Thursday, January 27, 2011

Holy Sonnet I and W;t

Much of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet poetry was included in or referenced by the play W;t. One Sonnet that was not included in the play was Holy Sonnet I. This exemption, which by no presumption would be considered as a mistake, could have added a greater depth to Vivian’s plight.

In Holy Sonnet I, the character talks about how God has made him and yet he is going to die, not believing that God would just let him die after all the work it took to create him. Not only is he dying, but he is dying quickly (I run to death, and death meets me fast) just as Vivian only has 2 hours left to live. By adding this line, it could in a tragic way advise the audience that death is fast approaching. On the other hand, by Vivian saying “I’ve got less than two hours. Then: curtain. (Page 7)” is also used in an abrupt manner which shocks the audience to face the aspect of death without warning just as she had. Although with the Sonnet’s reference, it would let the audience aware with less theatrics.

Towards the end of her life, Vivian is overwhelmed with fear at the prospect of her death. In this sonnet, the character is also fearful of death (I dare not move my dim eyes any way,/Despair behind, and death before doth cast/Such terror,). A few other points about this line in relation with Vivian’s state of mind is that in the capitalization of the words Despair and Such also richly emphasizes the pain and fear that she is currently facing. Despair with a capital D reflects a much more powerful emotion then just the word despair would. Also the fear that she currently feels is enhanced through the phrase “Such terror” other than “such terror”.

Towards the end of the play, Vivian gets sicker as does the character in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet I (and my feeble flesh doth waste). Another similarity between the two is the hope for redemption. Vivian goes through her redemption with the nurse taking care of her at the end and her old mentor reading her a children’s story. The character goes through this redemption by thinking that he is going to hell (my feeble flesh doth waste/By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;/Only thou art above, and when towards thee/By thy leave can I look, I rise again;)

The similarities end there however as the rest of the poem is that the main character is again tempted by the devil into sin and that if left to his own devices, he would go with the devil and sin again, but because he is protected by God then his heart is like “iron” and is protected from evil.

Even though the ending of the sonnet does nothing to enhance or move the story of Vivian, the beginning and middle are too similar to see that it could only enhance for the reader and viewer what Vivian is struggling through as she comes to terms with her own mortality.


  1. I'm looking for about three things in this prompt. I'm looking for an understanding of the sonnet, which I think you display nicely. I'm looking for an understanding of how that sonnet might relate to the play, where I'm mostly pretty happy. I'm also looking, as the prompt says, for a discussion of how including that sonnet could have changed the play, making it better or worse. You simply don't do this, although there's a moment when you could:

    "Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art /
    and thou like adamant draw my iron heart."

    The speaker envisions himself as a sinner, who needs God's grace to protect him from the devil. His cold, sinful, iron heart, however, is overthrown: God is imagined as adamant (a magnet!) which pulls that iron heart. So the speaker is drawn by God against the devil's will and almost even against his own will.

    I gave that long explanation, because I want to make a point about an opportunity missed: this sonnet is about being pulled to God at the end, in spite of all of one's mistakes and shortcomings. Does that relate to the play? Would the play have been different if that image, of being drawn to God like iron to a magnet, had been integrated into it?

    You started out well, but you ignored part of the prompt, and as a consequence brushed away the most challenging (and to me, the most interesting) part of the poem.

  2. I agree that you explain Holy Sonnet I very well here. Enough to make the reader get a good grasp of what the poem is about. You also definitely relate both W;t and the poem to each other. However, the portion of the prompt that asked you to note how adding the poem would change the play was lacking.

    I think that you could do a lot with this poem. Holy Sonnet I is about the speaker feeling as if he has sinned and he sees himself getting closer to Hell as he dies. In the end though, he says God attracts him like a magnet. You could write about all the mistakes Vivian has made throughout her lifetime that she brings up in W;t like on page 63 where she does not care for the student that needs to leave because his grandma passed away and she still makes the paper due the same day. When she is explaining that to the audience, you could insert a line from the poem that relates to this.

    Also, when she is explaining how "now is not the time for verbal swordplay" page 69, you could insert a line from the poem like how Donne can't escape the sins he makes and "that not one hour myself I can sustain" because Vivian has no time to live and she also can't stop thinking about the one thing that she's done her whole life that may or may not have put her in such a sad position which is words which are sort of her own demon to her self destruction.

    Lastly, you might want to insert a line in the poem of how God is calling her like a magnet when she is screaming God multiple times on pages 70-71 because even after her whole life is over and she has not really been religious and has definitely sinned before, God is still the name she calls, still the force that is attracting her at her last minutes.

    Hope these are some helpful examples you might want to add to the last part of the prompt! Good job overall though!