John Donne

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John Donne (around 1616)

John Donne (born January 22, 1572 in London , † March 31, 1631 ibid) was an English writer and the most important of the metaphysical poets. His work includes sermons , religious poems, translations from Latin, epigrams , elegies , songs and sonnets .

life and work

Donne in the Pose of the Melancholy (Portrait from 1595 in the National Portrait Gallery )

Donne grew up in a Catholic family and studied at both Oxford ( Hertford College ) and Cambridge . From 1591 to 1595 he received legal training at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn . As a young man he traveled to Europe and from 1596 to 1597 accompanied the Count of Essex on his naval expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores . On his return he became secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal Sir Thomas Egerton (from 1603 Lord Ellesmere, from 1616 Viscount Brackley) and began to make a name for himself as a poet. The works from this period include many of his songs and sonnets, whose realistic and sensual style is remarkable. Donne also wrote many satirical verses showing a cynical worldview.

In 1601 Donne married Anne More, niece of Baron Ellesmere's second wife, in secret; this developed into a public scandal that ruined Donne's reputation; his works took on a more serious tone. Two anniversaries - An Anatomy of the World from 1611 and Of the Progress of the Soul - show how shaken his belief in the order of the Things in pre-revolutionary England was at a time of growing doubt in politics, science and philosophy.

In the work Pseudo-Martyr (published 1610) Donne formulates an extensive legal-historical-state-theoretical analysis of the relationship between secular and spiritual power, as embodied by the English king on the one hand and the pope on the other. King James I had spoken out with his own publications in the debate about the oath of allegiance to the King (Oath of Allegiance), which also had to be taken by Catholics , and was sharply attacked in replies by Cardinal Robert Bellarmin . Support from original minds and brilliant polemics was very welcome. Donne performed it with pseudo-martyrdom. His satire of 1611 Ignatius his Conclave ( The Conclave of Ignatius ), directed against the Jesuits , was probably the first English-language work in which Galileo Galilei was mentioned: Lucifer , the prince of Hell, fears that Ignatius of Loyola might oust him from his throne. That is why he sends him to the moon, which thanks to Galileo's telescope has moved closer to the earth. There the Jesuits are supposed to merge the Lunatic Church (double: moon church or madness church) and the Roman Church and at the same time create a moon hell.

After long financial uncertainty and hardship, during which he was twice a member of Parliament (1601 and 1614), Donne finally followed the wishes of his King James I and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615. After the death of his wife in 1617 the tone of his poetry was dark, especially in the Holy Sonnets ( Holy Sonnets ).

After his ordination, Donne wrote a number of religious works, such as his Devotions (1624) and various sermons, some of which were published during his lifetime. He was also considered one of the most adroit preachers of his time. In 1621 Donne was appointed Dean of St Paul’s (London) and held that office until his death in 1631.

At the beginning of the 20th century, John Donne was examined in detail in the discussion initiated by TS Eliot . The debate focused on the interpretation of the individual poems and almost completely disregarded the historical and biographical conditions of John Donne. Joseph Brodsky - like TS Eliot winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature - referred to himself as a “student” of Donne and called Donne “one of the greatest figures in world literature”.

Characteristic of Donne's poetry is its sacralization of the erotic and the associated development of a new form of love poetry that is provocative from a literary-historical point of view , in which in particular physical desire and sexuality appear as sacred mysteries . What is new is not so much his use of unconventional religious images or metaphors in an erotic discourse, but above all the canonization of love as a physical-sexual experience in a metaphor and imagery that borders on the blasphemous .


Two phrases from Donne's work found their way into popular culture , namely the proverbial “Nobody is an island”, which Thomas Merton and Johannes Mario Simmel chose as the book title, and “ Whom the hour strikes ” as the title of a novel by Ernest Hemingway . Both come from the same paragraph in Meditation XVII :

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 bell tolls ; it tolls for thee.
Nobody is an island , whole in itself; every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland. If a floe washes into the sea, Europe will be less, just as if it were a headland, or your friend's estate or your own. Every human death is my loss because I am part of humanity; and therefore never ask to know for whom the hour is striking ; she hits you. "


Modern editions
  • Sir Herbert Grierson (Ed.): John Donne: Poetical Works . 1933 (standard edition).
  • Joe Nutt (Ed.): John Donne: The Poems. 1999, ISBN 0-333-74783-6 .
  • Phillip Mallet (Ed.): York Notes on John Donne: Selected Poems. 1999, ISBN 0-582-41465-2 .
German translations
  • "Naked thinking heart." From his poetic writings and prose works. Translator Annemarie Schimmel . Cologne 1969
  • Songs and Sonnets - love songs. Translated by K. Wydmond. Stuttgart 1981
  • “Poetry is also a sin.” Poems. Transl. Maik Hamburger , Christa Schuenke . Leipzig 1982
  • Elegies - Erotic elegies. Translated by K. Wydmond. Stuttgart 1983
  • Alchemy of love. Poems. Translated from Werner von Koppenfels . Zurich 1996
  • "Here I lie, slain by love." Songs and Sonnets - songs and poems. Translated from Wolfgang Breitwieser. Frankfurt 2000
  • “Storm my heart!” Elegies, epigrams, sonnets. Translated from Wolfgang Breitwieser . Frankfurt 2000
  • "Go, catch a star that is falling." Translated from Werner Vordtriede . Frankfurt 2001
  • After John Donne. Translated from Benedikt Ledebur . Vienna 2004
  • "Enlighten, lady, our darkness." Songs, sonnets, elegies. Translated from Wolfgang Held . Frankfurt 2009
  • “Silence at last and let me love!” A John Donne reader. Trans. U. Edited by Michael Mertes . 2nd edition Bonn 2020

Remembrance day

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Anglican Church have designated March 31 as Donne Memorial Day.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. The Little Encyclopedia. Volume 1, Encyclios-Verlag, Zurich 1950, p. 376.
  2. John Donne: Pseudo-Martyr. Edited, with Introduction and Commentary by Anthony Raspa. Montreal & Kingston / London / Buffalo 1993.
  3. ^ John Donne: Ignatius His Conclave. Edited by TS Healy. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1969, pp. 81ff.
  4. See TS Eliot's review of the book Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler, edited by Herbert JC Grierson, in The Times Literary Supplement , October 1921 ( ); German translation in: Wolfgang Kaußen (Ed.): Go, catch a star that falls. Insel, Frankfurt am Main / Leipzig 2001, ISBN 3-458-34491-8 , pp. 221-234.
  5. See the conversation Igor Pomeranzew had with Brodsky in 1981 . English: Conversation with Joseph Brodsky about John Donne . English: Brodsky on Donne: 'The Poet Is Engaged In The Translation Of One Thing Into Another' .
  6. See in more detail Manfred Pfister : The early modern times: From More to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (Ed.): English literary history. 4th, exp. Edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , p. 110f.
  7. pseudonym of Christian Nekvedavicius, see Christian Nekvedavicius in the lexicon Westphalian authors
  8. March 31 in the Ecumenical Lexicon of Saints