A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne

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-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 yet
A 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 th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Summary and Analysis

Like most of John Donne’s poems, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning was published posthumously in 1633. It was originally penned in 1611 on the occasion of Donne parting from his wife Anne More Donne when he was going to France leaving his wife behind. Literally meaning goodbye, a ‘valediction’ is a farewell speech in which the poet-lover forbids his wife not to mourn their parting and instead take strength from their physical separation. Written in a set one nine quatrains, the poem mostly follows iambic tetrameter and has ABAB as its rhyme scheme.

The poem opens with the image of “virtuous men” who pass away quietly. They go almost unnoticeably, with their passing almost imperceptible to those around who are left wondering whether or not it has happened yet. Albeit it is a love poem, it begins with a metaphor of virtuous men who leave almost unnoticeably. It was believed that a peaceful death was a result of having lived a virtuous life and the death of such men was thought to have a quiet dignity about it. Donne uses this analogy to say that even if their parting feels like death, they must not lament and accept it with quiet courage.

Emphasising the spiritual and sacred dimension of their love, Donne contrasts it with the ordinary love of “the laity”. He explains that a more earthly love is dependent on physical proximity and emotive displays and declarations of love, whereas, their spiritual love is silently strong and should not be given to “sigh-tempests” and “tear-floods”. In the dignified manner of their love, the lovers should part silently and not grieve openly as mourning\loudly at parting would be a “profanation of our joys” that would belittle their love. What he means is that their ennobled love should not be subject to outer displays of emotions.

Throughout the poem Donne takes recourse to various conceits and analogies to contrast the two kinds of love. Earthly natural disasters are contrasted with the noiseless, grander motions of the orbs in heaven. Donne here makes a contrast to point out that while the disturbances on earth are more noticeable and cause “harms and fears”, by comparison, the significant movement of the planets in the larger cosmos goes unnoticed. For him, their love is grand like “the spheres” whose motions make no noise. Their love is not the love of “dull sublunary lovers” who “cannot admit absence” of the beloved. Sub-lunary or below (sub) the moon (lunar) refers to earth as a sublunary sphere—an inferior place when put against the larger spheres beyond. “Sub-lunary lovers” allude to those mundane, earthly lovers who require physical proximity in love. Just as the moving of earth is contrasted with the “trepidation of the spheres”, the poem contrasts “ sublunary ” love of the “laity” with their refined love. These extended comparisons may seem far-stretched but these unusual conceits connect well with the theme of the poem to compare the two types of love.

As lovers then, they must be “inter-assured of the mind”, confident and secure in each other and quietly assured of their love. Being more refined and sacred in character, their love does not warrant any outer displays of emotions nor it is dependent on physical proximity, for their “two souls…are one”. Even their parting is not a “breach”, rather, it will expand their love like highly malleable gold to disregard separation. Donne here refers to alchemy or the speculative science of transforming base metals into gold popular in the seventeenth century. Donne uses the metaphor of alchemy to stress the purity of their love, which he believes is precious and pure as gold. Just as pure gold is highly malleable and can be beaten into a fine foil, their love too can be stretched to overcome the pangs of separation. This is Donne’s clever use of conceit to liken his love to refined gold that stretches.

In the last three stanzas, the poet employs the analogy of a compass to say they are forever linked to each other like the twin feet of a compass. One leg of the compass travels but always remains connected to the other even when the two are apart. In their relationship, his beloved is like the “fixed” foot of the compass that stays steady and stable while the other foot traces the circle. In spiritual geometry, the idea of circle presents wholeness and perfection, with the poet suggesting that the lovers may be two separate beings but their souls are one. Together, the oneness of lovers creates a circle that symbolises eternity and harmony. Lovers are the “stiff-twin compasses” that always follow each other, and for true lovers like them mourning is inappropriate when their souls are always connected. Their souls and minds are united and physical separation cannot ‘breach’ this bond.

What Donne emphasises throughout the poem is that a more ordinary love depends on sensual and physical connection that cannot tolerate separation. On the other hand, their bond is more spiritual and special and can endure separation since it is love in its purest form. Genuine love has a spiritual bond that transcends distance and is timeless and eternal.

A recurrent preoccupation of Donne’s poetry is the need to define love. However, In A Valediction, the sensuality of earlier poems gives way to devotion in love that is both spiritual and mature. It defines the alchemical nature of love that for him intertwined sensuality and spirituality. Though the poem was composed preceding his wife’s death and before his ordination, we find that in his later poems, this love expressed for the beloved is directed towards God.

Donne’s use of conceit is also noteworthy. In A Valediction, the conceits involve dying men, orbs and luminaries, earthquakes, gold and even mathematical compasses to emphasise the enduring quality of his love. It is through the use of conceits that Donne yokes together heterogeneous ideas to comment on the complementary dualities of emotion and reason/man and woman/body and soul/ real and ideal/sexual and divine love/finite and infinite/self and other. These dualities are complementary and define the totality of human experience.

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