The Canonization

by John Donne

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What is the reference to a "plaguy bill" in John Donne's "The Canonization"?

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In Donne's day (the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries) it was widely believed that warm, humid conditions caused disease. Of course, germ theory was some time away from being developed, and nobody really understood how diseases were transmitted. So it made sense that the temperature of summer, when such diseases as malaria were rampant, was the cause of these ailments. In this passage, Donne is essentially asking a critic of his love affair with a woman, "what is it hurting for me to be in love?" He says that no "merchant ships" have been sunk by his sighs of love, and his tears have not caused any floods. The "heat" of love has not added to the "plaguy bill." The "plaguy bill" is a sort of list of the people who have died from disease, so in other words, his love has not killed him or anyone else. His friend seems to be suggesting that his love is going to consume him like a disease, ruining his life, and Donne is dismissing this possibility. He goes on to say that soldiers will continue to fight wars and lawyers will continue to contest lawsuits—the world will go on even though he's fallen in love.

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John Donne's "The Canonization" is a poem loosely based on Catullus 5 (nb: Catullus' poems are given numbers or referenced by their Latin incipit rather than given English style titles).

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men ...

In Donne`s poem, however, rather than youthful love being criticized by old men, the young are criticizing the narrator for being old and in love. Like Catullus, though, the narrator uses an extended set of metaphors to argue that he is harming no one by loving. (Alas, alas, who's injur'd by my love?)

His tears have not caused floods nor swamped ships and his shivers have not delayed spring planting. The warmth (heat) of his love has not caused fevers and added to the bill, or death toll, of plagues (contagious epidemics).

 

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