One of the greatest of English poets, and the best known preacher of his day in the Church of England, John Donne (pronounced, “dun”) was born into a wealthy and pious Roman Catholic family around 1572. (His mother was the granddaughter of a sister of Sir Thomas More.) He entered Hart Hall, Oxford in 1584 and possibly studied after this at Cambridge or abroad. He studied law at the Inns of Court in London, entering Thavies Inn in 1591 and transferring to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. During this time he was exercised over the problem of his religious allegiance (as a Catholic recusant in a country with a established reformed Church), and according to the biographer Izaak Walton, “betrothed himself to no Religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian“. By 1598 he had conformed to the Church of England. In 1598 he entered into government service and a promising political career as private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Sir Thomas’ discovery in 1602 of Donne’s secret marriage to Ann More, the niece of his employer’s wife, the previous year brought his employment abruptly to an end. During the next several years he and his growing family lived in poverty, dependent on the charity of friends. He found some employment in the writing of controversial literature, but after repeated failures to find regular secular employment, he at last complied with the wishes of King James the First and was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England. The reason that he gave for his delay was scruple at accepting holy orders as a means of making a living. Following several brief cures, Donne was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1621, where he preached on all great festivals. He was also a regular preacher at court and was a favorite with both James the First and his son, Charles.
During a serious illness in 1623, he wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (published in 1624) and the famous “Hymn to God the Father”. Donne died on March 31, 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His monument, which depicts him standing in his death shroud, survived the Great Fire that destroyed most of the old Cathedral. He is remembered on this day in several Anglican sanctoral calendars.
Donne’s secular poetry, satires, love-elegies, and lyrics, was written mainly in his youth. His religious poetry belongs mostly to the troubled and unhappy middle years of poverty and discouragement. After ordination his genius found expression in preaching. His poetry suffered eclipse after the Restoration but experienced a robust revival in the twentieth century. His vigorous, dramatic style, his capacity for introspection, and the subtle blend of argument and passion in his love poems and religious poems attracted poets who were rejecting Romanticism, mostly notably T.S. Eliot. Donne’s sermons are masterpieces of the old formal style of preaching, packed with patristic learning and adorned with brilliant images images and striking rhetorical flourishes. But his greatest strength was as a moral theologian, preaching as a sinner who has found mercy to other sinners. Donne’s great theme as a love poet was the bliss of union, a theme also found in his religious poetry, and his great theme as a preacher was God’s mercy.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with your servant John Donne, that whatever has any being is a mirror in which we may behold you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of John Donne, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done†;
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
†The reader will note the play on “done” and “Donne”.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.