Thursday, January 27, 2011

Holy Sonnet XIV & Wit

Throughout the play Wit, Vivian quotes various lines from the Holy Sonnet X by John Donne. A scholar of Donne’s work, Vivian incorporated many of these thoughts and words into her everyday life, and it could be seen that his worked shaped her as an individual. That being said, Holy Sonnet X is extremely important to the content of Wit, and the play would be very different if it was based on the content of a different sonnet.

Holy Sonnet X works within the play by supporting Vivian’s initial matter of fact response to dying and also her subsequent fears. “Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;” this line perfectly describes Vivian initial feelings of her terminal illness. Initially, Vivian’s took her diagnosis lightly. She joked during her physicals, and viewed her diagnosis as if it was just a normal occurrence in her life. Just like Donne did in that line, Vivian did not view death as a serious thing. Just like Donne, Vivian considers death to be something that could be mastered. In Sonnet X Donne stated “And poppy, or charms can make us sleep well, /and better thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” In the play, Nurse Susie gave Vivian a morphine dose to ease the pain of dying and make her last few hours as comfortable as possible. The ideas of both these lines and this play scene are parallel. In the holy Sonnet, Donne was referencing the fact that “poppy” elicits a sleep more deep and peaceful then death could ever provide. The “poppy” is represented by the morphine that is administered. At the ending of the play Vivian walks towards the light, is parallel to the Holy Sonnet X line “One short sleep past, we wake eternally”. This line implies that one’s live doesn’t start until they die. By being awake eternally, one is infinitely alive. When Vivian died at the end of the play, she was in a way freed from living her life according to Donne.

If the focus of the play was shifted to Holy Sonnet XIV, the underlying meaning of the play and the parts mentioned above would certainly be lost. The inclusion of the Holy Sonnet X supported many of the key points of the play, from Vivian’s initial defiance of her death sentence, to her finally accepting her fate. However, other parts of the play would be highlighted and enhanced. Holy Sonnet XIV focuses on the idea of the “three personed God”. This could be representative in the play by Dr. Kelekian, Jason, and Nurse Susie. Also the several lines by the speaker in the sonnet ooze of desperation to gain acceptance and healing from God. “Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” this line is similar to Vivian unquestioning commitment to Dr. Kelekian and Jason’s seemingly dangerous full dosage of medication. Just like the speaker, Vivian was made anew at the end when she died and was freed from not only her cancer but also free from living her life according to Donne.

There are lines and moments in this poem that do not apply to the poem at all. Specifically, the line “except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” would not be contextually significant. Though Vivian was a scholar of Donne’s work, she did not follow everything he wrote about. Sex and love are two hot topics of Donne’s that were not really emphasized in Wit. Any real mention of sexuality in the poem was minuscule, and if sex was incorporated into the play, the concentration on Vivian’s struggle with accepting and understanding death would have been muddled.


  1. I think your analysis of how Sonnet X impacts the play was well reasoned and reasonably compact; I don't see anything wrong with it, and I see a lot to like about it. Good analysis.

    I think your discussion of how things would have changed with the move to XIV was good as far as it went, but was definitely underedeveloped. The way in which the three medical professions might have represented the trinity is clever, but you dance around the central issue: the central image of that poem is one of horrific, sexualized violence. So I agree that "the concentration on Vivian’s struggle with accepting and understanding death would have been muddled"; that's a good observation. So how would her death have been portrayed differently? Maybe with horror, revulsion, and violence; it would have been more focused on her horrible pain, for instance, maybe more focused on her regrets, just as a starting point.

    Really, I was pretty happy with this - I just think you didn't push yourself very far when asking how Sonnet XIV would have influenced it.

  2. I think your essay analysis is very well written. You did a good job interpreting Sonnet X and comparing it with the play. The only things I would suggest is what professor Adam Johns said about expanding on your analysis of Sonnet XIV. One of the last ideas in the paragraph you talk about the medication, you could expand on by talking about the terrible pain she endured during her fight with cancer. Other than that you have a good start to your essay.