One of the irony's in Edson's Wit is that Vivian Bearing is a significant professor of John Donne, one of the foremost poets on love in the English language. At the same time, she is someone for whom love has proved elusive. She examines metaphysical poetry with the precision her doctors apply to her cancer diagnosis, yet like the doctors who sometimes fail to see the human beneath the diagnosis, as a critic of poetry, she often overlooks the human feelings lying beneath Donne's masterfully complex poetry.
At the beginning of the play, we see Vivian lecturing on the use of the comma rather than the semicolon in "Death Be Not Proud." Vivan's graduate mentor claimed that the semicolon is a mark of sentimentality here, suitable for students of Shakespeare. Donne, on the other hand, is a wit, an intellectual whose mind could discern with precision the complexities of life. Vivian lectures:
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 a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.
This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
As a patient, this cold reasoning that had sustained her academic life is a challenge as she faces her own death, without the companionship that might have eased her journey.
Like Donne, Vivian loves the life of ideas and of intellectual discipline. She has spread that love to her students, who see her as brilliant but tough. Her doctor is a former student who wanted to solve the tough problems in oncology with the same rigor that she used on Donne's poetry. Rather than sentimental human love, perhaps, this play explores a more refined love such as Donne writes about in his own poetry, such as "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."
At the same time, as Vivian becomes more dependent on the hospital staff for her care, especially the fear and trembling she feels about her aggressive treatment and impending death, she develops a compassion that she sees would have benefited her own teaching. She recognizes that she was bringing Donne's brilliance not just to minds but to humans who had needs beyond the clinical dissection of poetry.
As the play continues, Vivian finds she craves the sentimental and compassionate care her nurses offer. She gravitates toward shared popsicles, tender nicknames, and her mentor's reading of The Runaway Bunny. As Vivian concedes,
Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.
In the end, Vivian discovers that wit was an instrument, rather than a substitute, for the many ways Donne explored and expressed love.