It is the details that delight. Donne hated milk. Mortally sick, about to celebrate his death by sitting for his portrait in a shroud, he was urged by his doctor that ‘by Cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health’. Donne would have none of it. The doctor (a Dr Fox, son of the author of the ‘Boke of Martyrs’) insisted that his patient should at least try. Donne thereupon drank milk – but for ten days only. Then he told Dr Fox that he would not drink the stuff for another ten days even ‘upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life’.
John Stubbs repeats this anecdote from Isaac Walton’s Life of Dr John Donne (1640), which remains a readable piece of work for all its faults. Walton was somewhat cavalier in matters of chronology, jumbling or telescoping events to suit his sense of emotional rightness. He says, for instance, that Ann