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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Analysis

Author: poem of John Donne Type: poem Views: 119

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As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

The breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,

'Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did and meant,

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love

(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined

That our selves know not what it is,

Inter-assurèd of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th' other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

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A valediction is a farewell message. Since the title forbids his wife from sorrowing over their separation, the poet decides to present reasons why his embassy to France will not occasion grief or anxiety. He accomplishes this through a series of conceits - similes and strikingly unusual metaphors.
The first two quatrains can be misleading since they discuss the way virtuous men die. However, the deaths referred to are a figurative element of a simile and not a literal reference to the poet's death. Virtuous men have led lives that make their death something to be welcomed rather than feared. Donne's message is "Let our parting from each other be as quiet and imperceptible as the departure of the souls from the bodies of the virtuous, for whom heavenly bliss is expected and deserved."
His prohibition against "tear-floods" and "sigh-tempests" refers to Donne's earlier poem Of Weeping, where we find "Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow/ This world. . .." And further on "Since thou and I sigh one another's breath/ Whoe'r sighs most, is cruelest, and hastes the other's death." Hyperbole (figures of speech involving wild exaggeration) was a hallmark of poetry of the courtly love tradition. Donne is poking fun at the idea that one could shed tears sufficient to cause a flood or sigh so deeply that the atmospheric disturbance would cause a storm or hurricane.
The second quatrain's conclusion "'Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love" makes a distinction between true lovers who are ordained members of a priesthood and ordinary lovers who are members of the congregation (laity) and not of the clergy. He made the same distinction in Of the Book, saying that "love's clergy" speak a language that is incomprehensible to the laity. His term "profanation" means granting admittance of the unworthy into the shrine reserved for priests and priestesses of love.
Switching to another metaphor, the poet describes how "Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears." However, a mere earthquake is minuscule compared to movement of the heavenly spheres, which ordinary
people see as presenting no danger. Thus the geographical separation husband and wife will endure is not to be dreaded.
Dull sublunary lovers' love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit/ Absence because it doth remove/ Those things which elemented it.
The above stanza is a masterly blending of numerous poetic devices. The assonance of short "u" sounds in each word of the first line reinforces the concept of stupidity (dullness) of earthly lovers whose amorous attachments depend on physical sensation. This culminates in the brilliant pun on "absence," which means not just being elsewhere but lacking the fleshly propinquity and sentience of "eyes, lips, and hands" mentioned in the subsequent quatrain. The love of the laity is elemented or dependent upon "things," or body parts. Such love is rudimentary, basic, and carnal.
"But we by a love so much refined,/That ourselves know not what it is,/ Inter-assured of the mind/ Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss."
Their love is a union of souls, transcending the physical, unelemented and far from elementary. Geographical separation means nothing to united souls.
The poem concludes with the employment of two conceits or super-ingenious metaphors.The departure of the poet is not a breach or separation but an expansion, "Like gold to airy thinness beat." And finally their conjoined souls are a pair of compasses. Anne at home is the "fixed foot" and leans in the direction of the traveling foot, steadying it and assuring that it will come full circle. (And yes, there is a sexual aspect to "and grows erect.")
The poem is a tour de force of brilliant comparisons. The love of John and Anne is not the physical love of the unconsecrated laity. It is elevated far beyond earth in its connection with the Ptolemaic astronomy of concentric spheres. It is associated with the noiseless and unwept departure of virtuous men's souls, with precious metal, with geology, and the keen exactitude of geometry.
What a shame that Donne would return to England and learn of his still-born child.

| Posted on 2010-03-16 | by a guest

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