The work consists of twenty-three devotions, each in three parts--a meditation, an expostulation, and a prayer--recording and exploring Donne’s experience of illness (probably typhus). The work traces the disease’s course and treatment, beginning in the first devotion with the first signs of illness, moving through the patient’s taking to bed and sending for physicians, their prescribing and carrying out various treatments, and a worsening of symptoms followed by the crisis where, in Devotion 17, the patient prepares himself for death. He then begins to recover, the physicians purge him, and, like Lazarus, he rises from his bed. The physicians then try to correct the cause of the disease in him, and, in the final devotion, warn the patient that a relapse is not out of the question.

Donne explores the spiritual implications of each stage of his illness, using the experience of his body to provoke reflections on the health of the soul. For instance, in the first devotion he asks why sin, unlike physical sickness, does not show early signs which might enable one to get treatment in time. Donne uses the arrival of the physicians to explore Christ’s role as physician to the soul, and the spots which appear on his body to meditate on Christ as the unspotted carrier of human stains.

Anticipating death, he considers the relationship of soul and body, seeing the body’s death as the cure of the disease. He then sees the physicians as God’s instruments in curing his body and miraculously raising him from illness. Finally, he argues that the root of all illness is internal, lying in the sin which infects his soul, and that therefore he must work constantly to prevent the relapse which continues to threaten.


Donne’s Devotions, one of the classic works of literature and medicine, functions on many levels. As a detailed first-person patient’s account of the experience of a particular case of illness, it may be called one of the first ’pathographies,’ the writer scrupulously describing each stage of his illness and his reactions to it. It creates a remarkable bridge between the patient’s experience in the 17th century and our own, for so much of it is familiar. At the same time, it provides an historically accurate account of treatment (which is a great deal less familiar), and of the physician-patient relationship in the early-modern period.

It contextualizes the experience of illness in the wider spiritual concerns of the writer and his time, focusing on the all-encompassing role of Christianity in Renaissance England. It is the source of Donne’s famous meditation on the interconnectedness of all human lives, a concept crucial in the empathetic practice of medicine: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind . . . . " For this reason, Donne argues, whenever the bell tolls to announce a death, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee": the proclamation of a death always also reminds the hearer of his own death, and of the importance of bearing, learning from, and being spiritually improved--even healed--by affliction.


First published: 1624 (London)


McGill-Queen's Univ. Press

Place Published





Anthony Raspa