Monday, October 6, 2008

Norton Anthology: John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

This would be a great acceptance speech to deliver if you get a lifetime achievement-type award. From Meditation XIV:
If we consider, not eternity, but perpetuity; not that which had no time to begin in, but which shall outlive time, and be when time shall be no more, what a minute is the life of the durablest creature compared to that! and what a minute is man's life in respect of the sun's, or of a tree? and yet how little of our life is occasion, opportunity to receive good in; and how little of that occasion do we apprehend and lay hold of? How busy and perplexed a cobweb is the happiness of man here, that must be made up with a watchfulness to lay hold upon occasion, which is but a little piece of that which is nothing, time? and yet the best things are nothing without that. Honours, pleasures, possessions, presented to us out of time? in our decrepit and distasted and unapprehensive age, lose their office, and lose their name; they are not honours to us that shall never appear, nor come abroad into the eyes of the people, to receive honour from them who give it; nor pleasures to us, who have lost our sense to taste them; nor possessions to us, who are departing from the possession of them. Youth is their critical day, that judges them, that denominates them, that inanimates and informs them, and makes them honours, and pleasures, and possessions; and when they come in an unapprehensive age, they come as a cordial when the bell rings out, as a pardon when the head is off. We rejoice in the comfort of fire, but does any man cleave to it at midsummer? We are glad of the freshness and coolness of a vault, but does any man keep his Christmas there; or are the pleasures of the spring acceptable in autumn? If happiness be in the season, or in the climate, how much happier then are birds than men, who can change the climate and accompany and enjoy the same season ever.
I find that Donne's Devotions and Emerson's Essays have a great deal in common, even tonally. I might be saying this because I missed a question on a practice GRE asking me to identify a passage from Meditation XVII—I attributed it to Emerson, believing that it fit in very well with the whole "What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel... access to this universal mind..." type of thing from "History". Anyway, this is the passage I missed. See if you find a resemblance too:
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Borges was feeling the influence of this passage when he was writing his short story "The Library of Babel."

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