Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
Vol. 15, pp. 326-334 of The Harvard Classics
Minister and witness, bride and groom were arrested by an enraged father when John Donne married his employer's niece. Donne was soon released, but he found himself without money, position or bride.
(Isaak Walton born Aug. 9, 1593.)
Nor did his Lordship in this time of Master Donne’s attendance upon him, account him to be so much his servant, as to forget he was his friend; and, to testify it, did always use him with much courtesy, appointing him a place at his own table, to which he esteemed his company and discourse to be a great ornament.
He continued that employment for the space of five years, being daily useful, and not mercenary to his friend. During which time, he—I dare not say unhappily—fell into such a liking, as—with her approbation—increased into a love, with a young gentlewoman that lived in that family, who was niece to the Lady Ellesmere, and daughter to Sir George More, then Chancellor of the Garter and Lieutenant of the Tower.
Sir George had some intimation of it, and, knowing prevention to be a great part of wisdom, did therefore remove her with much haste from that to his own house at Lothesley, in the County of Surrey; but too late, by reason of some faithful promises which were so interchangeably passed, as never to be violated by either party.
These promises were only known to themselves; and the friends of both parties used much diligence, and many arguments, to kill or cool their affections to each other: but in vain; for love is a flattering mischief, that hath denied aged and wise men a foresight of those evils that too often prove to be the children of that blind father; a passion, that carries us to commit errors with as much ease as whirlwinds move feathers, and begets in us an unwearied industry to the attainment of what we desire. And such an industry did, notwithstanding much watchfulness against it, bring them secretly together,—I forbear to tell the manner how,—and at last to a marriage too, without the allowance of those friends, whose approbation always was, and ever will be necessary, to make even a virtuous love become lawful.
And, that the knowledge of their marriage might not fall, like an unexpected tempest, on those that were unwilling to have it so; and that pre-apprehensions might make it the less enormous when it was known, it was purposely whispered into the ears of many that it was so, yet by none that could affirm it. But, to put a period to the jealousies of Sir George,—doubt often begetting more restless thoughts than the certain knowledge of what we fear,—the news was, in favour to Mr. Donne, and with his allowance, made known to Sir George by his honourable friend and neighbour, Henry, Earl of Northumberland; but it was to Sir George so immeasurably unwelcome, and so transported him, that, as though his passion of anger and inconsideration might exceed theirs of love and error, he presently engaged his sister, the Lady Ellesmere, to join with him to procure her lord to discharge Mr. Donne of the place he held under his Lordship. This request was followed with violence; and though Sir George was remembered that errors might be overpunished, and desired therefore to forbear till second considerations might clear some scruples, yet he became restless until his suit was granted, and the punishment executed. And though the Lord Chancellor did not, at Mr. Donne’s dismission, give him such a commendation as the great Emperor Charles the Fifth did of his Secretary Eraso, when he parted with him to his son and successor, Philip the Second, saying, “That in his Eraso, he gave to him a greater gift than all his estate, and all the kingdoms which he then resigned to him;” yet the Lord Chancellor said, “He parted with a friend, and such a secretary as was fitter to serve a king than a subject.”
Immediately after his dismission from his service he sent a sad letter to his wife, to acquaint her with it; and after the subscription of his name, writ,
John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done;
Mr. Donne was first enlarged, who neither gave rest to his body or brain, nor to any friend in whom he might hope to have an interest, until he had procured an enlargement for his two imprisoned friends.
He was now at liberty, but his days were still cloudy: and being past these troubles, others did still multiply upon him; for his wife was—to her extreme sorrow—detained from him; and though with Jacob he endured not a hard service for her, yet he lost a good one, and was forced to make good his title, and to get possession of her by a long and restless suit in law; which proved troublesome and sadly chargeable to him, whose youth, and travel, and needless bounty had brought his estate into a narrow compass.
It is observed, and most truly, that silence and submission are charming qualities, and work most upon passionate men; and it proved so with Sir George; for these, and a general report of Mr. Donne’s merits, together with his winning behaviour, which, when it would entice, had a strange kind of elegant irresistible art;—these and time had so dispassionated Sir George, that as the world approved his daughter’s choice, so he also could not but see a more than ordinary merit in his new son; and this at last melted him into so much remorse,—for love and anger are so like agues, as to have hot and cold fits; and love in parents, though it may be quenched, yet is easily re-kindled, and expires not till death denies mankind a natural heat,—that he laboured his son’s restoration to his place; using to that end both his own and his sister’s power to her lord; but with no success, for his answer was, “That though he was unfeignedly sorry for what he had done, yet it was inconsistent with his place and credit to discharge and re-admit servants at the request of passionate petitioners.”
Sir George’s endeavour for Mr. Donne’s re-admission was by all means to be kept secret: for men do more naturally reluct for errors than submit to put on those blemishes that attend their visible acknowledgment.—But, however, it was not long before Sir George appeared to be so far reconciled as to wish their happiness, and not to deny them his paternal blessing, but yet refused to contribute any means that might conduce to their livelihood.
Mr. Donne’s estate was the greater part spent in many and chargeable travels, books, and dear-bought experience; he out of all employment that might yield support for himself and wife, who had been curiously and plentifully educated; both their natures generous, and accustomed to confer, and not to receive, courtesies: these and other considerations, but chiefly that his wife was to bear a part in his sufferings, surrounded him with many sad thoughts, and some apparent apprehensions of want.
But his sorrows were lessened and his wants prevented by the seasonable courtesy of their noble kinsman, Sir Francis Wolly, of Pirford, in Surrey, who entreated them to a cohabitation with him, where they remained with much freedom to themselves, and equal content to him, for some years; and as their charge increased—she had yearly a child—so did his love and bounty.
It hath been observed by wise and considering men that wealth hath seldom been the portion, and never the mark to discover good people; but that Almighty God, who disposeth all things wisely, hath of his abundant goodness denied it—He only knows why—to many whose minds He hath enriched with the greater blessings of knowledge and virtue, as the fairer testimonies of his love to mankind: and this was the present condition of this man of so excellent erudition and endowments; whose necessary and daily expenses were hardly reconcilable with his uncertain and narrow estate. Which I mention, for that at this time there was a most generous offer made him for the moderating of his worldly cares; the declaration of which shall be the next employment of my pen.
God hath been so good to his church as to afford it in every age some such men to serve at his altar as have been piously ambitious of doing good to mankind; a disposition that is so like to God himself that it owes itself only to Him, who takes a pleasure to behold it in his creatures. These times 1 He did bless with many such; some of which still live to be patterns of apostolical charity, and of more than human patience. I have said this because I have occasion to mention one of them in my following discourse, namely, Dr. Morton, the most laborious and learned Bishop of Durham; one that God hath blessed with perfect intellectuals and a cheerful heart at the age of ninety four years—and is and is yet living;—one that in his days of plenty had so large a heart as to use his large revenue to the encouragement of learning and virtue, and is now—be it spoken with sorrow—reduced to a narrow estate, which he embraces without repining; and still shows the beauty of his mind by so liberal a hand, as if this were an age in which to-morrow were to care for itself. I have taken a pleasure in giving the reader a short but true character of this good man, my friend, from whom I received this following relation.—He sent to Mr. Donne, and entreated to borrow an hour of his time for a conference the next day. After their meeting there was not many minutes passed before he spake to Mr. Donne to this purpose: “Mr. Donne, the occasion of sending for you is to propose to you what I have often revolved in my own thought since I last saw you: which, nevertheless, I will not declare but upon this condition, that you shall not return me a present answer, but forbear three days, and bestow some part of that time in fasting and prayer; and after a serious consideration of what I shall propose, then return to me with your answer. Deny me not, Mr. Donne, for it is the effect of a true love, which I would gladly pay as a debt due for yours to me.” This request being granted, the Doctor expressed himself thus:—
“Mr. Donne, I know your education and abilities; I know your expectation of a State employment; and I know your fitness for it; and I know, too, the many delays and contingencies that attend Court promises: and let me tell you that my love, begot by our long friendship and your merits, hath prompted me to such an inquisition after your present temporal estate as makes me no stranger to your necessities, which I know to be such as your generous spirit could not bear if it were not supported with a pious patience. You know I have formerly persuaded you to waive your Court hopes, and enter into holy orders; which I now again persuade you to embrace, with this reason added to my former request: The King hath yesterday made me Dean of Gloucester, and I am also possessed of a benefice, the profits of which are equal to those of my deanery; I will think my deanery enough for my maintenance,—who am, and resolved to die, a single man,—and will quit may benefice, and estate you in it, which the patron is willing I shall do, if God shall incline your heart to embrace this motion. Remember, Mr. Donne, no man’s education or parts make him too good for this employment, which is to be an ambassador for the God of glory; that God who by a vile death opened the gates of life to mankind. Make me no present answer; but remember your promise, and return to me the third day with your resolution.”
At the hearing of this, Mr. Donne’s faint breath and perplexed countenance give a visible testimony of an inward conflict; but he performed his promise, and departed without returning an answer till the third day, and then his answer was to this effect:—
“My most worthy and most dear friend, since I saw you I have been faithful to my promise, and have also meditated much of your great kindness, which hath been such as would exceed even my gratitude; but that it cannot do; and more I cannot return you; and I do that with an heart full of humility and thanks, though I may not accept of your offer: but, sir, my refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that my education and learning though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God’s grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it: but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with Him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections; yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour. And besides, whereas it is determined by the best of casuists that God’s glory should be the first end, and a maintenance the second motive to embrace that calling, and though each man may propose to himself both together, yet the first may not be put last without a violation of conscience, which he that searches the heart will judge. And truly my present condition is such that if I ask my own conscience whether it be reconcilable to that rule, it is at this time so perplexed about it, that I can neither give myself nor you an answer. You know, sir, who says, ‘Happy is that man whose conscience doth not accuse him for that thing which he does.’ To these I might add other reasons that dissuade me; but I crave your favour that I may forbear to express them, and thankfully decline your offer.”
This was his present resolution, but the heart of man is not in his own keeping; and he was destined to this sacred service by an higher hand—a hand so powerful as at last forced him to compliance: of which I shall give the reader an account before I shall give a rest to my pen.
Mr. Donne and his wife continued with Sir Francis Wolly till his death: a little before which time Sir Francis was so happy as to make a perfect reconciliation betwixt Sir George and his forsaken son and daughter; Sir George conditioning by bond to pay to Mr. Donne £800 at a certain day, as a portion with his wife, of £20 quarterly for their maintenance as the interest for it, till the said portion was paid.
Most of those years that he lived with Sir Francis he studied the Civil and Canon Laws; in which he acquired such a perfection, as was judged to hold proportion with many who had made that study the employment of their whole life.
Sir Francis being dead, and that happy family dissolved, Mr. Donne took for himself a house in Mitcham, near to Croydon in Surrey, a place noted for good air and choice company; there his wife and children remained; and for himself he took lodgings in London, near to Whitehall, whither his friends and occasions drew him very often, and where he was as often visited by many of the nobility and others of this nation, who used him in their counsels of greatest consideration, and with some rewards for his better subsistence.
Nor did our own nobility only value and favour him, but his acquaintance and friendship was sought for by most ambassadors of foreign nations, and by many other strangers, whose learning or business occasioned their stay in this nation.
He was much importuned by many friends to make his constant residence in London; but he still denied it, having settled his dear wife and children at Mitcham, and near some friends that were bountiful to them and him; for they, God knows, needed it: and that you may the better now judge of the then present condition of his mind and fortune, I shall present you with an extract collected out of some few of his many letters.
“…And the reason why I did not send an answer to your last week’s letter was, because it then found me under too great a sadness; and at present ’tis thus with me: There is not one person, but myself, well of my family: I have already lost half a child, and, with that mischance of hers, my wife has fallen into such a discomposure as would afflict her too extremely, but that the sickness of all her other children stupefies her—of one of which, in good faith, I have not much hope; and these meet with a fortune so ill—provided for physic, and such relief, that if God should ease us with burials, I know not how to perform even that: but I flatter myself with this hope, that I am dying too; for I cannot waste faster than by such griefs. As for,—
From my Hospital at Mitcham,
Aug. 10. JOHN DONNE.”
Thus he did bemoan himself; and thus in other letters—
“…For, we hardly discover a sin, when it is but an omission of some good, and no accusing act: with this or the former I have often suspected myself to be overtaken; which is, with an overearnest desire of the next life: and, though I know it is not merely a weariness of this, because I had the same desire when I went with the tide, and enjoyed fairer hopes than I now do; yet I doubt worldly troubles have increased it: ’tis now spring, and all the pleasures of it displease me; every other tree blossoms, and I wither; I grow older, and not better; my strength diminisheth, and my load grows heavier; and yet I would fain be or do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder in this time of my sadness; for to choose is to do: but to be no part of any body is as to be nothing: and so I am, and shall so judge myself, unless I could be so incorporated into a part of the world, as by business to contribute some sustentation to the whole. This I made account: I began early, when I understood the study of our laws; but was diverted by leaving that, and embracing the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages; beautiful ornaments indeed to men of great fortunes, but mine was grown so low as to need an occupation; which I thought I entered well into, when I subjected myself to such a service as I thought might exercise my poor abilities; and there I stumbled, and fell too; and now I am become so little, or such a nothing, that I am not a subject good enough for one of my own letters.—Sir, I fear my present discontent does not proceed from a good root, that I am so well content to be nothing, that is, dead. But, sir, though my fortune hath made me such, as that I am rather a sickness or a disease of the world, than any part of it, and therefore neither love it nor life, yet I would gladly live to become some such thing as you should not repent loving me. Sir, your own soul cannot be more zealous for your good than I am; and God, who loves that zeal in me, will not suffer you to doubt it. You would pity me now if you saw me write, for my pain hath drawn my head so much awry, and holds it so, that my eye cannot follow my pen. I therefore receive you into my prayers with mine own weary soul, and commend myself to yours. I doubt not but next week will bring you good news, for I have either mending or dying on my side; but if I do continue longer thus, I shall have comfort in this, that my blessed Saviour in exercising his justice upon my two worldly parts, my fortune and my body, reserves all his mercy for that which most needs it, my soul! which is, I doubt, too like a porter, that is very often near the gate, and yet goes not out. Sir, I profess to you truly that my loathness to give over writing now seems to myself a sign that I shall write no more.
Your poor friend, and
God’s poor patient,
Sept. 7. JOHN DONNE.”
By this you have seen a part of the picture of his narrow fortune, and the perplexities of his generous mind: and thus it continued with him for about two years, all which time his family remained constantly at Mitcham; and to which place he often retired himself, and destined some days to a constant study of some points of controversy betwixt the English and Roman Church, and especially those of Supremacy and Allegiance: and to that place and such studies he could willingly have wedded himself during his life; but the earnest persuasion of friends became at last to be so powerful as to cause the removal of himself and family to London, where Sir Robert Drewry, a gentleman of a very noble estate, and a more liberal mind, assigned him and his wife an useful apartment in his own large house in Drury Lane, and not only rent free, but was also a cherisher of his studies, and such a friend sympathised with him and his, in all their joy and sorrows.
Note 1. 1648