Fun facts about the poet John Donne and his colourful life
1. John Donne coined several well-known phrases. Both ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’ (the latter of which Ernest Hemingway used as the title for one of his novels) originate in one of John Donne’s meditations, Meditation XVII. In fact, despite his rather dissolute youth and early life, Donne (1572-1631) eventually became a priest in 1615 and in 1621 was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
2. He was the grandson of playwright John Heywood and the great-great-nephew of Sir Thomas More. We like curious facts which highlight literary connections, and this is a particularly intriguing one. John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580) was the author of several plays which were published during the 1530s, half a century before the golden age of English theatre would begin with Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and others. Among his plays were the 1520 farcical comedy The Merry Play between Johan Johan the Husband, Tyb his Wife, and Sir Johan, the Priest and The Play of the Wether. Meanwhile, Donne’s great-great-uncle was the famous Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas More, whom Henry VIII had executed in 1535. Donne, who grew up in a Catholic family, would later leave the family faith in favour of Protestantism.
3. In the 1590s, John Donne went travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh. This wasn’t a gap year for the two men, of course. When we say ‘went travelling’, we mean they went to Spain on a diplomatic mission for the English. At Cadiz in 1596 Donne fought alongside both Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, against the Spanish.
4. He was thrown into prison for marrying the woman he loved. Donne fell in love with Anne More in the early 1590s and the pair were married in 1601, but Anne’s father disapproved of the match. This led to the marriage being declared null and void and Donne, along with the priest who had married them, being thrown into the Fleet prison. Donne is later supposed to have written, punning on his surname and their recent marriage: ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done’. However, Donne was not incarcerated for long, and his marriage was soon declared valid again. However, Donne’s prospects were badly damaged by his marriage to Anne and he struggled to make his way in the world. He worked for several years as a jobbing lawyer, drawing on his training at the Inns of Court over a decade ago.
5. A statue of Donne was the one statue from the old St. Paul’s to escape the Great Fire of 1666. In 1621, John Donne was made Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Using his remarkable facility with language to reach the people of London, Donne preached against lust, fornication, and other sins – everything, in fact, that the young Donne had embraced wholeheartedly! By all accounts he was a terrifying figure in the pulpit: he would use an hourglass to time his sermons, often reminding the congregation that time was running out – as the sand fell in the glass – for them to be saved. In 1631, Donne was ill and dying, and planned his final sermon at St. Paul’s with precision, ensuring he would go out in style. A bust of Donne in a winding sheet was the only statue in St. Paul’s to survive the Great Fire of London unscathed.
Image: John Donne, after a miniature by Isaac Oliver; Wikimedia Commons.