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^ John Donne as a Patient: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions William B. Ober Toward the end of 1623, probably in late November, John Donne, then fifty-one years old, for two years Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, was stricken with an acute, febrile, infectious, life-threatening illness.1 His mind remained clear and active, and as R. C. Bald's biography tells us, he jotted down notes "at fever heat."2 He seems to have been out of danger by Christmas, and during his slow convalescence he systematically organized his thoughts and recollections about his illness into a book titled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which was entered in the Stationers Register on January 9, 1624, and was presumably off the presses shortly thereafter. Sir Geoffrey Keynes has offered the opinion that the first edition was small, rapidly exhausted, and required reprinting before the end of the year.3 A third edition appeared in 1626, a fourth in 1634, three years after Donne's death, and a fifth in 1638. The Devotions did not again appear in print for two centuries, the sixth being Dean Alford's edition of Donne's works in 1839. It was followed by the attractive Chiswick Press edition in 1840, and an eighth edition was published at Oxford in 1841. It was not until 1923 when John Sparrow's edition was printed that the Devotions was available to the general reader in a well-annotated modern text.4 Anthony Raspa's recent recension is entirely satisfactory.5 The chronology of publication reflects Donne's fluctuating reputation . His Jacobean style was unpopular during the Commonwealth, unfashionable in the Restoration, and the substance of his ideas remote from eighteenth-century rationalism. In 1777, when a consortium of London publishers planned the publication of the corpus of English poetry for which Johnson's Lives of the Poets was commissioned, Donne's name was not included. A major lacuna in the critical literature is the absence of Johnson's analysis and verdict on Donne, except en passant in his life of Cowley. The cluster of three editions of the Devotions circa 1840 had little impact on Victorian sensibility. Donne's reputation began to revive shortly Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 21-37 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 22 JOHN DONNE AS A PATIENT before World War I, and Sparrow's edition is a by-product of the renewed interest in metaphysical poetry. Fluctuations in literary reputation are a recurrent phenomenon in academic circles. Each new generation awards its laurels to those writers from the past who serve its present needs and values. In his Letter to Robert Frost the late Robert Hillyer follows some rueful couplets on the shifting judgments of his contemporaries with: With what astonishment we witnessed Donne, A poet we have always counted on, Whisked from his niche among the second shelves, And placed with Chaucer, Shakespeare,—and ourselves!6 The devotions are twenty-three in number, an unusual integer for a set of literary or spiritual exercises. Is it an allusion to Psalm 23—"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil"? The notion is apposite to the substance of the text. But it is equally possible that the number was chosen because the acute phase of Donne's illness lasted twenty-three days. Yet, if so, the number of days would have suggested the psalm to Donne's sensibility. Each devotion is in three sections: A meditation, in which Donne comments on his illness and his reaction to being ill; an expostulation, in which he relates his illness to its spiritual meanings; and a prayer, in which he turns to God and accepts his will. Various writers have traced the tripartite form to the pattern set by Ignatius Loyola's spiritual exercises (composition, analysis, and colloquy), an observation consistent with Donne's having been raised in the Roman Catholic faith from which he apostasized as a young man.7 Unlike a sermon a devotion is not preached viva voce to an audience; it is written to be read in private. Donne published few of his poems and sermons during his lifetime; the poems circulated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 21-37
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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