John Donne “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – “Meditation 17” and “Expostulation 19”

I can’t quite see the difference between “meditation” and “expostulation”, maybe because the NAEL prints just an excerpt from “Expostulation”. Anyway. “Meditation 17” is the one from which Hemingway borrowed the famous words “for whom the bell toll”, while the introductory sentence to it, starting with “no man is an island” appears on countless motivational posters and fridge magnets. But it’s so much more than that! It does start with Donne’s hearing of the “passing bell” for the dying and wondering: is it for somebody else, who may be unconscious and even not hear it? Or am I just fooling myself, thinking I am so much better when in fact the bell is for me? The church is one body and we all its members. I guess one of the reasons why the editors of the NAEL picked these two texts is because they contain so many metaphors constructed around texts and books. “All mankind is of one author and in one volume: when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language”. Donne here puns on the literal meaning of “translate” which is “to carry away” and was often used specifically to denote moving a bishop to another diocese or moving saint’s relics to another place. God employs several translators, that is various causes of death, but God is going to bind all the scattered pages “for this library where every book shall be open to one another”. There is a reference which I don’t wholly understand about an ancient contention between religious orders about which one should ring their morning bell first and in the end it was ruled that those should ring first who rise earliest. If we understand correctly the dignity of the bell for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early. I guess Donne by “evening prayers” means the passing bell and by “rising early’ the fact that we should own all such signals as our own. This acceptance of the shared human fate should not be seen as borrowing the suffering of our neighbours, as if we didn’t have enough of our own. Suffering is like bullion gold – precious, but you really can’t pay with it. Only when you mint it into coins, does it become useful. Similarly, only when suffering brings us closer to God, does it really matter. And for that purpose it is our neighbour’s suffering as ours which can help us do it.

“Expostulation 19”, of which only a fragment is printed here, is about the meaning of the word of God. God is a literal and direct God, but he is also (and Donne assures us he means it respectfully) a metaphorical God, in the sense that there is no greater writer than him. Only God’s word can express the inexpressible God, and the most wondrous thing is that it can be read both by learned and unlearned, in the literal and metaphorical sense. So two learned men such as St Jerome and Augustine, even though they often differed upon the proper interpretation of God’s word, still advised everybody to read it, even (oh, structural misogyny reasserting itself) “old women and young maids”. God is metaphorical not only in his words but also his works, for instance when various acts and scenes from the Old Testament are prefigurations of the New Testament (circumcision being the figure of baptism, which is in turn the figure of our ultimate purification). Also Jesus often speaks about himself in a metaphorical way as a vine, a gate and so on. And this in turn inspired theologians to write metaphorically when they worked on the liturgies and prayers. And Donne himself in the symptoms of his illness, interprets “certain clouds and residues” (he does not write this explicitly but the footnote assures me he refers to his urine as being examined by a doctor) like “a discovery of land from sea after a long and tempestuous voyage”, which I guess refers to his impending demise and going to Heaven. So much here! Donne discovering God in his pee! (viz. Serrano’s Piss Christ).  Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor! It makes my head spin.

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