John Donne's position as one of the greatest of English poets is unquestioned, but there is a much greater ambivalence about his religious and spiritual commitments. Some have seen his religious writing as deeply devotional and meditative, while others have found him to be 'not remarkable for any spiritual gifts and graces' and have dismissed his writing as "feigned devotion." Donne's life serves as a model of religious growth and how religiosity can impact and trigger devotions and passions in the rest of one's life. His poems have also been known to touch the spiritual and religious lives of many a reader.
Donne was born into a Catholic family in 1572 and was very familiar with contemporary prejudice against that faith. He went to Oxford at an early age but was unable to graduate because he was a Catholic. In due course he broke away from the faith and became an Anglican. He was ordained in 1615 and served as Dean of St. Paul's in London from 1621 until his death in 1631. Controversy remains as to whether he was simply a fair-weather convert to Anglicanism and whether he was really as tolerant of religious diversity in later life as some of his published sermons suggest. The controversy is compounded by the apparent gulf between the "worldliness" of his early life and the devotion to religion of his later years. As a young man, he trained in the law, served on military expeditions, traveled widely in Europe, became a Member of Parliament, and was described by a contemporary, Sir Richard Baker, as "a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of conceited verses." However, he ruined a promising career in 1601 by an injudicious marriage to his employer's niece, and it is sometimes suggested that he took Holy Orders only as a last resort after years of poverty and failure to win advancement at court. As Dean of St. Paul's he achieved some of the fame that had eluded him earlier, and his sermons drew large crowds.
Apart from some miscellaneous writings, Donne's poetry is usually categorized as either love poetry or religious poetry, and the assumption behind the categorization is that the love poetry belongs to his youth and the religious poetry to his more mature years. But this is an oversimplification, as the dating of the poems bears out. Both love and religious poems combine the same intellectual insight, emotional intensity, and spiritual significance, though they tend also to be arrogant and self-absorbed. Donne is profoundly (though not exclusively) interested in the spiritual dimensions of human love, as his poems "Aire and Angels" and "The Relic" indicate, as well as in divine love. One thing that binds the love poetry and the religious poetry into a unified body of work is the fact that erotic sexuality is often symbolic of religious experience, and vice versa. In "Holy Sonnet XIV"' he famously calls on God to ravish him, but in his erotic "Elegy XIX" he compares the "full nakedness" of his mistress once she has stripped off her last remaining garment to a soul free at last from the encumbrance of the body.
The movement from human to divine or from physical to spiritual lies at the heart of "Holy Sonnet XVII," in which the poet shows how his love for his wife Ann led him to seek God and how God's love has filled the vacuum left by her death. However, the link between the physical and spiritual worlds goes deeper than this. Donne's sermons demonstrate a profound interest in the theology of incarnation, and it is clear that for him it is through the body that the divine is revealed to us. Just as God is revealed in the person of Christ and just as the truth of the resurrection was brought home to doubting Thomas when he was able to touch the wounded hands and side of the risen Lord, so our understanding of the mysteries of spiritual love is extended through physical, human love (cf. "The Extasie"). Similarly, it is through the reunion of the parted lovers at the end of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" that we gain an understanding of the eventual reunion of body and soul on the day of resurrection. The physical world in all its diversity is for Donne a mirror that reflects an image of spiritual reality.