John Donne (1571-1631)

31 March
Priest and poet

John Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family in Bread Street in the City of London, and died a quarter of a mile from there as a senior clergyman in the Church of England - Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. His life was an intense spiritual journey if not a greatly physical one. Today he is celebrated by the Church as a spiritual writer of numerous poems and sermons.

Those were hard times for Roman Catholics. Donne lived under three monarchs, all dedicated to maintaining the Protestant ascendancy - Elizabeth I (most harshly), James I and Charles I. A younger brother died in prison for entertaining a priest, family members including his mother went abroad to escape persecution, two uncles became Jesuit missionaries. With this and the legacy of his great-great uncle Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Chancellor, executed for non-conformity, it is hardly surprising that in his somewhat debauched youth Donne was extremely sceptical about religion. However, at some point in his mid twenties he relinquished Catholicism and joined the Anglican Church - whether from prudence or conviction at that time is uncertain.

He took part in two military expeditions during the war with Spain, held office as secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal, cultivated influential people, and was seemingly set on a path of worldly advancement. However a secret marriage resulted in imprisonment, loss of office, and a bleak future. ‘John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone.’ Reconciled to his wife’s family after seven years he came under pressure to take orders as an Anglican priest but in conscience flatly refused - even direct orders from King James I. He did eventually overcame his scruples and after ordination became Royal Chaplain.

As cynicism dissolved he became concerned about the nature of Christian vocation, becoming a strong advocate of discernment. He saw his own priestly vocation as one loving and loved by the crucified Christ.

Throughout life he was a prolific writer - of satires and love poems in earlier life, religious poems, devotions and sermons later. The poems in particular have great originality, depth and beauty, and his religious sentiments are characterised by a directness, honesty and moral clarity.

He was the Word, that spake it:
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.
On the Sacrament (Divine Poems)

His anti-Catholic polemical writings indicate a full conversion to the Church of England, though in Pseudo-Martyr he maintained that English Catholics could be full citizens of the state and practice their religion without disloyalty to either.

He was also renowned as a preacher, the people of London flocking to his sermons at St Paul’s. His later writings show a concern with infirmity and death, including his own. It is reported that only ill health stopped his appointment as a bishop - not that he showed any great ambition in that direction.

Donne’s life shows a journey from a distance towards God, using his gift of a creative imagination with mental and moral courage and sensitivity to explore, affirm, celebrate and reflect the love of Christ and his saving works. Many today find his poetry a source of inspiration, challenge or comfort on their own spiritual journey.

Jim McLean

(In the following poem ‘done’ can of course be read as ‘Donne’ - a constructive ambiguity to enhance the meaning)

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run.
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When Thou hast done. Thou hast not done
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy son
Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore
And, having done that. Thou hast done,
I fear no more.

John Donne
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 1st March 2000