Few scenes in the gamut of film history bring together the importance of scholarly editing and our intimations of eternal life as tightly or as movingly as the following scene from Wit, a play by Margaret Edson that was adapted for the small screen by the incomparable Mike Leigh.
Its main character, Vivian Bearing, is a professor of 17th-century British literature, specializing in the holy sonnets of John Donne. At the start of the play, she receives a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer and consents to an aggressive course of chemotherapy. The “full dose” of an experimental chemotherapy plays against the “uncompromising” scholarly rigor that Vivian applies to her study and teaching of Donne’s intricate puzzles. Both efforts are justified for making a “significant contribution to knowledge.”
In a flashback to her impressionable days as a university student, Vivian approaches her professor, the venerable E. M. Ashford, about a paper she has written. The following conversation ensues (a clip of it may be found here), and in it we discover the surprising importance of punctuation and authorial intent — as well as the difference between learning and schooling — in the pursuit of Truth.
Professor Ashton: Your essay on Holy Sonnet 6, Miss Bearing, is a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship unworthy of you, to say nothing of Donne. Do it again.
Begin with the text, Miss Bearing, not with a feeling. [reading slowly and measuredly] ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.’
You’ve entirely missed the point of the poem, because I must say you’ve used an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated. In the Gardner edition . . .
Vivian, the student, interrupting: But that edition was checked out of the library.
Professor Ashton: You take this too lightly. This is metaphysical poetry, not the modern novel. The standards of scholarship and critical reading which one would apply to any other text are simply insufficient. The effort must be total for the results to be meaningful.
Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life.
In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation. ‘And Death’, capital D, ‘shall be no more’, semi-colon. ‘Death’, capital D, comma, ‘thou shalt die!’, exclamation mark.
If you go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript source of 1610—not for sentimental reasons, I assure you—but because Helen Gardner is a scholar.
It reads: ‘And death shall be no more’, comma, ‘Death thou shalt die’. Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life from life everlasting. . . . Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma, a pause.
In this way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semicolons. Just a comma.
Vivian: Life. Death. . . . I see. It’s a metaphysical conceit, it’s wit. . . . I’ll go back to the library.
Professor Ashford: It is not wit, Miss Bearing; it is Truth. The paper’s not the point.
Vivian: Isn’t it?
Professor Ashford: Vivian, you’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with friends.
Vivian, the narrator: I went outside. It was a warm day. There were students on the lawn talking about nothing, laughing. ‘Simple human truth.’ ‘Uncompromising scholarly standards.’ They’re connected. I just couldn’t . . . I went back to the library.
Like Vivian, we may be tempted to return to the library. But, guided by Edson’s wisdom (and Gardner’s example), perhaps we can avoid Vivian’s mistake. “Look at that,” Ashford says much later in the play, “a little allegory of the soul.”