The 100 best nonfiction books: No 96 – Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1624)

The poet’s intense meditation on the meaning of life and death is a dazzling work that contains some of his most memorable writing

On the eve of his daughter’s wedding, in late November 1623, the poet John Donne was struck down by a mysterious “relapsing fever” (so-called because the patient often died during convalescence) and reduced to many weeks of frailty, in which he was “barred of my ordinary diet, which is reading”.

What exactly it was that Donne suffered from, and survived, is not known. Some say typhus. The patient himself believed that he was on his deathbed, that the illness reflected his own sinfulness and amounted to a divine rebuke. His response was at once pious and literary: he asked for pen and paper in order to record, for himself, the experience of this “emergent occasion”. (He also wrote Hymne to God my God, in my Sicknesse.)

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