Donne was of Welsh extraction, but a Londoner by birth; and related, on the mother's side, to Heywood the Epigrammatist, to Rastall the printer, and to Sir Thomas More. He was born in 1573, and when only eleven years old, was placed at Hertford Hall, Oxford. After three years he removed to Trinity College, Cambridge. He took no degree at either University, because he had been educated as a Papist. At the age of seventeen he was entered at Lincoln's Inn, and began to study the law. But shortly afterwards his father died, leaving him three thousand pounds; upon which he betook himself to better studies, though to a less prudential course of life.
A serious, dispassionate, humble, and religious examination of the points of difference between the Romish and English church, terminated in his sincere and dutiful conversion to the Protestant faith. He afterwards accompanied Essex as a volunteer in the expedition to Cadiz; travelled in Spain and Italy; and always repented that he had been deterred, by the representations of others, from proceeding to the Holy Land. The very interesting story of his marriage, and of the narrow circumstances to which he was reduced, having expended his patrimony in storing his mind, should be read in the delightful narrative of Izaak Walton.
At the age of thirty-four he declined the offer of a benefice from Dr. Morton, afterwards Bishop of Durham. The offer was generously made; for Morton held the benefice, which he proposed to vacate that Donne might be presented to it. And it was not less generously declined: Donne thought that the irregularities of his youth, thoroughly as he had repented of them, and reformed his course of life, might still expose him to censure, and that censure, were he to enter into holy orders, might bring an undeserved reproach upon the sacred calling. For this reason, and because he stood in too much need of a certain maintenance not to be influenced by that need in his inclination and desire to accept the offer, he deemed it his duty to decline it. The latter motive no longer existed, and the holiness of Donne's life and conversation had set him above all reproach, when some years afterwards he entered into orders, at Morton's repeated exhortations, and by King James's especial desire. The king loved learning, and knew how to appreciate learned men. Donne, as James had expected, became a distinguished ornament of the English church; and died Dean of St. Paul's, on the last day of March 1631.
Two years after his death, his poems were published by his son. He would have shown himself more worthy of such a father, if he had destroyed a considerable part of them. Bell the bookseller first included them in a General Collection of the Poets; Chaucer being the only old poet in that collection, and Spenser and Donne the only ones of our middle age.