Existential quandaries remain ingrained within the human condition, where superficial evasions by intellectualizing such concerns are eventually addressed by universal values of humility and compassion within contextual constructs. When confronted by death, the notion of wit postures as a mechanism to disguise insecurities, with mortal suffering allowing the edification to renounce pride and form genuine emotional bonds. Although composed in vastly differing contexts, John Donne’s 17th century metaphysical poems and Margaret Edson’s late 20th century postmodern play W;t, retain significance through examining mortal fears to approach the spiritual processes necessary to gain acceptance of death.
In an attempt to mask the omnipresent fear of mortality, intellectualism allows individuals to gain a sense of control over immutable existential anxieties. Revered during the Age of Discovery, Donne’s employment of wit within his 17th century poetry serves to condone God’s arbitrary judgement, arguing the finality of death to offer solace of the afterlife. Within Death be not Proud, Donne circumvents the capabilities of death through the condescending apostrophe in the metaphysical conceit of sleep, ‘Die not, poor death nor yet canst thou kill me,’ depicting death as a transition into the spiritual afterlife, subverting longstanding apprehension towards human transience within Protestant scripture. Donne furthers the disempowerment of death in If Poisonous Minerals, engendering a prideful veneer through the argumentative structure in the biblical allusion, ‘if serpents envious cannot be damned,’ coupled with the rhetorical question, ‘why should I be?’ denoting Donne’s fear of damnation, implying inherent human qualities should not impede personal redemption. Similarly, despite composition in a secular context, Edson’s W;t explores how Vivian utilizes her academic prowess to conceal her impending demise during her taxing chemotherapy treatment. Paralleling Donne’s façade of intellect, Vivian’s ironic hyperbole describing how she knew, ‘all about life and death. I am…a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnet,’ establishes how the theoretical comprehension of death within her research-oriented milieu has hindered the ability to grasp the complexities of mortality as a tangible human emotion. Emphasizing the use of intellectualism to obscure mortal vulnerabilities, Vivian’s repetition when getting tested, ‘I have a Ph.D.’ conveys the use of academia to perpetuate a sense of hubris compensating for the fear regarding a terminal illness. Hence, the attempt to rationalize the abstract of death as a panacea for mortal suffering provides a temporary patronizing sense of certainty.
Moreover, potent confrontations with mortality force personal self-effacement, where an initial defense of arrogance is eroded by introspection, inciting subsequent redemption. The contextual Christian notions of suffering as penance is exemplified as Donne argues for God’s absolution in Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness, through the allusion to Jesus, ‘by these his thorn, give me his other crown,’ metaphorically representing the need to reconcile one’s sins through physical hardships. Donne renounces any skepticism of death in This is my Playes Last Scene, through the apostrophe to God, ‘impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,’ inferring the disavowal towards a supercilious stand towards God’s judgement, capturing contextual value for repentance to mitigate trauma within the Jacobean afterlife. Contrastingly, in W;t, Edson portrays Vivian’s suffering as a conduit for reflection to denounce her previous hubris. Provoking a renunciation of academic arrogance, the dramatization of Vivian’s physical pain through the stage direction, ‘writhing … screaming … cries,’ coupled with Vivian’s reflective tone after talking to Jason, ‘I wish I had given him an A,’ evokes a sense of regret, alluding to Donne’s recognition of physical suffering to resolve personal flaws, conveying the need to rectify sins to gain closure before the insuperability of death even within a secular context. Additionally, capturing the inability of theoretical concepts to console individuals facing death, the use of intertextuality when EM reads, ‘The Runaway Bunny,’ where the simplicities of the books symbolize how ephemeral suffering helps Vivian to reject her pride, realizing the necessity for genuine connection to attune to the inevitability of death. Thus, both texts highlight how the process of personal reappraisal when facing mortality catalyses in a spiritual metamorphosis, promoting religious or moral salvation contingent on a theological or humanistic context.
Furthermore, embracing death engenders the re-examination of prior relationships to understand inherent need for connection to aid in personal fulfillment. Realizing the capacity for spiritual connection in A Valediction: forbidding mourning, Donne’s conceit describing love as, ‘stiff twin compasses are two,’ explores the metaphysical synchronization of love, accentuating how intrinsic bonds transcend temporal displacement. Donne reinforces how these human connections reduce apprehension towards death in the humbling metaphor, ‘let us melt, and make no noise,’ suggesting a burgeoning acceptance of death facilitated by the fulfillment of a compassionate symbiotic relationship. However, Edson conveys how the innate desire for interpersonal relationships exacerbates Vivian’s existential anxiety due to the scholarly austerity that initially isolated her. Despite highly valued within the information era, Edson conveys how academic rigor is not analogous to self-worth in Vivian’s anaphora when contemplating her life, ‘now is a time for simplicity. Now it is time for … kindness,’ alluding to the emotional gratification embedded within the human condition. Similar to Donne’s representation of relationships to calm tensions regarding mortality, the stage direction, ‘[Vivian unwraps [the popsicle] and breaks it in half],’ metaphorically represents the enlightening comprehension towards the necessity of simple personal bonds, that triumphs over the restrictive medical ethics in Vivian’s depersonalised context, to harmonise with the otherwise unpalatable reality of death. Therefore, both texts underscore the universal need for connection during peak individual insecurities when approaching death to provide a sense of salvation.
Ultimately, the rationalisation of mortality consistently proves futile in contextual variances, with suffering and genuine human connections catalyzing an enlightened embrace of death. Donne and W;t recognize the necessity to dismantle intellectual wit, undergoing a didactic process to surrender one’s pride, resulting in a humbling acceptance of death.