HPS Lecture - Sarah Parker



More Than Dust & Ashes: Medicine and Autobiography in John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Sarah Parker
Ph.D. Candidate, English and Comparative Literature
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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.