John Donne - Man of Passion

In London's National Portrait Gallery is a painting, dated around 1595, of a dark young man with a long, clever face, full, sensual lips and burning eyes. The observer would immediately categorise him as a poet or artist - correctly, as it happens. What they perhaps would not recognise in the portrait is one of the greatest preachers of his day and the future Dean of St Paul's.

John Donne as a Young Man. Artist Unknown.  National Portrait Gallery
John Donne as a Young Man. Artist Unknown. National Portrait Gallery

Early Adventures


John Donne (1572-1631) was a passionate man – passionate in love, in curiosity, in grief, and in his faith. He was born into a Roman Catholic family, a great nephew of Sir Thomas More. This meant that, although he studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, he didn’t graduate from either, as that would have involved taking the Oath of Supremacy (an oath of loyalty to the Sovereign as Head of the Church of England), which at that stage he was unwilling to do, although later in life he did convert to Protestantism. He subsequently trained as a lawyer, and then travelled quite extensively and saw some action against the Spanish, serving with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh.

This was a period of adventures of all kinds, and it was during this time that Donne wrote some of his raciest love poetry. It was distinctly earthy at times, but always laced with scholarship and humour. He often used imagery relating to the science of the times, very often keeping a metaphor going throughout the poem. These involved scientific metaphors, or ‘conceits’, were typical of the metaphysical poets, with whom he is associated.

Licence my roving hands, and let them goe 
Behind, before, above, between, below. 
Oh my America, my new found lande, 
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d…

Settling Down

At the age of 25 Donne decided to settle down, and he accepted an appointment as Chief Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, probably hoping to further a diplomatic or political career. Things were going well until he fell in love with Anne More, the teenage niece of his employer, whom he married. This didn’t go down well with either his employer or the father of the lady in question. John Donne lost his job, and spent a short time in prison, until his marriage was proved valid. His usual wry humour was apparent as he broke the news to Anne: “John Donne – Anne Donne – Undone.” On his release, he had to live with his growing family in semi-retirement in Surrey, partially supported by a relative of his wife, although he made some money as a satirical pamphleteer and practising as a lawyer. He became an MP at one stage, but unfortunately this was not a paid position in those days. During this period, his disaffection with the Catholic Church gradually became evident, and he was eventually received into the Church of England, taking Holy Orders in 1615.

John Donne later in life
John Donne later in life

True Love

The match between John Donne and Anne More was a love match. Some of his most ardent love poems were written, presumably to her, during the marriage. On one occasion, when he was going away on a journey, he likened them, as a couple, to a pair of compasses. Anne was the fixed arm, while he travelled around, so that they were never truly divided. What is more, the number of confinements the poor woman had to suffer bore witness to their more tactile lovemaking! There was little or no contraception at this time, and between their secret wedding in 1601 and Anne’s death in childbirth in 1617, 11 children were born, though not all of these survived.

He was devastated by her death. However, by this time his worldly situation was much more secure. He had already received some favour from King James I and VI, and it was at the King’s instigation that he had finally been ordained. He became a Royal Chaplain in 1615, a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge in 1618. In 1621, he became Dean of St Paul, a most prestigious post. Another accolade came in 1624, when he became a Royal Chaplain to Charles I, the son of his original royal patron. But a change is noticeable in his poetry from this time on – though not so much in the language and substance as in the person to whom it is addressed! Perhaps the main clue comes in the first four lines of one of his Holy Sonnets:

Since she whome I lovd hath payd her last debt 
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead, 
And her soule early into heaven ravished, 
Wholy in heavenly things my mind is sett.

Divine Love?

From this time on, then, Donne’s poems are still passionate, and at times almost physical in their passion. His ardour for Anne is changed to ardour for God, which at times produces striking, but to the modern mind almost unpleasant, effects in his poems:

Yet dearely I love you, and would be lov’d faine’ 
But am betroth’d unto your enemie, 
Divorce mee, ‘untie, or break that knot againe, 
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I 
Except you entrall mee, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The End

Before his death in March 1631, John Donne had made a considerable reputation as a preacher, delivering his last sermon at the Palace of Westminster in front of Charles I a month before he died. He is remarkable in the way in which he threw himself wholeheartedly into everything he touched – love, politics, satire, poetry, religion. A true Renaissance man! Perhaps we should give him the last word, taken from his poem Hymn to God my God in my sicknesse, in which he pictures himself as a map and his physicians as cosmographers. According to some sources, this was written 8 days before he died:

I joy, that in these straits, I see my West; 
For, though theire currants yeeld return to none, 
What shall my West hurt me? As West and East 
In all flat Maps (and I am one) are one, 
So death doth touch the Resurrection. 

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Comments 26 comments

MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 9 years ago from Sydney

I copied the paragraph on passion, would like to use with your permission

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 9 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, that's fine, MrMarmalade! As you've probably gathered, John Donne's one of my passions.

Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Love this page!

Thanks for link to the Metaphyscial Poets...I like to read Andrew Marvell when I want to exercise my brain. :)

Vivenda 9 years ago

Thank you for your comment, Woody! Yes, I very much enjoy reading Andrew Marvell when I'm in the right mood. I particularly like 'To His Coy Mistress' - the construction of that poem is absolutely brilliant!

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marylu 8 years ago

I love this hub, very informative! History is so fascinating!

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Thank you, Marylu! I find it fascinating when a character who was alive some 400 years ago just seems to stare at you out of the canvas at you - and his life was so full of contrasts!

Viola 8 years ago

John Donne was definitly a man of passion, and it showed in his poetry.LOL He was also very sexy I do say so myself; I can see why Anne fell for him.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, Viola, I quite agree. I've always loved his poetry, anyway - but look at those eyes! Not to mention the mouth!

Jade Green Eyes 8 years ago

John Donne was a truly great poet, with the way he combined the sensual, physical world, with the Godly, heavenly one. And I agree with you ladies, he definitly was a heartrob. I love how that earlier painting of him, captures not ony his handsome looks, but also his intelligence and his roguish humor. You can also see traces of it, in the painting of him in his later years. I bet he would have been a great person to talk to, since you could discuss and laugh about so many things together.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, he certainly looks like someone with whom one would like to have dinner. A fantastic, subtle mind!

Goddess Gloria 8 years ago

I read the Latin inscription that John Donne personally composed for Anne Donne's grave when she died in childbirth, and I thought it was really beautiful, especially since he, himself, cmposed it. Hope I can find a guy that thoughtful and loving one day.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, he obviously cared very deeply for her - and I find the passion in his religious poetry equally fascinating. I first read one of his Holy Sonnets (the one from which I quoted, actually) when I was about 16 and, although I wasn't a Christian in those days, I was just blown away by the depth of emotion in it!

Rosa 8 years ago

Wow. That's John Donne when he was young. And they say all the pictures of people who lived back then, made them look terrible. His wife Anne was one lucky girl; she had a talented poet for a husband who absolutly adored her. I've read both his love poetry, and his religious poetry, and it made me a life-long fan of his. His life is equally fascinating to me, too.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, Rosa, as I've said before, he was always one of my 'loves', on the strength of his poetry. But when I saw that portrait of him as a young man...!!!

Toadstools 8 years ago

LOL Gotta love John Donne. He was a preacher with wit and attitude and a rake with love and devotion. I've gotta say that picture of him when he was younger is something. HOT with a capital H. LOL He definitly was a great poet too. I remember reading one of my teachers read us, one of his erotic love poems, and then one of his religious poems; I thought both were great, and I loved how he turns a phrase. I also remember her saying that T.S. Elliott said that John Donne was a poet that inspired him greatly. I also think Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings were fans of him, too.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 8 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, Toadstools, I think it's the blend of passion and intellect that's so beguiling - also of wannabe holiness and sensuality! He really is magnificent in paradox!

BloodsuckerBabe 7 years ago

I that when you compare the picture of him as a young rogue, to the one of him in his later years, you can still see the laughter in his eyes and the subtle smirk that he has. Such hints of his personality captured in both paintings really make him seem like a real individual, and not just some poet in a literature textbook. I also really like his poetry.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 7 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

I love the work of all the Metaphysical Poets, and have done so ever since I first studied them many years ago, but I would agree, BloodsuckerBabe, that of all of them it is John Donne who really comes to life across the centuries.

smileyface 7 years ago

I got into John Donne after I was assigned by my English teacher to do a report on him and after that, I was a life-long fan. It's interesting to note, that for a long time John wasn't considered that great of a poet. It's hard to believe when you read and see how great his poems are, but it's the truth; glad to see he's finally getting the respect he deserves.

Fun fact: Robert Browning whose famous for writing dramatic monolouges like "My Last Duchess", was a big fan of John Donne, when he was considered a very talented poet. He oftened quoted him in letters to his future wife and fellow poet, Elizabeth Barrett, so much that she started calling him "Your Donne".

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 7 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Robert Browning - yes! 'My Last Duchess' is one of the most sinister poems I've ever met - possibly equalled by Auden's 'Oh what is that sound that so thrills the ear...?'. In both of these poems, it's the ambiguity that's so terrifying!

smileyface 7 years ago

In "My Last Duchess", I always found the most chilling aspect was that the Duke was telling his audience that he had his wife murdered, and he felt no remorse what so ever, for killing her; now that's what I call a pyschopath. And his calm, yet creepy tone in the poem, really just heightens the terror you feel, when you find out what happened to his wife.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 7 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Yes, it really makes me wonder about Browning - especially when taken in conjunction with "Porphyria's Lover", for instance, equally shocking but perhaps not so terrifying because the crime is explicit rather than implicit. Particularly shocking when contrasted with the high romance of the Browning/Barrett courtship and elopement in real life - I do hope Elizabeth Barrett Browning didn't have cause to regret anything!

smileyface 7 years ago

By all accounts, Elizabeth was a very happy wife. Robert adored her, and when certain people would talk about the fact that Elizabeth was the more famous poet at the time, Robert took it all instride, saying how proud he was of her. If fact, one time a certain critic privately criticize Elizabeth's big work "Aurora Leigh", after she died, saying it was good she was dead, so they wouldn't have to read any of her terrible poetry; when Robert found out what this man said, he wrote a poet criticising the critic, and threathing to do him bodily harm, even though the man was already dead. Personally in my opinion, I think Robert was just trying to develop his own unique style of poetry, by using subjects that weren't talked about in proper Victorian Society. I think he knew that future generations would find the poems with their gruesome terror fascinating, and there's truth to that. I mean lot's of people say that part of "My Last Duchess's " appeal is that it's so terrifying; that what makes it so interesting.

healthgoji profile image

healthgoji 6 years ago

Very nice excursion through this little bit of English history.

Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 5 years ago from UK (South Coast) Author

Sorry, Healthgoji, I haven't been active on Hubs for some time, so I've only just seen your comment. Great to hear from you!

mollymeadows profile image

mollymeadows 4 years ago from The Shire

What an interesting hub, Vivenda! I hadn't dusted Donne off since college. He was vibrant man in all aspects of his life. Thanks for the refresher -- he's a good read.

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