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LIFE OF DONNE,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
DR. DONNE was born in the city of London in 1573. His father was descended from a very ancient family in Wales, and his mother was distantly related to sir Thomas More, the celebrated and unfortunate lord chancellor, and to judge Rastall, whose father, one of the earliest English printers, married Elizabeth, the chancellor's sister. Ben Jonson seems to think that he inherited a poetical turn from Haywood, the epigrammatist, who was also a distant relation by the mother's side.
Of his father's station in life we have no account, but he must have been a man of considerable opulence, as he bequeathed to him three thousand pounds, a large sum in those days. Young Donne received the rudiments of education at home under a private tutor, and his proficiency was such, that he was sent to the university at the early, and perhaps unprecedented, age of eleven years. At this time, we are told, he understood the French and Latin languages, and had in other respects so far exceeded the usual attainments of boyhood, as to be compared to Picus Mirandula, one that was " rather born, than made wise by study." He was entered of Hart Hall, now Hertford College, where at the usual time he might have taken bis first degree with honour, but having been educated in the Roman Catholic persuasion, he submitted to the advice of his friends, who were averse to the oath usually administered on that occasion. About his fourteenth year, he was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he prosecuted his studies for three years with uncommon perseverance and applause; but here likewise his religious scruples prevented his taking any degree.
In his seventeenth year, he repaired to London, and was admitted into Lincoln's Inn, with an intention to study law; but what progress he made we are not told, except that he continued to give proofs of accumulated knowledge in general science. Upon his father's death, which happened before he could have been regularly admitted into the society of Lincoln's Inn, he retired upon the fortune which his father left to him, and had nearly dissipated the whole before he made choice of any plan of life. At this time, however, he was so young and so submissive as to be under the guardianship of his mother and friends, who provided him with tutors in the mathematics, and such other branches of knowledge as formed the accomplishments of that age; and his love of learning, which was ardent and discursive, greatly facilitated their labours, and furnished
his mind with such intellectual stores as gained him considerable distinction. It is not improbable also that his poetical attempts contributed to make him more known.
It was about the age of eighteen that he began to study the controversy between the protestants and papists. His tutors had been instructed to take every opportunity of confirming him in popery, the religion of his family, and he confesses that his mother's persuasions had much weight. She was a woman of great piety, and her son, in all the relations of life, evinced a most affectionate heart. Amidst these allurements, however, he entered on the inquiry with much impartiality, and with the honest intention to give way to such convictions only as should be founded in established truth. He has recorded, in his preface to Pseudo-Martyr, the struggles of his mind, which he says he overcame by frequent prayer, and an indifferent affection to both parties. The result was a firm, and, as it afterwards proved, a serious adherence to the doctrines of the reformed church.
This inquiry, which terminated probably to the grief of his surviving parent and his friends of the Romish persuasion, appears to have occupied a considerable space of time, as we hear no more of him until he began his travels in his twenty-first year. He accompanied the earl of Essex in his expedition in 1596, when Cadiz was taken, and again in 1597, but did not return to England until he had travelled for some time in Italy, from whence he meant to have penetrated into the Holy Land, and visited Jerusalem and the holy sepulchre. But the inconveniences and dangers of the road in those parts appeared so insuperable that he gave up this design, although with a reluctance which he often repeated. The time, however, which he had dedicated to visit the Holy Land, le passed in Spain, and both there and in Italy studied the language, manners, and government of the country, allusions to which are scattered throughout his poems and prose works.
Not long after his return to England, he obtained the patronage of sir Thomas Egerton, lord Ellesmere, lord chancellor of England, and the friend and predecessor of the illustrious Bacon. This nobleman appears to have been struck with his accomplishments, now heightened by the polish of foreign travel, and appointed him to be his chief secretary, as an introduction to some more important employment in the state, for which he is said to have pronounced him very fit. The conversation of Donne, at this period, was probably enriched by observation, and enlivened by that wit which sparkles so frequently in his works. The chancellor, it is certain, conceived so highly of him, as to make him an inmate in his house, and a constant guest at his table, where he had an opportunity of mixing with the most eminent characters of the age, and of obtaining that notice, which, if not abused, generally leads to preferment.
In this honourable employment he passed five years, probably the most agreeable of his life. But a young man of a disposition inclined to gaiety, and in the enjoyment of the most elegant pleasures of society, could not be long a stranger to love. Donne's favourite object was the daughter of sir George Moor, or More, of Loxly Farm in the county of Surrey, and niece to lady Ellesmere. This young lady resided in the house of the chancellor, and the lovers had consequently many opportunities to indulge the tenderness of an attachment which appears to have been mutual. Before the family, however, they were probably not very cautious. In one of his elegies he speaks of spies and rivals, and her father either suspected, or from them had some intimation of a connection which he chose to consider as degrading, and therefore removed his daughter to his own house at Loxly. But this measure was adopted
too late, as the parties, perhaps dreading the event, had been for some time privately married.
This unwelcome news, when it could be no longer concealed, was imparted to sir George Moor, by Henry, earl of Northumberland, a nobleman who, notwithstanding this friendly interference, was afterwards guilty of that rigour towards his youngest daughter, which he now wished to soften in the breast of sir George Moor. Sir George's rage, however, transported him beyond the bounds of reason. He not only insisted on Donne's being dismissed from the lord chancellor's service, but caused him to be imprisoned, along with Samuel Brook, afterwards master of Trinity College, and his brother Christopher Brook, who were present at the marriage, the one acting as father to the lady, the other as witness.
Their imprisonment appears to have been an act of arbitrary power, for we hear of no trial being instituted, or punishment inflicted, on the parties. Mr. Donne was first released', and soon procured the enlargement of his companions; and, probably at no great distance of time, sir George Moor began to relent. The excellent character of his son-in-law was so often represented to him, that he could no longer resist the intended consequences of such applications. He condescended therefore to permit the young couple to live together, and solicited the lord chancellor to restore Mr. Donne to his former situation. This, however, the chancellor refused, and in such a manner as to show the opinion he entertained of sir George's conduct. His lordship owned that "he was unfeignedly sorry for what he had done, yet it was inconsistent with his place and credit to discharge and re-admit servants at the request of passionate petitioners." Lady Ellesmere also probably felt the severity of this remark, as her unwearied solicitations had induced the chancellor to adopt a measure which he supposed the world would pronounce capricious and inconsistent with his character.
Whatever allowance is to be made for the privileges of a parent, the conduct of sir George Moor, on this occasion, seems entitled to no indulgence. He neither felt as a father, nor acted as a wise man. His object in requesting his son-in-law to be restored to the chancellor's service, was obviously that he might be released from the expense of maintaining him and his wife, for, when disappointed in this, he refused them any assistance. This harshness reduced Mr. Donne to a situation the most distressing. His estate, the three thousand pounds before mentioned, had been nearly expended on his education and during his travels; and he had now no employment that could enable him to support a wife, accustomed to ease and respect, with even the decent necessaries of life. These sorrows, however, were considerably lessened by the friendship of sir Francis Wooley, son to lady Ellesmere by her first husband, sir John Wooley of Pitford in Surrey, knight. In this gentleman's house Mr. and Mrs. Donne resided for many years, and were treated with an ease and kindness which moderated the sense of dependence, and which they repaid with attentions, that appear to have gratified and secured the affection of their benevolent relation.
It has already been noticed that, in his early years, he had examined the state of the controversy between the popish and protestant churches, the result of which was his firm
'He dates a letter to sir H. Goodere, June 13, 1607, in which he expresses some hopes of obtaining a place at court in the queen's household. This may have been soon after his release, but his biographer, Walton, gives few dates, and takes no notice of this circumstance. Donne's Letters, p. 81. In another letter he makes interest for the place of one of his majesty's secretaries in Ireland, but this has no date. Ibid, p. 145. C.
attachment to the latter. But this was not the only consequence of a course of reading in which the principles of religion were necessarily to be traced to their purer sources. He appears to have contracted a pious turn of mind, which, although occasionally interrupted by the intrusions of gay life, and an intercourse with foreign nations and foreign pleasures, became habitual, and was probably increased by the distresses brought on his family in consequence of his imprudent marriage. That this was the case, appears from an interesting part of his history, during his residence with sir Francis Wooley, when he was solicited to take orders. Among the friends whom his talents procured him was the learned Dr. Morton, afterwards bishop of Durham, who first made this proposal, but with a reserve which does him much honour, and proves the truest regard for the interests of the church. The circumstance is so remarkable, that I hope I shall be pardoned for giving it in the words of his biographer.
The bishop "sent to Mr. Donne, and intreated to borrow an hour of his time for a conference the next day. After their meeting, there was not many minutes passed before he spoke to Mr. Donne to this purpose:- Mr. Donne, the occasion of sending for you is to propose to you what I have often revolved in my own thought since I saw you last; which, nevertheless, I will not declare but upon this condition-that you shall not return me a present answer, but forbear three days, and bestow some part of that time in fasting and prayer; and after a serious consideration of what I shall propose, then return to me with your answer. Deny me not, Mr. Donne, for it is the effect of a true love, which I would gladly pay as a debt due for yours to me.' This request being granted, the doctor expressed himself thus: Mr. Donne, I know your education and abilities: I know your expectation of a state employment, and I know your fitness for it; and I know too the many delays and contingencies that attend court promises; and let me tell you, that my love, begot by our long friendship, and your merits, hath prompted me to such an inquisition after your present temporal estate, as makes me no stranger to your necessities, which I know to be such as your generous spirit could not bear if it were not supported with a pious patience. You know I have formerly persuaded you to wave your court-hopes and enter into holy orders: which I now again persuade you to embrace, with this reason added to my former request: the king hath yesterday made me dean of Gloucester; and I am also possessed of a benefice, the profits of which are equal to those of my deanery. I will think my deanery enough for my maintenance, (who am and resolve to die a single man) and will quit my benefice, and estate you in it (which the patron is willing I shall do) if God shall incline your heart to embrace this motion. Remember, Mr. Donne, no man's education, or parts, make him too good for this employment, which is to be an ambassador for the God of glory; that God who, by a vile death, opened the gates of life to mankind. Make me no present answer, but remember your promise, and return to me the third day with your resolution.'
"At hearing of this, Mr. Donne's faint breath and perplexed countenance gave a visible testimony of an inward conflict; but he performed his promise, and departed without returning an answer till the third day, and then his answer was to this effect: 'My most worthy and most dear friend, since I saw you I have been faithful to my promise, and have also meditated much of your great kindness, which hath been such as would exceed even my gratitude; but that it cannot do, and more I cannot return you; and that I do with an heart full of humility and thanks, though I may not accept of your offer. But, sir, my refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for
my education and
which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that learning, though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God's grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it; but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections, yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour. And besides, whereas it is determined by the best of casuists, that God's glory should be the first end, and a maintenance the second motive to embrace that calling; and though each man may propose to himself both together, yet the first may not be put last, without a violation of my conscience, which he that searches the heart will judge. And truely my present condition is such, that if I ask my own conscience whether it be reconcileable to that rule, it is at this time so perplexed about it, that I can neither give myself nor you an answer. You know, sir, who says, happy is that man whose conscience doth not accuse him for that thing which he does. To these I might add other reasons that dissuade me; but I crave your favour that I may forbear to express them, and thankfully decline your offer."
This transaction, which, according to the date of Dr. Morton's promotion to the deanery of Gloucester, happened in 1607, when our poet was in his thirty-fourth year, is not unimportant, as it displays that character for nice honour and integrity which distinguished Donne in all his future life, and was accompanied with a heroic generosity of feeling and action which is, perhaps, rarely to be met with, unless in men whose principles have the foundation which he appears to have now laid.
Donne and his family remained with sir Francis Wooley until the death of this excellent friend, whose last act of kindness was to effect some degree of reconciliation between sir George Moor and his son and daughter. Sir George agreed, by a bond, to pay Mr. Donne eight hundred pounds on a certain day, as a portion with his wife, or twenty pounds quarterly, for their maintenance, until the principal sum should be discharged. With this sum, so inferior to what he once possessed, and to what he might have expected, he took a house at Mitcham for his wife and family, and lodgings for himself in London, which he often visited, and enjoyed the society and esteem of many persons distinguished for rank and talents. It appears, however, by his letters, that his income was far from adequate to the wants of an increasing family, of whom he frequently writes in a style of melancholy and despondence which appear to have affected his health. He still had no offer of employment, and no fixed plan of study. During his residence with sir Francis Wooley, he read much on the civil and canon law, and probably might have excelled in any of the literary professions which offered encouragement, but he confesses that he was diverted from them by a general desire of learning, or what he calls, in one of his poems, "the sacred hunger of science."
In this desultory course of reading, which improved his mind at the expense of his fortune, he spent two years at Mitcham, whence sir Robert Drury insisted on his bringing his family to live with him, in his spacious house in Drury Lane; and, sir Robert afterwards intending to go on an embassy, with lord Hay, to the court of France, he persuaded Donne to accompany him. Mrs. Donne was at this time in a bad state of health, and near the end of her pregnancy; and she remonstrated against his leaving her, as she foreboded" some ill in his absence." Her affectionate husband determined, on this account, to abandon all thoughts of his journey, and intimated his resolution to sir Robert, who,