Time for a Little John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

I’m not an actor—my roles onstage in children’s theater were all non-speaking parts—but my high-school English teachers loved to have us read plays aloud in class. I was always the only one who volunteered, so I got to play some of my dream parts: Feste in Twelfth Night, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, the Stage Manager in Our Town, and Vivian Bearing in Wit.

Wit is a play about an professor who is in a hospital being treated for cancer. Much of the play’s dark humor is of a distinctly academic nature. I don’t mean any offense to my English class, but I think some lines didn’t mean quite so much to them as they did to me, even then, before college. Vivian is a professor of English: she loves words. She obsesses over them. She close-reads her doctors’ diagnoses. And much of the overarching theme of the play hinges on her life’s work, the interpretation of the final line of “Death be not proud.” It’s one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Vivian’s deal (if I remember correctly—I don’t have the text of the play) is that in one manuscript that semicolon is a comma, and whether the punctuation is a semicolon or a comma changes the entire interpretation of the poem. When I played Vivian—my English teacher telling me that I captured the essence of the character very well, I might add—I couldn’t really imagine ever finding a single punctuation mark that important.

I’m in a university class on English literature now, my first one ever. We’re reading Renaissance poetry, too, and “Death be not proud”—what I could remember of it, anyway—came to my mind yesterday. I’m learning how to fixate on words the way that Vivian (“Professor Bearing,” my well-trained mind insists) does, and how a choice so small can have such great meaning in a text. Vivian tries to apply these concepts to her real life, struggling to cope with her mortality in a not entirely dissimilar way from Donne in the Holy Sonnets, if I haven’t totally misunderstood the Holy Sonnets, which is quite possible. I’m trying to do so as well, as all my classes and indeed my life emphasize so much to me this importance on the smallest word or punctuation mark, the smallest choice. But I wonder whether there is a limit to how much academia can intercede in real life. I think that Vivian’s quest to confront her mortality through Donne is ultimately futile. Donne, after all, had God. But what does that say about the importance of texts to our lives? Texts obviously have something to teach us, or we wouldn’t be reading them. And as an English professor, I’m sure Vivian is fully cognizant of this fact.

I guess my point is that Vivian was my favorite role because I knew her—whether through department parties and family time spent reading Paradise Lost aloud, or through some inkling of self-knowledge. That self-knowledge has been brought to the fore, now, as I make the first stumbling steps towards doing, cognitively and professionally, what Vivian does. I’m not sure what that means for me—will I spend my last days alone and embittered in a hospital ward?—but I think these posts demonstrate as well as anything the direction in which I’m headed.

I think people tend to see Vivian as a pathetic character, but you know what? As for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2 thoughts on “Time for a Little John Donne

  1. Emily,

    I remember that week in class with Mrs. Gass very clearly. When we finally got to watch the film adaptation, I felt like I had already seen it because you read the lines so well. :)

    Kathleen (from SRHS)

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