Renaissance and Reformation John Donne
Lara M. Crowley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0088


John Donne’s life and writings continue to captivate and challenge critics. Donne (b. 1572–d. 1631) wrote a wide-ranging body of poems, including satires, elegies, epistles, holy sonnets, and lyrics, with content ranging from bawdy to romantic, from politically charged to spiritually charged—and some works include all of the above. Among his prose works are many letters to friends and patrons, a treatise on suicide, satiric paradoxes, inspirational devotions, religious polemics, essays, and sermons. Young Donne studied at Hart Hall, Oxford and later attended Thavies Inn and Lincoln’s Inn to study law. After traveling to Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597) under the second Earl of Essex, Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and, in 1601, he became a Member of Parliament. However, Donne’s clandestine wedding that same year to Egerton’s niece, Anne More, led to Donne’s arrest, curtailing his promising career. Yet in 1615, Donne—born a Catholic—was ordained into the Church of England, eventually becoming Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Dean Donne chose not to publish his poems: the first of seven 17th-century collections of his verse was printed posthumously in 1633. But, prior and subsequent to publication of his poems, manuscript copies were collected eagerly by contemporary readers. Later labeled the originator of the Metaphysical Poets, Donne was 17th-century England’s most popular poet in manuscripts and arguably the most eloquent and powerful preacher of his day—as admired then as he remains in the 21st century.


Although the most recent comprehensive scholarly biography of Donne was prepared in 1970, the concise and current Colclough 2004 offers a valuable starting point for study. Biographical essays in Shami, et al. 2011 (cited under Journals and Collections of Essays) prove highly useful as well. Walton 1927 (first published in 1640) provided our first sketch of Donne’s life, but recent biographical studies have complicated its depiction of young “Jack” Donne, the poet, maturing into “Doctor” Donne, the preacher. Gosse 1959 (originally published in 1899) added significantly to Walton’s account, as did Bald 1986a (first published in 1959), especially regarding Donne’s relationship with the Drury family. Bald 1986b (originally published in 1970) became, and still remains, the standard biography of Donne, but Flynn 1995, which considers Donne’s Catholic heritage, has raised important challenges: For example, what persuasive evidence remains that Donne attended Cambridge University after he left Oxford University? Bell 1986 argues that three letters copied in the important Burley manuscript were written by Donne to his future wife, thereby illuminating their relationship; for more on Donne and Anne More, see Hester 1996 (cited under Journals and Collections of Essays). See also the section Political and Religious Contexts for attention to various aspects of Donne’s relationships, thought patterns, and career.

  • Bald, Robert C. Donne and the Drurys. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986a.

    A study, reprint of the first publication in 1959, of Donne’s relationship with Sir Robert Drury and his family, focusing primarily on Donne’s continental travels with the Drurys in 1611–1612 and on Drury’s patronage.

  • Bald, Robert C. John Donne: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986b.

    The landmark study of Donne’s life, first published in 1970; however, since its publication, new questions have been raised and revisions suggested, particularly by Dennis Flynn.

  • Bell, Ilona. “‘Under Ye Rage of a Hott Sonn & Yr Eyes’: John Donne’s Love Letters to Ann More.” In The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne. Edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, 25–52. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

    Bell argues that three letters copied in Leicestershire Record Office Manuscript DG7/Lit. 2, known as the Burley manuscript, were written by Donne to his future wife. Bell believes that these letters afford insights into their courtship and into many of Donne’s love poems.

  • Colclough, David. “John Donne.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 16. Edited by Henry C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 535–545. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    A thorough synopsis of Donne’s life and literary career, particularly useful for students or scholars new to Donne studies.

  • Flynn, Dennis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

    This important study calls attention to the impact of Donne’s Catholic heritage on his education, career, and literary output, paying particular attention to his relationships with the Percy and Stanley families.

  • Gosse, Edmund. The Life and Letters of John Donne: Dean of St. Paul’s. 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

    A seminal but outdated study (first published in 1899) that focuses on Donne as a dedicated and successful poet.

  • Walton, Izaak. The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

    Walton, who knew Donne and wanted to celebrate him as a preacher, wrote this influential biography of Donne and his contemporaries, first published in 1640. Sometimes labeled hagiographic, this study generally portrays Donne as a sort of neo-Augustine who developed from an immature poet into a mature orthodox English Protestant minister.

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