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Nature’s Confession

Baconian and Anti-Baconian Narratives in Donne’s Devotions
  • Anthony J. Funari
Chapter
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Abstract

Sometime in late November of 1623, John Donne succumbed to the epidemic of “spotted” or relapsing fever that had been plaguing London for the past month. Striking him suddenly, the illness confined Donne for the next month to his chambers in the Deanery at St. Paul’s, essentially bedridden. During this time, he suffered a prolonged fever, insomnia, and severe physical weakness—he would later describe his diseased body as “iron fetters” imprisoning him to his bed. As the disease progressed, Donne’s physician expressed great concern for his recovery. King James I even sent his own physician to consult with those already attending to Donne. His physicians would administer cordials and eventually apply dead pigeons to Donne’s feet in an effort to draw the ill humors from his body. After weeks of being isolated from all except his doctors, Donne began to show signs that the worst of the sickness had passed. Enduring a regimen of purgatives, which appears to have been as incapacitating as the disease, Donne was able to leave his bed only with great effort and assistance.

Keywords

Natural World True Form Early Modern Period Relapse Fever Critical Conversation 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    R. C. Bald, John Donne, A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 450.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    John Stubbs, John Donne, The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W Norton, 2006), 399–400.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For biographical accounts of Donne’s illness, see Bald, John Donne, 450–55; David L. Edwards, John Donne, Man of Flesh and Spirit (New York: Continuum, 2001), 127–30, 172–74; and Stubbs, John Donne, 399–405.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Terry Sherwood, Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne’s Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 180–82.Google Scholar
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  6. 5.
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    Catherine Gimelli Martin, “The Advancement of Learning and the Decay of the World: A New Reading of Donne’s First Anniversary,” The John Donne Journal 19 (2000): 165.Google Scholar
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    For further discussion of this tension in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England between progressive and decay models of history, see Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis, MO: Washington University Studies, 1961), 22–40. In his chapter outlining this debate, Jones cites Godfrey Goodman’s The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature proved by the light of his Natural Reason (London, 1616) as representative of the historical view of the world’s and humanity’s perpetual decline. Goodman, as Jones summarizes, perceived the world in a ubiquitous state of degeneracy: “As man through his fall brought death upon himself, so he imposed death upon all nature. In general, Goodman’s idea is that the course of man and nature has been one of continual decline from a perfect state to the decay of old age.” Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 26. Goodman further perceives a parallel relationship between the inferior present state of Nature in its “fruitlessness” and “bareness” and the degeneration of the arts and science. As the earth has more and more lost the plenty of Paradise, mankind has experienced an analogous deterioration in its intellectual capability. In contrast to Bacon’s devaluing of ancient learning, Goodman declares that “for the Ancients, what so ever you shall observe in practice amongst them, you shal find that it stood with great wisdome and prouidence, if you please to have relation to the time and the occasion.” Quoted in Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 27.Google Scholar
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    Scholars date the composition of The Refutation of Philosophies to the first decade of the seventeenth century. Perez Zagorin suggest Bacon to have written the text between 1606–1607 (Francis Bacon [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998], 34). Benjamin Farrington dates the composition of this text to 1609. See Farrington’s preface to The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, trans. Benjamin Farrington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).Google Scholar
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    Francis Bacon, The Refutation of Philosophy in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, trans. Benjamin Farrington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 129.Google Scholar
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    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth ofthe Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 41.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    Francis Bacon, “Proteus, or Matter. Explained of Matter and its Changes,” in De Sapientia Veterum (The Wisdom of the Ancients) (1605; repr., London: Dodo Press, 2008), 29. I wish to acknowledge here that in the original Latin version Bacon uses the phrase “vexet, atque urgeat” [vexing and urging]. Yet, “torture” has been used as accepted translation.Google Scholar
  21. See John Devey’s translation of Bacon’s “Proteus” in The Moral and Historical Works of Lord Bacon (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1888), 227.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
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  23. 34.
    Jonathan Sawday, “The Fate of Marsyas: Dissecting the Renaissance Body” in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540–1660, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), 126.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    All quotations from John Donne’s poetry come from The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, ed. Charles M. Coffin (New York: Modern Library, 2001).Google Scholar
  25. 53.
    Stubbs identifies Donne as one of the few outspoken Jacobean critics of torture, who condemns the practice as a “threefold offense against the dignity of God’s greatest creation, the human form, against the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, who was incarnated in that form, and finally against the Holy Ghost, who also inhabits and inspires it.” John Donne, 18. For further discussion of the practice of torture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, see John Langbein, Torture and the Law of Proof (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 82–90, 137–38.Google Scholar
  26. James Heath, Torture and English Law: An Administrative and Legal History from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 109–40.Google Scholar
  27. Edwards Peters, Torture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 79–80.Google Scholar
  28. 55.
    John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 19; and Stubbs, John Donne, 10.Google Scholar

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© Anthony J. Funari 2011

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  • Anthony J. Funari

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