Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
—John Donne (circa 1610)
movies about death you’d think poetry of the same subject might also come into vogue. Of course, for that to happen, people would have to actually read poetry. And most of us stopped doing that with the completion of our last high school or college English class.
I dabble at reading poetry. As a journalist, I believe foremost in the power of plain writing and the logic of making oneself understood clearly. Most poetry strikes me as the polar opposite of news writing; it makes sense only after decryption by someone with serious literary insight. I’ll sometimes read poetry, however, when it’s set in a context that improves my odds of grasping its meaning. I actually did this after watching the movie “Wit” the other night in which the poetry of John Donne played a key role. Both director Mike Nichols and Donne provide unflinching portraits of death that are—surprising as it might seem—intelligent and illuminating.
Based on a theater production of the same name, “Wit” is the chronicle of a professor dying an agonizing death from advanced ovarian cancer in a teaching hospital. The story is told almost exclusively from a hospital bed, with the main character, Vivian Bearing (played by Emma Thompson) looking at and speaking directly into the camera, which engages the viewer directly in her drama. Thompson’s acting is a tour-de-force, moving Bearing from bemusement to curiosity, fear to confusion, anger to anguish—all with skillful subtlety. She is determined to die with the same dignity as she lived. Looking death straight in the face, Bearing is both curious and frightened, providing a rare theatrical glimpse at a subject around which curtains are usually tightly drawn.
The film is oddly eggheaded, drawing attention repeatedly to parallels in the worlds of words and wards. Bearing brings the same no-nonsense approach to her therapy as she does her studies of the enigmatic poetry of Donne. She actually argues (convincingly) for the correct placement of a comma! Just as she has immersed herself in the spiritual paradoxes of Donne’s writing, so too she struggles with proximity to her own death. Likewise, the doctors tackle Bearing’s cancer in much the same way she analyzes a Donne poem, searching through anatomic obscurities with the same wonder that the professor brings to her devotion to the poet’s verse.
Donne was a man of the Renaissance, and is considered the greatest of the English metaphysical poets. Having been raised Catholic at a time of great religious persecution, he later converted to the Anglican church and eventually became an ordained minister and dean at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He nearly died of the plague in his 50s, which apparently sparked his interest in the subject of death, and finally did succumb to stomach cancer at the age of 68. His final sermon, “Death’s Duel,” was delivered before the King at the beginning of Lent. He died a few days later.
In his poem, “Death, Be Not Proud,” Donne addresses the Christian hope of resurrection and immortality. Death is equated with sleep, and if sleep is pleasant, why then should we fear death, Donne asks. In the triumphant couplet at the end, Donne exults in the orthodox Christian doctrine of the defeat of death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While the poem is not explicitly Christian, it can easily be understood this way. Towards the end of his life, Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired, on the grounds of his belief that those who die as Christians are sent to heaven to live eternally.
Vivian Bearing appeared to have no such hope. All of her passion seemed to be sublimated into cold, hard intellectualism. She is lonely and, at the end, alone. Perhaps Donne’s most famous line is: “No man is an island.” Bearing contradicted her great literary muse by living without family or friends. She dies with bravery, integrity and, yes, wit, but without love and hope. Indeed, death does not die with her demise. I doubt that it was intentional, but the movie makes the ironic point that Bearing was merely a technician of Donne’s poetry, and not truly a disciple. Her passion is purely of the mind. Her knowledge is theoretical. She ends up talking to the camera because there is no one else to talk to, not even to God himself.
In its treatment of what it might be like for a brainy loner to die from cancer, “Wit” seems honest and true. But by dragging Donne into her story, Bearing's spiritual desolation becomes painfully intensified. In her death there is no victory, but only a slow and ultimately complete extinguishing of a once-dignified life.