John Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

17 Jun

John Donne is the love poet to end all love poets.  Yes, there are others (like Shakespeare or the sonnet writers) who explore similar terrain, but if you are a romantic, particularly one of the “fated to be, two souls joined into one” variety Donne is the man for you.

In this poem he is talking to his lover about him leaving for a time.  “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,”   Now this sentence isn’t finished yet, but what Donne has started a metaphor, the first part of which is like a good man dying, allowing his soul to leave his body so peacefully, the people watching him do not know when he is gone–so is how this leaving should go.

“So let us melt, and make no noise,/no tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,/’twere profanation of our joys/to tell the laity of our love.”   So with this parting, he thinks there should be any outer grieving, because it would taint the love that they have by doubting it through separation.  Donne uses strong words here to indicate a spiritual (verses just a fleshly) coupling–to have public display would be profane, and the rest of the world is described as laity, mere onlookers in Donne’s holy church of 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.”   Here Donne makes a distinction with earth (which indicates time, body, mortality) and the cosmos (the spheres), the movements on earth people try to figure out, which brings harm and fear–it’s not the movement of the earth itself that brings harm however, it’s people’s reactions to it.  Also remember that he used sphere here, the circle is a big symbol in this  poem, partially because it means wholeness, and also because it’s an indication of marriage (the ring.)

“Dull sublunary lovers’ love/(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit/Absence, because it doth remove/Those things that elemented it.”  I love the sublunary lovers’ soul being sense–here he means sensation, the sublunary (below the moon) ones only understand things they can feel and see, so they cannot tolerate absence.  Also, they are ruled by the moon that changes from day to day in cycles–it is not constant.  Once the physical person is gone, it’s over.

“But we by a love so much refined,/That our selves know not what it is,/Inter-assured of the mind/Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”  Donne indicates a marriage of minds–that they are connected by much more than physical matters, a very popular idea at his time.  Not that Donne was against physical intimacy (his other poems have strong erotic overtones at times), but that is a base sort of love, the real love goes beyond, into thoughts and souls, the body is just a vessel.

“Our two souls therefore, which are one,/Though I must go, endure not yet/a breach, but an expansion,/Like gold to airy thinness beat.”  One thing about gold was that it was the most pliable metal to work with and can be beaten down to a very thin sheet.  He is saying because they are still linked, his leaving will give them more, not less, that their connection will grow larger with the separation.

“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.”   Their relationship is like a compass that draws circles, they are linked and one cannot separate from the other and continue to be a compass anymore.  This also indicates that the lover is the steady one, staying fixed, as the other one revolves around her–like planets.

“And though it in the center sit,/Yet when the other far doth roam,/It leans and hearkens after it,/and grows erect, as that comes home.”  Ok, so there’s some mild naughtiness here, but it’s a reassurance that he won’t stray–and at the same time there’s a spiritual connection if you can get past the ribaldry, the compass always returns to itself in the end.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must/like th’other foot obliquely run; They firmness makes my circle just,/And makes me end where I’ve begun.”  Donne ends here comparing her with the other foot (of the compass) who stands firm and in this firmness creates a circle.  In the end he wants her to not mourn, but be firm–that firmness allows him to create his mark upon the world, and has him come back home at the end creating a full circle.

Had Donne’s tone not been so serious, it would be possible to point out that this poem is asking for the woman to stay at home (without complaining) while the man goes out to roam–however his tone is so that I can make a little allowance.  Donne is saying that this is how this relationship functions, he’s not saying that every one must be the same.    However, I wonder what the woman’s response would be to this poem.  An interesting prospect.


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