1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Donne

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:202-09.



Dr. JOHN DONNE, an eminent poet, and divine of the last century, was born in London in the year 1573. His father was a merchant, defended from a very ancient family in Wales, and his mother from Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England. He was educated in his father's house under a tutor till the 11th year of his age, when he was sent to Oxford, at which time it was observed of him, as of the famous Pica Mirandula, that he was rather born wise than made so by study. He was admitted commoner of Harthall, together with his younger brothers in Michaelmas term 1584. By Advice of his relations, who were Roman Catholics, he declined taking the oath tendered upon the occasion of taking degrees. After he had studied three years at the University, he removed to Cambridge, and from thence three years after to Lincoln's-Inn. About this time his father died, and left him a portion of 3000. He became soon distinguished at Lincoln's-Inn, by his rapid progress In the law. He was now eighteen years of age, and as yet had attached himself to no particular denomination of Christians, and as his relations were bigotted to the Romish faith, he was induced to examine the controversy, and to embrace Publickly that which appeared to him to be best supported by the authority of the scriptures. He relinquished the study of the law, and devoted himself entirely to that of the controverted points between the Protestants and Catholics, which ended in a thorough conviction of the truths of the reformed religion.

In the years 1596 and 1597 Mr. Donne attended the Earl of Essex in his expeditions against Cadiz and the Azores-Islands, and stayed some years in Italy and Spain, and soon after his return to England he was made secretary to lord chancellor Egerton. This probably was intended by his lordship only as an introduction to a more dignified place; for he frequently expressed a high opinion of his secretary's abilities; and when he afterwards, by the solicitation of his lady, parted with him, he observed that he was fitter to be a secretary to a Monarch than to him. When he was in the lord chancellor's family, he married privately without the consent of her father, the daughter of Sir George More, chancellor of the Garter, and lord lieutenant of the Tower, who so much resented his daughter's marriage without his consent, that he procured our author's dismission from the chancellor's service, and got him committed to prison. Sir George's daughter lived in the lord chancellor's family, and was niece to his lady.

Upon Sir George's hearing that his daughter had engaged her heart to Donne, he removed her to his own house in Surry, and friends on both sides, endeavoured to weaken their affection for each other, but without success; for having exchanged the most sacred promises, they found means to consummate a private marriage. Our author was not long in obtaining his liberty, but was obliged to be at the expense of a tedious law-suit to recover the possession of his wife, who was forcibly detained from him. At length our poet's extraordinary merit and winning behaviour so far subdued Sir George's resentment, that he used his interest with the Chancellor to have his son-in-law restored to his place; but this request was refused; his lordship observing, that he did not chuse to discharge and re-admit servants at the request of his passionate petitioners. Sir George had been so far reconciled to his daughter and son, as not to deny his paternal blessing, but could contribute nothing towards their support, Mr. Donne's fortune being greatly diminished by the expence of travels, law-suits, and the generosity of his temper; however his wants were in a great measure prevented by the seasonable bounty of their kinsman Sir Francis Wooley, who entertained them several years at his house at Pilford in Surry, where our author had several children born to him. During his residence at Pilford he applied himself with great diligence and success to the study of the civil and canon law, and was about this time solicited by Dr. Morton, (afterwards lord bishop of Durham) to go into holy Orders, and accept of a Benefice the Doctor world have resigned to him; but he thought proper to refuse this obliging offer. He lived with Sir Francis till that gentleman's death, by whose mediation a perfect reconciliation was effected between Mr. Donne and his father-in-law; who obliged himself to pay our author 800 at a certain day as his wife's portion, or 20 quarterly for their maintenance, till it was all paid.

He was incorporated master of arts in the university of Oxford, having before taken the same degree at Cambridge 1610.

About two years after the reconciliation with his father, he was prevailed upon with much difficulty to accompany Sir Robert Drury to Paris. Mrs. Donne, being then big with child and in a languishing state of health, strongly opposed his departure, telling him, that her divining soul boaded some ill in his absence; but Sir Robert's importunity was not to be resisted, and he at last consented to go with him. Mr. Walton gives an account of a vision Mr. Donne had seen after their arrival there, which he says was told him by a person of honour, who had a great intimacy with Mr. Donne; and as it has in it something curious enough, I shall here present it to the reader in that author's own words.

"Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone in that room in which Sir Robert and he and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert returned within half an hour and as he left so he found Mr. Donne alone, but in such an extasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him; insomach that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare what had befallen him in the short time of his absence; to which he was not able to make a present answer, but after a long and perplexed pause did at last say: I have seen a dreadful vision since I saw you; I have seen my wife pass twice by me through this room with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms. To which Sir Robert replied, sure Sir, you have slept since you saw me, and this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donne's reply was: I cannot be surer than I now live, than that I have not slept since I saw you; and am as sure that at her second appearing she stopt and looked me in the face and vanished." Rest and sleep had not altered Mr. Donne's opinion next day, for then he confirmed his vision with so deliberate a confidence, that he inclined Sir Robert to a faint belief that the vision was true. It is an observation, that desire and doubt have no rest, for he immediately sent a servant to Drury-House, with a charge to hasten back and bring him word whether Mrs. Donne was dead or alive, and if alive in what condition she was as to her health." The twelfth day the messenger returned with this account; that he found and left Mrs. Donne very sad and sick in her bed; and that after a long and dangerous labour she had been delivered of a dead child, and upon examination the birth proved to be on the same day, and about the very hour Mr. Donne affirmed he saw her pass by him in his chamber. After Donne's return from France, many of the nobility pressed the King to confer some secular employment upon him; but his Majesty, who considered him as better qualified for the service of the church than the state, rejected their requests, tho' the Earl of Somerset, then the great favourite, joined in petitioning for his preferment. About this time the disputes concerning the oaths of allegiance and supremacy being agitated, Mr. Donne by his Majesty's special command, wrote a treatise on that subject, entitled, Pseudo Martyr, printed in 4to, 1610, with which his Majesty was highly pleased, and being firmly resolved to promote him in the church, he pressed him to enter into holy orders, but he being resolved to qualify himself the better for the sacred office by studying divinity, and the learned languages deferred his entering upon it three years longer, during which time he made a vigorous application to these branches of knowledge, and was then ordained both deacon and priest, by Dr. John King, then bishop of London. Presently after he was appointed one of the chaplains in ordinary to his Majesty, and about the same time attending the King in a progress, he was created Dr. in divinity, by the university of Cambridge, by the particular recommendation of that Prince. His abilities and industry in his profession were so eminent, and himself so well beloved, that within the first year of his entering into holy orders, he had the offer of fourteen benefices from persons of quality, but as they lay in the country, his inclination of living in London, made him refuse them all. Upon his return from Cambridge his wife died, and his grief for her loss was so great, that for some time he betook himself to a retired and solitary life: Mrs. Donne died in the year 1617, on the seventh day after the birth of her twelfth child. She left our author in a narrow unsettled state with seven children then living, to her he gave a voluntary assurance, that he would never bring them under the subjection of a step-mother, and this promise he faithfully kept. Soon after the death of his wife, he was chosen preacher of Lincoln's Inn, and in the year 1619 appointed by King James to attend the earl of Doncaster, in his embassy to the Princes of Germany, and about 14 months after his return to England, he was advanced to the deanery of St. Paul's. Upon the vacancy of the deanery, the King sent an order to Dr. Donne, to attend him the next day at dinner: When his Majesty sat down, he said, "Dr. Donne, I have invited you to dinner, and though you sit not down with me, yet I will carve to you of a dish that I know you love well; for knowing you love London, I do therefore make you dean of St. Paul's, and when I have dined, then do you take your beloved dish home to your study, say grace there to your self, and much good may it do you." Soon after, another vicarage of St. Dunstan in the Well, and another benefice fell to Dr. Donne. 'Till the 59th year of his age he continued in perfect health, when being with his eldest daughter in Essex, in 1630, he was taken ill of a fever, which brought on a consumption; notwithstanding which he returned to London, and preached in his turn at court as usual, on the last friday in Lent. He died on the 31st day of March 1631, and was buried in the cathedral church of St. Paul's, where a monument was erected over him. Walton says that amongst other preparations for death, he made use of this very remarkable one. He ordered an urn to be cut in wood, on which was to be placed a board of the exact heighth of his body: this being done, he caused himself to be tied up in a winding sheet in the same manner that dead bodies are. Being thus shrouded, and standing with his eyes shut, and with just so much of the sheet put aside, as might discover his thin, pale, and death-like face, he caused a skilful painter to draw his picture. This piece being finished, was placed near his bed-side, and there remained as his constant remembrancer to the hour of his death.

His character as a preacher and a poet are sufficiently seen in his incomparable writings. His personal qualifications were as eminent as those of his mind; he was by nature exceeding passionate, but was apt to be sorry for the excesses of it, and like most other passionate men, was humane and benevolent. His monument was composed of white marble, and carved from the picture just now mentioned of him, by order of his executor Dr. King, bishop of Chichester, who wrote the following inscription [omitted].