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A reader's guide to Donne: The Reformed Soul

Updated Saturday, 1st November 2008

The life and times of a turbulent metaphysical poet.

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The Metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) was born into a devout Roman Catholic family; indeed, the martyred Sir Thomas More was his great-great-uncle.

Donne studied at Oxford, but degrees there could only be awarded to those who took the Oath of Allegiance; he therefore moved to Cambridge, before becoming a law student in London. Here he was ‘a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of playes, a great writer of conceited verses’.

During his colourful philandering and swashbuckling days, Donne joined an expeditionary force against the Spanish. Subsequently an appointment as Secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Seal was blighted by his clandestine marriage, which caused him to be thrown into the Fleet prison. It is said that on his wedding day he chalked on his ‘Kitchin-door’: ‘John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone’. The loss of job, prospects and status was followed by the deaths of several of the couple’s children, and of Ann during childbirth.

John Donne's house near Ripley, Surrey Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: James Ferguson under CC-BY-SA licence
Donne's house in Surrey

Donne believed that each individual should undertake a personal quest for God. He converted to Protestantism, later becoming a priest and then Dean of St Paul’s. His sermons and other devotional writings were humane and moving.

As well as discussing the acclaimed biography by John Stubbs, we can share and celebrate memorable quotations from Donne:

‘No man is an Iland, intire of it self; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.’

‘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.’

 

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