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Meditation XII


WHAT will not kill a man if a vapour will? How great an elephant, how small a mouse destroys! To die by a bullet is the soldier's daily bread; but few men die by hail-shot. A man is more worth than to be sold for single money; a life to be valued above a trifle. If this were a violent shaking of the air by thunder or by cannon, in that case the air is condensed above the thickness of water, of water baked into ice, almost petrified, almost made stone, and no wonder that kills; but that which is but a vapour, and a vapour not forced but breathed, should kill, that our nurse should overlay us, and air that nourishes us should destroy us, but that it is a half atheism to murmur against Nature, who is God's immediate commissioner, who would not think himself miserable to be put into the hands of Nature, who does not only set him up for a mark for others to shoot at, but delights herself to blow him up like a glass, till she see him break, even with her own breath? Nay, if this infectious vapour were sought for, or travelled to, as Pliny hunted after the vapour of AEtna and dared and challenged Death in the form of a vapour to do his worst, and felt the worst, he died; or if this vapour were met withal in an ambush, and we surprised with it, out of a long shut well, or out of a new opened mine, who would lament, who would accuse, when we had nothing to accuse, none to lament against but fortune, who is less than a vapour? But when ourselves are the well that breathes out this exhalation, the oven that spits out this fiery smoke, the mine that spews out this suffocating and strangling damp, who can ever, after this, aggravate his sorrow by this circumstance, that it was his neighbour, his familiar friend, his brother, that destroyed him, and destroyed him with a whispering and a calumniating breath, when we ourselves do it to ourselves by the same means, kill ourselves with our own vapours? Or if these occasions of this self-destruction had any contribution from our own wills, any assistance from our own intentions, nay, from our own errors, we might divide the rebuke, and chide ourselves as much as them. Fevers upon wilful distempers of drink and surfeits, consumptions upon intemperances and licentiousness, madness upon misplacing or overbending our natural faculties, proceed from ourselves, and so as that ourselves are in the plot, and we are not only passive, but active too, to our own destruction. But what have I done, either to breed or to breathe these vapours? They tell me it is my melancholy; did I infuse, did I drink in melancholy into myself? It is my thoughtfulness; was I not made to think? It is my study; doth not my calling call for that? I have done nothing wilfully, perversely toward it, yet must suffer in it, die by it. There are too many examples of men that have been their own executioners, and that have made hard shift to be so: some have always had poison about them, in a hollow ring upon their finger, and some in their pen that they used to write with; some have beat out their brains at the wall of their prison, and some have eat the fire out of their chimneys;[169] and one is said to have come nearer our case than so, to have strangled himself, though his hands were bound, by crushing his throat between his knees. But I do nothing upon myself, and yet am mine own executioner. And we have heard of death upon small occasions and by scornful instruments: a pin, a comb, a hair pulled, hath gangrened and killed; but when I have said a vapour, if I were asked again what is a vapour, I could not tell, it is so insensible a thing; so near nothing is that that reduces us to nothing. But extend this vapour, rarefy it; from so narrow a room as our natural bodies, to any politic body, to a state. That which is fume in us is, in a state rumour; and these vapours in us, which we consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are, in a state, infectious rumours, detracting and dishonourable calumnies, libels. The heart in that body is the king, and the bran his council; and the whole magistracy, that ties all together, is the sinews which proceed from thence; and the life of all is honour, and just respect, and due reverence; and therefore, when these vapours, these venomous rumours, are directed against these noble parts, the whole body suffers. But yet for all their privileges, they are not privileged from our misery; that as the vapours most pernicious to us arise in our own bodies, so do the most dishonourable rumours, and those that wound a state most arise at home. What ill air that I could have met in the street, what channel, what shambles, what dunghill, what vault, could have hurt me so much as these homebred vapours? What fugitive, what almsman of any foreign state, can do so much harm as a detractor, a libeller, a scornful jester at home? For as they that write of poisons, and of creatures naturally disposed to the ruin of man, do as well mention the flea as the viper[170], because the flea, though he kill none, he does all the harm he can; so even these libellous and licentious jesters utter the venom they have, though sometimes virtue, and always power, be a good pigeon to draw this vapour from the head and from doing any deadly harm there.

John Donne