Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

John Donne’s cancer diary

Jenni Diski, a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Her latest piece for the LRB (Vol 36, No 17) describes her reaction to being given the diagnosis and her decision to write about her experience as the illness proceeds to its inevitable conclusion. In her words, ‘another fucking cancer diary’. She recalls some she has read by others: Ruth Picardie, John Diamond, Ivan Noble, Tom Lubbock, Susan Sontag. She has no choice but to write about her illness, she says, because writing is what she does. ‘So I’ve got cancer,’ she concludes. ‘I’m writing.’

She might have included in her list another writer, better known even than Susan Sontag and probably the first ever to keep a cancer diary. His illness may or may not have been cancer but this was four hundred years ago and his doctors had no more idea than he did what was wrong with him. The record he kept of his illness, from the day he started to feel ill to the day he was declared well again, contains some of the most beautiful and widely quoted lines in the English language, but few people know the work they come from.

‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’

‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’

‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

The work is John Donne’s Meditations, which forms part of a larger work known as the Devotions and which consists of twenty-three short chapters, each recording a stage in Donne’s undiagnosed illness. The lines that everybody knows come from one that takes its inspiration from the bells that the sick man hears continually ringing in the church next door. The sickness is at its worst and death seems imminent.

It starts, as diseases generally do, with a vague intimation that all is not well. ‘Variable and therefore miserable condition of Man,’ Donne begins. ‘This minute I was well, and am ill this minute.’ He goes on, as he does in his poetry, to find a metaphorical equivalent for his personal response that makes it our response as well as his. ‘We study health and we deliberate upon our meats and drink and air and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and regular work. But in a minute a canon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all.’

As in his poetry, Donne’s personal experience is analysed in the interests of universal truth.

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in Love’s philosophy.

The condition of man is not as God intended, we brought it on ourselves. God put ‘a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin.’ And so we go on, he says, making things worse for ourselves than they need be by our own fevered imaginations. It is not just ‘the torment of sickness’ that afflicts us, but what we imagine might be its cause and its end. We are ‘pre-afflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions and apprehensions of sickness before we can call it a sickness; we are not sure we are ill; one hand asks the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our urine how we do.’

Characteristic of the whole work is this interplay between his present state of mind and his understanding of the human condition. In the second chapter, he describes his symptoms: ‘In the twinkling of an eye, I can scarce see; instantly the taste is insipid and fatuous; instantly the appetite is dull and desireless; instantly the knees are sinking and strengthless.’ Adam’s punishment, to eat bread in the sweat of his brow, he says, ‘is multiplied to me, I have earned bread in the sweat of my brow’ and now ‘I sweat again and again, from the brow to the sole of the foot, but I eat no bread, I taste no sustenance. Miserable distribution of mankind,’ he concludes, ‘where one half lacks meat and the other stomach.’ The absence of rhyme, not reason, is what distinguishes Donne’s irony here from the couplet that ends Twicknam Garden.

O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who’s therefore true, because her truth kills me.

In chapter three, where ‘the patient takes his bed’, Donne’s theme is lying down. ‘When God came to breathe into Man the breath of life, he found him flat upon the ground; when he comes to withdraw that breath from him again, he prepares him to it by lying him flat upon his bed.’ Donne, like his friend and fellow poet George Herbert, combines praise with protest when he writes about God. ‘Miserable and (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave by lying still, and not practise my resurrection by rising any more.’

Chapter headings, following the course of the illness, introduce further observations on the human condition: The physician comes (‘As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.’) The physician is afraid (‘I observe the physician with the same diligence as he the disease; I see he fears and I fear with him.’) The physician desires to have others joined with him (‘Death is in an old man’s door, he appears and tells him so, and death is at a young man’s back and says nothing.’) I sleep not day nor night (‘And why, since I have lost my delight in all objects, cannot I discontinue the faculty of seeing them by closing mine eyes in sleep?’)

This is the stage his illness has reached when we come to chapter sixteen: From the bells of the church adjoining, I am daily remembered of my burial in the funerals of others. (‘Here the bells can scarce solemnise the funeral of any person but that I knew him or knew that he was my neighbour; we dwelt in houses near to one another before, but now he is gone into that house into which I must follow him.’)

It is in this frame of mind that Donne writes, in chapter seventeen, his famous lines about the inevitability of death and its place at the heart of our common humanity. The chapter that follows is an imaginative exploration of death itself and what comes after: The bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead (‘His soul is gone; whither? Who saw it come in, or who saw it go out? Nobody; yet everybody is sure he had one and hath none.’)

Considering the answers given by various philosophers and finding none of them convincing, he finds a better one closer to home, in his own charity. ‘I ask that, and that tells me, he is gone to everlasting rest and joy and glory; I owe him a good opinion; it is but thankful charity in me, because I received benefit and instruction from him when his bell told.’

He ends this chapter, not with the soul, but with the body, in a passage which places birth and death, the womb and the grave, in close proximity. ‘In the womb of the earth we diminish, and when she is delivered of us, our grave opened for another, we are not transplanted but transported, our dust blown away with profane dust, with every wind.’

During the course of the remaining five chapters, Donne begins to recover and by the end he is well again, though warned by his physicians of ‘the fearful danger of relapsing’. The tolling of the bell recedes and with it the intensity of Donne’s response. He is left with the fear of relapse, less immediate but real enough for ‘fear’ to be the last word of his Meditations. Six years later he died of what might or might not have been stomach cancer.

The words that end chapter eighteen, like the famous lines from the chapter that precedes it, are the words that linger in the mind. They recall a line spoken by Pozzo in Waiting for Godot: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ It is a line that, in its structure, its cadence and its meaning, puts Beckett in direct line of descent from the Elizabethans.

‘Isn’t the cliché of writing a cancer diary,’ Jenny Diski asks, ‘going to be compounded by the impossibility of writing in it anything other than what has already been written, over and over? Same story, same ending.’ Another fucking cancer diary, another fucking meditation on life and death.

john donne 01  jenny diski 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 8 October.

My subject on 15 October, a few days before his birthday, will be Dylan Thomas – Singing in chains.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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