John Donne died on this day in 1631 in London at the age of about 59.
A young man known for his pursuit of female flesh who eventually became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1621, Donne is remembered today for his remarkable body of poetry, very little of which was published until after his death. Even after publication, it took 300 years for Donne to be taken seriously as a poet. Dr. Johnson regarded him as undecorous stylistically and a bit precious with his imagery, an influential opinion which relegated Donne to the cut-out bins -- to be resurrected only fitfully by Coleridge and Browning, and finally by Modernists such as T.S. Eliot, who prized him for his passionate intellect.
Born a Catholic, a descendant of Sir Thomas More and the grandson of saying-smith John Heywood through his mother's side, Donne was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford and studied law before joining a couple of sailing expeditions in 1596. Upon his return, he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of the great seal of England, through whom he met Egerton's niece, Ann More. In December 1601, Donne and More eloped secretly with the help of friends; and when Donne revealed this fact to Sir George More, Ann's father, More had Donne and his friends thrown in jail and attempted to annul the marriage. Eventually, Donne and More reconciled and the marriage was left to stand, but Donne lost his job with Egerton and was virtually unemployed for about 12 years.
Donne's earliest poems show the mind of the young lover. Taking ordinary natural phenomena as his point of departure, Donne seduces his lover in "The Flea" by arguing, in biological detail, how the mingling of his blood with hers in the belly of a flea is a kind of marriage upon which they might shut out the protests of parents. Yet the playful conceit of comparing love to biology leads to the observation of natural decay in other early poems, acknowledging the fleeting nature of erotic attraction and fidelity without spiritual love.
In his poetry during his years of unemployment, written in between hack-writing jobs and attempts to find work with the Virginia Company which sponsored the first English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Donne further explored further the nature of decay in several funeral and memorial poems, observing the decline of our state within a universe which is itself disintegrating ("mankind decays so soon/ we are scarce our fathers' shadows cast at noon . . ."); but as with love, he took refuge in the infinity of the spirit in his Divine Meditations. King James himself was sufficiently impressed with Donne's spiritual tendencies to suggest that he take Anglican holy orders, which Donne eventually, after some reluctance over his own abilities, completed in 1615.
Once he committed to the church, he devoted himself completely to it, especially after the death of wife (in childbirth, with their 12th child) in 1617, a circumstance which led him to seek comfort in spiritual pursuits by imagining a reunion with his dear wife in heaven. Thereafter, his poems merge with his penetrating sermons, becoming almost one body of work, a series of meditations on the nature of decay, death and rebirth, touching upon such matters as the spiritual significance inherent in so banal an act as the forced evacuation of one's bowels during an illness, to the universality of death -- as in the famous passage from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, No. 17: "No Man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main . . . 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."
Donne delivered his most famous sermon, Deaths Duell (1632), two weeks before he died, inviting the listener, and himself, to find coherence in death by remembering Christ's death.