The Elizabethan age produced a number of the greatest stylists of the English language including of William Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, and of course, John Donne.
When the venerable poet was born in London on this day in 1573, Queen Elizabeth was in the middle of her long and glorious reign and Donne was able to partake of all the benefits the age afforded. Indeed, as a young man John Donne was quite attracted to the extravagance of English Renaissance life. During England's war with Spain in the 1590's, Donne sailed as a gentleman adventurer. He took a government position as secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal—a position he ultimately lost when he secretly married his employer's daughter. In 1609 he applied for the secretaryship of the new colony of Virginia, but he failed to get the job.
It was Donne's marriage that brought about in him a dramatic transformation. The deepening love of his faithful wife provoked him to grow in the love of God. Eventually, his piety entirely replaced his earlier flamboyance—and it was evident to everyone who knew him. King James encouraged Donne to enter the ministry, and though he felt very unworthy, Donne consented. With a great sense of his own sinfulness and God's forgiveness, Donne was eager to preach God's forgiveness to others. In 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul's in London and became one of the most prominent and eloquent preachers of his day.
Donne was a man of immense scholarship and learning, yet he preached that "all knowledge that begins not with His glory is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance."
The death of his wife in 1617 brought about another profound change in Donne. She was just thirty-three and died of exhaustion one week after giving birth to her twelfth child. Her death brought home to Donne the fleeting nature of earthly happiness, and he saw his whole life as God's wooing of him. He gained strong convictions about the providence and goodness of God and the coming resurrection in the face of certain death.
In his many poems and sermons Donne often challenged his people to ready themselves for death, "All our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death. Now was there ever any man sent to sleep in the cart?" His famous lines "No man is an Island, entire in itself" and "for whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee," have become almost commonplaces in the English language.
When the death-bell tolled for Donne in 1631, his trust in God enabled him to tell a friend, "I am full of inexpressible joy and shall die in peace."