John Donne – Poet of Grace and Comfort
John Donne – Poet of Grace and Comfort
In 1623, when a sudden illness brought the poet and preacher John Donne close to death, he expressed his lament with words that may sound relevant during our coronavirus pandemic: “Variable and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill this minute. I am surprised with a sudden change and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name. We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats and drink and air and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building—and so our health is a long and a regular work, but in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all. A sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity—nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder—summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant. O miserable condition of man!”
Donne has often been described as a poet of death. To some people, especially in a culture where thoughts of death are often shunned, he seemed obsessed with it. In reality, death and pain were a constant reality in his life, but he didn’t stop there.
A Life of Struggles
Donne was born in London in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments were particularly strong in England. His great-grand uncle, Thomas More, was beheaded by Henry VIII, his uncle was exiled for being a Jesuit, and his younger brother Henry died of the plague while imprisoned for sheltering a priest.
After graduating in law, Donne enlisted in the fleet of the earl of Essex and went on to a victorious expedition against Spain. A second journey, however, ended in disaster as the fleet was caught in ill weather. It was there that Donne wrote three poems describing the ordeal: “The Storm,” “The Calm,” and “The Burnt Ship.”
Around this time, Donne converted – probably gradually - to the Church of England. Upon his return to London, he was appointed private secretary to Lord Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal. At 28 years of age, he was set for a prosperous career.
Then something happened that turned his life around: he fell in love with Egerton’s 17-year-old niece, Anne More. Knowing that Anne’s father would not consent to their union, the two married in secret.
When the news became public, Anne’s father tried to get the marriage annulled. Being unsuccessful, he managed to have Donne fired and imprisoned due to a dispute over her dowry. Donne described the situation with a pun (one of the many he wrote throughout his life): "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone."
Released in 1602, Donne struggled to support his family. Of his 12 children, five died in childhood. On top of it, he was plagued by poor health, which included headaches, stomach troubles, and gout. He was also frequent prey to melancholy. In a paper he never published, he confessed he was tempted to take his own life.
From Pamphleteer to Pastor
Eventually, his situation improved. In 1610, he found employment by writing anti-Catholic pamphlets. His first published work, Pseudo-Martyr, was a contention against the pope’s instruction to Roman Catholics to refuse to pledge allegiance to non-Catholic kings. Donne’s argument was that the Oath of Allegiance was purely political and didn’t require a recantation from one’s religion. Therefore, if Roman Catholics were executed for resisting the king on this point, they could not consider themselves religious martyrs.
After spending some time on a diplomatic mission, Donne began to entertain the idea of becoming a pastor. He had some doubts about his vocation, but the king insisted (probably because he wanted Donne to preach the same doctrines of political allegiance from the pulpit). Donne was finally ordained in 1615 and pastored his first parish the following year, showing from the start a thorough understanding of the gospel and an excellent ability to communicate it.
Part of his excellence from the pulpit stemmed from the fact that he could speak from experience. He had delved into the depths of sorrow and had experienced fear, doubt, and confusion. He had questioned God and had searched the Scriptures for answers. As he expressed in one of his satyres, “On a huge hill, cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will reach her, about must and about must go.”
The Christian Answer to Pain
His sorrows continued during his pastorate. In 1617, Anne died after a difficult childbirth, and Donne, broken-hearted and plagued by feelings of guilt, devoted all his time to his ministry. In 1621, he was elected Dean of St. Paul, where he continued to help others to discover the same grace that allowed him to find joy and hope in spite of his circumstances.
It’s a grace he sung over and over in his poems and repeated in his sermons. If he talked about death, it was as an enemy that, because of Christ, is doomed to die. If he talked about sickness, it was an unnatural condition, “not imprinted by God” and brought into the world by man’s original sin – a condition that will end in God’s ultimate new creation.
God, Donne explained, “had put a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin. We beggared ourselves by hearkening after false riches and infatuated ourselves by hearkening after false knowledge. So that now we do not only die, but die upon the rack, die by the torment of sickness—nor that only, but are pre-afflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions and apprehensions of sickness before we can call it a sickness.”
Equally painful to him was the suffering of others, to which he could not be indifferent. The famous sentences “No man is an island” and “the bell tolls from thee” are excerpted from the same meditation: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne didn’t dismiss man’s natural fear of death, now the gnawing doubts that many Christians feel when their sins seem greater than God’s grace. In one of his most comforting poems, after questioning the extent of God’s forgiveness, he concluded:
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But 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.
Donne died in 1631, most likely of stomach cancer. The text for his last sermon, preached about one month before his death, was Psalm 68:20: “And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death.”
“There we leave you in that blessed dependency,” he said, “to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood.”
 John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Severall Steps in my Sicknes, London: Thomas Iones, 1624, p. 8
 John Donne, Satyre III, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44125/satire-iii
 See John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44107/holy-sonnets-death-be-not-proud
 Ibid., p. 109
 John Donne, “A Hymn to God the Father,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44115/a-hymn-to-god-the-father
 John Donne, “Death’s Duel,” https://ccel.org/ccel/donne/deaths_duel/deaths_duel.i.html