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j^r Distance on the Look of Death Murray D. Arndt I John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is a series of twentythree carefully framed reflections on his experience with the disease that gravely threatened his life during 1623. They present with enormous immediacy the confusion, weakness, and loneliness occasioned by the illness and the terror precipitated by the very real possibility of dying. At times, as in the fifth devotion, Donne's reflection on the loneliness of serious illness brings the tension and pain so near the surface as to be nearly unbearable: It was for thy blessed, thy powerful Sonne alone, to tread the wine-presse alone, and none of the people with him; I am not able to passe this agony alone; not alone without thee; Thou art thy spirit; not alone without thine; spiritual! and temporal! Phisicians, are thine; not alone without mine; Those whom the bands of blood, or friendship, hath made mine, are mine; And if thou, or thine, or mine, abandon me, I am alone; and wo unto me, if I bee alone.1 It was at the height of his career in the Church of England that Donne fell prey to a dread disease. Almost immediately he seems to have understood its deadly nature. He was attended from the beginning by the best physicians (the King's), who exposed his body to all manner of remedies. Eventually, because or in spite of these treatments, Donne survived the ordeal. Characteristically, as soon as he was able, indeed during the course of his illness, Donne recorded what was happening to him and reflected with great care on what it all meant sub specie aeternitatis. Only months after his recovery in 1624 he published these recollections under the title Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The work is, I think, an instructive paradigm of his lifelong failure to resolve some wrenching inner pain. Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 38-49 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Murray D. Arndt 39 The poet was born in 1572, into an England rife with intellectual and religious turmoil. In a time of sharp persecution of Roman Catholics, his family proudly traced its ancestry and its faith through Donne's mother to the martyred Thomas More. During Donne's youth the family was deeply engaged with the Jesuit Order and a priesthood driven underground ; in fact, his brother Henry died in prison, where he was being held and tortured for hiding a priest in his rooms. Donne was educated at Oxford and Lincoln's Inn and by 1595 had begun to live the life of a London gentleman. Almost immediately, however, his Catholicism proved a severe impediment, and by 1597 under economic, political, and religious pressures, he converted to Anglicanism. He was married soon after to Anne More under painful circumstances; in the immediately ensuing years he found only intermittent employment, was a sometime member of Parliament, and traveled fitfully. In 1615, after long urgings from patrons and considerable personal resistance, he allowed himself to be ordained an Anglican priest. His rise in the Church was meteoric, climaxed by his appointment as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral under the patronage of James I. He died after a long illness in 1631. The John Donne whom modern readers generally encounter is the great "metaphysical" poet, maker of tantalizingly sexual poems and of wonderfully inventive if sometimes strained metaphors, insistent lover, a controller of situations, arch, superior, bitingly satirical, the central actor in dramas he both writes and directs. Yet there is another Donne, and in a recent biography John Carey insists on two facts central to the man: first, that he was a Catholic and, second, that he betrayed his Faith.2 A picture emerges of a troubled apostate haunted by guilt and the possibility of damnation. The Holy Sonnets, as some of the poems written after his conversion and Anglican ordination have come to be called, give glimpses of this second Donne. Though these later poems continue the metaphysical techniques developed earlier, they dramatically shift the center of control. In them Donne is not pursuer but pursued, not conqueror but victim, not central actor but passive sufferer of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 38-49
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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