“No man is an island.” However familiar this observation, few except students of English literature would recognize it as coming from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. That may be because today Donne is remembered more for his metaphysical poetry than for his spiritual exercises, and we are more inclined to think of a rakish Jack Donne than of an earnest dean of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral and author of the devotions. Nevertheless, the dean had the temperament of the poet, and his spiritual exercises exhibited the imaginative concreteness, intellectual tautness, and dramatic immediacy of his poetry. As in the poetry, puns and metaphors abound; images build on images; analogies and correspondences between the material and the spiritual world are discovered and elaborated. Even the poetry’s familiar themes are evident: the transience of human existence, the illusory character of the phenomenal world, and the ubiquity of death and dissolution.
There was, however, no work with more personal immediacy for Donne thanDevotions upon Emergent Occasions. Their circumstance was a sudden sickness, thought to have been either typhus or relapsing fever, that brought him near death in the winter of 1523. Donne was then in his third year as Saint Paul’s dean and in the tenth year of his ministry. Not that Donne had aspired to church or pulpit. He contemplated holy orders at first reluctantly and then principally at the urging of the king, James I. Nevertheless, the interpretation he gave to this first vocational crisis is consistent with the thoroughness with which he gave himself to the Church. “[T]hou who hadst put that desire into [the King’s] heart didst also put into mine, an obedience to it.” His almost exclusive occupation with sacred themes after his ordination indicates how earnest he was when in his own words he turned from “the mistress of my youth, Poesie, to the wife of mine age, Divinity.” Because he believed himself called to God’s service, the serious illness of his fifty-first year had a vocational as well as a personal significance for the author. “Why callest thou me from my calling?” “In the door of the grave, this sickbed, no Man shall hear me praise thee.” The author’s “calling” to the Church intermingles with thoughts about the soul’s vocation and final destiny.
So vividly presented are the successive stages of the sickness that one is tempted to take the contemporary biographer Izaak Walton at his word, that the devotions were composed on the sickbed. The probability is that they were written during Donne’s convalescence. The work consisted of a dedication to Prince Charles, later king; the Latin Stationes, or table of contents in the shape of a poem; and the text proper, containing twenty-three devotions, which are further divided into meditations, expostulations, and prayers. The meditations open each devotion with a report on the sickness or with a reflection on the human condition; the expostulations anatomize the soul’s spiritual condition; and the prayers express the soul’s willing conformity to God’s proceedings. Collectively, the devotions chart the disease and its treatment over the twenty-three days of sickness, beginning with the first evident alteration in the patient’s condition. Almost as if making diary entries, Donne details each day. The patient takes to his bed; the physician is called. Other physicians are brought in for consultation, and these are joined by the king’s own physician. The disease worsens imperceptibly; a cordial is administered for the heart, and pigeons are applied to the feet to draw off humors from the head. Spots appear and the crisis deepens. Tolling bells of a nearby church signal the death of a neighbor. The physicians detect hopeful signs, and at last the patient rises from bed, as Lazarus from the grave, but with warning of the danger of relapsing.
The meditations thus detail the patient’s physical state or his treatment; they take the body as a type or figure for the self and the human condition, and they usually reflect not directly on religious themes but on secular ones. The third meditation, for example, focuses on the patient taking to his bed, on the likeness of the grave to the sickbed, and on the contrariness between the prone position of the sick and the natural upright position to which God created us. The Renaissance commonplace that “man is a little world” is the motif for the fourth meditation. How much greater than nature are human beings, whose thoughts reach around the globe and from earth to heaven, and how strange it is that they have need of physicians, when even wild creatures are physicians to themselves. At every point, we are confronted by our paradoxical nature, at once a wonder of the world and a fickle, variable thing, prone to sudden alteration, dissolution, decay, and decomposition. “Let [the self] be a world,” we read in the eighth meditation, “and him self be the land, and misery the sea.” The waters of the sea swell above the hills, whelming kings and commoners alike, for all are dust, “coagulated and kneaded into earth, by tears.”
The meditations take measure of the human condition: “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man!” Throughout, the human condition is discovered in the condition of the human body, the principal analogue for the meditator’s larger text, God’s Second Book, the historical world of time and space. The expostulations repeat the themes or the motifs of the meditations for, in Donne’s words, “the body dost effigiate my soul to me.” The expostulations, however, are more passionate, more urgent than the meditations. In the expostulations, for example, the meditator exegetes Scripture and anatomizes the spirit’s health: The soul hangs in the balance. Thus, nature’s inconstancy is the theme of a meditation arising from the sudden...
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