related on his mother's side to Sir T. More, was born into a Catholic family. His father died when Donne was four, and six months later his mother married a Catholic physician, Dr John Syminges. Educated at home by Catholic tutors, Donne went at the age of 11 to Hart Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College). He may have transferred to Cambridge, but his religion (which he appears to have renounced c.1593) debarred him from taking a degree in either university. He sailed as a gentleman volunteer with Essex to sack Cadiz (1596), and with Ralegh to hunt the Spanish treasure ships off the Azores (1597). His poems ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Calm’ commemorate these voyages.
Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and in 1601 he was elected MP for Brackley, Northamptonshire, an Egerton seat. He forfeited his chance of a civil career when late in 1601 he secretly married Ann More, Lady Egerton's niece: he was dismissed from Egerton's service and briefly imprisoned. Donne's next 14 years were marked by fruitless attempts to live down his disgrace. At first he depended on the charity of friends and of his wife's relatives, living in a cottage at Mitcham. In 1612 he moved to a London house owned by his patron, Sir Robert Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk. In honour of Sir Robert's dead child Elizabeth he wrote his extravagant Anniversaries. Other friends and patrons in these years were Sir Walter Chute, Sir Henry Goodyer, Lucy countess of Bedford, Magdalen Herbert (mother of G. Herbert), and Sir Robert Ker, Viscount Rochester, to whom Donne offered his services in the Essex divorce case. Despite Ker's good offices, James I considered that Donne was unfit for confidential employment and urged him to enter the Church, which he did in 1615. James made him a chaplain‐in‐ordinary and forced Cambridge to grant him a DD.
In the Church Donne held several livings and the divinity readership at Lincoln's Inn. His wife died in 1617 after giving birth to their 12th child, and in 1618 Donne went as chaplain to the earl of Doncaster in his embassy to the German princes. His ‘Hymn to Christ at the Author's last going into Germany’, full of apprehension of death, was written before this journey. In 1621 he procured the deanery of St Paul's. One of the most celebrated preachers of his age, as well as its greatest non‐dramatic poet, he died having first, as his earliest biographer, I. Walton records, had his portrait drawn wearing his shroud and standing on a funeral urn.
His earliest poems, his ‘Satires and Elegies’, belong to the 1590s. His unfinished satirical epic ‘The Progress of the Soul’ bears the date 1601, and some of his Holy Sonnets were probably written in 1610–11. His ‘Songs and Sonnets’ are largely impossible to date. These love poems encompass the intimate ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, the dark turbulence of ‘Twicknam Garden’, the sombre majesty of ‘A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day’, and libertine lyrics founded on an emotionally complex misogynist casuistry.