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THE LIFE OF DR. JOHN DONNE
Late Dean of St. Paul's Church, London
If the great master of language and art, Sir Henry Wotton, the late Provost of Eton College, had lived to see the publication of these Sermons, he had presented the world with the Author's life exactly written; and 'twas pity he did not, for it was a work worthy his undertaking, and he fit to undertake it: betwixt whom and the Author there was so mutual a knowledge, and such a friendship contracted in their youth, as nothing but death could force a separation. And though their bodies were divided, their affections were not; for that learned Knight's love followed his friend's fame beyond death and the forgetful grave; which he testified by' entreating me, whom he acquainted with his design, to enquire of some particulars that concerned it, not doubting but my knowledge of the Author, and love to his memory, might make my diligence useful : I did most gladly undertake the employment, and continued it with great content, till I had made my collection ready to be augmented and completed by his matchless pen: but then death prevented his intentions.
When I heard that sad news, and heard also that these Sermons were to be printed, and want the Author's life, which I thought to be very remarkable; indignation or grief—indeed I know not which-transported me so far,
that I reviewed my forsaken collections, and resolved the world should see the best plain picture of the Author's life, that my artless pencil, guided by the hand of truth, could present to it.
And if I shall now be demanded, as once Pompey's poor bondman was, the grateful wretch had been left alone on the seashore with the forsaken dead body of his once glorious lord and master; and was then gathering the scattered pieces of an old broken boat, to make a funeral pile to burn it; which was the custom of the Romans—Who art thou, that alone hast the honour to bury the body of Pompey the Great ?' So, who am I, that do thus officiously set the Author's memory on fire? I hope the question will prove to have in it more of wonder than disdain; but wonder indeed the reader may, that I, who profess myself artless, should presume with my faint light to shew forth his life, whose very name makes it illustrious! But, be this to the disadvantage of the person represented : certain I am, it is to the advantage of the beholder, who shall here see the Author's picture in a natural dress, which ought to beget faith in what is spoken: for he that wants skill to deceive, may safely be trusted.
And if the Author's glorious spirit, which now is in heaven, can have the leisure to look down and see me, the poorest, the meanest of all his friends, in the midst of his officious duty, confident I am, that he will not disdain this well-meant sacrifice to his memory: for, whilst his conversation made me and many others happy below, I know his humility and gentleness were then eminent ; and, I have heard divines say, those virtues that were but sparks upon earth, become great and glorious flames in heaven.
Before I proceed further, I am to entreat the reader to take notice, that when Doctor Donne's Sermons were first printed, this was then my excuse for daring to write his life; and I dare not now appear without it.
MASTER John Donne was born in London, in the year 1573, of good and virtuous parents : and, though his own learning and other multiplied merits may justly appear sufficient to dignify both himself and his posterity; yet the reader may be pleased to know, that his father was masculinely and lineally descended from a very ancient family in Wales, where many of his name now live, that deserve, and have great reputation in that country.
By his mother he was descended of the family of the famous and learned Sir Thomas More, sometime Lord Chancellor of England : as also, from that worthy and laborious Judge Rastall, who left posterity the vast Statutes of the Law of this nation most exactly abridged.
He had his first breeding in his father's house, where a private tutor had the care of him, until the tenth year of his age ; and, in his eleventh year, was sent to the university of Oxford; having at that time a good command both of the French and Latin tongue. This, and some other of his remarkable abilities, made one then give this censure of him; That this age had brought forth another Picus Mirandula; of whom story says, that he was rather born, than made wise by study.
There he remained for some years in Hart-Hall, having, for the advancement of his studies, tutors of several sciences to attend and instruct him, till time made him capable, and his learning expressed in public exercises, declared him worthy, to receive his first degree in the schools, which he forbore by advice from his friends, who, being for their religion of the Romish persuasion, were conscionably averse to some parts of the oath that is always tendered at those times, and not to be refused by those that expect the titulary honour of their studies.
About the fourteenth year of his age, he was transplanted from Oxford to Cambridge; where, that he might receive nourishment from both soils, he staid till his seventeenth year; all which time he was a most laborious student, often changing his studies, but endeavouring to take no degree, for the reasons formerly mentioned.
About the seventeenth year of his age he was removed to London, and then admitted into Lincoln's Inn, with an intent to study the Law; where he gave great testimonies of his wit, his learning, and of his improvement in that profession; which never served him for other use than an ornament and self-satisfaction.
His father died before his admission into this society; and, being a merchant, left him his portion in money. (It was £3000.) His mother, and those to whose care he was committed, were watchful to improve his knowledge, and to that end appointed him tutors both in the mathematics, and in all the other liberal sciences, to attend him. But with these arts, they were advised to instil into him particular principles of the Romish Church; of which those tutors professed, though secretly, themselves to be members.
They had almost obliged him to their faith; having for their advantage, besides many opportunities, the example of his dear and pious parents, which was a most powerful persuasion, and did work much upon him, as he professeth in his preface to his Pseudo-Martyr, a book of which the reader shall have some account in what follows.
He was now entered into the eighteenth year of his age; and at that time had betrothed himself to no religion, that might give him any other denomination than a. Christian. And reason and piety had both persuaded him, that there could be no such sin as Schism, if an adherence to some visible Church were not necessary.
About the nineteenth year of his age, he, being then unresolved what religion to adhere to, and considering how much it concerned his soul to choose the most orthodox, did therefore,—though his youth and health promised him a long life—to rectify all scruples that might concern that, presently lay aside all study of the Law, and of all other sciences that might give him a denomination; and began seriously to survey and consider the body of
Divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church. And, as God's blessed Spirit did then awaken him to the search, and in that industry did never forsake him—they be his own words so he calls the same Holy Spirit to witness this protestation; that in that disquisition and search, he proceeded with humility and diffidence in himself; and by that which he took to be the safest way; namely, frequent prayers, and an indifferent affection to both parties; and indeed, Truth had too much light about her to be hid from so sharp an enquirer; and he had too much ingenuity, not to acknowledge he had found her.
Being to undertake this search, he believed the Cardinal Bellarmine to be the best defender of the Roman cause, and therefore betook himself to the examination of his reasons. The cause was weighty, and wilful delays had been inexcusable both towards God and his own conscience: he therefore proceeded in this search with all moderate haste, and about the twentieth year of his age, did shew the then Dean of Gloucester—whose name my memory hath now lost—all the Cardinal's works marked with many weighty observations under his own hand; which works were bequeathed by him, at his death, as a legacy to a most dear friend.
About a year following he resolved to travel : and the Earl of Essex going first to Cales and after the Island voyages, the first anno 1596, the second 1597, he took the advantage of those opportunities, waited upon his Lordship, and was an eye-witness of those happy and unhappy employments.
But he returned not back into England, till he had staid some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.
The time that he spent in Spain, was, at his first going into Italy, designed for travelling to the Holy Land, and
1 In his Preface to Pseudo-Martyr. 2 Cadiz.