Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 12. Paradoxes, Problems and other Prose Writings

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 12. Paradoxes, Problems and other Prose Writings

Donne’s earliest prose writings were, probably, the Paradoxes and Problems which he circulated privately among his friends. The Burley MS. contains a selection from them, sent to Sir Henry Wotton with an apologetic letter, in which Donne pleads that they were made “rather to deceive time than her daughter truth, having this advantage to escape from being called ill things that they are nothings,” but, at the same time, adjures Wotton “that no copy shall be taken, for any respect, of these or any other my compositions sent to you.” It was Donne’s son who first issued them in 1652, printed so carelessly as, at times, to be unintelligible. Like everything that Donne wrote, they are brilliant, witty and daring, but, on the whole, represent the more perverse and unpleasant side of his genius. His other prose works are: a tract on the Jesuits, very similar in tone and temper to the Paradoxes, entitled Ignatius his Conclave: or, His Inthronisation in a late Election in Hell, which was published anonymously, the English version about 1610, the Latin in 1611; the serious and business-like Pseudo-Martyr, issued with the author’s name in; 1610; BIA[char]ANATOΣ A Declaration of that Paradoxe or Thesis that Self-Homicide is not so Naturally Sinne that it may never be otherwise; the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness, digested into Meditations, Expostulations and Prayers, published in 1624; the Essays in Divinity, printed by his son in 1651; and the sermons.

All Donne’s minor or occasional writings, except the rather perfunctory Essays in Divinity, partake of the nature of paradoxes more or less elaborately developed. Even Pseudo-Martyr irritated the Roman Catholic controversialist who replied to it by its “fantastic conceits.” Of them all, the most interesting, because bearing the deepest impress of the author’s individuality, his strange moods, his subtle reasoning, his clear good sense, is BIA[char]ANATOΣ. It is not rightly described as a defence of suicide, but is what the title indicates, a serious and thoughtful discussion of a fine point in casuistry. Seeing that a man may rightly, commendably, even as a duty, do many things which promote or hasten his death, may he ever rightly, and as his bounden duty, consummate that process—may he ever, as Christ did upon the cross (to this Donne recurs more than once in the sermons), of his own free will render up his life to God?