Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and seuerall steps in my Sicknes, by John Donne

In 1623, John Donne nearly died from a severe illness (maybe typhus?).  During his long recovery, he wrote these "devotions," which are meditations using illness as a way to think about fallen humanity, sinfulness, and how to 'recover' or be saved by God.  Elizabethans often thought of illness as a reflection of human sinfulness.

There are 23 essays, each corresponding to a step in the progression of the illness, so the titles are things like "The patient takes his bed," "The physician desires to have others joined with him," and so on through fever, treatment, purging, and recovery (including the danger of relapsing).  By far my favorite title is XII, "They apply pigeons, to draw the vapours from the head."   And each devotion is divided into three sections: a meditation on the theme, an expostulation in which Donne debates with God, and a prayer asking for God's help with the issue at hand.

I tried to read one or two devotions per day.  This is not a book you can just read all the way through; it's by Donne after all and therefore it's filled with complicated metaphors and conceits that take time to grasp.  Moreover he is talking about his faith in a way that we no longer use.

XVII is the famous one that we all know from English class--"no man is an island" and "never send to know for whom the bells tolls..."  I enjoyed reading the whole thing instead of edited excerpts, and it is indeed the most memorable devotion.

Very interesting to read, and some good thoughts to ponder.  I've always wished to read more (and, more to the point, to be able to wrap my brain around more) of the metaphysical poets.  Maybe someday I'll do a Metaphysical Poets Reading Challenge to provide encouragement, and two people will join it.


  1. I would join that challenge.

    I do not remember the Donne's Devotions well, except that they were quite thorny and intricate. I suppose that is why I do not remember them.

  2. Funny, Jean! Two people.

    You do come up with unique reading challenges.


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