Can Donne Help Us Cope with Death?



A teacher of a “Literature and Nurses” course recently wrote me asking for a post that has mysteriously gone missing from my retrievable archives. It was from a series of essays that I wrote on Margaret Edson’s W;t. As other posts from that series have also disappeared, I reprint today three of the missing posts. I don’t know why the internet gods were so focused on Edson, but I recently reposted two other essays in the series that also went missing (here and here).

Two posts in the series somehow escaped the massacre. I provide links to them at the end of today’s column.

Wit Won’t Cushion Us against Death (originally posted January 8, 2010)

Will John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” help one handle the fact that one has cancer? It is significant that the cancer victim and Donne scholar in Margaret Edson’s W;t is rejecting her favorite poet by the end of the play.

First of all, here’s Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

I’m actually not sure whether this particular poem would help any cancer patient. The poem has too much braggadocio in it for me, as though the poet thinks he can override his fears through shear audacity. My reservations about the poem are also those of the play. Wit is all very well, Edson seems to be saying, but can it speak to the heart or to a patient in distress?

In fact, as Edson sets up the poet, it’s almost as if he stands in for a flight from sentimental emotions. E.M., the protagonist’s graduate school mentor, is a woman in a man’s field and she shows that she is as tough as any man by burying her softer side. Vivian has become the same kind of academic. As Jason, her doctor and former student says,

Listen, if there’s one thing we learned in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, it’s that you can forget about that sentimental stuff. Enzyme Kinetics was more poetic than Bearing’s class. Besides, you can’t think about that meaning-of-life garbage all the time or you’d go nuts.

Donne, as he is portrayed in W;t, uses his mind to avoid harsh truths. In actuality, “Death Be Not Proud” reveals that he fears that death has all too much reason to be proud. Donne employs his brilliant mind in a desperate attempt to put death in its place. Vivian also detects such fears in Donne’s Holy Sonnet #5:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas; why should I bee?
Why should intent or reason, borne in mee,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee, more heinous?
And mercy being easie,’ and glorious
To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?
O God, Oh! Of thine onely worthy blood,
And my teares, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie.
That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

As Vivian analyzes the poem, 

The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind, and he plays the part convincingly; but in the end he finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide.

If arsenic and serpents are not damned, then why is he? In asking the questions, the speaker turns eternal damnation into an intellectual game. Why would God choose to do what is hard, to condemn, rather than what is easy, and also glorious—to show mercy?

Vivian sees the speaker as so overwhelmed by his own sense of sin, and his own worry about God’s judgment, that he arrives at a religiously inaccurate conclusion:

True believers ask to be remembered by God. The speaker of this sonnet asks God to forget. Where is the hyperactive intellect of the first section? Where is the histrionic outpouring of the second? When the speaker considers his own sins, and the inevitabilility of God’s judgment, he can conceive of but one resolution: to disappear.

This is a mouthful but here’s what Edson is doing: just as Donne’s restless intellect won’t let him open himself to simple forgiveness, Vivian is having trouble opening herself up to experiencing her fear, hurt, and confusion. She is trying to master the cancer with her mind and finds herself defeated at every turn. We see this in the following passage:

Am I in pain? I don’t believe this. Yes, I’m in goddamn pain. (Furious) I have a fever of 101 spiking to 104. And I have bone metastases in my pelvis and both femurs. (Screaming) There is cancer eating away at my goddamn bones, and I did not know there could be such pain on this earth.

Only at the end of the play does Vivian open herself to the sentimental support of the “never very sharp” nurse Susie and distance herself from the doctor, her former student. Here’s what she says after Susie calls her “sweetheart”:

That certainly was a maudlin display. Popsicles? “Sweetheart”? I can’t believe my life has become so . . . corny.

But it can’t be helped. I don’t see any other way. We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we are discussing my life and my death, and my brain is dulling, and poor Susie’s was never very sharp to begin with, and I can’t conceive of any other . . . tone.

(Quickly) Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.

And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition.Interpretation. Complication.

(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

At the end of the book, her old mentor comes by her hospital room (I’m not entirely sure if this is real or if she’s imagining it) and provides both simplicity and kindness: she reads her Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. I’ll write on the significance of this story in my next post.


Runaway Bunny Sing Thee to Thy Rest (originally posted January 11, 2010)

In her dying moments, the Donne scholar in Margaret Edson’s W;t rejects Donne in favor of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.  What does this say about the usefulness of both Donne and Brown when we are pushed to the edge?

Runaway Bunny is about “a little bunny who wanted to run away.”  Each time he tells his mother where he will run to, however, she tells him that she will come after him.  For instance, when the bunny says, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you,” his mother replies, “If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”  And so on until the little bunny, surrendering, concludes, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

The story concludes with her offering him a carrot.

Runaway Bunny, which earlier in the play Vivian would call maudlin, now puts her to sleep.  Her former mentor, who has been reading it to her, at one point does a John Donne interpretation: “Look at that.  A little allegory of the soul.  No matter where it hides, God will find it.”

But Vivian does not want interpretation at this point, only a story that brings her home.  By which I mean, she lets go of her Donnean anxieties and her Donnean doubts and dies in peace.

Other notes: In addition to reading Runaway Bunny, the mentor’s final words to Vivian are Horatio’s final words to Hamlet: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  This is significant because the mentor, when Vivian was a student, once contrasted Donne with Shakespeare, finding Shakespeare overly melodramatic.  But it is the melodramatic Shakespeare, not the intellectual Donne, who gets the last word.

Runaway Bunny recalls another bunny story cited earlier in the play, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.  Vivian remembers reading it to her father and encountering the word “soporific.”  This scene and the one where her teacher berates her for a melodramatic reading of “Death Be Not Proud” are the two in which we see her moving from an emotional to an intellectual plane, with the intellectual ultimately proving itself to be insufficient.

But I don’t think W;t is simplistically anti-intellectual as, say, a movie like Dead Poets Society can be.  Or like the student I once had who read Wordsworth’s line “we murder to dissect” and concluded that he should stop reading poetry and go out and start communing with nature.  (For me, Wordsworth’s poetry actually helps me commune more deeply with nature.  But that’s a post for another day.)

I don’t buy this either/or, either the intellect or the emotions. First of all, little girl Vivian’s fascination with the word “soporific” is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience.  She loves to feel her mind expanding.  A children’s book writer than I knew as a child, the Appalachian author May Justus, told me that she occasionally stuck difficult words into books intended for very young children (such as The Wonderful School of Miss Tillie O’Toole) because they find it to be an invigorating game.

In fact, this childhood fascination with challenging words is what initially draws Vivian to Donne.  As she explains,

The illustration [in Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies] bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it.  At the time, it seemed like magic.

So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me: ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation.

So why does Vivian dry up and become brittle?  How is the intellect set against the emotions instead of working in concert with them?  We’re not really told. Maybe it’s because, as I suggested in an earlier post, she’s a woman in a man’s profession and feels she has to suppress her female (emotional) side.  Maybe it’s from living in a culture that is suspicious of emotional display.  Maybe it’s because America is a highly competitive world that puts emphasis more on results (publications in this field) than on human relations.  Edson critiques both research universities and research hospitals, a theme I’ll touch on tomorrow.

But for the moment, I’ll just note that Vivian needs to return to the delight that she once got from children’s books and, for that matter, to the delight that she once got from Donne.  She has gotten lost but her illness brings her back.

You may have noticed how, in this website, I sometimes talk about adult literature, sometimes children’s literature, sometimes high art, sometimes low. Rather than seeing them warring with each other, I think they are linked by a common thread of delight.   Margaret Edson’s play makes dramatically clear how vital it is that we find our way back to that delight.

And yet another note: I learn from a reader that Runaway Bunny is a version of Psalm 139.


The Tolling Bell Says You’re Not Alone (originally posted January 15, 2010)

I talked yesterday about the poet being like one blundering around in the dark, making utterances that some, in their suffering, find consoling.  The poet doesn’t know which poems will reach which readers.  To make another analogy, he or she is like Queequeg, carefully constructing a coffin that, after he is dead and in ways he cannot imagine, floats to the rescue of Ishmael at the conclusion of Moby Dick.  (Lest this sound like a strange comparison, I note that John Donne in “The Canonization” uses a well-wrought funeral urn as a metaphor for poetry.)

One would think that a Donne scholar would turn to Donne poems in her hour of need. The poems cited by the English professor and cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play W;t, however, don’t work for her.  “Death Be Not Proud” and “If Poisonous Minerals” seem to come up short.

Rather than telling her cancer to be not proud, for instance, Vivian feels defeated by it. Death seems to be getting the last word. And while the second poem captures Donne’s doubts about whether he can be forgiven by God, Vivian doesn’t think much about God or seem to believe in the afterlife.  Like Donne she has regrets (about her coldness and her lack of compassion as a teacher), but she doesn’t use Donne as a framework for examining her doubts.

It’s as though Donne is just standing in for arid intellectual exercise, an emphasis on head over heart, on mental dexterity over empathetic sensitivity, on wit over compassion.

It leaves me wondering if Edson chose Donne for her play for the same reason that cartoonist Charles Schultz chose Beethoven for Schroeder’s inspiration. Schroeder, in case you need reminding, is the pianist in Peanuts. He worships Beethoven, celebrates his birthday every year, and has a large grim-faced Beethoven bust on his piano. Schultz once said he himself liked Mozart better than Beethoven but chose Beethoven because he was more heavy and imposing. Beethoven captures Schroeder’s seriousness.

At the end of the play, Vivian turns to a children’s story for solace, giving Donne short shrift. So that you don’t walk away from W;t thinking that Donne, for all his brilliance, is unable to perform at crunch time, I present images from Donne that Vivian could have resorted to in addition to The Runaway Bunny.  In the following passage from Meditation 17, a plague victim hears the death bell tolling but is so ill that he doesn’t realize it is tolling for him:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.  God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.  As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

And further on:

Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

How could this help Vivian?  First of all, the bell she hears tolling is in fact tolling for her. That in itself is a powerful image, one which could help her move past a sense of smallness so that she would see herself as part of a larger drama.

That larger drama involves an awareness of communal suffering. When others die, part of us is washed away, and when we die, others will lessened. “Any man diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Vivian’s breakthrough in the play is to move from a sense of isolation to a feeling of community with the human beings around her.  She bonds with the “never very sharp” Susie and wishes that she had been kinder to Jason, her former smart student who is now her doctor.  Donne, meanwhile, provides the comforting image of community in his meditation: we are all in this business of life and death together.

This means that we are all dying together, being translated together. We each die in our own way, to be sure, but all are involved in humankind. In the end, God’s hand shall bind up our scattered leaves in that library where every book shall lie open to one another. Given how fond I am of books, I love this image.

Whether or not Vivian believes in God or an afterlife, this binding together image is the consolation she gets from The Runaway Bunny.  The mother bunny assures her little bunny that she will always be there, a sustaining presence (“have a carrot”), no matter how far away the little bunny has run.  As Vivian’s old mentor interprets, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul.  No matter where it hides, God will find it.”

Now, maybe Vivian so associates Donne was the world of arid academe that she needs a book that recalls her childhood rather than the poet that made her reputation. But in my experience, it’s not an either/or, either a great poet or a children’s book. In my own darkest moment when my son died, a range of different works came to my aid: scenes from Beowulf, poetic passages from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Mary Oliver, the children’s book Bridge over Terabithia, the James Baldwin short story “Sonny’s Blues.”   

Among other things, these works showed me that I was part of a large community that has been suffering and wrestling with death since the dawn of time. I realized, as never before, that people have been turning to poetry and story to try to capture a tragedy that is bigger than any of us. Even though I knew, as they knew, that poetry and story can’t do justice to our suffering, I felt a measure of consolation in the way we were all in it together. So why does Vivian in her suffering not turn to Donne’s line, “I am involved in mankind”?

In my own case, I was caught off guard by some of the images and stories that reached out to me. I certainly didn’t realize that my grieving would find articulation in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, for instance.  So maybe tolling bells and scattered book pages and diminishing promontories don’t do it for Vivian at this particular moment.  But poets and writers are working overtime to provide us buoys for when the white whale charges our ship. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t avail ourselves of their help.

Addendum: I omitted one other Donne poem that gets mentioned in the play: “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” could also provide Vivian with comforting images.  It begins with an image of “virtuous men pass[ing] mildly away” and concludes with one leg of a compass (the kind used in geometry) returning home after having circumscribed a full circle (“Thy firmness makes my circle just,/And makes me end where I begun”).  Love grounds us when we stray.


Other Posts on Margaret Edson’s W;t

Arguing over Life, Death and a Semi-Colon (January 7, 2010)

Doctors, Bad Bedside Manners, and Poetry (January 12, 2010)

The Limitations of Cerebral Teaching (originally posted January 19, 2010)

Don’t Underestimate Your Students (originally posted January 20, 2010)

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