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John Donne

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English Literature

John Donne (1572–1631) was an English metaphysical poet and Anglican preacher who wrote many popular sonnets, elegies, religious verses, sermons and prose works. He was most famous for his love and religious poetry. We will explore John Donne's life, some of his most famous poetry and prose, and some memorable John Donne quotes.

Metaphysical poetry

Metaphysical poetry uses witty, elaborate, highly intelligent metaphors and paradoxes called 'metaphysical conceits' to examine deep philosophical topics such as existence and religion.

The term 'metaphysical poet' was not created until the 1700s by the literary critic Samuel Johnson.

John Donne's biography

What were the most significant moments of John Donne's life and career?

John Donne's early life and political career

John Donne was born in London in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family. Donne learned French and Latin during his studies at Hart Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College, Oxford University). Being Roman Catholic, Donne was not officially awarded his degree because that required pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I, who was Protestant.

Roman Catholics were social outcasts in England's Protestant society. In 1593, Donne's younger brother was put in prison, where he died of the plague for hiding a Catholic priest. Donne's Catholic great-great-uncle Sir Thomas More was beheaded during the Reformation for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, opposing King Henry VIII's break away from the Catholic Church.

From 1591 to 1594, Donne studied law at Lincoln's Inn in London. Donne's father died just before this, leaving Donne an inheritance he mostly spent on travel. In his late teens, Donne lost his faith in the Roman Catholic church and chose to examine both Protestant and Catholic teachings, privately seeing himself as belonging, for a time, to neither.

After finishing at Lincoln's Inn, Donne travelled through Spain and Italy, failing to reach Jerusalem as intended, learning Spanish and Italian, and meeting persecuted Spanish Catholics. In 1596, Donne sailed with the Earl of Essex in failed naval expeditions to capture Spanish treasure ships and occupy the Azores Islands. After returning to England in 1597, Donne became the secretary of Sir Thomas Egerton, a man of great importance in the royal court.

Donne’s hopes to one day become an essential public figure himself were ruined when, in 1601, he secretly married his boss' teenage niece, Anne More (1584–1617). In February 1602, Donne sent a letter revealing the marriage to Anne's father, Sir George More, another powerful figure in the royal court. In the letter, Donne explains that they married in secret because his 'present estate' was 'less than fit for her' and he knew he 'stood not right' in Sir George More's 'opinion'. Sir George More made sure Donne lost his job and was thrown into prison for conspiracy to marry without permission. Donne was released when the marriage was proven valid.

John Donne's financial struggle and the Anglican Church

Over ten years of financial hardship followed, with Donne failing to secure a new position in public office. During this time, his wife Anne More gave birth to one child almost every year. Donne and Anne relied on the support of friends and family for accommodation. During this time, Donne studied theology and Christian law and wrote religious and love poetry. Donne shared his poetry privately with close friends. Donne's relationship with Anne's father eventually improved, and Anne's father offered the couple some financial support.

In 1610, Donne published an anti-Catholic pamphlet called Pseudo-Martyr, giving up Catholicism completely. Pseudo-Martyr defended pledging the Oath of Allegiance to King James I, something Catholics resisted. Donne encouraged Catholics to view taking the Oath of Allegiance as a political pledge to King James I in the pamphlet, which meant Catholics could take the Oath and thereby avoid persecution without giving up their faith. John Donne won King James I's favour with this pamphlet.

While King James I and friends of John Donne believed Donne's place was in the church, John Donne resisted taking Holy Orders for years, believing he belonged in public office. In 1614 with finances tight and no other option, Donne took Holy Orders when King James I commanded him to, becoming a priest with the Church of England (the Anglican Church) in 1615. Less than two years later, Donne's wife died in childbirth. Five of their 12 children died young or in childbirth. Anne More's death had a powerful impact on Donne. He vowed never to marry again and felt driven in his role as priest.

John Donne's later life, illness, and death

In 1621, John Donne became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, an important and well-paid position which he stayed in until his death. Donne's moving sermons earned him a great reputation as a preacher. In 1623, Donne became seriously ill and wrote his prose work Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) while he was trying to recover, reflecting on life, death, sickness, and God's role.

In February 1631, Donne preached his final sermon called 'Death's Duel' and died a month later. John Donne posed for his memorial statue, and it can still be seen at St. Paul's Cathedral today.

Themes in John Donne's major works and poems

There seem to be two sides to John Donne's works; his religious poetry that contemplated death and God's omnipresence, to his love poetry that moved between romantic devotion and overt sexual content. The religious man struggled deeply with his faith, studied theology in his spare time, and became a renowned preacher. Then, there's the sexual lover who wrote blunt and amusing poems about sex. We will explore the themes of religion, love and sex in John Donne's popular poetry and prose.

Most of John Donne's poetry was published after his death in 1631, so it is difficult to say when they were written. It is believed that his elegies were written in the 1590s. His songs and sonnets were probably written between the 1590s and 1617, while most of his Holy Sonnets and religious poems were probably written from around the time he got married until he became a priest in 1615. His hymns were written in the 1620s while working for the church.

Theme of religion

Religion is generally a major concern in much of John Donne's work.

Prose: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

This prose work explores death, sickness and God. It was written in December 1623 as John Donne recovered from a serious illness. Donne was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral at the time (from 1621 until his death). Devotions upon Emergent Occasions contains 23 parts that match the 23 days that John Donne battled his serious illness. Each of the 23 parts is made up of these three elements:

  1. A Meditation (an idea).

  2. An Expostulation (an argument).

  3. A Prayer.

The 23 parts comprise three main sections:

  1. John Donne contemplating what it is to be human.

  2. John Donne contemplating God.

  3. John Donne praying to God.

The death of Donne's wife and many of his children may have kept death playing on his mind. From the 16th to the 18th century, plagues and other illnesses were rife across Europe and chances of survival were slim. When Donne was writing, people believed illness was a visit from God prompted by the sick person's inner sinfulness.

In the first Meditation, John Donne expresses falling ill as a fall into sin:

I fall sick of sin, and am bedded and bedrid, buried and putrified in the practice of sin;

In the Prayer which ends the first Meditation, John Donne asks God to keep him on the right path at the first sign 'of spiritual sicknesses of sin'. Donne then asks God to intervene at the start of 'every such sickness', which Donne then rephrases as 'every such sin':

...constant assurance, that thou wilt speak to me at the beginning of every such sickness, at the approach of every such sin;

Examining death

In the seventh Meditation, John Donne examines death:

Death is in an old man's door, he appears and tells him so; death is at a young man's back, and says nothing...

In this quote, John Donne explains the threat of death is present throughout our lives. We are aware of death in our old age as it introduces itself to us directly. Though we are oblivious to death in our youth, death lurks close behind us even then.

Communicating with God

In the first Expostulation, John Donne explains how he can communicate with God:

But I am more than dust and ashes; I am my best part, I am my soul. And being so, the breath of God, I may breathe back these pious expostulations to my God.

In this quote, John Donne connects breath, life and the soul. Donne explains that his selfhood is contained in his soul. God breathed Donne's soul into his body, so Donne could communicate with God using this divine breath.

For centuries, philosophers have assessed the relation of the body to the soul, from the famous Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) in his work De Anima (c. 350 BC) to the famous French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes' (1596–1650) modern assessment of the relationship between mind and body.

In the first Prayer, John Donne calls on God to help him deal with death:

Enable me by thine grace to look forward to mine end.

In this quote, John Donne asks God to help him 'to look forward' to his death, which could mean both to help Donne stare death in the face and realise it's coming for him and help him feel content about reaching death.

Take a look at the John Donne Quotes section below for two more well-known quotes from this prose work.

Poetry: Holy Sonnets (1633)

Many of the 19 poems in this collection were probably written in 1609 and 1610 during a period of intense emotional and financial struggle when moving away from Catholicism towards Anglicanism. However, 'Sonnet XVII: Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt' was written in 1617 after his wife had died. These sonnets explore Donne's views on religious themes such as faith, God's love, sin, and death. They offer a powerful insight into Donne's personal struggles with his changing faith, self-doubt, and fear of death.

Donne's Holy Sonnets mainly follow the Petrarchan sonnet form named after an Italian poet from the 1300s. This sonnet form has exactly 14 lines divided into two parts. The first eight lines (called the Octave) present a problem or an idea that the last six lines (the Sestet) then answer or comment on.

Donne made some changes to the typical Petrarchan sonnet form for the sonnets in this collection.

In 'Holy Sonnet XVII: Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt', John Donne uses the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDCD EE, instead of the typical Petrarchan rhyme schemes of ABBA ABBA CDCDCD, or ABBA ABBA CDECDE, which may be because of the influence of Shakespearean sonnets which end with rhyming couplets.

Donne's sonnets in this collection mostly follow the Petrarchan sonnet form's typical use of iambic pentameter, except in some sonnets where slight rhythm changes are made for effect:

Iambic pentameterPoetic meter of alternating stresses and five stressed syllables on a line.

Shakespeare used a lot of iambic pentameter in his plays!

Typical iambic pentameter

The line 'Oh make thy self with holy mourning black' from John Donne's 'Holy Sonnet IV: O, my black soul, now thou art summoned' uses iambic pentameter. Do you see how the syllables go from unstressed to stressed, then back to unstressed? That's the 'alternating stresses'. Read the line out loud to hear the five stressed syllables.

Slight change for effect

The first line of Donne's 'Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter my heart, three-person'd God' starts with a stressed syllable in the word 'batter' (a trochee), though a line of iambic pentameter usually starts with an unstressed syllable:

"Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you".

Emphasis is placed on the plosive 'b' of the word 'batter' (meaning 'beat') to emphasise the violence Donne is asking God for by bashing away at his heart.

Trochee

A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable

Theme of love

John Donne is also known for his love poems. What does he say about love?

Poetry: 'The Good Morrow' (1633)

'The Good Morrow' is an aubade. The poem celebrates the unique pleasure of love and its spiritual effects. The poem's speaker starts by assessing his and his lover's lives before and after they fell in love, with any pleasures they felt before they loved paling compared to the pleasure of the love they feel now. The speaker views love as the most intense of all life's pleasures, suggesting that love's power is comparable to that of religious realisation and devotion.

Aubade

A type of love poem which celebrates the sunrise while sadly saying goodbye to the night. Aubade centres around two (usually secret!) lovers parting at dawn. Aubades were first written in mediaeval France.

The speaker starts by assessing the lives of he and his lover before they loved, believing that they had nothing more than a childish understanding of life's pleasures before they loved. In line eight, at the very start of the second stanza, the poet bids the souls of he and his lover a good morning, as if their love is starting to open their eyes to life's real pleasures. By comparing the feeling of falling in love to awakening souls, love is made spiritual in line eight and is compared to a religious epiphany:

And now, good morrow to our waking souls,

The second stanza of the poem then presents the idea of religious devotion. After their religious epiphany in line eight, in lines 10 to 14, the speaker and his lover leave exploring the world to other travellers and favour remaining in bed together because love has made their bedroom 'an everywhere':

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

The feeling of falling in love is so powerful that the world is no longer worth exploring to discover anything else, alluding to the lives of nuns and monks who devote themselves entirely to God by removing themselves from the world outside the monastery.

Theme of sex

In addition to the theme of love, Donne also explored sexual love, often in terms of a religious experience.

Poetry: 'The Flea' (1633)

'The Flea' is a metaphysical love poem in which the speaker uses a syllogism's flawed logic and metaphysical conceits to convince a woman that sleeping with him would not be sinful because they have both been bitten by the same flea.

Syllogism

A type of argument which begins with general facts to conclude something specific

All men are mortal. Harry is a man. Therefore, Harry is mortal.

In 'The Flea', the speaker constructs the following (logically flawed) syllogism to convince a woman that sleeping with him would do her no harm: 'The blood this flea sucked from both of us has mingled inside the flea. Sex is the mingling of bodily fluids. Therefore, we have already had sex! So, what harm could come from doing it again now?'.

The speaker also uses metaphysical conceits to convince the woman that they are already joined both physically and spiritually because of the flea biting them both. In lines 10 to 13 of the poem, the flea represents a sexual relationship, and is compared to both a 'marriage bed' and a 'marriage temple':

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Metaphysical conceit

A conceit in poetry is a surprising metaphor created by comparing two things which do not usually go together. In a metaphysical conceit in poetry, an unconventional comparison is made between a spiritual element and something physical to create an intelligent extended metaphor.

Poetry: 'Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed' (1633)

In this poem, the speaker is blunt about wanting his lover to undress and sleep with him, describing each item of her beautiful clothing as he asks her to remove it. In the following quotes, we will see how the speaker compares his lover's body first to a previously undiscovered country and then to a religious text, all in the hope of getting her undressed!

In lines 25 to 32 of the poem, the speaker asks his lover to let his hands roam around her body freely, exclaiming that he possesses her; that she is his America, his 'new-found-land', his kingdom safely ruled by one man, his mine filled with precious gems, his empire that he is lucky to have discovered. Wherever he touches her, his hand imprints his name on her.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O my America! my new-found-land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,

My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,

How blest am I in this discovering thee!

To enter in these bonds, is to be free;

Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.

In lines 41 to 46 of the poem, the speaker uses a metaphysical conceit. For the speaker, women's bodies are like religious texts which require study, but only men that women deem worthy enough can view the women naked. The speaker uses a metaphysical conceit (the unconventional comparison between the female body and religious texts) to convince his lover to get naked as she would do at a medical examination so that the speaker may study her 'mystic [book]':

Themselves are mystic books, which only we

(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)

Must see reveal'd. Then since that I may know,

As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew,

Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,

There is no penance due to innocence.

Donne called this poem an 'Elegy'. An elegy is commonly known as a poem about the death of a loved one and how awful it is to have lost them. Donne, however, was inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's 'Elegies' about men (intensely) pursuing women. Donne called his poem an elegy because he imitated the Ancient Greek and Roman elegiac meter.

Elegiac meter

A specific complex pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables used by Ancient Greek and Roman poets to give their poems a certain rhythm


John Donne's quotes

The following John Donne quotes are examples of Donne's spiritual and religious concerns with existence and death and of his wit.

'No man is an island' and 'For whom the bell tolls'

Though commonly believed to be from a poem, these quotes are in fact from Donne's prose work Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

They are best understood when read together and included with other parts of the text:

No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. [...] Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In 1623, when Donne was lying in bed ill and sure that he would die, he heard a church bell ring, signalling that someone had died. In the first two sentences of the quote above, Donne is saying that all of humankind is connected; we are all a 'piece of the continent'. In a time when plagues and diseases were rife, and many died young, in the third sentence quoted above, Donne views the suffering of each person as part of shared misery and the loss of single life as a loss for everyone. In the last sentence quoted above, Donne draws our attention to the fact that we are all on the same journey towards death and that we must realise how short our lives really are.

John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-Done

After secretly marrying Anne More in 1601 and being thrown in prison for it, John Donne lost his job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Donne wrote a letter to his wife to tell her about losing his job and signed it: 'John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done'. Though the letter's subject matter was serious, Donne includes this witty play on words, with their names mirrored in "Un-done". Donne and Anne were 'Un-done' (meaning 'ruined') by Donne losing his job and losing any prospects of future employment in public office, as this ruined their financial security.

John Donne - Key takeaways

  • John Donne was a metaphysical poet because his poems contained elaborate, intelligent and amusing metaphysical conceits. The term 'metaphysical poet' was not coined until the 1700s!
  • John Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family when Roman Catholics were looked down on by England's Protestant society under Queen Elizabeth I's rule.
  • After secretly marrying Anne More in 1601, John Donne lost his job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton.
  • During ten years of financial and emotional hardship, John Donne published an anti-Catholic pamphlet called Pseudo-Martyr in 1610, signalling that he had given up Catholicism for good.
  • In 1615, John Donne became a priest in the Anglican church when King James I ordered him to.
  • In 1621, John Donne became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
  • John Donne is best remembered for his religious and love poetry.
  • In John Donne's poetry and prose we see both the deeply religious and sexual sides of John Donne.
  • John Donne's writing is remembered for its humour and cleverness!

John Donne

John Donne's most famous poem is 'The Flea', a metaphysical poem written in the 1590s with an erotic and comic tone. Other famous John Donne poems include 'The Canonization' and 'Death, be not proud'. 

John Donne was known for his metaphysical poetry, love poems, religious verses, and sermons. 

John Donne is called a metaphysical poet because his poetry often featured metaphysical conceits, which are extended comparisons of two very different things that do not typically go together, often comparing spiritual elements to physical objects.

John Donne wrote many love poems (e.g. 'The Flea', 'The Canonization'), religious poems (e.g. 19 'Holy Sonnets'), hymns, sermons, sonnets, and elegies, letters and prose works. 

Important facts about John Donne are that he was a metaphysical poet known for his witty and passionate writing. He became Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1621 and most of his poems were published after his death in 1631. 

Final John Donne Quiz

Question

Which of the following does NOT describe the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Nostalgic

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When was 'The Flea' first published?

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1633

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Which of the following best describes the style of poetry that 'The Flea' fits into?


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Metaphysical

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Who wrote 'The Flea'?


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John Donne

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a key theme in 'The Flea'?


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The ocean

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Which poetic device does Donne use in the following lines?


Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou   

Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

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Answer

Enjambment

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Which of the following best describes the rhyme scheme of each stanza?


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Answer

Three couplets and a triplet.

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What does the speaker want the woman to do in the poem?


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Answer

To sleep with him.

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True or false: in late 16th-17th century England, fleas were rare.


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False!

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'Carpe diem' is a theme in this poem, and in metaphysical poetry in general. But what does the phrase mean?


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Answer

Seize the day.

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Which of the following is NOT a type of meter used in the poem?


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Answer

Iambic hexameter

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How many metric feet (iambs) are there in a line of iambic tetrameter?


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Answer

Four.

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True or false: 'The Flea' was published after John Donne's death. 


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True. 

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What is the concept of 'The Flea'?


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The fleabite/a sexual relationship.

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Question

In 'The Flea', the speaker argues (paraphrased): 'our blood has mixed inside the flea, and sex is just the mixing of bodily fluids, therefore we have had sex already - it would do no harm to do it again!'


What is this type of argument called?


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Answer

A syllogism.

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What type of poetry is John Donne famous for writing?

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Physical poetry

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Which two major topics did John Donne's works mostly deal with? 

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Love and religion.

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When was the term 'metaphysical poet' created, and who created it? 

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In the 1700s by the literary critic Samuel Johnson.

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What is a metaphysical conceit?

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A metaphysical conceit is an unconventional comparison between a spiritual element and something physical to create an intelligent extended metaphor. 

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Why was John Donne not awarded his degrees from Oxford and Cambridge University?

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That required pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I who was Protestant, but at the time, John Donne was Roman Catholic! 

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Why was John Donne thrown into prison for a short time?

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John Donne secretly married his boss' teenage niece Anne More in 1601 against the wishes of her father, Sir George More. 

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How many children did John Donne's wife Anne More give birth to in total?

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Twelve! Five of them, unfortunately, died young or in childbirth. 

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Which branches of Christianity did John Donne change from and to?

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From Protestantism to Catholicism

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In which year did John Donne's wife Anne More die?

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1617.

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Which sonnet from John Donne's collection Holy Sonnets (1633) was written in 1617 after his wife Anne More died? 

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'Sonnet III: O! might those sighs and tears return again'

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How many sonnets are in John Donne's Holy Sonnets (1633) collection?

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19

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How many parts are there in John Donne's prose work Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)?

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24

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What event led John Donne to write Devotions upon an Emergent Occasion (1624)?

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John Donne became seriously ill with a fever so terrible that he thought he was going to die.

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What was unusual about how John Donne's memorial statue was made?

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John Donne posed for it himself while he was dying! 

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What major event did John Donne's statue famously survive?

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The Great Fire of London in 1666.

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What did John Donne's younger brother die of in prison, and why was he there?

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John Donne's younger brother died of the plague in prison because he helped a Catholic priest to hide away. 

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What was the last ever sermon John Donne preached called?

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'Death's Duel' (1632)

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Finish this John Donne quote: "No man is an island..."

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"...Entire of itself."

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Finish this John Donne quote: "Therefore, send not to know..."

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"For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee."

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What did John Donne write at the end of his letter to his wife explaining about losing his job?

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"John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done."

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What sonnet form do the sonnets in Donne's Holy Sonnets (1633) mainly follow?

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Petrarchan sonnet form.

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Which famous Cathedral did John Donne become Dean of in 1621?

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St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

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In which year did John Donne become a priest with the Church of England?

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1615.

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In which year did John Donne become a Member of Parliament?

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Answer

1601.

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Which two famous universities did John Donne study at?

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Answer

Oxford University and Cambridge University.

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After finishing university, what profession did John Donne train for?

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John Donne trained to be a lawyer. 

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How old was John Donne when he started studying at Oxford University? 

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Twelve years old!

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Where was John Donne born?

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Answer

In London.

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Which branch of Christianity did John Donne's family follow?

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Answer

Roman Catholicism. 

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Question

What was the name of the powerful public figure who employed John Donne as his secretary?

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Answer

Sir Thomas Egerton.

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