Friday, 17 January 2014

John Donne on Misery

From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, VIII and XIII.

Still when we return to that meditation that man is a world, we find new discoveries. Let him be a world, and himself will be the land, and misery the sea. His misery (for misery is his, his own; of the happiness even of this world, he is but tenant, but of misery the freeholder; of happiness he is but the farmer, but the usufructuary, but of misery the lord, the proprietary), his misery, as the sea, swells above all the hills, and reaches to the remotest parts of this earth, man; who of himself is but dust, and coagulated and kneaded into earth by tears; his matter is earth, his form misery.

...

We say that the world is made of sea and land, as though they were equal; but we know that there is more sea in the Western than in the Eastern hemisphere. We say that the firmament is full of stars, as though it were equally full; but we know that there are more stars under the Northern than under the Southern pole. We say the elements of man are misery and happiness, as though he had an equal proportion of both, and the days of man vicissitudinary, as though he had as many good days as ill, and that he lived under a perpetual equinoctial, night and day equal, good and ill fortune in the same measure. But it is far from that; he drinks misery, and he tastes happiness; he mows misery, and he gleans happiness; he journeys in misery, he does but walk in happiness; and, which is worst, his misery is positive and dogmatical, his happiness is but disputable and problematical: all men call misery misery, but happiness changes the name by the taste of man.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Donne's January Blues are even worse than mine!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Indeed! :)

Heliopause said...

Wow! That was one nimble-witted contemplator! Do we know the actual 'occasions'? The second one talks about spots as signs of his sickness, which sounds dateable. (I loved how he turned the spots into stars in a constellation!)

Thanks for these two thought-provokers. (And I hope you are well, and not pestered by any spotty disease or other misery!)

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you - no spotty diseases here :)

Yes, we do know - this was written when Donne was seriously ill in December 1623, and the devotions follow the stages of his illness and recovery. (I don't think it's clear what the illness actually was, though). Meditation XVII in the series is the famous 'No man is an island', 'ask not for whom the bell tolls', etc.