The following is an excerpt from Margaret Edson’s award winning play, Wit:
Vivian Bearing: So we have another instance of John Donne’s agile wit at work: not so much resolving the issues of life and God as reveling in their complexity.
Student 2: But why?
Vivian: Why what?
Student 2: Why does Donne make everything so complicated? (The other students laugh in agreement). No, really, why?
Vivian: (To the audience) You know, someone asked me that every year. And it was always one of the smart ones. What could I say? (To Student 2) What do you think?
Student 2: I think it’s like he’s hiding. I think he’s really confused, I don’t know, maybe he’s scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind this wit.”
An interesting concept. Hiding behind wit. One armors themselves with jargon, practices, procedures, and knowledge specific to their perspective fields. This knowledge sets them apart from others who are not involved in the same things. It elevates you. It empowers you.
Not only can this student’s interpretation be applied to John Donne but also to Vivian Bearing, herself. She was an esteemed professor of Literature equipped with a vocabulary unmatched by her peers. She demanded perfection and provoked deep intellectual thought in her students and peers. Unfortunately, her relationships and connections to others suffered throughout her drive to become the highest scholar. She hid behind her intellect to avoid social discomforts. As a student herself, her mentor E.M. Ashford advised Vivian on Gardner’s Holy Sonnets as well as life:
“And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.” (As she recites this line, she makes a little gesture at the comma.)
Nothing but a breath-a comma- separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
Vivian: Life, death… I see. (Standing) It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit! I’ll go back to the library and rewrite the paper-
E.M.: (Standing, emphatically) It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. (Walking around the desk to her) The paper’s not the point.
Vivian: It isn’t?
E.M.: (Tenderly) Vivian. You’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?”
While E.M. viewed the lines from the Holy Sonnets not as wit, this is the central concept for the entire play. John Donne infuses wit into his lines in order to create confusion and stimulate higher thinking while he may be confused and lost, himself, as was proposed by student 2. Vivian provokes her students to analyze the literature pieces and find the deeper meanings. E.M. provided Vivian with wisdom not only on the meaning of the Holy Sonnets but also of the meaning of life. E.M. encouraged Vivian to become involved in areas other than her studies, to become well rounded. This idea of a well rounded individual is fundamental for aspiring physicians. In order to truly be able to heal it is important to understand all facets of life, not solely the biological. “Nothing but a breath-a comma- separates life from life everlasting.” In the same way these commas separate failures from successes, voidances from experiences, and solitude from relationships. Reaching out to others, extending oneself to the needs of those around you, serving, and dedication to core values are attributes that promote reaching the other side of that comma.