In this article, we go through the summaries, themes and key contextual points in the John Donne's poetry and Margaret Edson's W;t set for Module A: Textual Conversations.
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Module A is a comparative study of texts. A comparative study is when you study two texts together and compare them. You will examine what they have in common and also how they differ.
In a comparative study, you explore the content, themes, and construction of the texts. You will also consider the contexts of both texts and the effect this has on the texts’ meaning and possibly on its construction.
‘Textual Conversation’ is a metaphor for texts sharing a relationship made up of themes, ideas, intertextuality and context.
They have a conversation, of sorts, because the more recent text is commenting on aspects of the older texts. It goes without saying that this is very much a one-way conversation as the older text cannot comment on the more recent one. In this case, John Donne’s poetry is the older text, which Margaret Edson directly engages with in her play, W;t.
Are you still confused about Mod A and its requirements? We break down all the Module A syllabus dot points in our Year 12 English Advanced Module A Guide.
Now that you have an overview of what Module A is all about, let’s take a look at Donne’s poetry and Edson’s play, and see where they fit in.
|John Donne||Margaret Edson|
|Click on the titles to read the full poem on an external site:||
First off, let’s look at the key issues in Donne’s poetry.
Donne adopts a rather playful tone in this poem as he personifies the sun and chides it for interrupting him and his lover in the morning. He demands that the sun, instead, warms their bed so that they can stay there for the whole day and abandon all their work duties.
In ‘The Apparition’, the speaker is bitter and feels wronged by a woman who rejects his sexual advances. He warns her that he will seek revenge by continuing to haunt her and her current lover by their bedside. He intends to make her beg for forgiveness.
A “valediction” is an address that one makes as a farewell. In this case, the speaker is saying goodbye to his lover who he must part ways with. He asks his lover to not openly mourn and cry in order to not privy others to the depths of their intimate and spiritual love.
The speaker is a man who is becoming inevitably close to death. Donne describes death as growing closer to heaven until finally his soul leaves Earth and his sins fall to hell where they can no longer tempt him.
Donne makes a biblical allusion to Judgment Day as the speaker enthusiastically asks angels to sound their trumpets to wake the dead. However, the speaker realises that he also needs to repent for sins before his death and pleads God to help him do so.
The speaker asks God why poisonous minerals and fruits (‘sinful’ beings who are ranked relatively low on the Great Chain of Being) are not punished for their wrongdoings as he will be. He continues to seek out a greater spiritual understanding and grow his relationship with God.
The speaker personifies death and tells it to not be “proud” because it is not as “Mighty and dreadful” as some people think. He points out that death is associated with chance and negative things like “poison, war, and sickness”, which is nothing to be proud of. He adds that other things like drugs can also “make us sleep” and that death is essentially a “short sleep” humans have as they pass from Earth to the afterlife.
The speaker believes he is going to die because he is suffering from a life-threatening fever. He lies on a bed and is surrounded by doctors who he describes as cosmographers navigating a map, which is himself. The speaker frames this poem as a sermon to his own soul, paralleling how he has preached his Christian faith to others as the title suggests — “Hymne to God”.
Vivian Bearing, an English professor, is dying of Stage IV ovarian cancer. She is unmarried, has no children, no emergency contacts and her parents have passed. She has agreed to an experimental treatment that administers eight rounds of chemotherapy at full dosage.
Lying in a hospital bed, Vivian reflects on her life and her condition, really resonating with snippets from Donne’s sonnet “Death Be Not Proud”. Ironically, she finds herself being looked over by an oncology research fellow (Doctor Jason Posner) who had taken her class on John Donne.
Although she initially tries to put on a brave face, she becomes more vulnerable and emotional over the course of the play. She notices how the doctors see her as a research subject and this makes her realise how much she appreciates humanity and kindness.
She experiences extreme pain as her condition increases in severity, but she is comforted by nurse Susie Monahan. Susie explains that she can choose to request a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) if her condition gets significantly worse. Vivian decides to take up this option.
Dr. Ashford, an expert on John Donne who once taught Vivian, visits Vivian in hospital as she was in town for her great-grandson’s birthday. Ashford offers to read a Donne sonnet but Vivian declines. So, Ashford reads a children’s book (The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown) that she had bought for her great-grandson. Vivian falls asleep and Ashford leaves.
The electrical activity in Vivian’s heart ceases (also known as cardiac flatlining) and Doctor Jason tries to resuscitate her. Susie reminds him of the DNR instruction, which Jason eventually realises and ends his efforts. The play ends with Vivian walking from her hospital bed “toward a little light”.
Okay, now you know the content of the texts, let’s consider the essential details of the composers.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English writer, who is now known as one of the greatest Metaphysical poets — a lyric poet whose work is characterised by inventive use of conceits and thematic concerns such as love or religion. Born in 1961, Margaret Edson is an American playwright whose play W;t was published in 1995.
In order to make sense of their work, it’s important to think about how the time they lived in was different from today.
Donne (1572-1631) was born into a Roman Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal since Anglican was the enforced religion under Tudor reign. Donne’s father died when Donne was 4 years old, so Donne was raised by his mother and her new husband (a wealthy widower named Dr. John Syminges) alongside his 5 biological siblings and 3 step-siblings.
Throughout his life, Donne had fought as a soldier in the Anglo-Spanish War, worked as a secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (Donne later married his niece) and became a Dean in the Church of England (an Anglican Church contrary in many ways to his natal Catholic beliefs).
From age 11, Donne studied at Hart Hall (currently named Hertfold College, Oxford) for three years and then at the University of Cambridge for another three years. However, Donne was not allowed to graduate and receive a degree because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which violated his Catholic faith. He went on to study law at the Inns of Chancery in London and was admitted in the Inns of Court.
Throughout his extensive education and even after it, Donne used much of his sizeable inheritance on travel, pastimes, womanising, and literature, leaving little for his future. Eventually, he fell in love and settled. He lived most of his later life in poverty with his wife Anne More, the daughter of the Lieutenant of the Tower. He was actually imprisoned at one point because of their secret marriage but was released after their marriage was found to be valid.
Donne and his wife lived in a small house in the country where they scraped by with Donne’s earnings as a lawyer. Anne bore 10 children in 16 years of marriage (not including two stillbirths), but three of them passed away before the age of ten. Their deaths nearly drove Donne to despair as he realised that he could not even afford to pay for their burial.
When Anne passed away in 1617 from complications of childbirth Donne was heartbroken and never really recovered. Instead, he turned increasingly to God. In 1621 he was named Dean of St Paul’s a lofty position in the Church of England, a significant change from his anti-protestant upbringing. In his later life, he was renowned for his eloquent sermons and religious poetry in the same way he garnered notoriety for his earlier works.
Edson (1961-current) was born in Washington, D.C. Her father was a newspaper columnist and her mother was a medical social worker. Throughout school, she was involved in the drama program and she went on to enrol in the liberal arts college, Smith College in Massachusetts, where she earned a degree in Renaissance history.
Her play W;t is about a woman dying of cancer in a hospital where she is being observed as a research subject and that was likely inspired by her experiences as a unit clerk in the AIDS and cancer treatment wing of a research hospital.
Since writing the play, Edson has earned a master’s degree in English and continues to work as an elementary school teacher.
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Now that we know a bit about the context of John Donne and Margaret Edson, it’s time to consider the major themes which their works explore.
In philosophy, Dualism is the belief that the soul and the body are separate entities, composed of different ‘stuff’, and that it is possible to separate the two completely without damaging either, or destroying the identity of the individual in question. Donne’s poetry deals with this in its inability to separate the desire for transcendentalism through death from the pleasures of the flesh.
Example 1: ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sicknesse’ uses the extended metaphor of the body as a map.
“Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map”
The map is used as a symbol of mankind’s continuous search for truth and salvation. Donne draws parallels to the need for a “quest” in order to best understand and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.
Example 2: In ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’, the extended metaphor of two lovers as the legs of a compass conveys the need for a tangible connection to the body.
“As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.”
Not only does he emphasise the need for human connection, but he also implicates that we inevitably remain linked to our physical body. While Donne tries to use intellect and wordplay to trump his fear of death in poems like ‘Death Be Not Proud’, in ‘A Valediction’, he romanticises his mortality to address the uncomfortable reality that we must all face.
Nearly all of Donne’s poetry deals with the overwhelming immediacy of death, which was an ever-present force in 17th-century life. In Donne’s poetry, he is torn between a fear of death and a desire for the life to come, where he would be united with God. Vivian in W;t directly quotes much of Donne’s poetry to try to make sense of her impending death and console her own fears.
Example 1: The semicolon in the title “W;t” symbolises the connection AND separation between life and death.
“Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present.”
— Dr. Ashford in W;t
Dr. Ashford offers a new understanding of Donne’s work. She suggests that the distinction between life and death is fragile and ambiguous, like a comma. In fact, she reprimanded Vivian for quoting Donne with a semicolon rather than a comma because she believes that the semicolon is far too dramatic and undermines the subtle and nuanced nature of Donne’s poetry.
Edson uses a semicolon in the title “W;t” to almost make fun of the subtleties and convoluted sophistications that Donne takes pleasure in exploring, as Vivian experiences the confronting and frightening reality of nearing death, which no amount of wordplay and wit can prepare one for.
Example 2: ‘Death Be Not Proud’ places the persona at the crux of denial of and acceptance of death.
Donne uses this to present the two different interpretations of the act: one of an unnatural ending (which should be feared) and one of salvation (which should be revered).
The sonnet form is used to mimic the formal argument of the persona. Lines 1-4 present a negative view of death through the modifiers such as “dreadfull”, and the imperative tone, which shows man’s triumph over and ability to control death.
However, the turn at the end of the fourth line presents a more balanced and, indeed, desirable view of death.
At the end of line 8 though, there is yet again another turn, this one moving back to the distress of the first section, showing the way in which the positive qualities of death remain unpalatable to the persona.
Donne’s poetry explores salvation from death through love or God. While Edson does also investigate these concepts, the protagonist Vivian comes to realise the understated importance of compassion and humanity that comforts her in her last moments of life.
Example 1: The speaker in Donne’s poem ‘If poysonous mineralls’ feels comfortable enough in his relationship with God to question his fate and ask for forgiveness.
While the speaker initially begins by asking why poisonous minerals and plants are given mercy for their ‘sins’ (unlike himself), he changes his tone towards the conclusion of the poem.
“And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.”
— Donne in ‘If poysonous mineralls’
The above metaphor makes an allusion to Greek mythology in which the waters of the River Lethe induces forgetfulness to those who drink it. Essentially, the speaker is begging God to help him forgive and forget his sins.
Example 2: Professor Vivian Bearing stops relying on wordplay and wit to ignore her fear of death, and accepts that she yearns for emotional support.
From the outset of the play, Vivian explicitly expresses her respect for those who relentlessly pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge and merely dismisses emotions like fear and compassion as childlike and unnecessary hindrances.
However, in hours before her looming death, she finally musters the courage to admit that she is scared. Realising that she appreciates Nurse Susie’s simple kindness over Doctor Jason’s blind pursuit of knowledge in her greatest moments of vulnerability, she finally “dare[s]” to say:
“Now is a time for simplicity. …for, dare I say it, kindness.”
— Vivian Bearing in W;t
Ironically, Vivian learns to enjoy child-like things like sharing a popsicle with Susie, being read a children’s book (Dr Ashton reads her The Runaway Bunny after Vivian notably refuses to listen to Donne’s poetry) and laughing with Susie about the word “soporific”. Vivian finds salvation in all the simple and unpretentious things that make us human.