In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England

By Peter Beal | Go to book overview

2
'It shall not therefore kill itself; that is, not bury itself'. Donne's Biathanatos and its text

IN a well-known, often-quoted letter of 1619, John Donne entrusted a manuscript to Sir Robert Ker, later Earl of Ancrum ( 1578-1654). He declared: 'I only forbid it the Presse, and the Fire: publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it.'1

This has been regarded as one of Donne's key statements about his own texts. Indeed it has been seen as encapsulating Donne's whole attitude towards his unpublished works in general--as showing, in effect, his wholehearted support of the coterie manuscript culture to which they belonged.2 This may be so. Nevertheless, I think we must also recognize that Donne is applying very specific instructions to one very specific work: Biathanatos, his huge, elaborately argued, copiously documented treatise on suicide, or self-homicide, as he calls it. This is his first major prose discourse, so far as we know, and, with the sole exception of the 430-page Pseudo-Martyr which followed shortly afterwards ( 1610), it is by far the longest single work in the Donne canon.

It would be easy to speculate at length on why Donne felt so demonstrably cautious, if not nervous, about this work. There is its subject for a start. Suicide is hardly the safest or least challenging of subjects in the field of Christian ethics. There is, moreover, Donne's own personal, and potentially vulnerable situation at this time, in these years before he entered the Church--one which impelled caution, to say the least, about his pronouncements on doctrinal matters. Not to mention the fact that theological controversy, even in the best of circumstances, was like entering a minefield. 'Contemplative and bookish men', he says, in what must surely be understatement, 'must of necessitie be more quarrelsome then others'.3 Most especially, as he tells Ker, the discourse was capable of inviting unfortunate interpretations: it was, he says, 'upon a misinterpretable subject', and he had had negative reactions from 'some particular friends

____________________
1
John Donne, Letters to severall persons of honour ( London, 1651), 22.
2
e.g. Richard B. Wollman, "'The press and the fire: Print and manuscript culture in Donne's circle'", SEL 33 ( 1993), 85-97.
3
John Donne, Biathanatos: A declaration of that paradoxe, or thesis, that selfe-homicide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise ( London, [ 1647]), Preface, p. 20. (This edition is henceforth cited as Quarto.)

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