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John Donnes’ “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” Essay

In the poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, by John Donne, the speaker is consoling his lover who is mournful of the speaker’s imminent departure. The speaker is saying that since they have stronger than ordinary love for one another, their love will endure the separation. Donne uses metaphysical conceits and comparative imagery to illustrate the crux of the poem. The speaker is reassuring his lover by reminding her of how great their love is; it transcends the physical and therefore will overcome whatever obstacle is set on their path. He is forbidding his lover to mourn his departure.

In the first half of the poem the speaker contrasts their love between that of spiritual and material objects; the inferior actions of the earth compared to those of the heavenly “spheres” (11). He is trying to prove to his lover how their love is not of the ordinary kind; it is more than simple affection. He compares their love to that of pure gold saying “let us melt, and make no noise” (5). Pure gold, when melted, does not spatter, it melts down smoothly. Therefore he is saying that if there love was gold it would make no noise for their love is that of the purest kind. The speaker then says that earthly things “[bring] harm and fears” (9) but since their love is above earthly matters, they should consequently not be afraid of parting. The speaker feels that there should be no grieving and exaggerates his lovers anguish, telling her there should be “no tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests” (6).

The narrator talks of “dull sublunary lovers…whose [souls are] sense'” (13/14); these lesser couples’ love is based upon the five senses. He is saying that love cannot be simply based upon these senses, which are purely physical. Love has to transcend the physical to be pure and their love does. The speakers tone then turns comforting by saying that they both know that their love is more than physical therefore they should be at ease. A physical separation is ensuing but not an emotional one: their love will endure. He describes their “two souls…which are one” (21).

He says that their separation will not be a “breach but an expansion” (24) of their love; their souls are united and cannot be separated by whatever forces shall come in their way. He continues to develop the image between their love and pure gold by saying that through this separation their souls will simply spread apart “to aery thinness” (24) but never separate (as does pure gold when flattened).

Donne compares the couple to a geometrical compass, a metaphor which carries two significant meanings. The first being the idea of a compass being two separate entities, two feet, which are attached but not always together. He says that the compass is them, separate beings but still united as one, by their soul. One foot of the compass will stay as the other moves around and away, and the stationary foot “hearkens after it” (31) but is unable join the other. The speaker is making the point that not matter how far one of them may travel they will always complete the circle and eventually return to the beginning. The compass also portrays their love as a circle. A circle is an image of perfection: never ending and continuing for eternity as is their love. The speaker is saying that no matter how far apart they may travel they will always come back to one another. He may travel far but he will  [draw] his circle just, and… end, where [he] began” (36).

The speaker described before how their love transcends the physical, it is deeper than sex and arousal of the senses. In the final stanzas though, the speaker addresses all the factors of any healthy relationship. The speaker says that his “compass foot”, as it draws nearer home, grows “erect” (32), an allusion to the sexual component of their relationship. Despite the awesome power of an emotionally based relationship there is still a strong a physical aspect. He misses her with his soul but also physically yearns for her.

This poem is written to comfort a lover. Donne opens with comparative images of the physical and earthly, saying that the sentiment between the two lovers is more than earthly love. He then uses metaphysical conceits, comparisons of unrelated objects–the physical and the spiritual–to further emphasize his point. The two compasses, no matter how far apart they travel will always return to the other. If one is truly in love then physical separation does not matter; if anything it will only strengthen the union. The feelings between the speaker and his lover are greater than common love, therefore they can endure the separation; the speaker’s departure should not be mourned.


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