By Holly Tucker (W&M Editor)
The seventeenth-century poet John Donne is perhaps best known for his extraordinary poem “Death Be Not Proud.” To my mind, however, the most remarkable poem by Donne is “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”The first stanza moves me, always, into a sublime place each time I read it. The imagery, the alchemy, the rhythm: All conspire to draw me into an emotional space, an emotional journey of grieving, that I never want to take but one that the poet seduces me into taking.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“The breath goes now,” and some say, “No:”
I teach a course in our Medicine, Health, and Society program on “Medicine and Literature.” We spend the semester in this course teasing apart sentences and stories. We find meaning and conflict where, at first glance, there seems to be none. We focus on what the conflicts in literature tell us about medicine and health, health and the body, the body and the mind, life and death.
As an academic, it is easy enough to be lulled into the idea that the intellect can protect you from pain, protect you from the overwhelming emotions that come with your passport as a member of humanity.And as a professor, it is easy enough to teach students big words and complicated critical processes to probe into the human experience. The side effect, however, can be that both you and your students are more out of touch with life (and death) than you were when you started.
So this is where John Donne comes in. In particular, where Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Wit” comes in.
“Wit” is the heart-wrenching story of a successful and dedicated professor of seventeenth-century English. She has spent her life studying John Donne–every comma, every punctuation mark, every hidden meaning possible. As knowledgeable as she is about Donne’s death poems and about the philosophical and psychological complexities of death, the professor is perfectly incapable of wrapping her mind around her own imminent death.Dr. Vivian Bearing has been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. We watch her from diagnosis to her poem’s end. During this journey, she meets a former student: now her doctor. She becomes the object of study. And she must find meaning in her own life, her career, and her inevitable death.Emma Thompson does a magnificent job in the film version of the play.
Students view Wit in small groups together, at the end of the semester. It is so hard to watch, even more difficult to talk about. I’ve watched it so many times for my classes. But each time I get chills and tears flow. It hits too close to home, I think.
I am not only a professor, I’m a seventeenth-century studies specialist. Just like Professor Bearing.The play is a cautionary tale about the importance of learning–but the dangers of using that learning to distance ourselves from others. It is also a cautionary tale about what we must be sure never to lose when we throw ourselves so fully into a field, a career, or some other goal. “Death, thou shalt die.”But there is so much goodness, so much laughter, so much friendship to experience before that happens. And, there friends, is why on any given day you’ll me head-first gleefully exploring the most esoteric of historical documents–and then just a few hours later, playing Connect Four just as gleefully at the kitchen table. If I can help my students discover their own balance between the love of the mind and the love of living, then I have certainly done my job well.