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CHILD HOOD 1573–1589


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History presents us with no instance of a man of letters more obviously led up to by the experience and character of his ancestors than was John Donne. As we have him revealed to us, he is what a genealogist might wish him to be. Every salient feature in his mind and temperament is foreshadowed by the general trend of his family, or by the idiosyncrasy of some individual member of it. On both sides he was sprung from Catholics of the staunch old stock, animated by a settled horror of reform and by a determination to oppose it. For these views, held, apparently without exception, by all his maternal relations since the early days of Henry VIII., there were no sacrifices which were not to be made cheerfully, promptly. “No family,” says Donne himself in 1610, “which is not of far larger extent and greater branches, hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes for obeying the teachers of Roman doctrine.” This habitual stress and tension had given to the members of this class—men and women of exceptional cultivation—an independence of opinion which bordered upon eccentricity, a contempt for English standards. of religion and literature, a habit of looking to the Continent for intellectual stimulus, a manner of life superficially silken to excess, but tantalisingly abrupt and inscrutable in its movements. We see these characteristics in the Rastells' and the Heywoods, but we find them superlatively in that illustrious descendant of theirs who is the subject of these pages. What has just been said of the heritage of Donne from 3

his ancestors is mainly and obviously true of those on the maternal side. Nothing leads us to question that it was disturbed by anything on the paternal side; but here we are left to conjecture. Of the parentage of the poet's father nothing whatever is known. His name was John. As he possessed two maiden aunts—one a Dawson, the other a Cooper—his father (whose Christian name is unknown) must have married twice. He had a married brother, who left an orphan daughter, Alice Donne, who was still a child in 1576, and who is heard of no more. There were in Oxford some Dawsons with whom he kept up relations, and therefore the Dawson wife was probably the elder John Donne's mother. It seems possible that Edward Dawson, the Jesuit of Louvain, was a relative. Two cousins, Edward Dawson and his sister, Grace Dawson, were “decayed" and “aged persons” when the Dean of St. Paul's made his will in 1630. Another cousin, Jane Kent, had long lived with his mother as her maid. With these facts our extremely scanty knowledge of the poet's paternal forebears ceases, except that we know them to have been Catholics. It is pure conjecture that John Donne was sprung from the ancient family of the Dwnns of Dwynn, in Radnorshire. There is one circumstance which favours the theory that he descended from the Duns or Dwnns of Kidwelly, in Caermarthenshire, namely, that their arms, a wolf salient, and a chief argent, were borne by Donne when he was Dean of St. Paul's. But if he had believed that he was able to prove himself to have been of knightly family, he would doubtless have done so. And it is noticeable that he never claims relationship with his prominent contemporary, Sir Daniel Donne, the Master of Requests, nor with John Donne of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, who was Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to James I. The fact, doubtless, was that Donne's father made his own way in trade, and had no ostensible claim to any mark of gentility. The name— variously spelt Donne, Don, Done, Dun, Dunne, Dwnne, and Dwynne—was a much commoner one in the sixteenth century than it has been since. A John Donne or Dwwnn, of Welsh descent, who was killed fighting in Flanders in - . 1576, may, conceivably, have been the poet's uncle. But, , ,

on the whole, we must take the statement of Walton that
“the reader may be pleased to know that the poet's father
was masculinely and lineally descended from a very ancient
family in Wales” as breathing no more than a pious wish.
For practical purposes the Donnes were reputable Catholics
of the middle class, trading in the city of London.
It was very different on the maternal side. Here the
child was hemmed in by a cloud of intense and distinguished
witnesses to the faith of their fathers, persons who had
suffered and striven, who had achieved in no small measure
the laurel as well as the palm. One can imagine nothing
more stimulating to the imagination of such a lad as Donne
than to walk in the light which

“Beat bright upon the burning faces”

of the martyrs, poets, scholars, and enthusiasts of his race
down ###. great-grandmother,
who was born in 1482, had been Elizabeth, sister of the
illustrious Sir Thomas More. Elizabeth More married
a friend and fanatical follower of the great Chancellor,
John Rastell, the printer and lawyer. He was a wealthy
man, and expended money as well as energy in defending
Catholic doctrine against the Reformers. In 1534 he sup-
ported Sir Thomas More in his opposition to the Act of
Supremacy, and shared his ruin. When the Chancellor
was beheaded on the 6th of July 1535, Rastell was still
in captivity, and he died in prison in 1536. This man,
John Rastell (or Rastall) the elder, was an impetuous
controversialist, and like his more eminent grandson by
marriage, John Heywood, took an interest in the infancy
of the drama. Of his interludes, one at least survives.
In Holbein's group of the family of Sir Thomas More,
a young woman, with an irregular, eager face, stands at the
Chancellor's right hand, and impulsively points out to him
a passage in a book with her extended finger. Her anima-
tion is oddly contrasted with the passive modesty of her
companions, the daughters of More. This was Margaret

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