John Donne - from Catholic to Protestant

Donne knew the cost of being a Catholic from his uncle and brother - and from the fact he never received a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. He had been instructed by Jesuit priests whilst he was younger. However, at some point in the 1590s he decided to stop being a Catholic. We can only guess at what happened: perhaps he realised he would have no career if he continued. At any rate, it must have cost Donne some heartache to leave the religion of his family.

John Donne - A Catholic imagination

Donne’s poetry, especially his religious poetry, still shows something of a Catholic imagination, and the sense of guilt is quite pervasive. Critics argue whether the guilt was due to his temperament or caused by leaving Catholicism. Some of Donne's later poetry is full of thoughts of death.

John Donne - A practising Anglican

At some point, Donne became a practising Anglican. Why was this?

  • Was it the only way for him to have a career?
  • Was it a genuine change of conviction, perhaps through the influence of his wife?
  • Did he see Anglicanism as a true middle way between the extremes of Catholic and Puritan beliefs and therefore a genuine way of avoiding religious conflict?

We cannot be sure. Later he was involved in trying to persuade Catholics (‘recusants’ as they were often called) to become Anglicans, and wrote several anti-Catholic pamphlets. A number of people, including King James I, believed he would make a good Anglican clergyman.