The life of Donne is more interesting than his poetry. He was descended from an ancient family; his mother was related to Sir Thomas More, and to Heywood, the epigrammatist. A prodigy of youthful learning, he was entered of Hart Hall, now Hertford College, at the unprecedented age of eleven; he studied afterwards with an extraordinary thirst for general knowledge, and seems to have consumed a considerable patrimony on his education and travels. Having accompanied the Earl of Essex in his expedition to Cadiz, he purposed to have set out on an extensive course of travel, and to have visited the holy sepulchre at Jerusalem. Though compelled to give up his design by the insuperable dangers and difficulties of the journey, he did not come home till his mind had been stored with an extensive knowledge of foreign languages and manners, by a residence in the south of Europe. On his return to England, Chancellor Ellesmere made him his secretary and took him to his house. There he formed a mutual attachment to the niece of Lady Ellesmere, and without the means or prospect of support, the lovers thought proper to marry. The lady's father Sir George More, on the declaration of this step, was so transported with rage that he insisted on the chancellor's driving Donne from his protection, and even got him imprisoned together with the witnesses of the marriage. He was soon released from prison, but the chancellor would not again take him into his service; and brutal father-in-law would not support the unfortunate pair. In their distress, however, they were sheltered by Sir Francis Wolley, a son of Lady Ellesmere by a former marriage, with whom they resided for several years, and were treated with a kindness that mitigated their sense of dependence.
Donne had been bred a catholic, but on mature reflection had made a conscientious renunciation of that faith. One of his warm friends, Dr. Morton, afterwards bishop of Durham, wished to have provided for him, by generously surrendering one of his benefices: he therefore pressed him to take holy orders, and to return to him the third day with his answer to the proposal. "At hearing of this, (says his biographer,) Mr. Donne's faint breath and perplexed countenance gave visible testimony of an inward conflict. He did not however return his answer till the third day; then, with fervid thanks, he declined the offer, telling the bishop that there were some errors of his life which, though long repented of, and pardoned, as he trusted, by God, might not be not forgotten by some men, and which might cast a dishonour on the sacred office." We are not told what those irregularities were; it the conscience which could dictate such an answer would not likely to require great offences for a stumbling block. This occurred in the poet's thirty-fourth year.
After the death of Sir F. Wolley, his next protector was Sir Robert Drury, whom he accompanied on an embassy to France. His wife, with an attachment as romantic as poet could wish for, had formed the design of accompanying him as a page. It was on this occasion, and to dissuade her from the design, that he addressed to her the verses, beginning, "By our first strange and fatal interview." Isaak Walton relates, with great simplicity, how the poet, one evening, as he sat alone in his chamber in Paris, saw the vision of his beloved wife appear to him with a dead infant in her arms, a story which wants only credibility to be interesting. He had at last the good fortune to attract the regard of King James; and, at hie majesty's instance, as he might now consider that he had outlived the remembrance of his former follies, he was persuaded to become a clergyman. In this capacity he was successively appointed chaplain to the king, lecturer of Lincoln's Inn, vicar of St. Dunstan's Fleet Street, and dean of St. Paul's. His death, at a late age, was occasioned by consumption. He was buried in St. Paul's, where his figure yet remains in the vault of St. Faith's, carved from a painting for which he sat a few days before his death, dressed in his winding-sheet.