John Donne



  • Born between 24 January and 19 June, son of John and Elizabeth.


  • Father dies; mother marries Dr John Symmings.


  • Matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford.
  • Anne More born on 27 May.


  • Stepfather dies.


  • Travels abroad.


  • Mother marries Richard Rainsford.


  • Studies law at Lincoln’s Inn until 1595 or 1596.


  • Master of the Revels at Lincoln’s Inn.
  • Receives a part of his inheritance.
  • Brother Henry dies in Newgate Prison after being incarcerated for making confession to a Catholic priest


  • Receives a further part of his and Henry’s inheritance.


  • Joins the Earl of Essex’s military expedition to Cadiz, on the southern tip of Spain.


  • Participates in Essex’s military expedition to the Azores islands.
  • Enters the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord keeper of the Great Seal.
  • Elizabeth Wolley marries Egerton and brings her niece, Anne More to York House, Egerton’s London mansion.


  • Lady Egerton dies, 20 January.


  • Becomes a member of Parliament for Brackley, Northampton.
  • Given lease of his cousin John Heywood’s lands until 1605.
  • Secretly marries Anne shortly before Christmas.


  • Reveals his marriage, imprisoned briefly, and dismissed from Egerton’s service.
  • Marriage declared legal by the Court of Audience, Canterbury, 27 April.
  • Moves to Pyrford, near Guilford in Surrey, home of Anne’s cousin Francis Wolley.


  • Second child – John – born.


  • Travels to France and Italy.
  • Third child – George – born.


  • Returns to England; moves family to Mitcham in Surrey


  • Fourth child – Francis – born.
  • Takes lodging in the Strand, London.
  • Prefatory poem published in Ben Jonson’s ‘Volpone’.


  • Fifth child – Lucy – born.


  • Sixth child – Bridget – born.


  • Published Pseudo-Mary, a prose treatise arguing that english Catholics should take the Oath of Allegiances, and that those who refused should not be considered martyrs.
  • Receives honorary MA from Oxford University.


  • Seventh child – Mary – born.
  • Ignatius his Conclave and An Anatomy of the World published.
  • Accompanies Sir Robert Drury to the Continent; wife and children on the Isle of Wight.


  • During his absence, eighth child stillborn.
  • Returns to England; moves family to house at Sir Robert Drury’s town house in London.
  • Break of Day published in William Corkine’s Second Book of Airs.


  • Ninth child – Nicholas – born; dies within a year.


  • Daughter mary and son Francis die.
  • becomes a Member of Parliament for Taunton, Somerset.


  • Tent child – Margaret – born.
  • Takes Anglican orders, becomes deacon and priest at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
  • Appointed Royal Chaplain.
  • Made honorary Doctor of Divinity by Cambridge University.


  • Eleventh child – Elizabeth – born.
  • Becomes Vicar at Keyston, Huntingdon. and Sevenoaks, kent.
  • reader in Divinity and Lincoln’s Inn.


  • Anne Donne dies, 15 August, seven days after the stillbirth of their twelfth child.


  • Serves as chaplains to Viscount Doncaster’s embassy to Germany.


  • Becomes dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, 22 November.


  • Rector of Blunham, Bedfordshire.
  • Justice of the Peace for Kent and Bedford.
  • Publishes first Sermon.
  • Honorary member of the Virginia Company, a joint-stock corporation, formed in 1606 with a charter from King James I, to settle Virginia.


  • Gravely ill, writes Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.


  • Devotions published.
  • Becomes vicar of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West, London.


  • Death of James I; Charles I succeeds.


  • Daughter Lucy dies.


  • Mortally ill, writes his will.


  • Dies in London, 31 March, survived by six children.
  • Buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, 3 April.


  • First edition of Donne’s poems published.




*information gathered from John Donne’s Selected Poems (Penguin Classics).



Explore the attitudes towards love and relationships in two or three poems of your choice, and analyse some of the ways that Donne presents these attitudes.

In all of his poems, there is a ‘strikingly similar’ audacity with which Donne conveys his feelings about love and relationships, whether those be poems about his life experiences, or simply ideas created in his mind. His poetry is mostly directed at two ‘people’: God, and women. Although there is a blurred line between whether the love he seeks is spiritual or sexual, with both beings, he conveys a desperation for a love-filled relationship.

Ironically, it is his poetry concerning women (often Anne) in which he talks about a spiritual and ethereal love with – not God. It could be said that he argues that a love soul-deep, gives the lovers a new status as people, both in society as well as among the Gods. The Good Morrow portrays love as something of the soul, using hyperboles and imagery to signify their emotional and physical connections. In the aubade, Donne present their love as immortal because their soulful connection has guaranteed their immortality, as the soul ‘none can die’. In his imagery of the ‘two better hemispheres’, Donne is perhaps alluding to the Neo-Platonic idea of finding your ‘other half’ in order to form the perfect form. Therefore, in ‘which watch not one another out of fear’, Donne is insinuating that if you find your ‘soulmate’, everyday things like jealousy are not important and cannot taint your love. This can also be seen in A Valediction: forbidding Mourning, where Donne ‘forbids’ Anne from mourning their separation through the conceit of a compass. The comparison of the lovers to a compass, depicts that no matter how far they are from each other, they are always connected through their love: ‘Our two souls therefore, which are one’. Donne also argues that because he and Anne have the opposite of a ‘dull sublunary lovers’ love’ which depends on physical touch only, they can ‘admit / Absence’ because they have a soulful connection although they themselves ‘know not what it is’.

Love and relationships however, are far from perfect in some of Donne’s poems. From the title and the first line of The Expiration, Donne sets a solemn mood for the poem. The sibilance on the first two lines, as well his use of the adjective ‘lamenting’ to describe the lovers’ kiss, adds to the mournful tone. Bitterly, through the harsh alliteration of ‘d’, the speaker implies that their parting has caused his death, saying that if the woman killed him he’d be ‘double dead’. Throughout the poem, there is a bitterness and resignation in Donne’s tone, but not directed at the woman. In Song: Go and catch a falling star however, the animosity of the speaker towards women is clear. He say that you can search for a woman who is both beautiful and faithful until ‘age snow white hair on thee’. One critic has described Donne as a ‘misogynist who loathed girls’ bodies and scorned their minds’, which – to some extent – applies to this poem. He implies that women do not have an ‘honest mind’, and that their beauty corrupts goodness. However, we cannot assume that the view of the speaker in Donne’s poetry is always the same as Donne’s personal one. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to judge Donne based on some of his poetry alone, especially considering the majority of his Songs and Sonnets is in praise of women.

One of the attitudes in several of Donne’s more tempestuous and audacious poems, is that in some relationships there is desperation. In The Flea, a ‘carpe diem’ poem, the speaker is desperate and ruthless in his attempts at seducing a woman. Throughout, he argues that their union has already happened inside a flea, and that it is legitimate in the eyes of the church – a notion important to the society of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century. He goes to extreme measures in saying that killing the symbol of their union (the flea), would be like committing ‘self-murder’: considered a sin in Christianity. There is also another type of desperation – one for a good relationship with God in Holy Sonnet XIV. In what appears to be a frantic manner, he begins to allude to having a sexual relations with God, in order to convince Him to ‘free’ him and ‘make [him] new’. The violent, active, and unsettling(in a religious poem) verbs – ‘break, blow, burn’ – convey a sense of urgency and anxiousness in which he wants God to save him. In the last two stanzas, it is unclear what Donne wants from God. He wants Him to ‘enthral’ (enslave) him, whilst wanting to ‘be free’; he want to be ‘chaste’, but wants God to ‘ravish’ him. The implication of this is that he wants to change and be ‘chaste’ – but he cannot be if he wants God too ‘ravish’ him. In Holy Sonnet XVII however, Donne appears to be anxious to fill the hole left inside him by Anne’ death, with God. He uses the metaphor of being thirsty to portray his ‘thirst’ for love, and addresses God in ‘Thou my thirst hast fed’.

As a Catholic-at-heart and a lover of women, Donne often deals with the conflict between ‘sacred and profane love’ in his poems. The dispute inside Donne about these two notions is more apparent in his later poems, particularly in The Holy Sonnets. For instance, in Holy Sonnet I, he acknowledges his promiscuity as a sin, and asks God to ‘repair’ him before it weighs him down ‘towards hell’, realising that he has to atone for his mistakes in order to become closer to Him – a clear image of confession. Holy Sonnet XVII is most undeniably a reflection of Donne’s emotional turmoil after losing his wife. Boldly, Donne accuses God of feeling a ‘tender jealousy’ of Donne’s love for Anne, perhaps hinting at some bitterness and confusion Donne might be feeling towards God, who ‘ravished’ Anne’s ‘soul early into heaven’. However, this is only brief, as he then confesses that because his ‘profane love’ is gone, he can focus ‘wholly in heavenly things’ (his sacred love).


Consider some of the ways in which Donne’s poetry could be said to be ambitious in its style and subject matter.

To be ambitious is to have a strong need and determination to succeed – something Donne had in many aspects of his life. From his poetry, relationship with God, to his personal life, Donne had a ‘restless desire for work and for worldly success’.

Perhaps Donne’s most ambitious move was his decision to marry Anne More, daughter of Sir George More, whom he met when she moved into his employer’s – Sir Thomas Egerton – London mansion. Sadly, when Anne’s father found out about their marriage, he threw Donne into prison. During this time, Donne and Anne’s separation is seen in the poem The Expiration, but Donne’s ambition to get through everything thrown at them is seen in poems like The Sun Rising and The Canonization. In The Expiration, Donne shows Anne and him being in pain due to their imminent separation, through the hyperbole ‘double dead’, emphasising the impossibility of the statement being like the almost impossible chance of them surviving without each other. The oxymoron benight out happiest day’ also shows the doubt Donne has at his and Anne’s relationship surviving. However, the angry aubade The Sun Rising, is one of the paradigms of Donne’s ambition. He addresses Sir George More with the angry opening plosive ‘busy’, calling him an ‘old fool’. He continues his subversiveness by reversing the typical vertical ladder-like image of hierarchy, and placing the ‘court-huntsmen’ and the ‘King’ below the ‘schoolboys and sour prentices’. By doing this, Donne is being ambitious in the subject-matter of the poem too, as he is implying that Sir George More is not more powerful simply because he is above them in the social hierarchy. Through writing a poem like this, Donne might be feeling empowered by the fact that he can do this and get away with it. Furthermore, through this audacious poem, Donne is showing his ambitions to keep Anne as his wife, and the lengths he will go too to do so. Similarly, in the The Canonization, Donne is addressing a bigger audience to show the importance of his and Anne’s marriage, himself believing he put her into a ‘wretched fortune’ and had to make up for it. he doesn’t feel that the sacrifices they have made have been acknowledged, and so wants them ‘canonized for love’. He is not requesting some menial and every day task to be carried out, but one of the most important and rare acts carried out by the Catholic church. The audacity of it is shocking – especially at the time it was written -, but effective in getting his point across.

Donne ‘making a case for the power of poetry’, was considered to be a metaphysical poet. To him, ‘a thought was an experience’, and he often conveyed this through his use of conceit. For example, \donne uses a compass to symbolise the connection he and Anne had in order to soothe her ‘mourning’ when he went away to Europe. Although Samuel Johnson said the conceits in metaphysical poetry are ‘heterogenous idea yoked together by violence’, the parallels between the literal connection of the compass being what hold it together, and the spiritual connection between Anne and Donne being what will keep them together, is the perfect comparison. Therefore, Helen Gardiner’s point of discussion that in an ‘extended conceit the poet forces fresh points of likeness on us’ is applicable to Donne, as he forces the reader to looks at an everyday object differently, in a very subtle yet effective comparison.

Donne’s unorthodox approach to diving poetry is where we see his ambition in regards to God. Although he had many ways of approaching and showing what he wanted from God, he had only one goal – to be saved by Him. It is perhaps more obvious in his Divine poems,where Donne uses the sonnet as a form for communicating his anxiety about his soul and the afterlife, what Donne wanted from God, but as Ilona Bell points out, his earlier and letter poems are ‘strikingly similar’. In Lover’s Infiniteness’, Donne’s insecurity and desperation to have an all-consuming relationship is scattered throughout. The insecurity begins from the first word, through the conjunction ‘if’, later being repeated multiple times. The repetition of ‘all’ when addressing the woman’s love, shows he cannot be sated with just being loved by her – he must completely own and consume her. He is jealous and worried, that if he does have it ‘all’, that she might have some for other people (‘some should to other fall’), again showing his need for an enthralling love. Similarly, these needs can be seen in Holy Sonnet XIV, but concerned with God rather than a woman. Donne is insecure about his weakness, which has led him to be ‘betrothed’ to another (Satan), and is now worried he cannot be saved. His use of the itself-ambitious sequence of dynamic verbs at the start and throughout, is what highlights his frantic want to have the all-consuming love, and so his ambition to be saved: ‘knock, breathe, shine’. He reaches the epitome of desperation in the final three lines of the poem, when he asks God to ‘enthral’ (enslave) him, but free him; to help him be ‘chaste’, but wants Him to ‘ravish’ him. The desperation in this spoems is proof of Donne’s ambition when it comes to God: the violent, -almost onomatopoeic – verbs, the imagery of matrimony to Satan, and the mercurial requests to God, all show him striving to be saved by God.