1687 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Donne

William Winstanley, Lives of the Most Famous English Poets (1687) 117-21.



This pleasant Poet, painful Preacher, and pious Person, was born in London, of wealthy Parents, who took such care of his Education, that at nine years of Age he was sent to study at Hart-Hall in Oxford, having besides the Latine and Greek, attained to a knowledge in the French Tongue. Here he fell into acquaintance with that great Master of Language and Art, Sir Henry Wootton; betwixt whom was such Friendship contracted, that nothing but Death could force their separation.

From Oxford he was transplanted to Cambridge, where he much improved his Study, and from thence placed at Lincolns Inn, when his Father dying, and leaving him three thousand pound in ready Money; he having a youthful desire to travel, went over with the Earl of Essex to Cales [Cadiz]; where having seen the issue of this Expedition, he left them and went into Italy, and from thence into Spain, where by his Industry he attained to a perfection in their Languages, and returned home with many useful Observations of those Countries, and their Laws and Government.

These his abilities, upon his Return, preferred him to be Secretary to the Lord Elsmore, Keeper of the Great Seal, in whose service he fell in Love with a young Gentlewoman who lived in that Family, Neece to the Lady Elsmore, and Daughter to Sir George Moor, Chancellor of the Garter, and Lieutenant of the Tower, who greatly opposed this Match; yet not withstanding they were privately married: which so exasperated Sir George Moor, that he procured the Lord Elsmore to discharge him of his Secretaryship, and never left prosecuting him till he had cast him into Prison, as also his two Friends who had married him, and gave him his Wife in Marriage.

But Mr. Donne had not been long there before he found means to get out, as also enlargement for his two Friends, and soon after through the mediation of some able persons, a reconciliation was made, and he receiving a Portion with his Wife, and having help of divers friends, they lived very comfortably together; and now was he frequently visited by men of greatest learning and judgment in this Kingdom; his company desired by the Nobility, and extreamly affected by the Gentry: His friendship was sought for of most foreign Embassadors, and his acquaintance entreated by many other strangers, in this Kingdom. In which state of life he composed his more brisk and youthful Poems; in which he was so happy, as if Nature with all her varieties had been made to exercise his great Wit and Fancy; Nor did he leave it off in his old age, as is witnessed by many of his divine Sonnets, and other high, holy and harmonious Composures, as under his Effigies in these following Verses to his Printed Poems, one most ingeniously expresses.

This was for youth, strength, mirth, and wit, the time
Most count their golden age, but times not thine:
Thine was thy later years, so much refin'd,
From youths dross, mirth, and wit, as thy pure mind,
Thought, like the Angels, nothing but the praise
Of thy Creator in those last best days.
Witness this Book, thy Emblem, which begins
With love, but ends with sighs and tears for sins.

At last, by King James's his command, or rather earnest persuasion, setting himself to the study of Theology, and into holy Orders, he was first made a Preacher of Lincoln's-Inn, afterwards advanc'd to be Dean of Pauls, and as of an eminent Poet he became a much more eminent Preacher, so he rather improved then relinquisht his Poetical fancy, only converting it from humane and worldly to divine and heavenly Subjects; witness this Hymn made in the time of his sickness.

A Hymn to God the Father.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, tho' it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, tho' still I do deplore?
When thou has done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou has done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thrid, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I ask no more.

He died March 31, Anno 1631. and was buried in St. Paul's-Church, attended by many persons of Nobility and Eminency. After his burial, some mournful friends repaired, and as Alexander the great did to the Grave of the most famous Achilles, so they strewed his with curious and costly flowers. Nor was this (tho' not usual) all the honour done to his reverend ashes; for some person (unknown) to perpetuate his memory, sent to his Executors, Dr. King, and Dr. Momford, an 100 Marks towards the making of a Monument for him, which they faithfully performed, it being as lively a representation as in dead Marble could be made of him, tho' since by that merciless Fire in 1666. it be quite ruined.

I shall conclude all with these verses, made to the Memory of this reverend person.

He that would write an Epitaph for thee,
And do it well, must first begin to be
Such as thou wert; for none can truly know
Thy worth, thy life, but he that lived so.
He must have wit to spare, and to hurl down,
Enough to keep the Gallants of the Town.
He must have learning plenty, both the Laws
Civil and Common, to judge any Cause;
Divinity great store above the rest,
None of the worst Edition, but the best:
He must have Language, Travel, all the Arts;
Judgment to use, or else he wants thy parts:
He must have friends the highest, able to do,
Such as Maecenas and Augustus too;
He must have such a sickness, such a death,
Or else his vain descriptions come beneath:
He must unto all good men be a friend,
and (like to thee) must make a pious end.