Arguing over Life, Death, and a Semicolon

John DonneJohn Donne         

Cancer has gone from being a word to being a reality for me as two close friends have been struck.  Alan Paskow, whose progress I’ve been reporting on, had an operation before Christmas that removed three tumors from his right lung (one the size of a grapefruit).  And Beth Reynolds had a tumor removed from her ovaries and colon and is now on chemotherapy.  Alan and Beth colored my reading of W;t, a play by Margaret Edson that I’ve heard about for years but finally got around to reading over the holidays.  It has set off a flood of internal conversations.

Vivian Bearing is an unsentimental, tough, and no-nonsense John Donne scholar who finds herself thinking about Donne’s famous sonnet “Death Be Not Proud” as she undergoes chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.  One of her doctors is a former student and he deems that she is tough enough to handle a special chemotherapy treatment, which does not ultimately save her life but produces great test results.

At the end of the play, and of her life, Vivian is responding not to Donne but to the children’s book The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown.  I will talk more about this in up-coming posts since it speaks to a concern at the core of this website: can the great authors (by which I mean Donne, not Brown) come to our aid when the chips are down?  There’s at least a hint in the play that they come up short.

First, however, I want to talk about the poem at the heart of the play and the controversy over the semi-colon.

“Death Be Not Proud” is probably Donne’s best-known poem.  It catches the reader’s attention because of its bold and defiant address of death.  Here it is in its entirety.  The final line is punctuated as E. M., Vivian’s graduate mentor would have it:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou are not soe,
For, thosem whom thou think’st, thou doth overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst though kill mee.
Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie,’ or charmes can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

Vivian remembers how E. M. was offended when she brought a different version to a college class.  Here is Vivian’s version:

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

In other words, E.M. separates the last line with a comma, Vivian’s version with a semi-colon.  E. M. says, “If you go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you take up Shakespeare. 

The contrast between Shakespeare and Donne that E. M. has in mind is that between melodrama and highly disciplined intellectual poetry.  Shakespeare, after all, is the author of stories about hormone driven teenagers who commit suicide, cranky old men who cast off their daughters, and ambitious warriors who wade through pools of blood to seize power.  Whereas Donne. . .  Well, here’s how Vivian describes his approach:

The poetry of the early seventeenth century, what has been called the metaphysical school, considers an intractable mental puzzle by exercising the outstanding human faculty of the era, namely wit.

The greatest wit—the greatest English poet, some would say—was John Donne.  In the Holy Sonnets, Donne applied his capacious, agile wit to the larger aspects of the human experience: life, death, and God.

In his poems, metaphysical quandaries are addressed, but never resolved.  Ingenuity virtuosity, and a vigorous intellet that jousts with the most exaclted concepts: these are the tools of wit.

E. M. objects to the dramatic pause between “more” and “Death.”  As she explains,

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.

I’m no Donne scholar so I don’t know if there is a debate within Renaissance studies over the punctuation in the line. I have to confess to always having read the poem in the melodramatic way, and I believe most scholars of the period do as well. 

But that being said, I think it’s really clever of the author to set the play up this way.  When one has cancer, one thinks a lot about the gap between life and death.

But the more important question for me is whether the poem will actually help one come to terms with death.  Edson has the same question.  More on this subject in tomorrow’s post.

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