In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Donne

  • Introduction
  • Bibliography and Textual Studies
  • Biographies
  • Reputation and Afterlife
  • Journals and Electronic Resources

British and Irish Literature John Donne
Hugh Adlington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0018


John Donne (b. 1572–d. 1631) continues to fascinate general readers and scholars alike. Donne himself chose to present his life as the story of a repentant sinner or “second Augustine”: from licentious, poetical youth to austere, religious maturity. The chief events of Donne’s life are not in dispute: born into a Roman Catholic family, a promising career at court or in government service dashed by an ill-advised marriage, a mid-life switch of religious allegiance to the Church of England, and a rapid rise to become dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and one of the most admired preachers of his day. The nature of Donne’s motives, however, and the circumstances surrounding these events remain matters of fierce debate. In his own lifetime, Donne had a reputation as the author of daring, convention-defying love lyrics, of scathing verse satires on contemporary mores and manners, of erotically charged religious poetry, and as a learned and able participant in the hard-fought religious controversies surrounding the question of English Catholic allegiance to the Crown. Donne’s verse, circulating in manuscript form among friends and patrons, was copied, set to music, and eventually proved so popular that more manuscript copies survive of it than for any other 17th-century English poet. Prose works such as his religious meditation, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and a number of his most important sermons were printed in his own lifetime, and they helped, along with Izaak Walton’s lyrical hagiography, to establish the image of Donne’s two-part life: from Jack Donne to Dr. Donne. Famous in the 17th century for its combination of erotic imagery, far-fetched conceits, and riddling complexity, Donne’s poetry fell out of favor in the 18th century, and only slowly recovered ground thereafter. Modernist writers and critics of the 20th-century such as T. S. Eliot, however, keen to defend the concept of literary “difficulty,” celebrated Donne’s fusion of intellect, eros, and religion; critical interest in Donne’s life and writing has continued unabated to the present day.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Overviews of Donne’s writing can be divided into Monographs and Essay Collections, both of which provide a combination of general information and more specific critical comment. Monographs and essay collections that focus on a particular aspect of Donne’s life, thought, poetry, or prose are included under relevant subheadings elsewhere in this article.

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