John Donne was a poet who made revolutionary changes in English poetry after Shakespeare. Donne was a brilliant intellectual who despised easy platitude, and hackneyed expressions. He changed everything of the Elizabethan courtly love lyrics, its form and content, the style of expression, and most of all, the metaphor. He provoked a new generation with originality.
And though that generation / school of poets called Metaphysical poets were forced into obscurity by the neo-classical critics, they have become the spirit of modern poetry since the 1920s. If we regard expression, word game and music as the basic elements of poetry, Donne replaced the meditative expression of Elizabethan lyric poetry with dramatic expression; he displaced the traditional of repeating elegant metaphors by the necessity of inventing original metaphors; and he introduced the use of the speech- like rhythm in place of the artificial, mellifluous music of fixed metrical patterns. He made poetry realistic, striking and concrete. The poet was no longer an imitator of polished expressions, but a real person expressing real emotion. Donne added the colloquial and personal expression, countering the cavalier formality and polish. He combined the ‘violence’ of personal emotion with the intellectual solemnity, stark realism with cunningly imaginative imagery, the head with the heart. He balanced emotion and intellect.
Donne’s adult life was colorful, varied, and often dangerous; he sailed with the royal fleet and served as both a Member of Parliament and a diplomat. In 1601 he secretly married a woman named Ann More, and was imprisoned by her father, Sir George More; however, after the Court of Audiences upheld his marriage several months later. He was released and sent to live with his wife’s cousin in Surrey. For the next several years, Donne moved his family throughout England, traveled extensively in France and Italy, and attempted unsuccessfully to gain positions that might improve his financial situation. In 1615, Donne was ordained a priest and deacon in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a post that he retained for the rest of his life. A very successful priest, Donne preached several times before royalty; his sermons were famous for their power and their directness.
For the last decade of his life, before his death in 1630, Donne concentrated more on writing sermons than on writing poems, and today he is admired for the former as well as the later. However, it is for his extraordinary poem that Donne is primarily remembered; and it was on the basis of his poems that led to the revival of his reputation at the beginning of the 20th century, following years of obscurity. Donne was the leading exponent of a style of poetry called ‘metaphysical poetry’, which flourished in the last sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Metaphysical poetry features elaborate conceits and surprising symbols, wrapped up in the original, challenging language structures, with learned themes that draw heavily on eccentric chains of reasoning. Donne’s verse, like that of George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and many of their contemporaries, exemplifies these traits. But Donne is also a highly individual poet, and his consistently ingenious treatment of his great theme-the conflict between spiritual piety and physical carnality, as embodied in religion and love- remains unparalleled.