I see John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XI working as an insight to Donne’s personal life. It brings the reader into how he portrays the effects of his sins with regards to the fact that Jesus gave up his life to redeem the rest of the world. Donne writes, “For I have sinned, and sinned, and only he, /Who could do no iniquity, hath died: /But my death cannot be satisfied /My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety: /They killed once an inglorious man, but I /Crucify him daily, being now glorified” (Donne 63). It seems that Donne is asking himself, “Why is it that I get let off so easily when the sinless man received the ultimate punishment?” In this excerpt I see Donne putting forth that he feels we, as humans, got the better end of the deal considering Jesus died for us and most of us can’t even refrain from using his name in vain for the course of even a day. The argument Donne is making within this sonnet is extremely valid, I believe, and I can see many people thinking the same thing when looking back at their own life. Although in Wit we do not see Vivian contemplating this aspect of her life at all. Not once throughout the play does Vivian talk about how religion had made an impact in her life. Edson gives us very little information about her childhood so we have no way of knowing whether or not Vivian’s father ever even introduced her to any religion. For the most part she reflects on the parts of her life that were defined by reading, literature, and writing which she believes to be the most important part of, if not the entirety of, her life and she is very proud of her career as she states in Wit, “After an outstanding undergraduate career, I studied with Professor E.M. Ashford for three years, during which time I learned by instruction and example what it means to be a scholar of distinction” (Edson 18). Because she focused on writing and literature and made it her life it seems appropriate for her to retreat to those moments when those aspects were a struggle for her, seeing as those things had typically been easy and enjoyable in her life.
Had Edson originally written Vivian’s character to be very religious she could have made room in the play for more of Donne’s Holy Sonnets that talked more directly about Jesus. This would provide for Vivian a stronger correlation to Donne’s work because the majority of his work is based on religion. In Donne’s sonnets we often see him switching from his own thoughts about life on earth to thoughts about God, heaven, etc. which could be seen as a switch from “the temporal to the supernatural” (Oliver 113). Within Wit’s original context there aren’t much, if any, religious thoughts flowing through Vivian’s head, but if Holy Sonnet XI were added, it would be a good basis for Vivian’s character to contemplate the fact that humans seem to take advantage of God’s unending love for us.
According to P.M. Oliver in his book Donne’s Religious Writing, Donne strongly believed that Christ had died for all people, not just some as the Calvinist beliefs had said during that time period. It was through his HHHoly Sonnets that he exposed this belief because he may have feared that he wouldn’t be one of the saved people if he were to believe in the Calvinist theory (Oliver 129). If a more religious sonnet had been added to Wit Edson could have tied this belief into Vivian’s character, maybe having her be more afraid of dying because she hadn’t lived a moral life and feared she would not be redeemed in the afterlife. If that were an added part of Vivian’s life Edson could flash-back to a time in her life when she possibly contemplated her choices, then consciously proceeded to make the inappropriate choice that would ultimately lead to an end that Vivian would regret.
In Holy Sonnet XI I felt as though John Donne was looking to be punished for the way he acted throughout his life, “Spit in my face you Jews, and pierce my side, /Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,” (Donne 63) and seems like he is searching for the reason that innocent Jesus was punished so harshly for actions that everyone else had performed, “For I have sinned, and sinned, and only he, /Who could do no iniquity, hath died:” (Donne 63). One feature that Holy Sonnet XI could add to the play and to Vivian’s character would be that of Vivian searching her past for a reason why she would be plagued by this cancer. Had this Holy Sonnet been included in the play, I believe we would have seen Vivian flash back to a time in her life when she made a decision she would later regret, or at least would see as something that she could have chosen a smarter path to take. An event such as that would add to the play a sense of doubt in Vivian’s mind about how she lived her life, maybe we would have seen Edson have Vivian more concerned about the fact that she never made time to find love or have a family, or even a more disastrous event such as a legal infraction that caused her to be put in jail or even just would sit in her conscience for the rest of her life that would be the onset of such a punishment as cancer.
Whether or not the addition of Holy Sonnet XI would strengthen or weaken the play is tough to say. Being religious myself, I would say it would strengthen the play because it would give Vivian something else in her life to look back on and be proud of, just as she was so proud of her career as a scholar. I think depending on how strongly religious you are the more heavily you would rely on God in a situation like Vivian’s. Because Vivian is so educated with words and literature I feel as though she would spend more time evaluating herself in regards to the exact words that Donne uses in the sonnet rather than the deeper meaning, because she has a tendency to dissect, word-for-word, what she is hearing when someone is telling her important information as we see on page 9 of Wit “Antineoplastic. Anti: against. Neo: new. Plastic. To mold. Shaping. Antineoplastic. Against new shaping.” But if Vivian would be able to refrain from her usual dissection of every word, we could see a new aspect of her character that was more positive and seemed to be more fulfilled with how she lived her life. Within Wit we are shown that Vivian knows the only thing she’s ever lived for has been words, which in the end didn’t seem to help her much on the larger scale of life, “My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary” (Edson 44). From that, we have proof that had she devoted some of her time to even just learning about Jesus, not necessarily becoming religious herself, with the same intensity and determination that she felt when learning about and teaching about literature she could have had a much more gratifying life experience. Holy Sonnet XI would force Vivian to look at her life and determine whether or not she lived in a way that could attempt to take full advantage of the fact that Christ Jesus had put his own, sinless life on the line so that the rest of humanity could live. Despite the already present emotions emitted from the play in regards to the struggles against cancer, if Donne’s Holy Sonnet XI were added to Wit the intensity of those gripping emotions would expand and the audience that feels emotionally attached to the idea behind the play would also be broadened.
Oliver, P.M. Donne's Religious Writing. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997. Print.
Donne, John. Selected Poems. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.
Edson, Margaret. Wit. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.