Literary critics place the writing of John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning in the year 1611, when he traveled to Europe. He left behind his pregnant wife, and their separation probably inspired his poem. The title term mourning suggests the sorrow accompanying death, but Donne writes a love poem, not an elegy, and not a valediction in the religious sense of a farewell that might be expressed at the end of a religious service. Rather he writes of a farewell in which the partners should resist sorrow, with the knowledge that their love will successfully endure the challenge of separation.
Donne begins a skillful use of figurative language by comparing the separation of one lover from another to the separation between individuals caused by death. He could draw on a biblical tradition that associated love and sex with death from the Old Testament book Song of Solomon, which describes the marriage of Solomon and a country maiden, referred to as “the Sulammite,” with one section describing a temporary separation. The Sulammite tells Solomon in 8:6: “Put me like a seal over your heart, Like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” Donne grounded much of his writing in religious tenets and the Bible’s ideas, but he also drew on its abundant poetry as inspiration. The Bible offers much language that could be considered comparable to that of metaphysical poets and poetry, such as Solomon’s lover’s comparison of herself to a seal. In the first instance the seal reference may have suggested a “signet,” but it may also be interpreted in its second usage as “a vehement flame,” according to the Master Study Bible: New American Standard. Donne’s format remains simple, as does his language, the poem consisting of nine four-line verses with the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefef, et cetera. The speaker refers to death in the first stanza but adopts a gentle tone, telling his love,
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;
and concludes with a semicolon, signaling the reader that the initial thought remains incomplete. He selects men of virtue as his focus because their virtue assures them of everlasting life. Their souls may part with their bodies in complete confidence, even if those left behind do not want them to go. He tells his love in the next stanza that they should “melt, and make no noise” as they plan their separation, meaning they should not attract attention to themselves, not crying or making “sigh-tempests.” Creating an emotional scene would be treating their love in a profane manner, as then even “the laity” would learn of it. The use of the term laity, which refers to those who form a church congregation, allows Donne to suggest the two lovers are not on the same level as common people.
By the third stanza Donne expands his consideration beyond the lovers’ bed or room to focus on the entire universe. The speaker notes that when the Earth moves, it may cause fear or harm, prompting those who observe it to wonder about its meaning. Then he adds, “But trepidation of the spheres, / Though greater far, is innocent.” Trepidation of the spheres references Earth’s movement in relation to the other planets and constellations. In Donne’s time the Ptolemaic theory described the universe as a series of concentric spheres, with Earth at its center. Donne will extend this metaphysical conceit, later comparing the two lovers to the compass, a drafting instrument with two metal feet, one of which may be fixed at a predetermined spot, while the other moves around it in a perfect circle.
Another metaphor appears in the fourth stanza, as the speaker ranks some “Dull” lovers as “sublunary,” meaning those who have fallen below the level of the Moon, with the term fallen suggesting angels who fell from heaven because they could not meet its requirements. The dull lovers fell because they share a love “(Whose soul is sense).” Donne uses parenthesis to emphasize how simple the explanation is of these other lovers who do not share what his speaker and partner do. He also makes use of the theory that described the soul as existing in three levels: vegetable, sensible, and rational. While the sensible level would encompass the emotions two lovers experienced, it would remain only a partial knowledge of things spiritual. The rational is also required for complete understanding. The speaker asks that his love move beyond the emotional, including wordplay in the next line, “Absence, because it doth remove / Those things which elemented it,” by suggesting sense as the root of the term Absence. The lovers share a strong relationship, not based only on emotion, but also on logic. Therefore they can accept separation, as emphasized in the fifth stanza, which opens,
But we by a love, so much refin’d
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Donne adopts the metaphor of refinement, as he does in other poems, including Batter My Heart, to stress that raw substances, such as ore, must experience stress to achieve their refined end state as valuable metals. The love the couple in this poem share is so valuable they cannot even name it. Because they have realized the rational level of the soul, they can apply logic to help them accept their physical separation.
Donne then draws on the Platonic idea of two souls’ joining to form a complete whole as he begins the next stanza,
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
He extends the former allusion to the refinement of ore in the next line to another metaphysical conceit. The speaker completes the stanza by explaining their separation constitutes an expansion of their love, “Like gold to airy thinness beat.”
Donne introduces the famous compass conceit mentioned in the seventh stanza. The speaker concedes that their souls may be two, but
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.
It offers a perfect image of two parts of a whole in which every movement of one directly affects the other. Having established the metaphor, he extends it into the penultimate stanza, noting that the lovers’ relationship not only can withstand the separation but will survive it without ill effect:
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.
Psychoanalytic critics would find the implication of a sexual erection, suggested by the terms stiff and erect, of interest and not out of character for Donne, whose love poetry often contained erotic imagery. They might comment on the extension of the erotic suggestion into the concluding stanza in which the speaker makes clear “Such wilt thou be to me, who must / Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;” then mentions “Thy firmness makes my circle just,” concluding with the line “And makes me end, where I begun.” However, more traditional close readers emphasize the term erect as alluding to a straight-backed devotion and a willingness of the lover left behind to stand firm in orienting their love. Thus when the term firmness occurs in the next stanza, it reflects on the previous suggestion of strength. The lover who remains is strong enough to guide home again the one who must temporarily leave.
The popular Renaissance idea of the circle and sphere as representing perfection informs the entire poem, offering an image the reader may use to visualize Donne’s suggestion of the perfect love. It substantiates the wedding ring as symbolizing a perfect union, an emotion-based idea, but his introduction of the compass, used in logical mathematical pursuits, allows his suggestion that love is more than mere emotion.
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Master Study Bible: New American Standard. Nashville: Holman Bible, 1981.