First of all, I must admit that I don't much care for John's poems. But he's important to know--after all, he was the leader, so to speak, of the metaphysical1 school of poetry and by all accounts, a nice guy. He was described as a very charming and companionable person, even if he was raised Catholic2. Though he attended the very prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge3, he was unable to take a degree either place because his family objected on religious grounds to the oath of allegiance all graduates had to take. Undaunted, John began to study law in 1592, in hopes of landing a state job, or perhaps even a court position4. He also frittered away some of his time messing about with some poetry.
His introduction into the fast lane was rather slow in coming5. It wasn't until 1597 that he finally got any kind of a job, and that was working as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Sir Thomas was a great and impressive statesman, being Lord Keeper of the Great Seal6 and a real mover and shaker of the times7. So naturally, if you were his secretary, eloping with his niece would be a bad thing to do. Unfortunately, our hero did just that, running off with and marrying Anne More, daughter of Sir George More and niece of Sir Thomas' second wife. To make matters worse, Anne was underage, so her irate father promptly had John arrested for marrying a minor without the consent of her guardians8. He wrote his bride a despondent letter from prison, ending it with "John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done"9. John didn't stay in prison long, but even when he got out, his old job was pretty much out of the question. So he and his rapidly growing family10 lived mostly in poverty for the next fourteen years.
John tried his best to make a living by writing poems for patrons, but he was really too proud to be properly obsequious to these patrons. Finally, he succumbed to the urgings of all his friends and relatives11 and became an ordained minister of the Church of England in 1615. Just two years later, his beloved Anne died12. Her death brought John's long-time obsession with death to the surface13, and it showed in his sermons14 as well as his poems. It also showed in the decor of his room. Shortly before his death in 1631, John obtained an urn, his own burial shroud, and an artist. Wrapping himself in the shroud, John posed standing atop the urn and had the artist draw him a nice charcoal sketch of himself. This macabre piece of artwork stayed at John's bedside throughout his final illness.
John was a man very much torn between the worldly and the spiritual, and this really shows in his poems15. He also felt the effects of his Catholic upbringing all his life16. So things did not go smoothly for him. But, thanks largely to T.S. Eliot, people are at least reading his stuff again.