His Life through his Poetry, Sermons and Devotions
That, in brief, is the shape of his life. Today he is best known for his love poetry, as in The Bait
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
And in Holy Sonnet 10 he writes his famous lines:
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..
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.
Sure sir you have slept since I saw you, and this is the result of some melancholy dream.
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.
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:
His last sermon at Whitehall Palace on 25th February 1631, when he was almost certainly suffering from cancer, was published as Death’s Duel