 1631, in London, England
John Donne was an English poet but was also a writer of prose and a member of the Anglican clergy. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers of love poetry.
Donne's father was a successful ironmonger but he died when Donne was only four. His mother was the daughter of the English dramatist John Heywood. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, and entered Hart Hall at the age of eleven. He left Oxford in 1584 without a degree due to a theological conflict. He enrolled at the University of Cambridge but, again, did not complete his degree. In 1592, he began to study law at Lincoln Inn, London with the objective of entering into politics. It was at this time that he discovered his poetic and sexual muse.
In 1594, he relinquished his Roman Catholic faith and converted to Anglican. Shortly after, he wrote two of his most important works: Satires, and Songs and Sonnets. While not formally published, these two works were widely circulated.
Donne joined the second earl of Essex, Robert Devereux in his naval attack on Spain and in reward for his service to England, he was appointed to work under Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal. However, Donne secretly married Egerton's niece, Anne Moore, and was fired and jailed as a result. His hopes for a political career were crushed and the newly married couple were forced to take refuge with one of Moore's more generous relatives.
Finding himself without a source of income, Donne tried to make a living as a lawyer. He was unable to make a sufficient income and was forced to take work as an anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteer under Thomas Morton.
In 1607, Divine Poems was published. A year later, the Donnes reconciled with Egerton and received Anne's dowry. The dowry allowed Donne more time to study and write.
Donne captured the attention of the king and shortly after becoming an Anglican priest, he was appointed royal chaplain. He is described as an eloquent religious speaker, commended for fulfilling his clerical duties admirably.
Honorary university degrees from Oxford in 1610 and Cambridge in 1615 were awarded to Donne. In 1621, he was appointed dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral. It was at this time that he wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions which contains the famous lines "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
Donne's poetry employs complex imagery, colloquial English and irregular form. These tools make his writing noticeably different from his contemporaries. His love poems often abandon sentimentality in favor of more sensuous and cynical expressions.
Interest in Donne's work had waned until, in the 1920s, both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot identified Donne as a primary influence on their work.