Wit; A play written by Margaret Edson for none other than personal reasons, is a beautiful fusion of humor with knowledge of 17th-century literature, specifically the work of a well known poet, John Donne. In the first person of Dr. Vivian Bearing, told are the struggles of battling with death; not caused by a disease, but through the treatment of that disease.
The combination of Donne’s poems, placed purposely throughout the play, with the story of an ex-college professor who only knows her own identity through her teaching, creates a dynamic between what can be known of self, and what is left to the universe to decide.
The decrescendo of Vivian, the main character’s, life can be viewed in two separate ways: the first being a tragic death; the loss of a dedicated professor and scholar. The second, a growth of character from what once was merely a human literature machine, into a person with a new compassion for others.
Through the placement of one poem in specific, Sonnet 9, “If Poysonous Minerals” by John Donne, we are presented with a new perspective on Vivian and her relationship with the power she holds over her own life once she is slowly being overtaken by her terminal illness.
Donne was a 17th century English poet who was recusant in his beliefs, which can be seen as a contribution to his religious poetry. His writing style was dark, often with heavy allusions to the bible, death, and afterlife. The metaphysical conceit and wit are heavily employed in this poem as well, making it a classic Donne style poem. In the Holy Sonnet 9, “If Poysonous minerals” by John Donne, he alludes to the bible in order
to regain his innocence, more specifically through the use of characterization of biblical imagery, direct references to God, and a volta which changes the tone of the piece. This poem by Donne is one that can be instantly recognized as an allusion to the bible, firstly, through his characterization of words that can be traced back to the diction and themes of the bible.
When he says, “fruit, goats, and serpents,” he is referring to the negative traits associated with these words and how they compare to his personal situation. People who have little experience with the bible can trace this combination of words back to it. We don’t know what he has done, but we know he wants forgiveness. His use of these words can be found in verses like Matthew 25:31: “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” This reference to goats is used to divide those who are good, sheep, and those supposedly bad, goats.
Even with no knowledge from the bible, Donne made references like this clear to the audience through his characterization of such words. Through the comparisons made between himself and the biblical characterization, we are left to understand that Donne is personally asking for forgiveness. When Donne starts directly talking to God, halfway through the piece, we see with clarity that he speaking on the bible and religion. As he says his name, he questions why God wouldn’t forgive him, when he didn’t do that of what others have sinned.
In these two lines, he says, “To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee? But who am I, that dare dispute with thee.” which is written in a point of view of the speaker reading a letter he wrote, addressed to God. This builds space between the author and who he is speaking to, and when put next to the following line, we are presented with a volta which closes the gap between Donne and God. The line that follows starts with, “O God, O!” which switches the author’s direction from speaking about God, to a direct request, which changes the tone of the piece.
Rather than the beginning of the poem with a questioning for forgiveness, this volta creates a plead for forgiveness, especially placed in opposition with the former. With this shift, it has been made completely clear, although we are never directly told the reason, that Donne is begging God for a regain of innocence. All of these themes are very strong in this well known poem, and make up the majority of the religion represented in Edson’s play, as she never directly references it.
With allusions to biblical diction such as fruit (Adam and Eve story), serpents, goats, and sheep, the reader is able to pick up on the ques that the poem’s main focus is on religion, and more specifically, the extreme hold that religion has on the speaker’s life. In Donne’s poem, at the volta of the piece, it is undeniably clear that the speaker is begging for forgiveness, and has full trust in God to determine the outcome of his life. This knowledge is crucial as to why Edson used this specific piece of poetry where she did.
Preceding this poem’s place in the text, is a scene in which Vivian makes her return to the hospital as she grows sicker and more delirious. Her dependency on the hospital staff increases, and with that, her ability to have complete power over her once-brilliant mind is diminishing.
The dilemma with this instance is the lack of support or family members that Vivian has, leaving only herself and her mind to keep her alive. As we are introduced to If Poysonous Minerals, Edson takes advantage of a scene in which Vivian is giving a lecture on the piece. The hospital room turns dark, and a pointer is suddenly in her hand. This poem represents the morals and ideas, that vivian is experiencing through her downfall.
In Donne’s works, when the narrator is in need of something, or suffering in some way, they turn to God, who holds the power in their life. In sonnet 9 specifically, the narrator realizes that the power held by God can either make or break their life, leading to the volta and pleads read in the poem. In the case Edson created, Vivian uses Donne and literature in the place that people like Donne would have used faith.
Such as on page 47 of Wit, when Vivian is speaking about the treatment that is killing her and the paradox that that creates. She states, “Herein lays the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it…” The use of Donne in a situation like this one is similar to the traditional placement of a prayer or time to speak to God.
That is the difference between how Edson creates a character with a reliance on a higher power. Donne is Vivian’s higher power. This makes for a character with a strong personality who in the face of fear, is left with nothing but her knowledge. Seemingly this is what holds power over Vivian, and has the opportunity support her, and further her quality of life, or on the other hand, destroy her life. The isolation that she is put into to keep her alive opens these ideas to Dr. Bearing.
After the poem’s place in the play, as Vivian is deep in an intellectual thought on this poem, she states, “If arsenic and serpents are not damned, then why is he? In asking this question, the speaker turns eternal damnation into an intellectual game.” This ‘intellectual game’ that she speaks of is much like her own battle with the extreme tread of her intelligence on her compassion skills. She lets her mind isolate her, similar to the way she becomes physically isolated at the hospital, which doesn’t have a huge impact on her, as she is used to mental isolation.
While Edson wrote this play, her portrayal of Dr. Bearing, and what the audience would take away from it, were dependant on the personality that was given to Vivian. In Madeline Keaveny’s scholarly essay on a similar subject of these works, she states that Vivian was “A scholar who dedicates herself to the mind of John Donne is ignoring the fact that he was a man of enormous emotional and physical appetite.”
This take on the perspective of Vivian is fascinating as it shows the similarities between Vivian’s view of Donne compared with the way she views other people. She solely judges people based on their intellect just as she does to Donne’s works. And to bring in a third comparison, many religious people can proceed forward with a knowledge of religion as what is on the pages but ignore the humanly God aspect.
This perspective on Vivian’s character is a fascinating way to gain further knowledge on the reasons behind why Edson created her the way that she did. The power over her life that Vivian is lacking is deeply rooted in her original perspective on Donne, and is especially amplified as we learn of her connections with religion. With all of this in mind, Edson made the decision to create Vivian with a blunt attitude and a witty state of speech, and what better poet than John Donne to employ these traits.
Wit is seen throughout Donne’s work so his poetry acts as a second representation of Vivian, one which depends on religion rather than her personal choice, literature. Through this approach, Edson can create parallels between the modern day theatrical world and the 17th century poetry that was defining of that period of time.
“About John Donne.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/poet/john-donne.
Edson, Margaret. W ; T. Nick Hern Books, 2000.
Keaveney, Madeline M. “Death Be Not Proud: An Analysis of Margaret Edson’s Wit” Women and Language, vol. 27, no. 1, George Mason University Communications Dept, 2004, pp. 40-45.