John Donne, born in 1572, was the eldest son of a London iron merchant. His mother was the sister of John Heywood, the dramatist. After receiving education privately, Donne matriculated at Oxford. Probably he went to Cambridge for higher education, but obviously, he could not take a degree on account of his opposition to the oath of thirty-nine articles. Of the years from 1584 to 1592, we know very little. He was admitted as a law student to Lincoln’s Inn in May 1592. Like many young members of the Inns of court, he was fond of pleasure and company: “Not dissolute but very neat, a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays; a great writer of conceited verses.”
John Donne tells us that during that period, he “of study and play made strange hermaphrodites“. During these formative years, Donne studied both law and religion. He also wrote a number of songs, elegies, and satires before his twenty-fifth year. There is no doubt that he visited Italy in order to proceed to Jerusalem but prevented from doing so, he passed over into Spain where he studied the laws, the language, and the arts of Spain. His collection of books contained many Spanish writers.
John Doe and Catholicism
The earliest portrait of Donne, dated 1591 bears a Spanish motto. The spirit of Italian life and literature and the influence of Spanish philosophers and theologians dominated his early poetry. He also came across other Catholics who, like him, felt terribly the harassment and persecution they were subject to. John Donne wrote of his period: I had my first breeding and conversation with men of suppressed and afflicted religion (Catholicism), accustomed to the respite of death and hungry of an imagined martyrdom. These were the days of inner conflict. His soul was torn between Catholicism and Anglicanism.
Ultimately, by 1597 he must have embraced the Church of England when he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton. But before 1597, Donne enlisted as a volunteer in two combined military and naval expeditions. The Cadiz Expedition of 1556 and Azore Expedition of 1597 show that he was an adherent of the Earl of Essex. His “The Storm” and “The Calm” poems describe the experiences of his voyage. It was during the expedition that he came in contact with Thomas, the eldest son of Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the Great Seal. He served Egerton for four years as Secretary.
He would have got promotion and advancement in public service had he not committed the indiscretion of contracting a run-away marriage with Anne More, daughter of Sir George More of Losely and niece of Egerton’s second wife. Possibly Donne miscalculated, as he thought this marriage would strengthen his claims to promotion. On the contrary, Egerton dismissed him from service. The reconciliation with more, his father in law saved him from a long imprisonment.
Donne’s Conversion of Anglicanism
A word may be laid about his conversion to Anglicanism. Brought up among the Catholics at an early age, his belief in the old faith struggled against the impact of the Established Church. Donne was no hypocrite; he knew the shortcomings of the Church of Rome; his intellectual spirit detached itself from Catholicism. His conversion to Anglicanism was not due to opportunism or expediency but intellectual persuasion. Even then, in later life be felt, to some extent, a sort of spiritual unrest.
Donne’s hasty and imprudent marriage meant the loss of a promising and stable public career. The year from 1601 to 1609 was full of fluctuating fortunes when Donne had to depend on the generosity of his patron, Sir Robert Drury, the Countess of Bedford. Lord Hay, Robett Car, Earl of Somerset, helped him in different ways. The Pseudo Martyr shows him definitely on the Anglican side, trying to defend the oath of allegiance.
Two Loves of Donne
Donne had two loves: poetry, the mistress of his youth, and Divinity, the wife of his mature age. Equally remote he stood from the ascetic ideal. He believed in the joy of living and the seduction of poetry. Donne followed the middle path between blind faith and reformation.