Historical Background

Donne was born into the Elizabethan age, an age populated by the greatest writers since classical times: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, and Kyd. However, England was at this time as divided in religion as it was united in artistic endeavour. Henry VIII's split from Rome had created a rift in the very fabric of the English nation which was not to be resolved until the nineteenth century. Mary, Elizabeth's older sister, had been a fervent Catholic, persecuting remorselessly the Protestants in her domain. Elizabeth was an Anglican and she and her successor, James I, set in place many strict laws to limit the power of Catholics in England. They had good cause - Catholics orchestrated several of the assassination plots against these rulers, most famously the Gunpowder Plot, but also an attempt on the life of Elizabeth in 1571.

There was also a sense of millenarianism at this time. After the death of Elizabeth, a ruler who was revered by the public and who bred devotion in all those who served her, people began to become aware of time seeming to slow down. After the heady days of Elizabeth's rule, James was seen as a listless and uncertain king. References to the apocalypse and general spiritual malaise can be found throughout Donne's work.

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