Sunday 17 June 2012
A favorite movie scene from Wit, dedicated to the Stumbling Mystic. Vivian, terminally-ill, recalls a meeting with her professor, Dr. Ashford, who discusses the meaning and punctuation of John Dunne's Holy Sonnet 'Death be not proud'.
E.M. Ashford: 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 choose, 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 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 semi-colons. Just a comma.