Even if you don't like Donne, he is probably the most interesting person and poet of his time. And while he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne’s poetry is superior to Shakespeare's. Donne’s abandonment of romanticism and classicism created a more intellectual approach to poetry that tackled large themes (like love, death, and God) in new and insightful ways--later referred to as metaphysical poetry.
So how did Donne develop such a unique and complicated sensibility? He watched six of his twelve children die, as well as his wife. He also saw several friends pass away. He was poor for much of his adult life. He was denied several important career opportunities because of institutional discrimination. (Those who claim religious discrimination today would do well to learn about 17th-century England's actual policies against certain forms of faith.) And he faced horrendous illness that nearly cost him his life on several occasions. If anyone had a reason to ever doubt his Christian faith, John Donne would be that guy.
As a student and young adult, Donne was kind of a wild man. He was a bit of a womanizer; he traveled a lot and spent lavishly. And these themes are easily seen in his early poetry, which tend to be rather free-spirited and even blatantly sexual in nature.
Contrast that with the other side of his life. Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family during a period in which Catholicism was illegal in England. Donne practiced law and took an unpaid position as a member of Parliament, eventually taking up poetry as a way to make a little extra money. He eventually left Catholicism for the Anglican church and became an ordained minister. In fact, though his poetry is great, much of it is overshadowed by the power of his sermons and religious essays. Some of his most famous included lines like, "no man is an island," and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” which are still referenced in modern literature.
During these two distinct stages of his life, his struggles with his own identity and in facing the enormity of God and salvation are what create a complicated language and themes of his poetry, particularly his Holy Sonnets. Donne's sonnets reveal a man deep in spiritual crisis, due to his rough circumstances, detailing every aspect of faith--God's love and forgiveness contrasted with His wrath and judgment; the paradox of earthly mortality and Heavenly immortality; the violence of damnation absolved through the violence of Christ's suffering. Donne expresses fear, even as a devout believer, of his own salvation and is bold in showing how human it is to question our worthiness of Christ's promise. In Sonnet 14 (my personal favorite) he opens with “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” He wants God to violently save him from his wicked ways and uncertainty in life. Then, he’s much more passive as he asks God in Sonnet 9, "But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?" His spiritual struggle is clear in his poems.
We often only see the product of people's brilliance, and we assume that intelligence and creativity are natural for them and lead to a comfortable life. But Donne's humanity is what I enjoy most about him. He is a man who was honorable and devout, yet he still struggled to understand the vast complexities of life here and beyond. It is his struggle that makes him relatable, even though he lived 400 years ago. If you are ready for a mental challenge from one of history's greatest authors, track down some of John Donne's writings this weekend.