THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE
“Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris”
HE had lived so long in the meditation of death, visited it so
often in others, studied it with such persistency, with a
sentiment in which horror and fascination mingled ; but it
had always been, as it were, an objective, alien fact, remote
from himself and his own life. So that it was in a sudden
flash, quite too stupefying to admit in the first instance
of terror, that knowledge of his mortality dawned on him. There was
absurdity in the idea too.
“I, Francis Donne, thirty-five and some months old, am going to die,” he
said to himself; and fantastically he looked at his image in the glass, and
sought, but quite vainly, to find some change in it which should account
for this incongruity, just as, searching in his analytical habit into the recesses
of his own mind, he could find no such alteration of his inner consciousness as
would explain or justify his plain conviction. And quickly, with reason and
casuistry, he sought to rebut that conviction.
The quickness of his mind—it had never seemed to him so nimble,
so exquisite a mechanism of syllogism and deduction—was contraposed against
his blind instinct of the would-be self-deceiver, in a conflict to which the
latter brought something of desperation, the fierce, agonized desperation of
a hunted animal at bay. But piece by piece the chain of evidence was
strengthened. That subtile and agile mind of his, with its special knowledge,
cut clean through the shrinking protests of instinct, removing them as surely
and as remorselessly, he reflected in the image most natural to him, as the
keen blade of his surgical knives had removed malignant ulcers.
“I, Francis Donne, am going to die,” he repeated, and, presently, “I am
going to die soon; in a few months, in six perhaps, certainly in a year.”
THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE 67
Once more, curiously, but this time with a sense of neutrality, as he had
often diagnosed a patient, he turned to the mirror. Was it his fancy, or,
perhaps, only for the vague light that he seemed to discover a strange gray
tone about his face ?
But he had always been a man of a very sallow complexion.
There were a great many little lines, like pen-scratches, scarring the
parchment-like skin beneath the keen eyes : doubtless, of late, these had
multiplied, become more noticeable, even when his face was in repose.
But, of late, what with his growing practice, his lectures, his writing ;
all the unceasing labour, which his ambitions entailed, might well have aged
him somewhat. That dull, immutable pain, which had first directed his
attention from his studies, his investigations, his profession, to his corporal
self, the actual Francis Donne, that pain which he would so gladly have
called inexplicable, but could explain so precisely, had ceased for the moment.
Nerves, fancies ! How long it was since he had taken any rest ! He had
often intended to give himself holiday, but something had always intervened.
But he would do so now, yes, almost immediately ; a long, long holiday—he
would grudge nothing—somewhere quite out of the way, somewhere, where
there was fishing ; in Wales, or perhaps in Brittany ; that would surely set
And even while he promised himself this necessary relaxation in the
immediate future, as he started on his afternoon round, in the background
of his mind there lurked the knowledge of its futility ; rest, relaxation, all
that, at this date, was, as it were, some tardy sacrifice, almost hypocritical,
which he offered to powers who might not be propitiated.
Once in his neat brougham, the dull pain began again ; but by an effort
of will he put it away from him. In the brief interval from house to house—
he had some dozen visits to make—he occupied himself with a medical paper,
glanced at the notes of a lecture he was giving that evening at a certain
Institute on the “Limitations of Medicine.”
He was late, very late for dinner, and his man, Bromgrove, greeted him
with a certain reproachfulness, in which he traced, or seemed to trace, a half-
patronizing sense of pity. He reminded himself that on more than one
occasion, of late, Bromgrove’s manner had perplexed him. He was glad to
rebuke the man irritably on some pretext, to dismiss him from the room, and
he hurried, without appetite, through the cold or overdone food which was
the reward of his tardiness.
His lecture over, he drove out to South Kensington, to attend a reception
68 THE SAVOY
at the house of a great man—great not only in the scientific world, but also
in the world of letters. There was some of the excitement of success in his
eyes as he made his way, with smiles and bows, in acknowledgment of many
compliments, through the crowded rooms. For Francis Donne’s lectures—
those of them which were not entirely for the initiated—had grown into the
importance of a social function. They had almost succeeded in making
science fashionable, clothing its dry bones in a garment of so elegantly-
literary a pattern. But even in the ranks of the profession it was only the
envious, the unsuccessful, who ventured to say that Donne had sacrificed
doctrine to popularity, that his science was, in their contemptuous parlance,
Yes, he had been very successful, as the world counts success, and his
consciousness of this fact, and the influence of the lights, the crowd, the
voices, was like absinthe on his tired spirit. He had forgotten, or thought he
had forgotten, the phantom of the last few days, the phantom which was
surely waiting for him at home.
But he was reminded by a certain piece of news which late in the evening
fluttered the now diminished assembly : the quite sudden death of an eminent
surgeon, expected there that night, an acquaintance of his own, and more or
less of each one of the little, intimate group which tarried to discuss it. With
sympathy, with a certain awe, they spoke of him, Donne and the others ; and
both the awe and the sympathy were genuine.
But as he drove home, leaning back in his carriage, in a discouragement,
in a lethargy, which was only partly due to physical reaction, he saw visibly
underneath their regret—theirs and his own—the triumphant assertion of
life, the egoism of instinct. They were sorry, but oh, they were glad ! royally
glad, that it was another, and not they themselves whom something mysterious
had of a sudden snatched away from his busy career, his interests, perhaps
from all intelligence ; at least, from all the pleasant sensuousness of life, the
joy of the visible world, into darkness. And he knew the sentiment, and
honestly dared not blame it. How many times had not he, Francis Donne
himself experienced it, that egoistic assertion of life in the presence of the
dead—the poor, irremediable dead ? . . . And now, he was only good to give
it to others.
Latterly, he had been in the habit of subduing sleeplessness with injec-
tions of morphia, indeed in infinitesimal quantities. But to-night, although
he was more than usually restless and awake, by a strong effort of reasonable-
ness he resisted his impulse to take out the little syringe. The pain was at
THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE 69
him again with the same dull and stupid insistence ; in its monotony, losing
some of the nature of pain and becoming a mere nervous irritation. But he
was aware that it would not continue like that. Daily, almost hourly, it
would gather strength and cruelty ; the moments of respite from it would
become rarer, would cease. From a dull pain it would become an acute
pain, and then a torture, and then an agony, and then a madness. And
in those last days, what peace might be his would be the peace of morphia,
so that it was essential that, for the moment, he should not abuse the
And as he knew that sleep was far away from him, he propped himself
up with two pillows, and by the light of a strong reading-lamp settled himself
to read. He had selected the work of a distinguished German savant upon
the cardial functions, and a short treatise of his own, which was covered
with recent annotations, in his crabbed hand-writing, upon “Aneurism of the
Heart.” He read avidly, and against his own deductions, once more his
instinct raised a vain protest. At last he threw the volumes aside, and lay
with his eyes shut, without, however, extinguishing the light. A terrible
sense of helplessness overwhelmed him ; he was seized with an immense and
heart-breaking pity for poor humanity as personified in himself; and, for the
first time since he had ceased to be a child, he shed puerile tears.
The faces of his acquaintance, the faces of the students at his lectures,
the faces of Francis Donne’s colleagues at the hospital, were altered ; were, at
least, sensibly altered to his morbid self-consciousness. In every one whom
he encountered, he detected, or fancied that he detected, an attitude of
evasion, a hypocritical air of ignoring a fact that was obvious and unpleasant.
Was it so obvious, then, the hidden horror which he carried incessantly about
with him ? Was his secret, which he would still guard so jealously, become
a byword and an anecdote in his little world ? And a great rage consumed
him against the inexorable and inscrutable forces which had made him to
destroy him ; against himself, because of his proper impotence ; and, above
all, against the living, the millions who would remain when he was no longer,
the living, of whom many would regret him (some of them his personality,
and more, his skill), because he could see under all the unconscious hypocrisy
of their sorrow, the exultant self-satisfaction of their survival.
And with his burning sense of helplessness, of a certain bitter injustice
70 THE SAVOY
in things, a sense of shame mingled ; all the merely physical dishonour of
death shaping itself to his sick and morbid fancy into a violent symbol of what
was, as it were, an actually moral or intellectual dishonour. Was not death,
too, inevitable and natural an operation as it was, essentially a process to
undergo apart and hide jealously, as much as other natural and ignoble
processes of the body ?
And the animal, who steals away to an uttermost place in the forest, who
gives up his breath in a solitude and hides his dying like a shameful thing,—
might he not offer an example that it would be well for the dignity of poor
humanity to follow?
Since Death is coming to me, said Francis Donne to himself, let me meet
it, a stranger in a strange land, with only strange faces round me and the kind
indifference of strangers, instead of the intolerable pity of friends.
On the bleak and wave-tormented coast of Finistère, somewhere between
Quiberon and Fouesnant, he reminded himself of a little fishing-village : a few
scattered houses (one of them being an auberge at which ten years ago he had
spent a night,) collected round a poor little gray church. Thither Francis
Donne went, without leave-takings or explanation, almost secretly, giving but
the vaguest indications of the length or direction of his absence. And there
for many days he dwelt, in the cottage which he had hired, with one old
Breton woman for his sole attendant, in a state of mind which, after all the
years of energy, of ambitious labour, was almost peace.
Bleak and gray it had been, when he had visited it of old, in the late
autumn ; but now the character, the whole colour of the country was changed.
It was brilliant with the promise of summer, and the blue Atlantic, which in
winter churned with its long crested waves so boisterously below the little
white light-house, which warned mariners (alas ! so vainly), against the shark-
like cruelty of the rocks, now danced and glittered in the sunshine, rippled
with feline caresses round the hulls of the fishing-boats whose brown sails
floated so idly in the faint air.
Above the village, on a grassy slope, whose green was almost lurid,
Francis Donne lay, for many silent hours, looking out at the placid sea, which
could yet be so ferocious, at the low violet line of the Island of Groix, which
alone interrupted the monotony of sky and ocean.
He had brought many books with him but he read in them rarely ; and
THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE 71
when physical pain gave him a respite for thought, he thought almost of
nothing. His thought was for a long time a lethargy and a blank.
Now and again he spoke with some of the inhabitants. They were a
poor and hardy, but a kindly race : fishers and the wives of fishers, whose
children would grow up and become fishermen and the wives of fishermen in
their turn. Most of them had wrestled with death ; it was always so near to
them that hardly one of them feared it ; they were fatalists, with the grim and
resigned fatalism of the poor, of the poor who live with the treachery of
Francis Donne visited the little cemetery, and counted the innumerable
crosses which testified to the havoc which the sea had wrought. Some of the
graves were nameless ; holding the bodies of strange seamen which the waves
had tossed ashore.
“And in a little time I shall lie here,” he said to himself; “and here
as well as elsewhere,” he added with a shrug, assuming, and, for once, almost
sincerely, the stoicism of his surroundings, “and as lief to-day as to-morrow.”
On the whole, the days were placid ; there were even moments when, as
though he had actually drunk in renewed vigour from that salt sea air, the
creative force of the sun, he was tempted to doubt his grievous knowledge, to
make fresh plans of life. But these were fleeting moments, and the reaction
from them was terrible. Each day his hold on life was visibly more slender, and
the people of the village saw, and with a rough sympathy, which did not
offend him, allowed him to perceive that they saw, the rapid growth and the
inevitableness of his end.
But if the days were not without their pleasantness, the nights were
always horrible—a torture of the body and an agony of the spirit. Sleep was
far away, and the brain, which had been lulled till the evening, would awake,
would grow electric with life and take strange and abominable flights into the
darkness of the pit, into the black night of the unknowable and the unknown.
And interminably, during those nights which seemed eternity, Francis
Donne questioned and examined into the nature of that Thing, which stood,
a hooded figure beside his bed, with a menacing hand raised to beckon him
so peremptorily from all that lay within his consciousness.
He had been all his life absorbed in science ; he had dissected, how many
bodies ? and in what anatomy had he ever found a soul ? Yet if his avocations,
72 THE SAVOY
his absorbing interest in physical phenomena had made him somewhat a
materialist, it had been almost without his consciousness. The sensible,
visible world of matter had loomed so large to him, that merely to know
that had seemed to him sufficient. All that might conceivably lie outside it,
he had, without negation, been content to regard as outside his province.
And now, in his weakness, in the imminence of approaching dissolution,
his purely physical knowledge seemed but a vain possession, and he turned
with a passionate interest to what had been said and believed from time
immemorial by those who had concentrated their intelligence on that strange
essence, which might after all be the essence of one’s personality, which might
be that sublimated consciousness—the Soul—actually surviving the infamy of
the grave ?
Animula, vagula, blandula !
Hospes comesque corporis,
Qua? nunc abibis in loca?
Pallidula, rigida, nudula.
Ah, the question ! It was an harmony, perhaps (as, who had maintained ?
whom the Platonic Socrates in the “Phaedo” had not too successfully refuted),
an harmony of life, which was dissolved when life was over ? Or, perhaps, as
how many metaphysicians had held both before and after a sudden great
hope, perhaps too generous to be true, had changed and illuminated, to count-
less millions, the inexorable figure of Death—a principle, indeed, immortal,
which came and went, passing through many corporal conditions until it was
ultimately resolved into the great mind, pervading all things? Perhaps? . . .
But what scanty consolation, in all such theories, to the poor body, racked with
pain and craving peace, to the tortured spirit of self-consciousness so achingly
anxious not to be lost.
And he turned from these speculations to what was, after all, a possibility
like the others ; the faith of the simple, of these fishers with whom he lived,
which was also the faith of his own childhood, which, indeed, he had never
repudiated, whose practices he had simply discarded, as one discards puerile
garments when one comes to man’s estate. And he remembered, with the
vividness with which, in moments of great anguish, one remembers things
long ago familiar, forgotten though they may have been for years, the
triumphant declarations of the Church :
“Omnes quidem resurgemus, sed non omnes immutabimur. In momento, in
ictu oculi, in novissima tuba : canet enim tuba : et mortui resurgent incorrupti, et
nos immutabimur. Oportet enim corruptibile hoc induere immortalitatem. Cum
THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE 73
autem mortale hoc induerit immortalitatem tunc fiet sermo qui scriptus est :
Absorpta est mors in victoria. Ubi est, mors, victoria tua ? Ubt est, mors,
stimulus tuus ?”
Ah, for the certitude of that ! of that victorious confutation of the
apparent destruction of sense and spirit in a common ruin. . . . But it was a
possibility like the rest ; and had it not more need than the rest to be more
than a possibility, if it would be a consolation, in that it promised more?
And he gave it up, turning his face to the wall, lay very still, imagining
himself already stark and cold, his eyes closed, his jaw closely tied (lest the
ignoble changes which had come to him should be too ignoble), while he
waited until the narrow boards, within which he should lie, had been nailed
together, and the bearers were ready to convey him into the corruption which
was to be his part.
And as the window-pane grew light with morning, he sank into a drugged,
unrestful sleep, from which he would awake some hours later with eyes more
sunken and more haggard cheeks. And that was the pattern of many
One day he seemed to wake from a night longer and more troubled than
usual, a night which had, perhaps, been many nights and days, perhaps even
weeks ; a night of an ever-increasing agony, in which he was only dimly con-
scious at rare intervals of what was happening, or of the figures coming and
going around his bed : the doctor from a neighbouring town, who had stayed
by him unceasingly, easing his paroxysms with the little merciful syringe ; the
soft, practised hands of a sister of charity about his pillow ; even the face of
Bromgrove, for whom doubtless he had sent, when he had foreseen the utter
helplessness which was at hand.
He opened his eyes, and seemed to discern a few blurred figures against
the darkness of the closed shutters through which one broad ray filtered in ;
but he could not distinguish their faces, and he closed his eyes once more.
An immense and ineffable tiredness had come over him, but the pain— oh,
miracle ! had ceased. . . . And it suddenly flashed over him that this—this
was Death ; this was the thing against which he had cried and revolted ; the
horror from which he would have escaped ; this utter luxury of physical
exhaustion, this calm, this release.
The corporal capacity of smiling had passed from him, but he would fain
74 THE SAVOY
And for a few minutes of singular mental lucidity, all his life flahsed
before him in a new relief; his childhood, his adolescence, the people whom
he had known ; his mother, who had died when he was a boy, of a malady
from which, perhaps, a few years later, his skill had saved her ; the friend of
his youth who had shot himself for so little reason ; the girl whom he had
loved, but who had not loved him. . . . All that was distorted in life was
adjusted and justified in the light of his sudden knowledge. Beati mortui . . .
and then the great tiredness swept over him once more, and a fainter con-
sciousness, in which he could yet just dimly hear, as in a dream, the sound of
Latin prayers, and feel the application of the oils upon all the issues and
approaches of his wearied sense ; then utter unconsciousness, while pulse and
heart gradually grew fainter until both ceased. And that was all.
Dowson, Ernest. “The Dying of Francis Donne.” The Savoy, vol. 4, August 1896, pp. 66-74. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv4-dowson-donne/