Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while he lay a-bed of a serious illness. It is a work of moral and spiritual reflection on sin, sickness, and death — which makes it perfect Lenten reading.
The book is divided into twenty-three parts which, arranged sequentially, follow the progress of a sickness from its onset, through the development of symptoms, the consultations of physicians, and their treatments, to the early stages of recovery. Donne writes at one level about a physical sickness — perhaps his own — but there is a also a metaphorical spiritual interpretation running in parallel, the sickness in his soul mirroring that in his body. Each part of the work is divided into three smaller parts: an initial meditation, an “expostulation” in which the theme of the meditation is expanded upon, and a concluding, though often quite lengthy, prayer in which Donne offers the fruit of his meditation to the Almighty.
It is written in a dense and somewhat difficult style, almost like a prose poem, and it requires a good deal of concentration to follow the often highly elaborate grammatical constructions (and all without paragraph breaks). To give a flavour for the book, here is a passage chosen more or less at random:
When wilt thou bid me take up my bed and walk? As my bed is my affections, when shall I bear them so as to subdue them? As my bed is my afflictions, when shall I bear them so as not to murmur at them? When shall I take up my bed and walk? Not lie down upon it, as it is my pleasure, not sink under it, as it is my correction? But O my God, my God, the God of all flesh, and of all spirit, to let me be content with that in my fainting spirit, which thou declarest in this decayed flesh, that as this body is content to sit still, that it may learn to stand, and to learn by standing to walk, and by walking to travel, so my soul, by obeying this thy voice of rising, may by a farther and farther growth of thy grace proceed so, and be so established, as may remove all suspicions, all jealousies between thee and me, and may speak and hear in such a voice, as that still I may be acceptable to thee, and satisfied from thee.
Meditation XVII is the source of two of Donne’s most enduring aphorisms: “No man is an island”, and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Interestingly, the second actually appears in a slightly different form; the brief section which includes both runs as follows:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away to the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
These sayings, famous as they are, have become perhaps a bit hackneyed by being so frequently pressed into service to express human solidarity. Their undoubted eloquence and lack of religious references have made them attractive to a secular-minded people. But, needless to say, Donne was not secular-minded, and one has only to cast one’s eyes around on the same page to find the Christian foundations of the sentiment he expresses:
The Church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
All this from Meditation XVII, which to my mind was among the best. I will confess that, by and large, and with some exceptions here and there, I found the book as a whole rather dry. I love Donne’s poetry for its muscular, vigorous qualities, and the same unsparing intensity is found in many of these meditations. But when I try to call to mind particular insights gleaned from its pages, I am almost empty-handed. I say this being uncertain whether the blame lies on the page or within me, though I incline toward the latter.
Does the title of the book intrigue you? What are these “emergent occasions”? I believe “emergencies” would be a fair way to translate them into a modern idiom.
The short piece, “Death’s Duel”, which is also included in this volume, was the last sermon Donne preached at Whitehall “not many days before his death” in 1630. It was highly regarded in his own time (the preamble, written by an admiring contemporary, states that “as he exceeded others at first, so at last he exceeded himself”), but again I found it fairly dry. For me the principal interest in reading it was to see how linguistically rich and complex even his sermons were! We don’t hear preaching — nor, for that matter, any public speech — on that level anymore.
And since sin, in the nature of it, retains still so much of the author of it that it is a serpent, insensibly insinuating itself into my soul, let thy brazen serpent (the contemplation of thy Son crucified for me) be evermore present to me, for my recovery against the sting of the first serpent; that so, as I have a Lion against a lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah against that lion that seeks whom he may devour, so I may have a serpent against a serpent, the wisdom of the serpent against the malice of the serpent, and both against that lion and serpent, forcible and subtle temptations, thy dove with thy olive in thy ark, humility and peace and reconciliation to thee, by the ordinances of thy church. Amen. (Devotions, X, Prayer)