Lisa Dittrich, managing editor of Academic Medicine, is the editor of “Medicine and the Arts.” (Unsolicited submissions are welcome.)
W;t portrays the interactions between a cancer patient, Vivian Bearing, and her hospital staff. In this scene, Bearing, an English professor, recalls a discussion she had with one of her college professors, Dr. Ashford, about the last line of John Donne's poem “Death Be Not Proud.”
ASHFORD: You have entirely missed the point of the poem, because I must tell you, you have used an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated…. 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 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 point!
[Ashford explains it should be read]:
And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.
Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on the stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but they pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.