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Turgenev’s Banana

On Being Ill

by Virginia Woolf, with an introduction by Hermione Lee
Paris Press, 28 pp., $20.00

In the Land of Pain

by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated from the Frenchby Julian Barnes
Knopf, 87 pp., $18.00

A Memorial of the Last Days on Earth of Emily Gosse by Her Husband Philip Henry Gosse, FRS

by Philip Henry Gosse
in Areté, Issue Seven, Winter 2001


Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay On Being Ill with a long sentence—“lavishly cumulative,” Hermione Lee calls it, and “highly De Quinceyan.” It runs thus:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Novels, she goes on to suggest, should have been devoted to influenza, odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache. But all she can think of is the attempt by De Quincey in The Opium Eater, and she speculates that “there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust.”

Woolf was ill when she wrote On Being Ill, but not necessarily ill when T.S. Eliot printed it in the Criterion, or when, five years later, she typeset her own edition of it for the Hogarth Press. Yet no one seems to have asked, perhaps no one thought it quite idiomatic to ask, whether this notion of illness as a subject without a literature (“Illness: An Unexploited Mine” was the title given to the essay in an American reprint) really bore examination. De Quincey “attempted something of the sort.” Then Proust. But for the rest Woolf asserts that “literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.” Whereas the truth of the matter is that “all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolors, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.”

Woolf might have liked this from Lichtenberg:

My body is that part of the world which my thoughts are able to change. Even imaginary illnesses can become real ones. In the rest of the world my hypotheses cannot disturb the order of things.1

And another from the same source:

During my nervous illness I very often found that that which usually offended only my moral feeling now overflowed into the physical. When Dieterich said one day: God strike me dead! I felt so ill I had to forbid him my room for a time.2

But then again, Woolf might not have liked, might not have been in the mood for, any let or hindrance to the cantering exclusivity of her thought. Charles Lamb, whom she admired and imitated, wrote an (admittedly somewhat shallow) essay called “The Convalescent,” which is mostly about this matter of altered perception in illness. Robert Louis Stevenson, whom Woolf for the most part despised—and I do not understand this: What had Stevenson done to earn quite such a degree of enmity, so that, when Woolf met someone new, his hating Stevenson counted as a recommendation?—poor old Stevenson wrote a really beautiful account, called “Ordered South,” of traveling to resorts for the sake of one’s health, and coming to terms with the prospect of death.3 And if Proust is to be filleted for his perceptions, then what about Dickens?

Clearly there was much more to the literature of illness—I mean the literature of the perception, the lived experience, the phenomenology of illness—than Woolf allowed. Did Burton found the genre in The Anatomy of Melancholy, or does that trail lead elsewhere? At the very least I would have guessed that either Woolf or her editor, Eliot, might have thought of the great, bravura account of the course of a fever in Donne’s Devotions (1624), since both of them wrote notable essays on Donne, and Woolf was a more thoroughgoing enthusiast of Donne’s prose than was Eliot. She was quite prepared to suggest that his prose was better than his poetry, which she nevertheless adored. Here she is in 1924 addressing the readers of American Vogue:

There is a poet, whose love of women was all stuck about with briars; who railed and cursed; was fierce and tender; passionate and obscene. In the very obscurity of his mind there is something that intrigues us on; his rage scorches but sets on fire; and in the thickest of his thorn bushes are glimpses of the highest heavens, and ecstasies of pure and windless calms. Whether as a young man gazing from narrow Chinese eyes upon a world that half allures, half disgusts him, or with his flesh dried upon his cheekbones, wrapped in his winding sheet, excruciated, dead in St. Paul’s, one cannot help but love John Donne.4

And here she is writing earlier on Donne’s sermons:

For three hundred years or more a dead preacher called John Donne has cumbered our shelves. The other day Mr Pearsall Smith touched him with his wand, and, behold!—the folios quake, the pages shiver, out steps the passionate preacher; the fibres of our secular hearts are bent and bowed beneath the unaccustomed tempest.5

She is talking here about a slim volume of selections from the sermons, made by the American scholar Logan Pearsall Smith, and published in 19196—one of three notable American contributions to the early-twentieth-century revival of Donne’s reputation. The others were Eliot’s reassessment of the poetry and—more by luck, one must say, than by judgment—Ernest Hemingway’s intervention.

Hemingway was an intelligent man but not notably well versed in seventeenth-century literature. According to Carlos Baker’s account, he spent a day in 1940 riffling through Shakespeare and the Bible in search of a title for a novel he was near completing, before turning to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Prose, in which he found the now celebrated passage beginning “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and ending “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This comes from the Devotions. Quiller-Couch’s anthology had been published in 1925. We think that Donne was always revered as a prose writer, and that the “for whom the bell tolls” passage would always have been considered a touchstone of English prose. We have heard it declaimed from the pulpit, and from the platform at school, whenever or wherever an occasion required some elevation of tone. “No man is an island” has become proverbial.

But the introduction to Pearsall Smith’s selection from the sermons tells us that “little attention has been paid to the excellence of [Donne’s] prose,” that it is “almost unrepresented” in prose anthologies, and that “unlike Jeremy Taylor or Sir Thomas Browne, Donne was famous first of all as a poet, and save for his little-known Devotions, he wrote no small book, no Holy Dying or Urn Burial in which he gave evidence of his powers as a prose writer.”7

And yet that “little-known” work, whose full title, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and severall steps in my Sicknes, seems so unpromising, is very much a part of that moment of rediscovery of Donne in the 1920s, of which we are the beneficiaries. It was edited in 1923 by John Sparrow, then still a schoolboy, at the behest of Geoffrey Keynes, the eminent surgeon and great amateur bibliographer, brother of Maynard. (Woolf owed her life to Geoffrey Keynes, who in 1913, after she had taken 100 grams of veronal, drove her husband at full speed across London to get a stomach pump; many years later she sent him in gratitude the manuscript, in purple ink, of On Being Ill.) It is Sparrow who, in passing, gives a page number and reference to “the lovely passage beginning ‘All mankinde is of one Author,’” the section leading on to “No man is an island.”8

Sparrow is an uncannily assured editor for his age, but he does not emphasize what must have attracted Keynes professionally, and what struck Edmund Gosse earlier, that we have here, as we have in Woolf’s essay, the actual product of illness, that Donne “sat up in bed feverishly scribbling his reflections.” Gosse goes on:

Nowhere in the whole of Donne’s writings do we obtain quite so personal an impression of him as in these strange notes concerning the progress of his illness in 1623. Nowhere do we seem to come so close to him, to hear him speaking so intimately; and that no one has hitherto observed, so far as I know, the autobiographical value of these confessions is due, I believe, to the fact that, as Donne afterwards digested and published them, they are buried in masses of scholastic divinity, which has ceased to interest us. Nothing like them had been noted down before; even in their wording they had an astonishing modernness….9

The Devotions are divided into twenty-three sections, and in each section there is a meditation, an “expostulation,” and a prayer. Modern selections tend to give only the medita-tions, that is, the sections in which the story of the progress of the illness, a relapsing fever, is told. Certainly these are the parts most likely to appeal to the secular-minded reader, but one should not pay too much attention to the pessimism of the early advocates of Donne over the readability of the work as a whole. It is not long—less than 150 pages in Sparrow’s edition—and it is carefully constructed, beginning with a Latin poem of twenty-two lines, whose phrases, unevenly chopped up into twenty-three parts, are set at the beginning of each section.

The Vintage edition, otherwise complete, drops the page on which this poem is set out, thereby omitting what Donne would have seen as the key to the work. But the reader can reconstruct it from the section headings, and can learn its meaning from the English paraphrases Donne also supplies: “The First Alteration, the First Grudging, of the Sickness”; “The Patient Takes His Bed”; “The Physician Is Sent For”; “The Physician Comes”; “The Physician Is Afraid,” and so on. Each of these “periods” or “stations” of the narrative (the Latin poem’s title uses both terms) is taken as an occasion for meditation, like the Stations of the Cross. But the narrative is not generalized or representative: it is Donne’s individual case history, as is shown in section 12, when the physicians, in order to draw a noxious vapor from the poet’s head, tie dead pigeons to his feet. Since we are told that the book was ready for publication before Donne had left the sickroom, we have to imagine that he actually wrote it with dead pigeons tied to his feet. It is probably the only book we will ever read (if we decide to read it) of which this could be said with any certainty. Donne lies there and asks himself what he could have done to breed or breathe the vapors in his head that seem to be killing him:

  1. 1

    Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, translated and with an introduction by R.J. Hollindale (NYRB Classics, 2000), p. 176.

  2. 2

    The Waste Books, p. 134. Dieterich was Lichtenberg’s landlord and sometime publisher.

  3. 3

    Collected in Virginibus Puerisque (1881).

  4. 4

    Vogue, November 1924, reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume III, edited by Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1988), p. 463.

  5. 5

    Athenaeum, January 30, 1920, and The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume III, p. 171. Eliot, by contrast, whenever he considers Donne as a preacher, expresses serious reservations: the Buddha was a greater master; or “it is not Donne but Cranmer and Latimer and Andrewes, who are the great prose masters; and for the theologian even the high-sounding Bramhall and the depressive Thorndike are more important names than Donne’s. His sermons will disappear as suddenly as they have appeared.” I have not been able to discover Eliot’s opinion of the Devotions.

  6. 6

    Donne’s Sermons: Selected Passages, with an essay by Logan Pearsall Smith (Oxford, 1919).

  7. 7

    Donne’s Sermons, p. xxi.

  8. 8

    John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, edited by John Sparrow (Cambridge, 1923).

  9. 9

    Edmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne (London: William Heinemann, 1899), pp. 182, 186.

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