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John Donne 1572-1631

Biography

John Donne was one of the leading metaphysical poets of the Renaissance, with a hugely varied body of work ranging from sermons to sonnets, and elegies to pamphlets. A contemporary of Shakespeare, he is known for both his love poetry and religious verse, and often used complex conceits, such as extended metaphors, with startling impact.

Donne was born in London in 1572 into a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge but could not graduate because of his faith. After university he became a soldier and fought on the continent and then returned to a promising civil service career. But Donne effectively stalled his own career when he secretly married his employer's teenage niece, Anne More. Her uncle was furious and had him arrested. Though he was later released from prison, he found it hard to find employment, and over the coming years he would be unable to support his increasingly large family without charitable help.

When King James I came to power, Donne converted to Church of England and moved towards religious poetry, writing prose attacking the Catholic faith. In 1615, in a final change of fortune, Donne took holy orders and rose quickly in his profession to become the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Towards the end of his life he wrote the famous Holy Sonnet X (Death). He died in 1631, and his work was never published in his lifetime.

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Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

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