John Donne – “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – “Meditation 4”

Donne wrote this cycle of prose meditations when seriously ill. “Meditation 4” returns to one of his favourite motifs, the one of man as microcosm, but ingeniously reverses it: man is actually bigger than the world and contains more and more varied parts. If we scaled man’s veins to the size of rivers and muscles to hills etc. the man would be a giant: the world would be but the map and the man the world. And as for various creatures that the world breeds, man’s creatures are his thoughts, which can easily reach the stars, even as the man himself is ill in bed. As for various parasites and worms which consume the world, their equivalent are diseases. Physicians help us to get rid of diseases and in order to make medicines they make use of the substances from the whole world. But we are actually in this inferior to animals, because deer (as was popularly believed in Donne’s times) know which herbs to eat to heal their wounds, and dogs know to eat grass. Perhaps we could cure ourselves as easily if only we knew how, but we need other physicians and apothecaries, unlike animals. (Donne expresses this thought in a particularly tortured sentence, and the footnote doesn’t help.) So it finally cuts down to our own size: despite all our soaring thoughts, in case of an illness we depend on a physician.

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