John Donne married Ann More in December 1601. He was around thirty years old, and Ann was about sixteen. This was perhaps the most decisive event in John Donne's life, and effectively split his life in two. Before the marriage he was busy trying to overcome the handicap of being a catholic in a protestant country, and forge a career for himself in Queen Elizabeth I's Court. But then the love poet fell in love and all his carefully laid plans collapsed.
Not much is known about Donne's life before his momentous marriage. He was born in 1572 into a catholic family. The family home was in Bread Street, London near St Paul's Cathedral, the same street where poet John Milton was to be born in 1608. John Donne senior was a successful ironmonger, who died when John was only four years old in 1576. Within six months his mother was married again, to John Syminges, President of the Royal College of Physicians. It is probable that young John spent his early years being taught at home by a tutor. As a catholic living in Queen Elizabeth's protestant England, most schools would have been closed to him.
Hertford College, Oxford
In October 1584 John, at the age of twelve, went to Hart Hall, now known as Hertford College, Oxford. He was sent to Oxford so early to get around Oxford's requirement that any student over the age of sixteen had to accept Protestantism. Even then Donne would not have been allowed to officially graduate. By 1592 Donne was at Lincoln's Inn law school in London, and may have travelled in the interim, or studied at Cambridge, but the details are not clear. This was the beginning of a period during which a career was carefully built. Donne did not seem to want to give up his Catholicism, the consequence of which was considered to be damnation, but neither did he want to lose out on a good career. The result of not getting the balancing act right was sadly illustrated by the fate of John's brother Henry, who died in Newgate Prison in 1593 after being arrested for harbouring a catholic priest in his chambers at Lincoln's Inn.
To help his career Donne volunteered to take part in the expeditions of the Earl of Essex to Cadiz in 1596 and the Azores in 1597. As these expeditions were mounted against catholic Spanish interests, the idea was to demonstrate loyalty to the crown over allegiance to faith. Donne's poetry at this time was designed to impress influential figures at Court. These Songs and Sonnets are now among the best known of Donne's work. All this effort was rewarded in early 1598 with a post as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This led on to being selected MP for Brackley in Northamptonshire, a seat controlled by Egerton. By 1601 the Crown had granted Donne some land in Lincolnshire, and he was entitled to call himself "esquire". Everything was going well. The young John Donne, son of a catholic ironmonger was reinventing himself as a gentleman. This was a transformation his first biographer, Izaac Walton, also desired, playing down all those awkward details about Catholicism and ironmongers.
Then in 1601 disaster struck. John Donne fell in love. Thomas Egerton's wife was bringing up Ann More. Ann was daughter of Sir George More, a wealthy landowner at Loseley Park near Guildford, which still survives today, and is owned by the same family. More's wife had died in 1590, leaving him with a number of children. Ann, it seems, went to the Egertons for her upbringing. By this route she came to meet John Donne, who threw away all his careful career planning by secretly marrying Ann. When Sir George found out about this he was furious. Ann's sisters had all married respectable country gentlemen, and a jumped up catholic ironmonger's son was not considered a good match for his daughter. Technically marrying a sixteen year old without parental consent was illegal, and Sir George used this fact to get John Donne imprisoned in Fleet Prison for a short time.
John Donne's Cottage at Pyrford. This photo is by Suzanne Knights and is copyright free.
From now on Donne's life was very different. He lost his job, and was unable to find another one. Between 1601 and 1613 Ann had a child nearly every year, and although Donne had an inheritance from his father, he had no regular income. During most of these years the family lived at Pyrford near Woking, in Surrey, in a cottage on the estate of a friend, Sir Francis Wooley. The house where they lived still survives, and although the Pyrford estate is closed to the public the house can be viewed by walkers on the path beside the Wey Navigation Canal. This canal is owned by the National Trust, and offers lovely walks, and has a visitors centre at Dapdune Wharf in Surrey. Click on the link for more details.
The years that followed 1601 were bleak for Donne. He had married his great love, but he was soon brought back down to earth by the end of his career, and the realities of life with many children in a small house with constant money worries. He saw himself as shipwrecked, not in the midst of a great sea, like Robinson Crusoe, but in the middle of a weed choked lake. In a verse letter to the Countess of Bedford, written around 1609, he wrote:
When I must shipwreck, I would do it at sea, where mine
impotence might have some excuse; not in a sullen weedy
lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming.
Did John Donne think of this image as he stared out over the Wey river that bordered his house, shown in the picture above? It is clear that Donne suffered depression during these years in the wilderness. In his account of suicide, Biathanatos, he says in the preface that "I have often... a sickly inclination" to it.
In 1615 Donne finally seemed to accept the inevitable and became a protestant. Perhaps he came to realise that he would never work again unless he did this, never find a way out of the weedy lake. Perhaps he also had a mind that was able to free itself from the false differences between religions. Certainly his view of this dilemma was very profound. He trotted out the usual arguments about all religions celebrating the same God, but he also saw the need for people to have their different groups: In Holy Sonnet 18 he says:
... the mild dove
Who is most true, and pleasing to thee, then
When she is embraced and open to most men
The mild dove is true, but is also embraced and open to most men. God is often talked about as giving universal love, but here on earth a person who gives their love to all and sundry isn't often viewed too kindly. Certainly a woman who embraced and was open to most men would not be viewed as "true". In life we know that certain special relationships are special because others are excluded. Love is not universal, and divisions are actually there because of the powerful way they bring people together. In this sense different religions, or any other grouping you might think of, fulfill a human need. Clearly accepting Protestantism was not an easy decision, but nevertheless in 1615 he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He became a conscientious clergyman, and after 1617 when Ann died, exhausted after years of unremitting childbirth, he conscientiously cared for his seven surviving children. Donne finally had his place in society, and it is likely that these last years of his life were his happiest. It is true that priests did not have high social standing in the seventeenth century, but Donne rose quickly, preaching at Court, becoming a Divinity Reader at Lincoln's Inn, and Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in 1621. There was plenty to reassure him that the world wanted him after all.
As for his poetry, he seemed to forget about that although great poetic talent went into his Divine Meditations. Poetry had always seemed a bit of an embarrassment for Donne, and he never published his poems. He did not think it proper to do so. It wasn't until after his death in March 1631 that his work was finally published. Ironically his poetry became the very thing for which his life is best remembered. In the isolation of his poetry, read by very few in his lifetime, he found involvement in life. As he says in his famous Meditation 27: " No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Our divisions, as the rather wanton mild dove of Divine Meditation 18 demonstrated, are ways to bring us together. I always think it ironic that Donne was rather like a modern pop artist in the way he characteristically addressed a vague "you" or "her" or "she" in his poems. He's almost like the Beatles wanting to hold "your" hand in that respect. I like to think of Donne escaping his exile, as a catholic, as an unsuitable husband, by writing poems to a specific person who could be anyone. He wrote to no one and to everyone.