Sarah Parker. "'More than dust & ashes’: Medicine and Autobiography in John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions"
Ph.D. Candidate, English and Comparative Literature
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
‘More than dust & ashes’: Medicine and Autobiography in John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
The speaker of Donne’s Devotions (1624), reflects at length on his experience with illness. Though this text frequently references the concerns, admonitions and diagnosis of the physicians attending the ailing patient, the Devotions does not allow these figures a voice. By avoiding direct quotation of his attendant physicians, the speaker mediates and even effaces medical explanations for his suffering. I argue that the absenting of medical rhetoric allows the suffering speaker to emphasize his individuality by narrativizing his illness in strictly spiritual terms. The Devotions undermines the physicians’ authority by trumping the generalizations of corporeal diagnosis that medicine offers with special claims to a spiritual experience of suffering as a process of punishment and atonement for past sins.
Each devotion begins with a line from a Latin poem narrating the progression of the subject’s disease. These poetic lines guiding the overall structure of the Devotions seem to signal a focus on the physician's role (e.g. “The physician desires to have others joined with him”). The text that follows, however, touches only tangentially on these events in order to prompt a deeply personal process of philosophical reflection and devout repentance. The narrative focus here is no longer medical, as the opening lines would tend to suggest, but instead autobiographical. The focus on the speaker’s particular meditations obscures the frightening impersonality of medical rhetoric through the prioritization of the individual self, signaled by the autobiographical use of first person.