John Donne was born in 1572 in London, the son of a prosperous Catholic merchant. His parents and their family had been persecuted for their religion and the conflict between Catholic and Anglican in Sixteenth Century England is central to all of Donne's writing. Donne went to Oxford at the age of twelve - as was usual for promising children of the upper-middle classes. He was, however, denied a degree due to his faith. In 1591 Donne entered Lincoln's Inn as a law student. As was the custom at the time, Donne circulated his poems in manuscript form amongst his friends and built up a reputation for himself as an accomplished writer of "conceited rhymes" ("conceited" in the older sense, i.e. 'cleverly constructed around a central theme'). Donne never sought to have his poetry published, preferring instead to see it as a personal expression of his emotions and a method of winning favour in court. Even whilst enjoying the life of the young playboy in London - a city thriving with culture - Donne was torn between the natural urges of the religion to which he was raised and the social and political pressures which pushed him towards Anglicanism.
In 1596 Donne joined Sir Walter Ralegh on a journey to fight against Spain. After success in this voyage, he started in the service of Sir Thomas Egerton. This allegiance was to prove Donne's undoing in terms of his political career. Egerton was the guardian of a girl by the name of Anne More. Donne gradually fell in love with her and they married without the consent of Egerton. Donne was committed to prison, with his former patron baying for his blood. He was soon released, but had to live the life of a recluse within the world of the court, having made an enemy of a man as powerful as Egerton. Donne and Anne More lived together in happiness for a time, until his lack of success in politics led Donne to fall into depression. He became ill and his life hung in the balance over the winter of 1608. During this period he wrote his essay defending man's right to suicide, "Biathanatos". It is also noteworthy that it is during this period that Donne began writing his introspective and spiritual Holy Sonnets. The guilt of the apostate is most clear during this time. Donne wrote a series of deeply ambiguous polemical poems against the Catholic Church with the philosopher Morton. Donne's theological writings and particularly his sermons are not known as well as his poetry but some, particularly his final sermon, preached in 1631, "Death's Duel", are of an equally high standard. In January 1615, Donne gave up all aspirations to politics and joined the church. He became a preacher known throughout the country for his wit and incisiveness at the pulpit. Donne died in 1631, never having seen his poetry in print.