Monday, 23 April 2012

'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' by John Donne

The first thing I thought when I saw this poem was: what does 'valediction' mean. Well, I am smarter now. It means a farewell, saying goodbye to something, and is often used as a parting word in letters. That make sit a very fitting title for this poem, which Donne wrote for his wife on their parting. He went travelling and forbade her to mourn him. So, let's get to the analysis. (The entire poem is at the bottom of the post!)

The 'soul' is very important to Donne and every time he talks about his love or lovers in general he mentions it. He was a poet who sometimes (as in this poem) argued for  'Divine' love, a love of the soul instead of the body, and sometimes for Eros, the opposite to the Divine. Whereas Eros is a sexual kind of love, more like lust , the Divine focuses on admiring a woman, instead of desiring her. It got a lot of its features from Platonic love, from which we get our phrase 'platonic relationship', and from courtly love. Courtly love comes from the old romance novels in which a knight would woo a lady and had to overcome obstacles (such as other knights' wooing his lady or tasks by her father). These romances all had a very chaste love that might have seemed passionate but definitely wasn't sexual. (A prime example of a romance like this is the one between Guinevere and Lancelot).

In the second stanza, Donne calls on his wife not to give into 'tear floods' or 'sigh-tempests', because
'Twere profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love. 
He here presents one of the key elements of courtly love. A love between two people should be kept private and personal. For Guinevere & Lancelot or Tristan & Isolde, the revelation of their love was damaging and Donne doesn't want this to happen to him and his wife. Another interpretation could be that he feels that their only need each other and will always have each other near and that by asking for attention, his wife would imply their bond wasn't enough.

In the next to stanzas, he makes a more universal message about love, distancing himself and talking about 'men' and 'lovers' instead of 'us'. He argues, especially int he fourth stanza, that Eros is an inadequate love. If the lover's love is based on 'sense', than an absence of the others body would mean the love has come to an end, whereas in a Divine love where the souls are joined, the lovers can be as far apart as they want. On a vocabulary note: 'sublunary' means 'under the moon', so basically people on Earth. He highlights the fact that the others are below the moon because in the previous stanza he has compared their love to 'trepidation of the spheres'. Their love is celestial, Divine, and therefore purer and better.

What you should know when analyzing John Donne is that he was a Metaphysical poet. I won't go into that in too much detail because that's a post on its own, but metaphysical poets were concerned with what love truly is. They were all well-educated and wrote their poetry mainly for each other to read and therefore you will often find mentions of geography or science in their poems. An example of this are the famous 'twin compasses' in this poem to which I will come alter.

Donne returns to himself and his wife in the fifth stanza, in which he reaffirms their Divine love. they will not miss 'eyes, lips and hands' because they are 'so much refined' by their love. Again, here is a link to the Metaphysical as he says that even they 'know not what it is' that binds them together so closely. He says that just like gold they can be spread to an 'aery thinness', symbolizing that although there may be distance between them, they will still be together.

And now we come to the 'twin compasses', which have become a famous example for Metaphysical conceits. A conceit is an extended metaphore that metaphysical poets. It is usually between two things that share no likeness whatsoever, but which the poet brings us to concede do share some likeness. A twin compass is a mathematical tool with which you can draw a circle. It has nothing in common with lovers. However, Donne cunningly uses it as an analogy for his relationship. His wife is the 'fix'd foot', which stands in the middle of the circle. She remains fixed, but when he travels she 'leans' after him and they are always connected. Because she is steadfast, he is able to 'roam' but then make his 'circle just' and 'end where I begun'.

As you can see, the entire poem was written by Donne to his wife as an assurance that they will always love each other and that she need not worry when he travels. According to Donne's biographer, he wrote this poem in 1611 when he was about to go on travels in Europe. Below is the entire poem for you.

I hope you found this analysis helpful. I greatly appreciate comments or any additions to my analysis!

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 the 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 admitAbsence, 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-assured of the mind, Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 
Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go, endure not yetA breach, but an expansion. Like gold to airy 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 the other do; 
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. 
Such wilt thou be to me, who must, Like the other foot, obliquely run;Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun.


  1. Thanx a lot Juli Rahel. this has been agreat help. u really made it clear & easy to understand. i found it in a time i so need it. Thank you millions of times