John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, I have a warning from the wise man, that “when a rich man speaketh every man holdeth his tongue, and, look, what he saith, they extol it to the clouds; but if a poor man speak, they say, What fellow is this? And if he stumble, they will help to overthrow him.” [Ecclus. 13:23]

Therefore may my words be undervalued and my errors aggravated, if I offer to speak of kings; but not by thee, O my God, because I speak of them as they are in thee, and of thee as thou art in them. Certainly those men prepare a way of speaking negligently or irreverently of thee, that give themselves that liberty in speaking of thy vicegerents, kings; for thou who gavest Augustus the empire, gavest it to Nero too; and as Vespasian had it from thee, so had Julian. Though kings deface in themselves thy first image in their own soul, thou givest no man leave to deface thy second image, imprinted indelibly in their power.

But thou knowest, O God, that if I should be slack in celebrating thy mercies to me exhibited by that royal instrument, my sovereign, to many other faults that touch upon allegiance I should add the worst of all, ingratitude, which constitutes an ill man; and faults which are defects in any particular function are not so great as those that destroy our humanity. It is not so ill to be an ill subject as to be an ill man; for he hath an universal illness, ready to flow and pour out itself into any mould, any form, and to spend itself in any function. As therefore thy Son did upon the coin, I look upon the king, and I ask whose image and whose inscription he hath, and he hath thine; and I give unto thee that which is thine; I recommend his happiness to thee in all my sacrifices of thanks, for that which he enjoys, and in all my prayers for the continuance and enlargement of them.

But let me stop, my God, and consider; will not this look like a piece of art and cunning, to convey into the world an opinion that I were more particular in his care than other men? and that herein, in a show of humility and thankfulness, I magnify myself more than there is cause? But let not that jealousy stop me, O God, but let me go forward in celebrating thy mercy exhibited by him. This which he doth now, in assisting so my bodily health, I know is common to me with many: many, many have tasted of that expression of his graciousness. Where he can give health by his own hands he doth, and to more than any of his predecessors have done: therefore hath God reserved one disease for him, that he only might cure it, though perchance not only by one title and interest, nor only as one king. To those that need it not, in that kind, and so cannot have it by his own hand, he sends a donative of health in sending his physician.

The holy king St. Louis, in France, and our Maud, is celebrated for that, that personally they visited hospitals, and assisted in the cure even of loathsome diseases. And when that religious Empress Placilla, the wife of Theodosius, was told that she diminished herself too much in those personal assistances and might do enough in sending relief, she said she would send in that capacity as a Christian, as a fellow-member of the body of thy Son, with them. So thy servant David applies himself to his people, so he incorporates himself in his people, by calling them his brethren, his bones, his flesh; [2 Sam. 19:12] and when they fell under thy hand, even to the pretermitting of himself, he presses upon thee by prayer for them; “I have sinned, but these sheep, what have they done? Let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me and against my father's house.” [2 Sam. 24:17] It is kingly to give; when Araunah gave that great and free present to David, that place, those instruments for sacrifice, and the sacrifices themselves, it is said there by thy Spirit, “All these things did Araunah give, as a king, to the king.” [2 Sam. 24:22, 23]

To give is an approaching to the condition of kings, but to give health, an approaching to the King of kings, to thee. But this his assisting to my bodily health, thou knowest, O God, and so do some others of thine honourable servants know, is but the twilight of that day wherein thou, through him, hast shined upon me before; but the echo of that voice, whereby thou, through him, hast spoke to me before, then when he, first of any man, conceived a hope that I might be of some use in thy church and descended to an intimation, to a persuasion, almost to a solicitation, that I would embrace that calling.

And thou who hadst put that desire into his heart, didst also put into mine an obedience to it; and I, who was sick before of a vertiginous giddiness and irresolution, and almost spent all my time in consulting how I should spend it, was by this man of God, and God of men, put into the pool and recovered: when I asked, perchance, a stone, he gave me bread; when I asked, perchance, a scorpion, he gave me a fish; when I asked a temporal office, he denied not, refused not that; but let me see that he had rather I took this.

These things thou, O God, who forgettest nothing, hast not forgot, though perchance he, because they were benefits, hath; but I am not only a witness, but an instance, that our Jehoshaphat hath a care to ordain priests, as well as judges: [2 Chron. 19:8] and not only to send physicians for temporal but to be the physician for spiritual health.