Donne's conflation of the cosmic sweep of biblical time with his own debilitated temporal existence in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions has been noted often enough. Terry Sherwood cites the fourteenth devotion to note that "the 'criticall dayes' in his illness leads Donne to turn to a consideration of time. His frame is the Genesis archetype, the week of Creation. . ." (4). What has not been addressed, however, is the complex process by which Donne, in devotion 14, yokes together the human drama of this illness and the larger Christian drama in which he sees himself participating simultaneously. It is a process that hinges on the use of the words crisis and critical.
A brief medical commentary introduces the meditation: "[T]he phisicians observe these accidents to have fallen upon the criticall dayes" (71), "these accidents" referring generally to Donne's sickness and specifically to the appearance of spots, the subject of devotion 13. The pathological sense of critical, which the OED confirms as current at the time, is "relating to the crisis or turning point of a disease"; also "involving suspense or great fear as to the issue." Both the medical connotation of critical and the underlying sense of uncertainty are clearly applicable to Donne's condition. A few lines into the meditation, the word appears again, in the context of the ephemerality of happiness: "...those false Happinesses which he [man] hath in this World, have their times, & their seasons, and their Criticall dayes, & and they are Judged and Denominated according to the times, when they befall us" (71). Critical is invested with extended signification here: for not only is human fortune subject to "turning points" (for better or worse), it is also subject to a valuation, a judgment. This is significant because critical and its noun, crisis, are etymologically derived from the Greek verb krino, to judge. A critical day is also, therefore, a day of judgment. This usage appears at the end of the meditation, where Donne comments on the value of worldly honors and possessions: "Youth is their Criticall Day; that Judges them ... that makes them Honors, and pleasures, and possessions" (72). The OED notes further that a "crisis" is a token or sign by which to make a judgment. Donne's illness is critical at this point because the manifestation of spots mentioned previously serves as a token that enables his physicians to pronounce a judgment on the state of his disease.
An awareness of these several connotations of crisis and critical enables Donne to exercise his metaphysical wit brilliantly in the expostulation and. to transpose terms hitherto used in a secular context to a religious (Christian) one. In the meditation, Donne places himself within the finite range of human time; in the expostulation, time is biblical time, measured by certain distinctive days: "For there is to every man a day of salvation ... and there is a great day of thy wrath ... and there are evill dayes before..." (73). These are "criticall dayes" -for not only are they turning points in the life of a Christian, they are also "tokens" from God: He manifests himself on these occasions.
Immediately before these lines, Donne had introduced a medical metaphor these "crises" are necessary for "spirituall recovery, and convalescence"--that culminates in a brilliant intertwining of the physical and the spiritual a few lines later: "So far then our daies must be criticall to us, as that by consideration of them, we may make a Judgement of our spiritual health, for that is the crisis of our bodily health" (73). For a Christian, then, days are not only critical in the two senses mentioned in the preceding paragraph, they are also days of "judgement" during which man may take stock of his relationship with God. The ambiguity of the referent "that" in the appositive clause opens up two possible interpretations. Either (1) spiritual health is a sign/token of bodily health, or (2) as the parallel syntax suggests, the judgment (crisis) of spiritual health = the crisis of bodily health; that is, by taking stock of our relationship with God, we may effect a turning around of bodily health. Conversely, a physical crisis (leading to recovery or death) can lead to spiritual wholeness. In either case, the point is that Donne's "criticall" condition is simultaneously physical and spiritual, for his finite, mortal existence is directly linked to his existence in Christian time.
In such a context, crisis is a loaded word-it is not merely a reckoning, but the reckoning, the Last Judgment. As Donne proceeds to demonstrate in the rest of the expostulation, the course of biblical history is a succession of one "judgement" after another, culminating in the Last Judgment. And because Donne must participate in this history, from the sickbed he tells God, ". . . thou shalt not depart from mee, from this bed, till thou have given me a Crisis, a Judgement upon my selfe this day ...Let, O lord, a day be as a weeke to me; and in this one, let me consider seven daies, seven critical daies, and judge my selfe, that I be not judged by thee" (74-75). Over these seven days, he will re-enact biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgment and, finally, to everlasting glory with God. Judgment Day is critical because it is the final turning point for a Christian, the day that can herald his entry into the everlasting kingdom. So, keeping in mind the correspondence between the body and the spirit, it is evident that Donne's demand for a "Crisis" is a demand for recovery or death, either of which will enable him to hasten to the "critical day" and thence to eternal happiness. If he recovers, he will be able to live a Christian fife; if he dies after the seven-day period, he will have enacted the Christian life on a contracted scale, and will be ready for judgment. Either way, he will not be denied participation in Christian history because of his illness; rather, his illness will be the means by which he can participate. And thus the prayer rightly ends with an appeal to God to turn the critical day of his illness into a critical day preceding the end of time.
Donne, John. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony
Raspa. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.
Sherwood, Terry G. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's
Thought. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto Press, 1984.
By MEENAKSHI VENKATASUBRAMANIAN, City University of New York