John Donne was born in London into an old Roman Catholic family at a time when anti-Catholic feeling in England was near its height. He was educated at home by Catholic tutors. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as well as Lincoln's Inn as a trainee lawyer, he never took any academic degrees and never practised law. In 1593 his younger brother Henry died in prison after being arrested for harbouring a priest. Somewhere around this time Donne renounced his faith. He read enormously in divinity, medicine, law and the classics and wrote to display his learning and wit. In 1598 he was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and sat in Elizabeth's last parliament. In 1601 he secretly married seventeen-year-old Ann More, Lady Egerton's niece. Sir George More had Donne imprisoned for a brief period and dismissed from his post. The next fourteen years were marked by his attempts to live down his shame, and to try to make a living to support his growing family, but depending largely on the charity of friends and his wife's relations.
On the suggestion of James I who approved of the anti-Catholic sentiments of Pseudo-Martyr (1610), Donne took orders in 1615. In due course he was appointed Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn and was deemed a great preacher. His wife died in 1617 aged thirty-three after giving birth to their twelfth child. In 1618 he went as chaplain to the Earl of Doncaster in his embassy to the German princes. His 'Hymn to Christ at the Author's Last Going into Germany', written before the journey, is full of the apprehension of death. In 1621 he was made Dean of St Paul's. His private devotions were published in 1624 and he continued to write sacred poetry almost up to his death. Towards the end of his life he became obsessed with death and preached what was called his own funeral sermon just a few weeks before he died.
The influence of his poetic style was widely felt in the sixteenth century. He tangibly influenced Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and others, and is deemed the greatest of what John Dryden and Samuel Johnson called the 'metaphysical poets'.