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.

Thou disease of a friend…

Some thoughts on the significance and power of Flaminus’ curse

In Scene 5 we witness a rather heart-wrenching display of loyalty from Flaminius, a servant of Timon’s. Flaminus has just tried and failed to convince Lucullus to lend Timon money; after the latter tries to bribe the former into “seeing him not,” Flaminius curses him in a bitter rage. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

FLAMINUS. May these add to the number that may scald thee.
Let molten coin be thy damnation,
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself.
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights? O you gods,
I feel my master’s passion! This slave
Unto this hour has my lord’s meat in him.
Why should it thrive and turn to nutriment,
When he is turned to poison?
O, may diseases only work upon’t;
And when he’s sick to death, let not that part of nature
Which my lord paid for be of any power
To expel sickness, but prolong his hour. (5.50-62)

These lines once again plunge us into the prevailing trope of the body as it is seen from the inside-out, conjuring up the image of meat turning to poison within the stomach while “prolonging the hour” of the victim. Throwing the coins back at Lucullus, Flaminus vows that they “scald” their lord as “molten coin.” The invocation of infernal heat, combined with Flaminus’ epithet for Lucullus (“Thou disease of a friend”) recalls the favored early modern treatment for syphilis– hot water tubs and thermal soaks. A certain “A.T., practitioner in physicke,” prescribes molten allum, strained through a “coulender, or else thorough some course linnen cloth, and put yt into a Gallypot or Glasse” as a remedy for sores or bruises. Lucullus, in Flaminus’ eyes, is no better than a walking infestation of the pox.

Dürer's "Syphilis", c. 1496

Dürer’s “Syphilis”, c. 1496

At this point Flaminus’ description takes a peculiar turn. Rather than curse Lucullus’ life, Flaminus expresses his desire for a sort of living death. In a moment which exemplifies many early modern attitudes toward disease, the servant wishes contamination upon the contaminator, desiring for the meat to turn sour within the lord’s stomach. The curse, paradoxically, turns the concept of a “cure” on its head, given that Renaissance remedies often often incorporated potentially dangerous components with a “fight fire with fire” mindset. Common recipes for treacle, for example, traditionally contained viper flesh as a primary ingredient in the hopes that its poisonous properties would counter the poison of any infectious agent. As it stands, any diseased meat would serve to partially combat the lord’s inherent sickness, though it would not cure him completely. Flaminus’ words thus condemn Lucullus to a life of extended misery as if two infectious vipers were to forever battle within his body.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a "medical symbol." In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a “medical symbol.” In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

The idea of diseased human flesh corrupting the body of its consumer also resonates with an early modern Italian text, “Capricci medicinali”, studied at length by William Eamon in his article “Cannibalism and Contagion: Framing Syphilis in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Written by “Bolognese surgeon,” Leonardo Fioravanti, the text “advanced the strange and novel theory that the syphilis epidemic was caused by cannibalism” (3). Fioravanti’s theory is ultimately based upon the notion of linked taboos; as cannibalism epitomized the most grotesque of stigmatized behaviors in early modern Europe, so it followed that the most grotesque of stigmatized diseases must be inevitably related. Such causality had value on a figurative level as well; as Fioravanti’s experiments seemed to confirm that cannibalism resulted in syphilitic symptoms within the body, his rationale could be extended to include the body politic. As Eamon summarizes:

“Fioravanti believed that the cause of Italy’s moral and political decline was an internal pollution that began in the courts and spread outward to contaminate the entire commonwealth. Just as the ‘bad quality of the stomach’ spreads its contagion to all the body’s organs, so corrupt rulers and their fawning courtiers ruined the whole body politic” (20).

The fluid ease with which Fioravanti transitions between discussions of the body physical and the larger, more dynamic political body is unsurprising to the reader accustomed to blurring between medical and social contexts typical of the era. What is most interesting in this case is the direct link Fioravanti supposes between the consumption of human flesh and the resulting pox-like symptoms– one of the more unique theories of its kind. The text in many ways sheds a different light upon Flaminus’ words, in which he desires diseases to work upon Timon’s meat in Lucullus’ stomach. More than the curse of indigestion, Flaminus’ injunction addresses the offending body politic as a whole, essentially foreshadowing a shared stigma among the lords who had voluntarily “tasted Timon” without regard for reciprocity. Anticipating Timon’s later curse, Flaminus has essentially wished a morbid and painful fate upon all of the gluttonous, and arguably cannibalistic, denizens of Athens.