Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

2014 Edition
| Editors: Thomas Hockey, Virginia Trimble, Thomas R. Williams, Katherine Bracher, Richard A. Jarrell, Jordan D. MarchéII, JoAnn Palmeri, Daniel W. E. Green

Donne, John

  • Paul Murdin
Reference work entry

BornLondon, England, early in 1572

DiedLondon, England, 31 March 1631

Donne, John. Image courtesy John and Mary Nichols Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries

John Donne is recognized as a great poet and enjoyed as a satirist. His writings reflect the intellectual climate of his age, particularly including the revolution in astronomy being brought about by   Nicolaus Copernicus ,   Johannes Kepler , and   Galileo Galilei and characterized by the name of the New Philosophy. This was the intellectual movement conventionally regarded as having started in 1543 with Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system and coming to fruition in the discoveries by Galileo in 1610. The “old philosophy,” which it replaced, was the accumulated astronomical knowledge collected in the works of Greek philosophers and assimilated into medieval Christianity. Its worldview was of a hierarchy extending from God down through the celestial spheres that carry the stars and planets (a category that included the Sun and Moon), to the unmoving Earth and mankind located at the center of the Universe as a focus of divine attention.

Donne referred explicitly to the New Philosophy and its effect on how the old order was perceived.

And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and th’Earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to looke for it.

And freely men confesse that this world’s spent,

When in the Planets, and the Firmament

They seeke so many new; they see that this

Is crumbled out againe to his atomies,

‘Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone;

All just supply, and all Relation.

We thinke the heavens enjoy their Sphericall,

Their round proportion embracing all.

But yet their various and perplexed course,

Observ’d in divers ages, doth enforce

Men to finde out so many Eccentrique parts,

Such divers downe-right lines, such overthwarts,

As disproportion that pure forme: It teares

The Firmament in eight and forty sheires,

And in the Constellations then arise

New starres, and old doe vanish from our eyes:

As though heav’n suffered earthquakes, peace or war,

When new Towers rise, and old demolish’t are.

--The First Anniversary, An Anatomy of the World(1610)

In this extract, Donne extrapolates from the confusion generated by the scientific dispute about whether the Earth or the Sun is the center of the solar system and whether the stars are unchangeable. This question casts doubt on the integrity of the entire edifice of the “old philosophy,” including by implication the social and religious worldview that incorporates this theory of astronomy.

Donne was born into a devout Roman Catholic family – two of his uncles were Jesuits – which suffered continuing persecution in a century of religious intolerance in England. Having been tutored as a child by Jesuits, Donne entered Oxford University aged 12, with his brother aged 11. At such a young age, even in those days unusual for an Oxford student, they would not have been required, like others, to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith of the Church of England and the supremacy of Queen Elizabeth as the established Head of the Church. Donne’s college (Hart Hall, later Hertford College) was a refuge for adherents of the “old religion” (Roman Catholicism), and the degree course at Oxford University at that time was developed from the medieval trivium and quadrivium, taught by authority, and heavily grounded in the teachings of   Aristotle ,   Plato ,   Pliny the Elder , and other classical authors.

Donne’s university education at Oxford would have been an extension of his teaching by Jesuits. On the one hand this developed his ability to discuss and argue; on the other hand it fed him plenty of doctrine to rebel against. Donne left Oxford without his degree being formally conferred, in order to avoid taking an oath at the Protestant-oriented ceremony that would have compromised him in the eyes of his family and friends. In 1586, at the age of 14, he went to Cambridge University, although that university’s records are silent on him. By contrast to Oxford, Cambridge was developing into a stronghold of the English Reformation. If Donne’s Oxford education had augmented his reaction to the authoritarian teachings of his childhood, his experience at Cambridge developed the direction of his skepticism, in which he questioned the doctrines and authority of the Roman Catholic Church and its practices.

In 1591 Donne was admitted to Thavie’s Inn and then in 1592 to Lincoln’s Inn to study law, although he never practiced. His legal training, which lasted until 1594 or 1596, would have been of value in the administrative positions that he later held. In 1593 Donne achieved his majority and received possession of an inheritance from his father. He began to question his Catholic faith, expressing his rebellion by spending his time and his money on books, argumentation, drink, and women. He began to write essays and poetry. Kicking over his traces, he travelled overseas as an adventurer in an expedition against Spain and to the Azores.

On Donne’s return to England, he took employment with Sir Thomas Egerton, assisting him in his activities in the law, the Star Chamber, and the Privy Council. By 1601 Donne was a member of Parliament. He could not have had these offices as a Roman Catholic and must have disavowed, in about the year 1600, the faith into which he was born. Certainly, in 1601 he married Lady Egerton’s niece in a ceremony in the Church of England.

Donne established his household in Mitcham, although he was also able to find time to travel in France, Italy, the German states, and the Low Countries. Between his marriage and 1615, he moved in an extensive circle of intellectual friends and was almost a professional author, casting a skeptical eye on issues of the day.

Prior to about 1600, Donne’s work contained little astronomical imagery. But from about 1604 Donne was very up to date in astronomical discoveries. In his essay on suicide, Biathanatos, written in 1608 though not published until 1648, he quotes from Kepler’s De Nova Stellaof 1604 and a new edition of De Sphaeraby John of Holywood (Sacrobosco) with a foreword by the Jesuit mathematician   Christopher Clavius , published in 1607. He shows evidence in the Conclave of Ignatius, his polemic against Jesuits, published in 1611, of having read Kepler’s Somnium. This story about a trip to the Moon (which, in the main stream of the New Philosophy, envisaged it as a world like the Earth) was not printed until 1634 but was circulating from 1609 to 1610 in manuscripts originating from Kepler’s office in Prague. A manuscript was brought to England about 1610 and passed to Donne probably by the astronomer Thomas Harriot. In the English edition of the Conclave of Ignatius, published in 1611, Donne also explicitly cites Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, published in 1610.

Donne was not unique in England in his receptiveness to the New Philosophy. He was, however, unique in being able to articulate the implications of the New Philosophy for humankind beyond the science of astronomy. The displacement of the Earth from the center of the Universe, for example, could be seen as a symbol of man’s aspirations or his laziness and spiritual enervation:

And I think that, as Copernicus in the mathematics hath carried earth further up, from the stupid centre; and yet not honoured it, nor advantaged it, because for the necessity of appearances, it hath carried heaven so much farther from it…

To my true and very good friend Sir Henry Goodere(1615)

Loth to goe up the hill, or labour thus

To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.

The First Anniversary, An Anatomy of the World(1610)

New stars, whether novae or the stars in the Milky Way invisible until the invention of the telescope, were used as images in various ways.

But, as when heaven looks on us with new eyes,

Those new starres every Artist exercise,

What place they should assigne to them they doubt,

Argue, and agree not, till those starres goe out;

-- A Funeral Elegy(1610)

Upon this Primrose hill

… their forme, and their infinitie

Make a terrestriall Galaxie

As the small starres doe in the skie.

-- The Primrose(date of composition unknown)

In 1615, Donne was ordained as a priest and deacon in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, and his ecclesiastical and later diplomatic work took up more of his focus of interest and his time. In 1619 he was sent as a chaplain by James I with Viscount Doncaster on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to German princes to try to avert what became known as the Thirty Years’ War; on this trip, in Linz, he met Johannes Kepler, who asked him to promote his Harmony of the Worldin England and at the court of King James. Kepler’s account in a letter about the encounter mistakes Donne’s name, concentrates on the logistics of the letters and parcels, and disappointingly mentions nothing of a meeting of minds. Perhaps Donne was more impressed at meeting Kepler than vice versa.

Donne’s published work in the latter part of his life was largely theological in theme. He died in 1631 and on the posthumous publication of his collected poetry in 1633 immediately became well known and widely respected as a poet and a man of his intellectual time.

Selected References

  1. Applebaum, Wilbur (1971). “Donne’s Meeting with Kepler: A Previously Unknown Episode.” Philological Quarterly50(1): 132–4.Google Scholar
  2. Bernstein, Jeremy (1997). “Heaven’s Net.” American Scholar66(2):175–195.Google Scholar
  3. Coffin, Charles Monroe (1958). John Donne and the New Philosophy. NY: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  4. Colclough, David (2004). “Donne, John (1572–1631).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Empson, William, & Haffenden, John, ed. (1993). Essays on Renaissance Literature: volume 1. Donne and the new philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. McBeath, A. & Gheorghe, A. D. (2004). “Meteor Beliefs Project: meteors in the poems of John Donne.” WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization32(3): 92–94.ADSGoogle Scholar
  7. Nicolson, Marjorie (1940). “Kepler, the Somniumand John Donne.” Journal of the History of Ideas1(3): 259–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Nicolson, Marjorie (1935). “The ‘New Astronomy’ and the English literary imagination.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 32, No. 3.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Astronomy, University of CambridgeCambridgeUK