“I haue often such a sickly inclination” Biography and the Critical Interpretation of Donne's Suicide Tract, Biathanatos

By Ray Siemens

University of Victoria

As we live in an age that accepts, and at times embraces, the notion that the personal is political and that personal politics are professional politics, it is odd that Donne's Biathanatos (written 1607-8, printed 1647) --...

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As we live in an age that accepts, and at times embraces, the notion that the personal is political and that personal politics are professional politics, it is odd that Donne's Biathanatos (written 1607-8, printed 1647) -- a tract that Evelyn Simpson found to be "an exercise in casuistry on the subject of suicide" -- is not seen by most as a document indicative of the personal condition of its author at the time it was written. Views on this aspect of the work do range rather widely, from Ernest Sullivan's contention that "neither [Donne's] personal life nor the text validate reading Biathanatos as autobiographical introspection" to John Carey's assertion that Biathanatos "constituted a giant suicide note, always ready for use."[1] But the tract in which Donne argues "that Self-homicide is not so naturally Sinne, that it may neuer be otherwise" is, when not elided or lightly treated, a work that is more consistently disconnected from the author's own concerns at the time of its writing than it is associated with them. Indeed, of the critical images of Biathanatos that have emerged of late, the most coherent is that which considers it in light of the earlier paradoxes and satires, and treats it largely as a detached, impersonal, and scholastic (if parodic) engagement of his subject -- a work in keeping with Donne's theological and legal interests at the time of its composition and falling well within the boundaries of acceptable casuistry, an examination of the moral implications of an action. Even so, such an image is largely composite.

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Original publication information:

Originally published in Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7

Date: May 2001

URL: https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/si-07/siemens.htm

Original citation:

Siemens, R. G. "'I haue often such a sickly inclination': Biography and the Critical Interpretation of Donne's Suicide Tract, Biathanatos." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 10.1-26 https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/si-07/siemens.htm.