John Donne

John Donne, poet and priest - 1572-1631

His Life through his Poetry, Sermons and Devotions

Part 1: The Shape of His Life

John Donne was born into a devout Catholic family, yet became an ambitious young man about town , writing some of the most beautiful, sensual poetry in the English language, but there was nearly always a theological subtext.

Just as W. H. Auden said to W. B. Yeats, “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”, so the Reformation, the tension and violence between Catholicism and Anglicanism, hurt Donne into poetry.
Go and Catch a Falling Star
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.
Professor Michael Martin
At the age of 30 he ruined his worldly prospects by marrying in secret, Ann, the 15 year old daughter of an influential and unforgiving father. He wrote his poem Air and Angels to her. Professor Michael Martin says:
In this short but complicated poem air is substantial, it’s natural. Angels are supernatural; yet they are so close. Air is the most rarified of substances and angels are closer to human beings than any other celestial beings.
Here is the first stanza:
TWICE or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name ;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp’d be.
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too ;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Anne Donne
As well as struggling to support a family of twelve children he underwent a religious crisis, finally, after his wife’s death, becoming the highly respected Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Towards the end of his life, lying ill in bed he heard the tolling of a funeral bell.


No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

That, in brief, is the shape of his life. Today he is best known for his love poetry, as in The Bait

COME live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines and silver hooks.

There will the river whisp’ring run
Warm’d by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there th’ enamour’d fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be’st loth,
By sun or moon, thou dark’nest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light, having thee.
Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest ;
Or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes’ wand’ring eyes.

For thee, thou need’st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch’d thereby,
Alas ! is wiser far than I.

Part 2: His Early Life, More Love Poems and the Death of his brother Henry

He was born in 1572 to a London ironmonger father and a mother who counted Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Chancellor and famous Catholic martyr, among her ancestors. At the age of 12 John was sent up to Oxford. This was due not only to his brilliance, but also because his parents wanted to avoid his taking the oath of loyalty to the reformed Protestant Church, as required at the age of 16. At 19 he was admitted to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London, as he described in his fourth satire:
Lincoln's Inn
Me thought I saw
One of our giant statutes ope his jaw
And suck me in
A contemporary portrayed him as:
Not dissolute, but very neat; a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of conceited verses.

Some of his earliest poetry about his sexual exploits dates from this period. In To His mistress Going to Bed, he imagines a prolonged and elaborate disrobing:

Come, Madame, come, all rest my powers defie,
Until I labour, I in labour lye.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a farre fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled brest-plate which you weare
That th’eyes of busy fooles may be stopt there:
Unlace your selfe, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed time.
Off with that happy buske, whom I envye
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gownes going off, such beautious state reveales
As when from flow’ry meades th’hills shadow steales.
Off with that wyrie coronet and showe
The hairy dyadem which on you doth growe.
Off with those shoes: and then softly tread
In this loves hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heavens Angels us’d to bee
Receiv’d by men; Thou Angel bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we eas’ly know
By this these Angels from an evill sprite:
They set our haires, but these the flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them goe
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree,
How blest am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Full nakedness, all joyes are due to thee.
As soules unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must bee,
To taste whole joyes. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in mens viewes,
That when a fooles eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soule may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like bookes gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arraid;
Themselves are mystique bookes, which only wee
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may knowe,
As liberally as to a midwife showe
Thy selfe; cast all, yea this white linnen hence.
Here is no pennance, much less innocence.

To teach thee, I am naked first: Why than,
What need’st thou have more covering than a man.
His law studies were diverted by by what he called his immoderate desire of humane learning and language. Though living slightly beyond his means he denounced those who studied for ‘mere gain’, as being ‘worse then imbrothled strumpets.’

Teaching at Lincoln’s Inn was done through oral disputation; and through the moot, a mock trial in which the students took the part of attorneys while the senior members known as Benchers sat as judges. This training fuelled Donne’s gift for the trenchant spoken word.

Later in one of his sermons he described his pastimes at Lincoln’s inn.
A fair day shoots arrows of visits and comedies and conversations; and a foul day shoots arrows of gaming and chambering.
By which he meant visiting brothels.

But weightier matters intervened. 1592 and 1593 were years of plague; and in the spring of 1593 Topcliffe’s papist hunters turned their attention to Henry, Donne’s younger brother, now also a gentleman of the Inns of Court. They raided his lodgings and found he was harbouring William Harrington, a Catholic priest. Both men were beaten, racked and questioned. Harrington refused to recant and was executed at Tyburn. Henry was imprisoned in Newgate, where most inmates were packed together in chains. Swarming with vermin and creeping things, prisoners lay like swine upon the ground, and one upon another. In such conditions the spread of the plague was unstoppable.

No mention by Donne of his brother’s death survives, but at this time he acknowledged his hollowness:
Now pleasures dirth our city doth possess,
Our theatres are filled with emptiness.
As lank and thin is every street and way
As a woman deliver’d yesterday.
Nothing wherein to laugh my spleen espies
But bearbaiting and Law Exercise.
After Henry’s death I often think of Donne suffering from post traumatic stress disorder through his poetry and throughout his life.  

Part 3: The Sacking of Cadiz and the Voyage to the Azores

In 1595 Donne’s mother Elizabeth left for Catholic exile to settle in Antwerp. Meanwhile, entranced by Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonial expedition to South America, Donne was thinking of sailing away with Protestants.

It was rumoured that Spain was planning another Armada and in early 1596 the dashing Earl of Essex planned a pre-emptive strike for honour and fortune against the port of Cadiz.
Donne was among the 300 gentlemen volunteers from Lincoln’s Inn, described as ‘green headed youths, covered with feathers, gold and silver lace’. In volunteering, Donne was proving his patriotism and loyalty to the Queen and beginning to relinquish his Catholicism.

In His Picture he upsets his real or imagined lover by telling her what he will look like on his return.
Now pleasures dirth our city doth possess,
Our theatres are filled with emptiness.
As lank and thin is every street and way
As a woman deliver’d yesterday.
Nothing wherein to laugh my spleen espies
But bearbaiting and Law Exercise.
Cadiz was plundered and left in flames. Back home Donne was disillusioned by London life. Throughout his life he had a restless desire for work and worldly success.

So he joined another expedition to the Azores in 1597. The plan was to hijack the annual fleet of Spanish treasure ships from the Indies.

But just out from Plymouth the force of now 6,000 volunteers were caught in a storm:
English ships and the Spanish Armada
England, to whom we owe what we be and have,
Sad that her sons did seek a foreign grave
– For Fate’s or Fortune’s drifts none can soothsay;
Honour and misery have one face, and way –
From out her pregnant entrails sigh’d a wind,
Which at th’ air’s middle marble room did find
Such strong resistance, that itself it threw
Downward again; and so when it did view
How in the port our fleet dear time did leese,
Withering like prisoners, which lie but for fees,
Mildly it kiss’d our sails, and fresh and sweet
– As to a stomach starved, whose insides meet,
Meat comes – it came; and swole our sails, when we
So joy’d, as Sarah her swelling joy’d to see.
But ’twas but so kind as our countrymen,
Which bring friends one day’s way, and leave them then.
Then like two mighty kings, which dwelling far
Asunder, meet against a third to war,
The south and west winds join’d, and, as they blew,
Waves like a rolling trench before them threw.
Sooner than you read this line, did the gale,
Like shot, not fear’d till felt, our sails assail;
And what at first was call’d a gust, the same
Hath now a storm’s, anon a tempest’s name.
Jonas, I pity thee, and curse those men
Who, when the storm raged most, did wake thee then.
Sleep is pain’s easiest salve, and doth fulfil
All offices of death, except to kill.
But when I waked, I saw that I saw not;
I, and the sun, which should teach me, had forgot
East, west, day, night; and I could only say,
If th’ world had lasted, now it had been day.
Thousands our noises were, yet we ‘mongst all
Could none by his right name, but thunder, call.
Lightning was all our light, and it rain’d more
Than if the sun had drunk the sea before.
Some coffin’d in their cabins lie, equally
Grieved that they are not dead, and yet must die;
And as sin-burden’d souls from grave will creep
At the last day, some forth their cabins peep,
And trembling ask, “What news?” and do hear so
As jealous husbands, what they would not know.
Some sitting on the hatches would seem there
With hideous gazing to fear away fear.
Then note they the ship’s sicknesses, the mast
Shaked with an ague, and the hold and waist
With a salt dropsy clogg’d, and all our tacklings
Snapping, like too-too-high-stretch’d treble strings.
And from our tatter’d sails rags drop down so,
As from one hang’d in chains a year ago.
Even our ordnance, placed for our defence,
Strive to break loose, and ‘scape away from thence.
Pumping hath tired our men, and what’s the gain?
Seas into seas thrown, we suck in again;
Hearing hath deaf’d our sailors, and if they
Knew how to hear, there’s none knows what to say.
Compared to these storms, death is but a qualm,
Hell somewhat lightsome, the Bermudas calm.
Darkness, light’s eldest brother, his birthright
Claims o’er the world, and to heaven hath chasèd light.
All things are one, and that one none can be,
Since all forms uniform deformity
Doth cover; so that we, except God say
Another Fiat, shall have no more day.
So violent, yet long, these furies be,
That though thine absence starve me, I wish not thee.
Jonas and the whale
Jonas and the whale
Hell by Hieronymus Bosch
Many of the volunteers not used to life at sea crept back home. When Donne finally reached the Azores, as part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet, they were becalmed. The tropical heat combined with enforced idleness was anathema to Donne. He wrote another very popular poem at the time: The Calm.
OUR storm is past, and that storm’s tyrannous rage
A stupid calm, but nothing it, doth ‘suage.
The fable is inverted, and far more
A block afflicts, now, than a stork before.
Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us;
In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus.
As steady as I could wish my thoughts were,
Smooth as thy mistress’ glass, or what shines there,
The sea is now, and, as these isles which we
Seek, when we can move, our ships rooted be.
As water did in storms, now pitch runs out;
As lead, when a fired church becomes one spout.
And all our beauty and our trim decays,
Like courts removing, or like ended plays.
The fighting-place now seamen’s rags supply;
And all the tackling is a frippery.
No use of lanthorns ; and in one place lay
Feathers and dust, to-day and yesterday.
Earth’s hollownesses, which the world’s lungs are,
Have no more wind than th’ upper vault of air.
We can nor lost friends nor sought foes recover,
But meteor-like, save that we move not, hover.
Only the calenture together draws
Dear friends, which meet dead in great fishes’ maws;
And on the hatches, as on altars, lies
Each one, his own priest and own sacrifice.
Who live, that miracle do multiply,
Where walkers in hot ovens do not die.
If in despite of these we swim, that hath
No more refreshing than a brimstone bath;
But from the sea into the ship we turn,
Like parboil’d wretches, on the coals to burn.
Like Bajazet encaged, the shepherds’ scoff,
Or like slack-sinew’d Samson, his hair off,
Languish our ships. Now as a myriad
Of ants durst th’ emperor’s loved snake invade,
The crawling gallies, sea-gulls, finny chips,
Might brave our pinnaces, now bed-rid ships.
Whether a rotten state, and hope of gain,
Or to disuse me from the queasy pain
Of being beloved and loving, or the thirst
Of honour or fair death, out-push’d me first,
I lose my end ; for here, as well as I,
A desperate may live, and coward die.
Stag, dog, and all which from or towards flies,
Is paid with life or prey, or doing dies.
Fate grudges us all, and doth subtly lay
A scourge, ‘gainst which we all forget to pray.
He that at sea prays for more wind, as well
Under the poles may beg cold, heat in hell.
What are we then? How little more, alas,
Is man now, than, before he was, he was?
Nothing for us, we are for nothing fit;
Chance, or ourselves, still disproportion it.
We have no power, no will, no sense ; I lie,
I should not then thus feel this misery.
Mistress' glass
A Moroccan lanthorn
A Meteor
Sultan Bajazet prisoned by Tamburlaine
Delilah cutting Samson's hair
Stag at bay
After the calm, a small contingent from Raleigh’s fleet raided and dislodged the Spanish Garrison, who fled to the woods.

The glory of this episode was so considerable that Essex, Raleigh’s commanding officer, arriving late and jealous on the scene, threatened Raleigh with court martial. While they were bickering the Spanish treasure fleet slipped away and the mission was a flop.

Not however for Donne.
Sir Walter Raleigh

Part 4: Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and the Courting of Anne More

The Watergate to York House
One of Donne’s comrades on the voyage to the Azores was a former Lincoln’s Inn man, whose father, Sir Thomas Egerton, was Lord Keeper of the Seal. In 1598 Donne was appointed as his secretary, moving into the opulent York House, which had formerly belonged to Cardinal Wolsey.

To occupy this position Donne had to abandon his Catholicism. His political decision was made, yet his inner spiritual journey was only just beginning. He attempted to resist both present Protestant and past Catholic affiliations, but to look for a truth of his own, as expressed within his Third Satire.
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Izaak Walton his friend and first biographer declared:
He was such a secretary as was fitter to serve a king than a subject.

However in his late twenties Donne became attracted to Ann More the fifteen year old niece of Egerton. This could be playing with fire. One of his most famous poems, The Flea, describes the frustration of what he could feel:

Sir Thomas Egerton
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
A Flea
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
It would have been very difficult to make love. Each day at York House began in a separate chamber: Donne pulling on his clinging breeches, fastening himself in his doublet, clamping his neck in a ruff; Ann undergoing a still more rigorous ordeal, being combed, bodiced and gowned, probably in chaste white, with her neck covered. They could not stay together, talk openly or touch for long. Their respective supervisors deprived the couple of many chances to inspect each other’s fleas.

In 1600 Ann’s aunt died and her uncle’s grief and distraction probably meant that Donne and Ann had less supervision. Another poem that might have been inspired by his love – or lust – for Anne is The Ecstacy. Helen Gardner has written:
John Donne and Anne Moore?
The proposal made in the poem is the perfectly modest one that the lovers’ souls, having enjoyed the rare privilege of union outside the body, should now resume possession of their separate bodies and reanimate their virtual corpses.


This poem combines theological and scientific terms. Our eye beams are atoms travelling to each others eyes. Looking deeply into each other’s eyes is propagating babies. The energy is like that of two armies confronting one another, before battle. Samuel Johnson said, “This isn’t poetry, it’s fireworks.”
Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swell’d up, to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best.

Our hands were firmly cemented
By a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.

So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

As, ‘twixt two equal armies, Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls – which to advance their state,
Were gone out – hung ‘twixt her and me.

And whilst our souls negotiate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And we said nothing, all the day.

If any, so by love refined,
That he soul’s language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
Within convenient distance stood,

He – though he knew not which soul spake,
Because both meant, both spake the same –
Might thence a new concoction take,
And part far purer than he came.

This ecstasy doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love;
We see by this, it was not sex;
We see, we saw not, what did move:

But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things they know not what,
Love these mix’d souls doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this, and that.

A single violet transplant,
The strength, the colour, and the size –
All which before was poor and scant –
Redoubles still, and multiplies.
When love with one another so
Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.

We then, who are this new soul, know,
Of what we are composed, and made,
For th’ atomies of which we grow
Are souls, whom no change can invade.

But, O alas ! so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though not we ; we are
Th’ intelligences, they the spheres.

We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses’ force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.

On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air;
For soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair.

As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can;
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man;

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love reveal’d may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.

And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change when we’re to bodies gone.
When Egerton re-married, Donne moved out of York House to lodgings near the Savoy, while Ann moved back to live with her widowed father, Sir George More, at Losely Park, his mansion in Surrey.

During the year they spent apart in 1601 the impetuous Earl of Essex led an inept and unsuccessful rebellion against the Queen. His trial at Westminster Hall was swift. He was condemned to death. Donne may have watched the execution. Years later he described a beheading in an elegy.
His eyes will twinkle, and his tongue will roll,
As though he beckned and call’d back his soul,
He grasps his hands, and he pulls up his feet,
And seems to reach, and to step forth to meet
His soul; when all these motions which we saw,
Are but as Ice, which crackles at a thaw:
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
Sir George More
When Sir George came to London to attend parliament, he brought Ann with him.

Sir George was a social climber and in attempting to impress gave some very long winded speeches. A contemporary referred to the House of Commons as ‘an assembly of fools’.

Donne admitted:
At her lying in town, this last parliament, I found means to see her twice or thrice.

They had probably been able to write to each other. In his Valediction to His Book, he offered their correspondence as an example to future lovers.

Study our manuscripts, those myriads
Of letters, which have past ‘twixt thee and me;
Thence write our annals, and in them will be
To all whom love’s subliming fire invades,
Rule and example found
Their love letters were no doubt too dangerous to keep, but now they were able to touch.
Was this the love that Donne had been waiting for, as in his poem, The Good Morrow?
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean’d till then?
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den ?
‘Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

Part 5: Marriage to Ann More

Parliament was dissolved on 19th December. By this time Donne was a married man. As he was living in lodgings near the Savoy, it is likely the wedding would have taken place in the hospital chapel. This would have been an ideal location as it lay within what was termed a “liberty” free from civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. It is believed that Donne himself wrote:
Doctor Donne after he was married to a Maid, whose name was Anne, in a frolic chalked this on the back-side of his kitchen door, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone”.
The Savoy, London, 1650, from a drawing by Hollar
Crucially Anne was still a minor and could not marry without parental consent. After the wedding Anne returned to her father for Christmas at Losely. Donne’s new father in law was a short man with a short fuse and Donne was terrified. He fell ill, his nerve broke and on 2nd February he wrote to Sir George
Sir, If a very respective fear of your displeasure did not increase my illness as that I cannot stir, I had taken the boldness to have done the office of this letter by waiting upon you myself. I know this letter shall find you full of passion, but I know no passion can alter your reason and wisdom.
Loseley House 1819
Worried about his future job prospects and knowing that Sir George could influence his brother-in-law, he continued:
If you incense Sir Thomas, you destroy her and me; that is easy to give us happiness, and that my endeavours and industry, if it please you to prosper them, may soon make me somewhat worthier of her.
Not daring to deliver the letter himself his choice of emissary, was not the most tactful. The Catholic Lord Percy of Northumberland’s ancestor, the seventh Earl had led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1569. The strongly Protestant Sir George hastened to do exactly what Donne had feared, to insist upon the Secretary’s dismissal, and generally wreck his son-in-law’s life. Sir Thomas Egerton was a stern moralist. Within a few days Donne not only found himself dismissed; but was arrested and thrown into the Fleet prison.

He wrote again to his father-in-law, promising:
Catholic Lord Percy of Northumberland
All my endeavours and the whole course of my life shall be bent to make myself worthy of your favour and her love, whose peace of conscience I know must be much wounded, if your displeasure sever us.
The next day Donne wrote to Sir Thomas, pleading:
If you would be pleased to lessen that correction, which your just wisdom has destined for me.
Fleet Prison
Sir Thomas relented and had Donne removed from prison and confined to his lodgings.

Meanwhile Sir George was determined to extricate his daughter from the marriage. He had a strong case as they had married in Advent and without parental consent. Meeting Sir George at the Commission hearing Donne had a chance to mollify him a little with his natural charm.

However he was still left without prospects or an income. During the tense weeks of waiting for judgement Donne had written The Canonization:
FOR God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout;
My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king’s real, or his stamp’d face
Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

Alas ! alas ! who’s injured by my love?
What merchant’s ships have my sighs drown’d?
Who says my tears have overflow’d his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.

Call’s what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th’ eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us ; we two being one, are it;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love;

And thus invoke us, “You, whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes;
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize –
Countries, towns, courts beg from above
A pattern of your love.
Late in April the Court that spoke with the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury finally ruled the marriage was valid in the eyes of the established church. Pyrford, John and Ann’s first home John and Anne were outsiders with nothing to live on and would have had nowhere to live, had not Anne’s 19 year old cousin, Francis Wooley come to their rescue and lent them rent free his house at Pyrford in Surrey.

Losely Park was nearby and the couple worked tentatively on building bridges with Sir George. Perhaps Sir George was secretly proud of having such a man of letters in the family. He himself was an amateur scholar having written A Demonstration of God in his Works, in which he urged the bridegroom and bride to rise early and get out in the sunshine.

Possibly in reply Donne wrote The Sun Rising, but probably not for Sir George’s eyes!:
The remains of Pyrford Place
John and Anne's first home
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.<

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.
She’s all states, and all princes I;
Nothing else is;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

One of Donne’s concerns was constancy. Perhaps because he had loved and left so many women, he feared the same treatment from Ann. Perhaps this fear inspired his poem, Woman’s Constancy.

Now thou hast loved me one whole day,
To-morrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say ?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow ?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were ?
Or that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear ?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers’ contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose ?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true ?
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would ;
Which I abstain to do,
For by to-morrow I may think so too.

On the other hand in Love’s Infiniteness he was able to take a less fearsome and more enduring view of love. Indeed much of his love poetry can be interpreted as a straining after God:

If yet I have not all thy love,
Dear, I shall never have it all,
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move,
Nor can entreat one other tear to fall,
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee,
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters I have spent.
Yet no more can be due to me,
Than at the bargain made was meant;
If then thy gift of love were partial,
That some to me, some should to others fall,
Dear, I shall never have thee all.

Or if then thou gavest me all,
All was but all, which thou hadst then;
But if in thy heart, since, there be or shall
New love created be, by other men,
Which have their stocks entire, and can in tears,
In sighs, in oaths, and letters outbid me,
This new love may beget new fears,
For, this love was not vowed by thee.
And yet it was, thy gift being general;
The ground, thy heart, is mine, whatever shall
Grow there, dear, I should have it all.
For by to-morrow I may think so too.
Yet I would not have all yet;
He that hath all can have no more
, And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it:
Love’s riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing savest it:
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them, so we shall
Be one, and one another’s all.
When John and Ann’s first child was born in 1603 they named her Constance.

Part 6: Thwarted Ambition and the Journal of a Soul

James I accession in 1603 coincided with another plague. Many who visited London seeking for preferment from the new king succumbed. The King visited both Pyrford and Losely and Sir George was delighted to be made Treasurer of the Household of the Prince of Wales.

But by 1605 Donne had achieved no position at court or any other employment, so he set out to travel on the continent as companion to Sir Walter Chute, leaving Ann with two children.
Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me;
But since that I
At the last must part, ’tis best,
Thus to use myself in jest
By feigned deaths to die.
James I
Yesternight the sun went hence,
And yet is here to-day;
He hath no desire nor sense,
Nor half so short a way;
Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
More wings and spurs than he.

O how feeble is man’s power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall;
But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o’er us to advance..
When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,
But sigh’st my soul away;
When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,
My life’s blood doth decay.
It cannot be
That thou lovest me as thou say’st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
That art the best of me.

Let not thy divining heart
Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
And may thy fears fulfil.
But think that we
Are but turn’d aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be..

Was Ann happy to remain behind? Did she suggest, as in a play by Shakespeare, that she should disguise herself as a boy that she might accompany him? His poem On His Mistress would seem to belong to the time, before this first extended absence of his married life.

By our first strange and fatal interview,
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my words masculine persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts, which spies and rivals threaten’d me,
I calmly beg. But by thy father’s wrath,
By all pains, which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee, and all the oaths which I
And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy,
Here I unswear, and overswear them thus;
Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.
Temper, O fair love, love’s impetuous rage;
Be my true mistress still, not my feign’d page.
I’ll go, and, by thy kind leave, leave behind
Thee, only worthy to nurse in my mind
Thirst to come back; O! if thou die before,
My soul from other lands to thee shall soar.
Thy else almighty beauty cannot move
Rage from the seas, nor thy love teach them love,
Nor tame wild Boreas’ harshness; thou hast read
How roughly he in pieces shivered
Fair Orithea, whom he swore he loved.
Fall ill or good, ’tis madness to have proved
Dangers unurged ; feed on this flattery,
That absent lovers one in th’ other be.
Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change
Thy body’s habit, nor mind ; be not strange
To thyself only. All will spy in thy face
A blushing womanly discovering grace.
Richly clothed apes are call’d apes, and as soon
Eclipsed as bright, we call the moon the moon.
Men of France, changeable chameleons,
Spitals of diseases, shops of fashions,
Love’s fuellers, and the rightest company
Of players, which upon the world’s stage be,
Will quickly know thee, and no less, alas!
Th’ indifferent Italian, as we pass
His warm land, well content to think thee page,
Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage,
As Lot’s fair guests were vex’d. But none of these
Nor spongy hydroptic Dutch shall thee displease,
If thou stay here. O stay here, for for thee
England is only a worthy gallery,
To walk in expectation, till from thence
Our greatest king call thee to his presence.
When I am gone, dream me some happiness;
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess;
Nor praise, nor dispraise me, nor bless nor curse
Openly love’s force, nor in bed fright thy nurse
With midnight’s startings, crying out, O! O!
Nurse, O ! my love is slain ; I saw him go
O’er the white Alps alone ; I saw him, I,
Assail’d, fight, taken, stabb’d, bleed, fall, and die.
Augur me better chance, except dread Jove
Think it enough for me to have had thy love.
It was customary for men to complete their liberal education by travelling. Wives could not join this male tour of Europe. Besides Ann was already pregnant with their third child.

Donne returned from the Continent in time for the execution of a Catholic priest. In 1605 the famous attempt was made to blow up Parliament and with it King James. Donne commented:
Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators
If the explosives had gone off, all the isle of Britain had flown to the moon.
Meanwhile Sir George, perhaps softened by the naming their second boy George, agreed to give the couple an income of £80 a year – enough for them to set up a home of their own in the village of Mitcham nearer to London. By 1607 Donne had two houses; his family home at Mitcham and lodgings for himself at his old stamping ground near the Savoy in the Strand.

Unable to obtain either a position or employment, he went through much depression and soul searching. In his poetry he was turning to religious themes. The Annunciation and the Passion was written in 1608, a year when Christ’s conception, the Catholic Feast of the Annunciation, and Good Friday coincided.
Arundel House, between the Strand and the river
Tamely, frail body, abstain to-day; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen;
At once a son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one –
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east –
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
– Because it strays not far – doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes ; He shall come, He is gone;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico
He was also embarked on writing Pseudo Martyr an essay on the importance of civil obedience to the Crown. The King was impressed, but instead of offering him the worldly position he craved, recommended he should enter holy orders.

Donne was not ready. He was enjoying the companionship of those intellectuals who met at the Mermaid Tavern. There Thomas Fuller described the ‘wit combats’ between Ben Jonson and Bill Shakespeare.
The Mermaid Tavern
Ben Jonson
Ben is like a Spanish great Galleon, solid, but slow in his performance, while Bill is more akin to an English man of war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing.

But in his inner life was Donne beginning to undergo, what St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of his parents’ generation, termed ‘the dark night of the soul’? In the first of his Holy Sonnets he implores God:

Bill Shakespeare
Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Drawing of the Crucifixion
by Saint John of the Cross
Yet he continues with greater hope:
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

And in Holy Sonnet 10 he writes his famous lines:

God the father by Cima de Conigliano
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die..
These sonnets mostly written between 1609 and 1614 are the journal of a soul that finds itself alone; a Protestant soul stripped of the spiritual support of the Catholic Church.

Part 7: Absence from Family and Ann's Ghost

It was a relief to receive an invitation to travel to France with Sir Robert Drury, a pugnacious extravert who had once been a brave and loyal follower of Essex. He coveted an ambassadorship, and not being the most politic or intellectual of men, needed someone with a good command of languages and the art of letter writing. This would give Donne an occupation.
Sir Robert's daughter, Elizabeth
I am now in the afternoon of my life and it is unwholesome to sleep.

Anne was dismayed at his deserting her, when she was yet again pregnant.  Donne wrote her one of his greatest poems: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning..

Donne, unusually for that time, had married for love. He compares their absence to God’s seeming absence. Again he recognizes his love in theological terms. He draws on images of alchemy and of twin compasses to make the point that they can never be truly parted. Their souls are one..
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear – floods, nor sigh – tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;

But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love –
Whose soul is sense – cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove

The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat
If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam

It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

On the death of Sir Robert’s daughter Elizabeth Donne wrote On the Progress of the Soul, as John Stubbs describes it: ‘another masterpiece of active, aggressive, suffocating darkness’. Donne had never known Elizabeth Drury and the poem seems to be written to an idealized woman, reminiscent perhaps of the Mary of his Catholic childhood.

Forget this rotten world, and unto thee
Let thine own times as an old story be.
Be not concern’d; study not why, nor when
Do not so much as not believe a man.
For though to err, be worst, to try truths forth
Is far more business than this world is worth.
The world is but a carcass; thou art fed
By it, but as a worm, that carcass bred;
And why shouldst thou, poor worm, consider more,
When this world will grow better than before,
Than those thy fellow-worms do think upon
That carcass’s last resurrection?
Forget this world, and scarce think of it so,
As of old clothes, cast off a year ago.
To be thus stupid is alacrity;
Men thus lethargic have best memory.
Look upward; that’s towards her, whose happy state
We now lament not, but congratulate.
She, to whom all this world was but a stage,
Where all sat heark’ning how her youthful age
Should be employ’d, because in all she did
Some figure of the golden times was hid.
Who could not lack, what’er this world could give,
Because she was the form, that made it live;
Nor could complain that this world was unfit
To be stay’d in, then when she was in it;
She, that first tried indifferent desires
By virtue, and virtue by religious fires;
She, to whose person paradise adher’d,
As courts to princes; she, whose eyes enspher’d
Star-light enough t’ have made the South control,
(Had she been there) the star-full Northern Pole;
She, she is gone; she is gone; when thou knowest this,
What fragmentary rubbish this world is
Thou knowest, and that it is not worth a thought;
He honours it too much that thinks it nought.
Think then, my soul, that death is but a groom,
Which brings a taper to the outward room,
Whence thou spiest first a little glimmering light,
And after brings it nearer to thy sight;
For such approaches doth heaven make in death.
Think thyself labouring now with broken breath,
And think those broken and soft notes to be
Division, and thy happiest harmony.
Think thee laid on thy death-bed, loose and slack,
And think that but unbinding of a pack,
To take one precious thing, thy soul, from thence.
Think thyself parch’d with fever’s violence;
Anger thine ague more, by calling it
Thy physic; chide the slackness of the fit.
Think that thou hear’st thy knell, and think no more,
But that, as bells call’d thee to church before,
So this to the Triumphant Church calls thee.
Think Satan’s sergeants round about thee be,
And think that but for legacies they thrust;
Give one thy pride, to’another give thy lust;
Give them those sins which they gave thee before,
And trust th’ immaculate blood to wash thy score.
Think thy friends weeping round, and think that they
Weep but because they go not yet thy way.
Think that they close thine eyes, and think in this,
That they confess much in the world amiss,
Who dare not trust a dead man’s eye with that
Which they from God and angels cover not.
Think that they shroud thee up, and think from thence
They reinvest thee in white innocence.
Think that thy body rots, and (if so low,
Thy soul exalted so, thy thoughts can go)
Think thee a prince, who of themselves create
Worms, which insensibly devour their state.
Think that they bury thee, and think that rite
Lays thee to sleep but a Saint Lucy’s night.
In Paris Donne was beginning to get very worried, as there was no news from Ann. He did not know whether he had a child or a dead wife. And then a terrible thing happened. He told Drury:
I have seen a dreadful vision. I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms.

Sure sir you have slept since I saw you, and this is the result of some melancholy dream.

I cannot be surer than I now live, that I have not slept since I saw you; and am as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopt, and looked me in the face, and vanisht.
Ann gave birth to a stillborn child, according to Izaak Walton, about the very hour that Donne had the apparition. Returned to England Donne continued his agonised soul searching.
In so strict obligation of parent or husband or master I am not the less alone for being in the midst of them.
As a poet, he was very sensitive to sound.
I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.

Part 8: Ann's Death, The Dean of St. Paul's and For Whom the Bell Tolls

On Good Friday 1613 he rode westward to visit Sir Edward Herbert in Wales. The shadow of Christ on the cross, like a thundercloud, was behind him in the east. He dared not turn to look.
The sun (Son) set and gives us endless day. – To see God die is too much weight. As thou hung upon the tree I turned my back to Thee. This is Catholic guilt guilt – especially with the amount of martyr’s blood in his pedigree. He is acutely aware of his inner life, owing much to the Jesuit tradition of examination of conscience.
Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.
Could it be that this poem marked a turning point in his life? He gave up his cottage at Mitcham and set up home with his family in Drury Lane, so named after his benefactor, Sir Robert Drury. And in 1614 he received from the King:  
As good allowance and encouragement as I could desire.
And he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of London on 23 January 1615.
Thou hast set up many candlesticks, and kindled many lamps in me; but I have either blown them out, or carried them to guide me in forbidden ways. Thou hast given me a desire for knowledge, and some possession of it, and I have armed myself with thy weapons against thee. Yet, O God, have mercy upon me.
In 1616 he returned to his old haunt as Reader in Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. For £60 a year he had to preach 50 sermons, no doubt he raising a wry smile when he preached:
If any man will sue thee at law for thy coat, let him have thy cloak too, for if thine adversary have it not, thine advocate will.
Donne the preacher
Just as Donne’s fortunes seemed to be improving, Anne Donne died, on 15 August, 1617, aged thirty-three, after giving birth to their twelfth child, a stillborn. Seven of their children survived their mother’s death. Struck by grief, Donne wrote his seventeenth Holy Sonnet.
Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put thee out.
His household, including six younger children, now had to be run by his fourteen year old daughter Constance.

In 1619 he was appointed chaplain on a large and expensive embassy to Germany. King James was anxious to act as a peacemaker between Protestant Bohemia and the Catholic King Ferdinand during the 30 Years Wars.

Donne could rarely resist a perceptive witticism:
An Ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.
Emperor Ferdinand II Holy Roman Emperor
His poem about this voyage was also a preparation for the next life:
In what torn ship so ever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of Thy ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of Thy blood;
Though Thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
Which, though they turn away sometimes,
They never will despise.

I sacrifice this island unto Thee,
And all whom I love there, and who loved me;
When I have put our seas ‘twixt them and me,
Put thou Thy seas betwixt my sins and Thee.
As the tree’s sap doth seek the root below
In winter, in my winter now I go,
Where none but Thee, the eternal root
Of true love, I may know.
Nor Thou nor Thy religion dost control
The amorousness of an harmonious soul;
But Thou wouldst have that love Thyself; as Thou
Art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now;
Thou lovest not, till from loving more Thou free
My soul ; Who ever gives, takes liberty;
Oh, if Thou carest not whom I love,
Alas ! Thou lovest not me.

Seal then this bill of my divorce to all,
On whom those fainter beams of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scatter’d be
On fame, wit, hopes – false mistresses – to Thee.
Churches are best for prayer, that have least light;
To see God only, I go out of sight;
And to escape stormy days, I choose
An everlasting night.
Duke of Buckingham
On his return he continued to try and advance himself, by grovelling to the the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.
I wish that my Lord Keeper would have left a hole for so poor a worm as I to have crept in at. I lie in a corner, as a clod of clay, attending what kind of vessel, ye shall please to make of your Lordship’s humblest and thankfullest servant.
His flattery paid off. In 1621 King James had him installed as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Over the next ten years he was to become one of the country’s most revered spiritual preachers, with a message akin to the most profound spiritual writing of the 21st Century.
(CHURCH ACOUSTIC): Man is not a piece of the world, but the world itself; and next to the glory of God, the reason there is a world.

However he was still a child of his times. A highly personal Holy Sonnet 18, written about this time, still asks whether he had made the right choice in leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a Protestant.

The medieval Saint Paul's Cathedral before the fire of London
The Catholic Church as the Bride of Christ
Saint Peter's Rome, 17th Century
Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.
He was to choose what the contemporary establishment saw as the moderate, middle way of Anglicanism, between the extremes of Calvinism and Rome. He worked meticulously on his sermons. Walton observed:
His bed was not able to detain him beyond four in the morning. The latter part of his life may be said to be a continual study.
His reading was so intense that after his death papers were found in his Deanery, that were:
The resultance of 1400 authors, most of them abridged and analysed in his own hand.
Isaac Walton, author of
The Compleat Angler

In the winter of 1623 – 24 he suffered a ‘relapsing fever’ and doctors considered him near death; but he recovered, and then published his Devotions containing his famous No Man is an Island speech. Shortly after he preached:

(CHURCH ACOUSTIC) The love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; and that love can never end, for God is love.
His old Catholic mother came to live him at the Deanery. She never attended an Anglican service. In 1630, while Donne was preparing his lenten sermon, she died. One wonders whether, as with Saint Monica for her son Saint Augustine, she succeeded in praying Donne back into the Catholic Church to receive the last sacraments, before he died.
We have a winding sheet in our mother’s womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world, wound up in it, for we come to seek a grave.

His last sermon at Whitehall Palace on 25th February 1631, when he was almost certainly suffering from cancer, was published as Death’s Duel

God doth not say live well and that thou shalt die an easy and a quiet death, but live well here and thou shalt live for ever.
One remaining piece of business was to prepare a monument. He threw himself into the project. He had fires lit in his study, stripped naked, was clothed in a shroud as if for burial, left his emaciated face visible, and had a sketch made, which watched over his death bed. You can see the resulting monument in St Paul’s Cathedral today.

He died on 31 March 1631 and those near him reported that he died in peace, closing his eyes as he composed himself for the experience he had so often imagined.
No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.