In Parts 2 and 3, I have argued that John Donne’s Biathanatos is a serious work. But if the author had faith in the cogency of his arguments, why did he decline to share them with the general public? Although Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin note that it “is common to assume that self-protection was the motive for Donne’s not publishing” (xv), they nevertheless assert that “[h]eterodoxy […] is not likely to be the reason Donne suppressed the book” (xviii). To phrase this another way, Biathanatos is not a heterodoxical work, but rather one that is prone to misinterpretation.
Indeed, such an assessment seems to be shared by the author himself. In a letter addressed to Sir Edward Herbert, Donne expresses his wish to have Biathanatos included within his friend’s library. However, he suggests that his book might be suspected of “new or dangerous doctrine” (Biathanatos 1982 3). And in correspondence with Sir Robert Key, he writes:
I send you another book, to which there belongs this history. It was written by me many years since, and because it is upon a misinterpretable subject, I have always gone so near suppressing it as that it is only not burnt. No hand hath passed upon it to copy it, nor many eyes to read it; only to some particular friends in both universities then, when I writ it, I did communicate it, and I remember I had this answer: that certainly there was a false thread in it, but not easily found. (Biathanatos 1982 4)
Yet as Rudick and Battin note, Donne does not claim that Biathanatos in fact has a “false thread in it,” but only that certain early readers thought as much (xvi). Nonetheless, if he felt that his work was “upon a misinterpretable subject,” which has been borne out by subsequent centuries of critical misapprehension, this seems reason enough to keep it from the press. (more…)