Today John Donne is best known first as one of the English language’s greatest poets, but in the seventeenth century he was also celebrated as a letter-writer. Given Donne’s background, the letterwriting is unsurprising, for like many of his educated contemporaries, he spent time working as a secretary—to the top-ranking legal official in England, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. While working for Egerton Donne fell in love, and fell into a scandal that threatened to wreck his life. The scandal also prompted him to write a flurry of letters that are among the Folger’s most prized possessions.
In December 1601, John Donne secretly married Anne More, the niece of his employer’s wife. Unable or unwilling to face his father-in-law in person, Donne did what any good secretary would do – he broke the news of his marriage in a letter. In it, Donne begged Sir George not to “destroy” him and Anne, since “it is easy to give us happiness.” His efforts were to no avail. Sir George did not approve of his daughter’s marriage, since Donne, the son of a London ironmonger, had a reputation as a womanizer and a possible Catholic. As a result, Donne was fired from his job as secretary and thrown into London’s Fleet Prison. In a series of eight letters, Donne argues for his freedom, his job, and his wife. Although he eventually reconciled with his father-in-law, Donne was unemployed for the next thirteen years, forced to rely on the generosity of friends and relatives. His marriage lasted until 1617, when Anne died in childbed. Devastated by the loss, the poet never remarried.