Some more notes on Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

  1. I. Insultus Morbi primus; The first alteration, The first grudging of the sicknesse.

 “I stand in the way of tentations, (naturally, necessarily, all men doe so: for there is a Snake in every path, tentations in every vocation) but I go, I run, I flie into the ways of tentation, which I might shun; nay, I breake into houses, wher the plague is; I presse into places of tentation, and tempt the devil himself, and solicite & importune them, who had rather be left unsolicited by me. I fall sick of Sin, and am bedded and bedrid, buried and putrified in the practice of Sin, and all this while have no presage, no pulse, no sense of my sicknesse…” (I. Expostulation)

Donne’s first Devotion emphasizes his sense of haplessness in the face of disease– not necessarily in his inability to cure it, but in his inability to have seen it coming. Rather than shrink from life altogether, Donne instead describes himself as running directly “into the ways of tentation,” thus exposing himself directly to the contagion of sin. His description of the plague-ridden house initially reads as a simple metaphor for the sinful body, corrupt through and through. And yet, Donne’s words should be considered within the context of the contemporary belief that that plague was a symptom of or punishment for one’s sinful behavior. What appears to be a simple binary equivalency is, in reality, a complex semiotic construction that conflates causes with symptoms and origins with vectors. In Donne’s Devotions, plague is almost never entirely figurative because the author was dealing with a very real affliction racking his body; his soul, on the other hand, receives “no presage, no pulse” of its status, leading Donne to cast about desperately for a sign of corruption within.


John Donne’s funerary monument, which depicts him in his funeral shroud. Donne posed for the piece while still alive.


Donne’s continued reference to houses in part recalls the strict measures outlined in England’s Plague Orders, first issued in 1578 (Slack 209). Among other things, the Orders imposed quarantine regulations upon houses which were “visited” (or suspected to have been) by the plague for up to forty days. Inhabitants were not allowed to leave, and the said houses were constantly monitored by “plague-wardens” patrolling the streets of London. The act of breaking into a plague-ridden house, as Donne describes himself doing, would not only be counter-intuitive but criminal. Mercutio’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet, “A plague o’ both your houses,” (III.i.1593), is most commonly interpreted as a supremely vitriolic curse; a tempting reinterpretation would take into account the armistice forced by the quarantine, effectively staying the violence between the two sides.

The above passage in particular is characterized by palpable tension between the volition of the body versus that of the soul. The author’s sin is not a passive sin, but one to which he is drawn like a moth to flame. Furthermore, the fact that the plague represents both sin and its consequence further heightens the sense of fatalism in these lines. Indeed, the evocation of Exodus 12 seems most plausible in this Expostulation, where Donne refuses to be “passed over” or exempt from the wrath of the plague. Early modern descriptions of contagious sites as being “visited” reminds one that the visitor was God in addition to the pestilence. By breaking into such houses, Donne reaffirms his commitment to finding God not only despite his sin but through it, and his forced entry is a means of violent introspection that invites infection rather than avoiding it.

Ultimately, Donne’s words seem to provide little consolation, either for the reader or for their author. Everyone, it would seem, inhabits a plague-ridden house, and he is far more guilty than most. Before despairing entirely, however, he pauses to remind himself to trust in his house/body’s keeper, considering, “we are all prodigall sonnes, and not disinherited [. . .] we are God’s tenants here, and yet here, he, our Land-Lord, payes us Rents.” (Expostulation I). Despite his sense of claustrophobic isolation, the sickly Donne has not been disinherited by God. Indeed, he reasons that all bodies are merely rented dwellings to be exchanged someday for the chance to reside in God’s temple. The idea of God as the omnipresent landlord might have been reassuring for the victim who was otherwise dispossessed of everything, including his/her own body. And yet, it might also have stood as a dark reminder of the subjective upheaval disease was capable of producing, especially in regards to property and privacy. In short, Donne’s seemingly desperate vision of himself charging into a quarantine zone captures much of the existential and spiritual anxiety of disease survivors in seventeenth century London–in which utter isolation and violations of privacy and subjectivity often coincided. The house, which normally afforded the opportunity for privacy, was now subject to inspections and surveillance. The seeming lack of privacy seems contradicted, however, by the constant sense of abandonment and the fear of contagion, as Donne later observes in Devotion V: “As Sicknesse is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sicknes is solitude; when the infectiousnes of the disease deterrs them who should assist, from comming; Even the Phisician dares scarse come” (Meditation V).

The plague epidemic often collapsed the distinction between event and locus; Donne’s choice of a devotional writing style perhaps seems most appropriate for this reason, given that he explores the microcosmic world within himself even as he reflects upon its fragility. In many ways Donne’s first entry in the Devotions Upon Emergent  Occasions is most reflective of the body in flux, observing not only the body as physically susceptible to change when afflicted, but the mind and the spirit as well. Donne finds reassurance in his writings, but he also finds confusion, consternation, and wonder.

Donne’s Poem to Dr. Andrews: Some Thoughts

This is an excerpt from a page in progress on John Donne from my dissertation. Any thoughts on the Latin version would be appreciated; let me know if you want the original posted.

At one point in his life Donne lent a book to a friend of his, “Dr. Andrews,” whose children proceeded to tear it to pieces. It was afterwards “returned in manuscript,” implying that the doctor had taken the time to copy the printed book by hand as an apology for the mishap. The poem, which is both poignant and rich in its insights pertaining to the soulfulness of the manuscript versus the soullessness of the book, is worth quoting in full:

Damp from the press is born the current book,

But manuscripts wear a more reverent look.

To the Seine Mœnus passed, to Louis’ home,

From thence to Frankfort, in thy hands to roam.

The book which, dyed with printer’s ink, is thrust

On shelves abandoned to the moths and dust,

If writ with pen it reach us, is respected,

And straight in ancient father’s chests protected.

Apollo must explain how boys can pour

On a new book long years and aspect hoar.

No wonder that a doctor’s sons we see

Able to give new book new destiny.

If boys make old the recent, their sire’s art

To me an old man may new youth impart.

Ah, poor old men! harsh age turns us, forsooth,

To thy second childhood all, ne’er one to youth.

Tis Thy prerogative, Ancient of Days,

With life and youth to crown who on Thee gaze.

The weariness of this frail life meanwhile

With books and love heaven-during we beguile;

Mid which that little book thou dost restore

Ne’er was so dear, so much my own, before.[1]

[1]   The original poem is in Latin; here I refer to the translation by Alexander Grosart in The Complete Poems of John Donne, printed for private circulation by Robson and Sons, 1873.

Grosart’s translation, while witty in its rhyme scheme, nevertheless lacks the visceral charge of Donne’s original Latin verse. Although it was not unusual for Donne to write in Latin, his choice of languages seems more appropriate for a poem written from a man of the church to a man of medicine. Latin would have carried a special relevance in terms of their vocations, and either person would have appreciated the layered, etymological resonance behind Donne’s words which were inextricably tied to the hermeneutics of the body. Naturally, then, the poem begins with a birth.

The newborn book arrives “damp from the press, “comparing the wet ink of the printing press stickiness of the infant.[1] Grosart’s periodic syntax places less emphasis on the birth itself, instead drawing attention to the book’s emergent, unformed state. Donne’s Latin “Parturiunt,” on the other hand, evokes the act of labor, with “madido” emphasizing the soaking or saturated quality of the paper. The description would almost seem to validate the effort of the press as a labor of love, except that the printed book is quickly relegated to the shelves soon after its arrival in the world, “abandoned to the moths and dust.”[2] By omitting the narrative of the manuscript’s birth, the latter’s creation has the sense of being immaculate– holy in its effortlessness.

As is befitting a sacred text, it also wears a “more reverent look,” destined for travel and circulation from the Seine to Frankfurt. H.W. Garrod lends an intriguing reading of Donne’s references to the river, translating them as: “The Maine has become tributary to the Seine; brought back the captive of your triumph, even Frankfurt passes to the halls of its conquerer” (40). The reference to Frankfurt, according to his interpretation, is a reference to Gutenberg’s home and thus to the birth of the printed book: “When Dr. Andrews replaced a printed book by a manuscript worthy to stand with the manuscripts of the Fathers of the church, he undid (Donne would have him believe) the work of Gutenberg, he beat the printers, he won victory confessed over all sellers of printed books” (41). Although a consensus on the meaning of these lines will likely remain elusive, even the lay-reader can intuit the sense of liberated mobility afforded to the handwritten book compared to its static counterpart.

At this point Donne throws in a little bit of comic relief, joking that boys have seemingly rewritten the book’s “new destiny” by having torn it apart. It stands to reason that their father was a physician. Unfortunately for Donne the boys have little power to transform his own destiny, unlike that of the book. The irony, in fact, is that books themselves represent a temporary “stay” against the confusion of old age― “with books and love” we distract ourselves from our “frail life.” As the single earthly artifact capable of being restored/corrected, Donne cherishes it: “Ne’er was so dear, so much my own, before.” Thus, it is only through the painstakingly personal labor of handwriting which restores the book to its owner in an even more beloved state.

Overall, the poem is a lighthearted one– meant to reassure a friend who was guilt-ridden enough by his children’s actions to complete re-write a desecrated volume by hand. On the other hand, it also sheds light on the complex, triadic relationship between the textual body as a circulating, translated, and evolving entity. In this case the book experiences the restoration of its youth and even a form of resurrection– opportunities which are not readily afforded to its mortal reader. As Garrod observes, Donne was feeling poorly during his time in Paris, which is likely when this poem was written (41). Perhaps the presence of this stubborn illness kept him grounded, unable to experience the transitory freedom of his book. If this were the case, it offers a more sentimental reading of the final lines, in which Donne’s book is restored to him, more dear than before; his Latin “redditus” denotes the act of renting, reciprocation, or return. Although Grosart’s translation properly conveys the restorative quality of the doctor’s rewrite, the original poem perhaps possesses a tinge of gladness for the book’s voluntary return after its extensive circulation.

[1] The word “præla” ostensibly refers to a printing press, although it could arguably mean a press of any type (such as a wine press or olive press). The press served as an important metaphor for Augustine, who described the “olive press of the Lord our God” as a means of separating under pressure the “oil of believers” from the “murmuring and blasphemy” of unbelievers (“Letter 111.2”). In Expostulation V from his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Donne compares his solitude to that of Christ, quoting Isaiah LXIII.3: It was for thy blessed, thy powerful Son alone, to tread the wine-press alone, and none of the people with him.”

[2] The Latin mentions “blattis,” meaning cockroach, in lieu of “moths,” implying that the book is decaying in death rather than simply disintegrating out of neglect.