The Holy Sonnets and other Poems by John Donne (1572-1631) as well as the post-modern theatrical production “W;T” by Margaret Edson (1995) explore the enduring themes of the human condition, such as the mortality of man, and the interpersonal bonds that define humanity. These themes manifest in a religious context through Donne’s English Renaissance (1590 – 1710) due to the Calvinist beliefs of his time; such as life after death and an intrinsic potential for human bonds to be spiritual and transcend the physical. On the other hand, Edson’s 20th century society has moved away from these beliefs and onto scientific data and nihilism, espousing instead post-modern literary movements such as Beckett, whom used absurdist performances to comment upon the ontological perspectives of human life. As such, through intertextual reading of both composers, a greater understanding of the way context shapes authorial purpose and meaning is achieved.
For Donne, death is not a finality, but rather a moment of transition and judgement drawn from the beliefs of the spiritual and transcendental put in place by the Anglican Church. His work draws extensively from the beliefs of the spiritual and transcendent put in place by the Anglican Church, death is not a finality, but a moment of transition and judgement. The sonnet Poisonous Minerals employs wit specifically to engage with the perception that God is merciful to the faithful. “And mercy being easy, and glorious To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?” The rhetorical positioning of the persona at the absolute mercy of a higher power engages with the contextual belief of surrendering to God in order to be cleansed and forgiven. Furthermore, Donne’s biblical allusion to the rite of sacrament drawn from the canonical beliefs of the Anglican Church, states that “[God]’ hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood,” which is an inference to the act of sacrifice by Jesus upon the cross which has cleansed all men, and henceforth Donne -of all his sins. Thus for Donne, death is merely a mode of passage, captured in the last two lines of the sestet in Death not be Proud. “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,” links pedestrian actions such as sleeping with mortality, disempowering the threat of mortality. Moreover, the continued employment of wit in conversing with ‘Death” through, “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” Satirically personifies Death as the ironic victim of his own fictional essence, undermining Death whilst elevating Donne’s religious doctrine. Hence, responders to Donne’s Holy Sonnets are made aware of the influences of the contextual values and religious perceptions on mortality in shaping Donne’s witty riposte to the encroachment of Death.
Conversely, the context upon which Edson draws her inspiration is one of scientific logos and the post-modern nihilists perspectives of death. However, as an intertextual play which draws extensively upon Donne’s works, the play offers comparisons and contrasts of impending mortality. A deliberate intertextual allusion made by Bearing is the grammatical semantics of the line, “And Death – capital D – shall be no more – semi colon!” The deviation surrounds the use of the ‘;’ and the use of the ‘,’ in the ‘Westmoreland manuscript”. Edson uses this contrast to illustrate the shifting perspectives of death from the 17th century to the 20th. “Semi-colon’ represents an ultimatum, whilst ‘comma’ represents a continuation. Thus, for the impending death of Bearing, responders are given the choice to believe in the nihilist death of the “semicolon”, the oblivion, or the “comma”, that something continues after death. At the climax of the play, we see a shift in Bearing’s paradigm towards Death as demonstrated through the use of stagecraft and body language. “[Bearing] sees that the line doesn’t’t work. She shakes her head and exhales with resignation]” acknowledging a rejection of death as nihilistic. Finally. the intertextual use of the exclamatory, “Oh God?” from Poisonous Minerals is reinforced through the use of stagecraft in which the audience is shown Bearing [naked and beautiful, reaching for the lights… light out] Through the symbolism of ‘naked and reaching’ via dramatic lighting, we are signified that Bearing, like Donne, seeks cleansing and rebirth, and has chosen to reject ‘oblivion’ in preference of ‘continuation’. As such, through the study of these two texts in tandem, responders are able to gain an insightful understanding of the attitudes and perceptions of mortality throughout the four centuries that has spanned across the composers of the Holy Sonnets and the play WIT.
Donne’s contextual backdrop of Renaissance humanism and the belief in the spiritual creates a perceived, intimate connection between individuals as demonstrated by the poems “Valediction: A Forbidden Mourning.” The spiritual metaphysics of Donne’s literature seeks to emphasise the ways in which faith allows the strength of feelings and bonds to transcend distance and time. The connection between individuals is depicted in “Valediction: A Forbidden Mourning” through conceit and wit. This is seen by demonstrating human connection as a metaphor, “A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to airy thinness beat.” The imagery of the “expansion, like Gold” allows Donne to capture both the sanctity of the bond, as well as the great distance to which his feelings remain constant. Furthermore, Donne extends on this relationship through the use of conceit, in which the persona describes his lover and himself “As stiff twin compasses are two.” The use of extended metaphor highlights the intrinsic link between the two lovers. The pivot or joint above the compass legs suggest the spiritual harmony with God, indicating the transcendental structure that defines the bonds between human beings. This is furthered by the use of conceit as the persona states, “Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun.” By using the extended metaphor of the circle and the compass, Donne draws upon the aesthetic elegance and axioms of mathematics and geometry in the 17th century to depict love and connection as beautiful and of self-evident truths. As such, Donne draws upon the spiritual metaphysics evident in his religious context of the 16th century to validate his use of wit and conceit in exploring the universality of human bonds.
Transplanted into the contextual nihilism of the ontological post modern society, the bonds of interconnectivity between man and his fellow man become hollow and illusory. Yet, despite the pragmatic approach to human connections, Edson’s play draws extensively from Donne’s metaphysical connotation of the transcendent. Edson’s anecdotal setup of her discovery that Jason was her student, “I took your course in 17th century poetry…” reveal the pragmatic interpersonal relationships of the 20th century, “It look very good on my transcript… [that] I survived Bearing’s Course.” Indicate the superficiality of bonds based upon mutual benefit. Conversely, Bearings’ relationship with E.M Ashford draws upon the 16th century belief of the spiritual, transcendent between individuals, as human bonds were “an expansion.” This is why E.M advocates Vivian to “Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself…” Through the use of dramatic irony, Edson emphasises on the importance of creating connections that are holistic and sentimental. This, however, is challenged by Bearing whose modern, career focused attitude is captured in the linguistic metaphor, “The barrier between one thing and another… is just a comma?” I just couldn’t… I went back to the library.” However, Bearing inevitably ‘end where [she] begins,’ with the visit of EM Ashford. This is demonstrated through the use of stagecraft and body language in which Bearing craves the simple intimacy of human contact. The reading of, “The Run Away Bunny,” represents a circular return to an infantilised state, denoting a return to innocence. The motherly stage direction of Ashford who, [leans over and kisses Vivian] and putting Vivian [fast asleep], demonstrate that ultimately, human bonds remain enduring and inseparable. In this manner, audiences are elucidated as the how contextual influences have shaped progressive interpretations of human bonds.
As such, through intertextual readings of interpersonal connections, responders gain an insightful understanding of the way context shapes meaning and how the appropriation of Donne has added to the understanding and reading of Edson’s W;t. Through both the religious context of Donne as well as the nihilistic and scientific beliefs of Edson, we come to a greater understanding of death, as well as the enduring nature of human bonds.