Wit & Sonnet XIV
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 (Donne, 62). Initially, Vivian took her terminal diagnosis lightly. She joked during her physicals, and viewed her diagnosis as if it was just a normal occurrence in her life. Just like the speaker in Sonnet X, Vivian considers death to be something that could be mastered, and shares the same mocking and arrogant attitude as the speaker. “Die not, poor death, not yet canst thou kill me” proclaims the speaker in Donne’s Sonnet X. This false sense of invincibility is also shared by Vivian as she willing takes on the strongest dosages of medicine for her incurable cancer and also says that she knows “all about life and death” (Edson, 12). In Sonnet X Donne stated “And poppy, or charms can make us sleep well, /and better thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” (Donne, 62). 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 X, 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” (Donne,63). 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, specifically scenes involving the supporting cast. Holy Sonnet XIV focuses on the idea of the “three personed God” which can be broken down into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is represented in the play by Dr. Kelekian, Jason, and Nurse Susie. Dr. Kelekian serves as the Father being that he serves as the ultimate decider in life or death for Vivian with his control over her medicine dosages. Jason fits the role as the Son for the reason that he serves as Dr. Kelekian’s mentee and a right-hand man, and it is apparent that Dr. Kelekian favors him over his other students. However, Jason tries to take on the role of the Father towards the end of Wit when he attempts to resuscitate Vivian even though there were specific orders to do no such thing. Nurse Susie perfectly fits the role of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been described as an entity that is “a shy and self-effacing presence whose sole mission is to glorify the other members of the Trinity and carry out their directives” (Pauw, 1996). Susie does just that by carrying out the orders of both Dr. Kelekian and Jason. In addition, she serves as a friendly face, providing Vivian with comfort and an escape from the debilitating effects of her treatments.
Vivian’s indignation of her unavoidable death would also be washed out by Holy Sonnet XIV. Instead, I believe that Vivian would spend a large majority of the play reflecting on her life and begging for forgiveness. We would not see the rise, fall, and redemption of her life. Vivian’s death would also not be as peaceful and calming as it was presented at the end of the play. Instead, it would be as painful and desperate as the emotions the subject in Holy Sonnet XIV is experiencing. Several lines in Holy Sonnet XIV ooze of desperation to gain acceptance and healing from God. Vivian would go through all of the same emotions. While the nature of Holy Sonnet XIV is crass, ideas of a sexual nature are not of significance in the play. There are lines and moments in this poem that do not apply to the play 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 (Donne, 64). 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. In fact, any real discussions of Vivian’s sex life are eliminated once we learn that she is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. The only instance where anything of a sexual nature is mentioned during the play occurs when her former student Jason is giving her a pelvic exam. This situation is nothing like the sensual and controversial nature of many of Donne’s poems. In fact it could be described as awkward. Any real mention of sexuality in the play was minuscule, and if sex was incorporated, the concentration on Vivian’s struggle with accepting and understanding death would have been muddled. The inclusion of sex would also considerably change Vivian’s character. Rather than a tactful wordsmith, Vivian would be transformed into a sexual being, something that is the complete opposite of her character.
The one of the focal points of Wit is the fact that Vivian is a scholar of Donne’s work, but only on the surface. Vivian’s takes Donne’s work at face value and only seems to focus on what his words say, but not what they mean. This attitude is also present as she can’t even identify what separates her own life from death. Even Vivian’s mentor E.M. Ashford notices that Vivian cannot see even the significance of the placement of a semicolon or comma, and urges her to read Donne’s work in “the uncompromising way” because that is how “one learns something from this poem” (Edson, 15). Vivian holds this attitude throughout her stay in the hospital, and does not shed it until the very end of the play when “she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light-” (Edson, 85).
Donne, John. Selected Poems. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993. Print.
Edson, Margaret. W;t. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.
Pauw, Amy Platinga. "Who or what is the Holy Spirit? (Cover story)." 113.2 (1996): 48. . EBSCO. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.