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John Donne’s Life and Satires Analysis
John Donne was born in 1572 in Breadstreet, London. Many call him the founder of metaphysical poets. He and his two siblings were raised by their mother after their father died in 1576. Donne and his family were strict Roman Catholics, but Donne later questioned his religion. His brother Henry died in prison in 1953 of a fever. He was in prison for giving sanctuary to a priest and it was soon after this that Donne wrote his first book of poems. The book was entitled Satires, and it has long been considered one of his best works. This really says a lot about his ability considering that it was his first published work. During this time Donne did very well for himself and he had what seemed to be a very promising career. All he had gained was ruined when he secretly married Anne More, daughter of Sir George More. More had Donne and his friends thrown in Fleet prison for several weeks. He was then fired from his job and he and his wife lived in poverty for almost ten years. Soon after this they moved to Pyrford, Surrey where they began to raise a family. Finally, in 1609 Sir More and Donne reconciled and More paid his daughter’s dowry. This helped them greatly financially. They also received help from friends and soon returned to their feet. Donne worked many odd jobs over the next few years and published many works. In two different works he denounced his Catholic faith. He later joined the Anglican Church and became a preacher. His wife died not long after, just as things were beginning to look up for Donne. They had twelve children together and only seven of them were alive when she died. Donne then returned to London in 1920 where he wrote the majority of his works. In 1621 he was chosen to be the Dean of St. Paul’s and he held that position until he died. While in London he also became quite engrossed with death. The last thing Donne wrote before he died was Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness. He died on March 31, 1631 before the great fire of London destroyed the city in 1666. Donne’s monument survived the fire and it can be seen still to this day.
Donne’s book Satires was written early in his career. He was in his early twenties when it was completed. It consists of five different satires and it was quite popular. The first three were written around 1593 and the last two were written around 1597. The exact dates of his elegies and satires are not known, but they were probably written around the same time. The book wasn’t published right away, but it circulated more than his songs, sonnets, and elegies did combined. His songs and sonnets were more popular and revealed more of his inner self and his soul. The book is about average poets, politics, religion, and other Elizabethan topics. “The Satyres are considered by some to be among the best examples of their particular genre, formal verse satire, but this genre, based upon Roman models and especially on Juvenal’s satire, had only a brief vogue in the 1590’s” (Zivley 87).
Donne’s first satire is entitled “None’s Slave”. “The object of the speaker’s contempt and the subject of ‘Satyre I’ is ultimately his own fallen state and, by extension, the fallen state of man” (Lauritsen 123). He explores many different ways of asserting his freedom in the corrupt, distorted English government. It depicts the ins and outs of court life. Donne believed one should be able to do as he wished. He didn’t think anyone should be limited by the government or their religion. Most of Donne’s early poetry dealt with this topic. He wanted prestige and a more worldly position without obeying the current laws to obtain it. Donne was the victim of England’s oppressive legal system numerous times and he still fought for the freedom he deserved. The protagonist is continually being distracted from his studies by a young boy. The two characters are complete opposites and they butt heads. The protagonist is a simple, peaceful man and he doesn’t care for material things. The boy isn’t quite as simple and he is very materialistic. He judges his friends by their appearance and social standing.
The second satire condemns vices and it includes very little praise. It centers on corrupt lawyers and fraud. Cocus is an earlier poet and he is the antagonist of the satire. “The description of Cocus in ‘Satyre II’ is the only extended portrait of a contemporary writer in Donne’s satires, and even in that poem he reserves most of his scorn for Cocus’s behavior as a lawyer” (Dubrow 80). He uses fraud to harm his clients and others. Their losses become his personal gain. The protagonist seems to be a guardian to Cocus and he calls him up for judgment. He goes on an unrelated rant when asked to account for his own actions. However, he isn’t afraid to condemn Cocus when asked about his practice. The protagonist believes lawyers to be the worst of all sinners. He even places them below Satan himself.
In Donne’s third satire entitled “Of Religion”, he describes some of the most radical thoughts of Europe in the 16th Century. In this poem he criticizes all authority in that time. He especially criticizes both the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Nothing religious or secular was safe from Donne’s criticisms. “Most critics agree that the satire represents a transitional stage in the progress of Donne’s religious thought from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism while they differ on whether it illustrates his struggle to renounce the faith in which he was raised or his search for a new faith” (Moore 41). He also stated that we are all responsible for the state of our own souls. The protagonist is the only character included in this satire. He starts out in a state of depression and his mood gradually improves. This improvement comes through a chain of questions and reasoning. He is now on a search for spiritual truth. He believes that there is only one true religion for mankind. He just isn’t sure which religion is the right one. This is by far the most popular and recognizable of the five satires.
In Donne’s fourth satire he speaks of many different things. He wrote about the assault of foreigners in England, perpetual rights, Guiana’s rarities, Dane’s massacre, and Roman Catholic historians. Foreigners were highly unpopular in England and they were often harassed and assaulted. He spoke of perpetual rights or promises of offices given to people. Dane’s massacre refers to the killing of all the Danes in England by order of Ethelred on November 13, 1002. The Roman Catholic historians that Donne spoke of were Jovius and Surius. They were both known as liars and took much blame from Donne. A young antagonist appears in this satire, and he is much like the antagonist in the second satire. The protagonist serves as a reflection of Donne himself. “Despite the playful tone, however, the emphasis is firmly on the speaker’s guilt” (Bradbury 95). Donne criticizes the protagonist for his many sins.
His fifth satire is a persuasive poem and it is based on The Courtier written by Castiglione. It also returns to the second satire by including the theme of law. It showcases his public duty much like his other four satires. In this one his public duty is to serve as Sir Thomas More’s secretary and it is addressed to his patron, Sir Thomas Egerton the moral courtier. Officers who take advantage of their suitors are now under attack. This satire is usually the most ignored and the least understood.
There has always been much speculation over the meanings of John Donne’s works. Critics still view him highly although his works are often misinterpreted. He was and still is considered one of the greatest metaphysical poets of his time.
Bradbury, Nancy M. “Speaker and Structure in Donne’s Satyre IV.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 25.1 (1985): 87-107. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2009.
Dubrow, Heather. “”No Man Is an Island”: Donne’s Satires and Satiric Traditions.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 19.1 (1979): 71- 83. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2009.
Lauritsen, John R. “Donne’s Satyres: The Drama of Self-Discovery.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 16.1 (1976): 117-30. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2009.
Moore, Thomas V. “Donne’s Use of Uncertainty as a Vital Force in “Satyre III”” Modern Philology 67.1 (1969): 41-49. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2009.
Zivley, Sherry. “Imagery in John Donne’s Satyres.” Studies in English Literature 6.1 (1966): 87-95. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2009.
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