That death figures excessively in Donne’s poetry is undeniable. No other English poet comes close in this respect. Even Thomas Hardy, whose vast poetic output is often criticised for its gloominess, exhibits nothing like Donne’s fascination with death. His writing is permeated with images and ideas about death, and from his prose works and letters we know he suffered serious bouts of depression which led him to feel suicidal on occasions. In one letter to his friend Sir Henry Goodyer, he admits that suicide attracted him even when his prospects looked good and he was uninfluenced by tragic events. He wrote the first defence of suicide to be published in English,
, and this passage from it gives us a taste of how seriously he regarded his own susceptibility. Referring to the attempted suicide of a contemporary theologian, Donne confesses:
I have often such a sickely inclination. And whether it be, because I had my first breeding and conversation with men of a suppressed and afflicted Religion, accustomed to the despite of death, and hungry of imagin’d Martyrdome; Or that the common Enemie finde that doore worst locked against him in mee, Or that there be a perplexitie and flexibilitie in the docrine it selfe; Or because my Conscience ever assures me, that no rebellious grudging at Gods gifts, nor other sinfull concurrence accompanies these thoughts in me, or that a brave scorn, or that a faint cowardliness beget it, whensoever any affliction assailes me, mee thinkes I have the keyes of my prison in mine owne hand, and no remedy presents it selfe so soone to my heart, as mine own sword.