John Donne - The Reverend Dean

One possibility open to Donne was to become a clergyman. He seems to have resisted this idea for some time, possibly because he thought he could do better in public life, or because he still felt some reluctance as an ex-Catholic. At one point, he was introduced to the new king, James I, who seems to have liked Donne's intelligent and witty conversation. Donne asked to become Ambassador to Venice but the king made it clear that the only favour he would do him was to make him a successful clergyman.

Dr Donne

Donne’s final political effort was to become a Member of Parliament for Taunton in 1614. However in those days MPs were not paid and that particular Parliament only sat for about nine weeks. So in 1615, Donne was ordained a priest in the Church of England. King James insisted that Cambridge University should make Donne a Doctor of Divinity at the same time so from then onwards he was known as Dr Donne.

John Donne - Dean of St Paul’s

Old St Paul's Cathedral on fireJames I made Donne a Royal Chaplain and chaplain to Lincoln's Inn, so he could stay in London. Donne, however, was ambitious and asked several friends to help him become a dean, (the senior clergyman of a cathedral). In 1621, he was successful, but, sadly, too late for Ann who had died giving birth to a stillborn child in 1617. He was made Dean of St Paul's in London. The church was not the present one, which was built only after the Fire of London in 1666 had destroyed the old St Paul's.

John Donne - An effective preacher

Donne became a very effective preacher. During his lifetime, his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions were published, consisting mainly of meditations, many about death and dying. Donne himself suffered frequent bouts of ill health and was near death several times. One of the meditations later became well known through one of its phrases: ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’, used as the title of a modern novel by Ernest Hemingway. The same meditation contains the equally famous phrase ‘no man is an island’. He also wrote a number of devotional or religious poems. After his death, many of his sermons and other meditations were printed.

John Donne's death

Donne died on March 31, 1631, after a prolonged bout of ill health. At the time, he was much better known as a preacher than a poet. In 1633 his poems were first collected and printed, probably without authorisation, as his family tried to stop the publication thinking some of the love poems would hurt his reputation. Today we focus on his poetry and have to be reminded that he wrote an equal amount of prose material.

John Donne’s influence

Donne’s poetry influenced the younger poets who came to be known as the Metaphysicals. It then suffered a decline in popularity until the twentieth century, when Donne came to be seen as one of English literature's standard authors.

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