Tuesday, February 18, 2014

English Metaphysical Poets

John Donne (1572-1631) – The Rake turned Preacher

John Donne was born to Catholic parents living in London who hid their faith because it was considered heresy and equal to atheism to the Anglican church. John distanced himself from religion as a young man, spending his money on literature, womanizing, parties, and travel. His early poetry was mostly about love. He traveled with Sir Walter Raleigh, fighting the Spanish, and then got a job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Then, at age 29, John secretly married Sir Egerton’s 16-year-old niece, Anne. Sir Egerton had John put in prison, as well as the minister and witness to the marriage, but they were all soon freed. John lost his job and had to move to the small town of Pyrford, where he barely got by as a lawyer. Anne bore him 12 children. Only 7 lived past the age of ten, and Anne died shortly after giving birth to the last, who was still-born. John was crushed, at one point writing Biathanatos, a poem defending suicide. In the meantime, his other writings were so popular that the king of England, James I, ordered him to join the Anglican church, and serve as dean to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he became one of England’s most famous preachers, writing the famous sonnet Death be not Proud.

George Herbert (1593-1633) – The Generous Preacher

George Herbert was the Godson of John Donne. In his short life he earned a Masters from Trinity College, Cambridge, was a member of parliament, and became a priest, where he helped rebuild a church with his own money, and gave food and clothing to the needy. Described as sickly, he died of tuberculosis just three years after becoming a priest. His major work was a collection of poems titled The Temple, which was published the year he died. Herbert liked to write pattern poems, where the words are spaced to resemble the subject of the poem. Some of his poems have become church hymns.

Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) – The Catholic Exile

Son of a Puritan Minister, he studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he became a teacher. At the start of the Civil War, he lost his job and went into exile in Italy, where he converted to Catholocism. He worked for Cardinal Pallotta where he complained about the bad behaviour of his other employees. There is some suspicion he was poisoned by them, but officially he died of a fever.

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) – The Prodigy turned King’s Messenger

Cowley made a name for himself as a poet at a very young age, being inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, but being a Royalist, he was ejected during the Civil War. He fled to Paris where he became messenger between the English king and queen in exile. When King Charles II was restored to the throne, Cowley was given a nice home in the country, where he studied botany, supporting the creation of the Royal Society to advance science.


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