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John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is an amazing love poem with beautiful figurative language, a farewell to Donne’s wife before their long partition. The writer assures his loved the parting will do no harm and praises on their endless love. With his competent writing style using extended metaphors, comparisons along with connotation and denotation throughout the poem, Donne expresses his belief in the strength of their angelic love to get through the physical separation.
In 1611, John Donne had to leave for a Europe trip, leaving behind his pregnant wife (Brackett).
He wrote this poem as a farewell pledging his wife on their reunion and suggesting her not to be sorrowful. The writer uses several methods of figure of speech, among which are the donatives of vocabulary of the poem. The word “valediction” in the title is the act of bidding farewell, mourning is grieving or crying for a loss, “laity” in line 8 refers to common, ordinary people, “sublunary” (line 13) refers to being below the moon and “elemented” (16) is being the component of something.
These denotations play an important role in the poem to mask the meaning of the word, forcing its audience to pay close attention to every detail. Besides these words, extended metaphor links numerous imageries and comparisons in the poem creating the most famous love poem of Donne’s works.
Donne begins the poem with the “virtuous men” (1) image. He compares the separation between lovers to souls parting their bodies, life coming to death. These “virtuous men” (1) are immortal in the living’s memory, even though their souls may have left their physical covers.
As the memory remains, they will still be there with their beloved ones. Therefore they die without fear, facing death with peace and courage. Donne uses this comparison to announce to his wife, that the love they share is far too great, too profound to be affected by mere physical separation. He also says in his sermons: “Death, is the Divorce of body and soul; Resurrection is the Re-union. . . .” (Freccero). They have no fear of separation like those decent men have no fear for death. The union of body and soul after death will serve as a symbol of reunion of the lovers later on in the poem.
In the second stanza, the poet asks his wife to “melt, and make no noise/ No tear-floods, nor sight-tempests move;” (5-6). The word “melt” symbolizes the unity of two people become one, not two separated individuals. The poet tells his dear wife to shed no tears, for that action is only for the “laity “(8). This parting forbids mourning, as the couple has such dedicated meaning; Donne praised his love to be above of those common people. If they publicly display their grief, he feels it would taint the love he shares with his wife by being no better than the love of ordinary people. Donne pleads with his lady to accept his departure. Then the writer moves from the “laity” people to a larger view of the whole universe (Brackett). “But the trepidation of the spheres,/ Though greater far, is innocent” (11-12).
“Trepidation of the spheres” is meant to talk about the moving of the Earth and other planets. In Donne’s time people still believe the Earth is the center of the universe, and other planets move around it (Brackett). Although men wonder about the nature of these movements of the universe, and blame “harms and fear” (9) on those planets, the truth is the nature is “innocent” (12). Men with their weakness suffer from their own mistakes, not from influence of the stars or such matters. As Donne and his love have reached the level of angelic love, which has a symbol of a perfect circle, they are of no guilt for all misfortune and mistakes the normal people have (Freccero). This metaphor refers to the main image of the poem, the compass. This symbol in later reference also has a stable stand in the center, with another part moving around it creating a perfect circle. The everlasting spinning of the Earth is like the lover’s romance,In the fourth stanza, Donne ranks the “dull sublunary lovers” (13) as the ones who cannot truthfully understand the depth of love like his and his wife’s since he place his romance to the level of the universe, these “under the moon” relationship “whose soul is sense” (14) cannot bear absence of their partner.
They simply have a physical bond, among them lacks the spiritual connection that keeps the relationship unwavering through time and space. He sees this type of love as weak in essence, because it is not based correctly on the bonding of two souls, but more on the bonding of two bodies. It cannot endure such an absence as Donne must take from his spouse, as it would “. . . remove/ those things which elemented it” (16). They do not have the bond even when being apart and as a result would not be able to stand the trials of distance. They would be torn apart by absence because they are no longer together to cement the feelings that they once possessed. Donne and his wife have the type of romance that is “so much refined” (17), they cannot even understand it.
Their relationship is not only about missing the eyes, the lover’s lip or the warmth of their hands. Their feeling here is the loss of a part of themselves. Though the feeling is hard to bear, believing in the other’s return helps them get through the separation. In the next stanza Donne creates another spectacular metaphor. “Our two souls, therefore, which are one” (21) declares them as two living bodies but sharing one heart and one soul. The separation will only be “a reach, but expansion” (23), compared to “gold to airy thinness beat” (24). Gold can be expanded and condensed over and over again, but it will never break. The strength of gold is also the strength of the love between the couple. Like gold, it cannot be severed or torn by expansion.
The most important symbol, the key link of the chain of metaphors appears in the seventh stanza:If they be two, they are two soAs stiff twin compasses are two:Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show, To move, but doth, if th’ other do (25-28).
Like the compass is made of a center and a rotating foot that “makes no show to move, but doth, if th’ other do” (27-28), the lovers stay connected through the soul though their bodies are apart. Although the center and the foot are stretched out, they are still joined at the beginning. However as the center foot stays still, when the other moves away it still “leans and hearkens” (31). The unrelated mathematical device suddenly becomes a dramatic metaphor describing the couple’s situation. The lady staying at home as the center, waiting and missing her man, longing after every step her husband takes, with part of her soul watching over him. Meanwhile the man, as the moving foot drawing out, still has a part of him lingering back at home with his love. No matter how far the geographic distance between them, they are as one with their love bond.
Together they make a perfect circle, the angelic love model as an Aristotelian circle (Tate). Notably a circle with a point in the center also is the seventeenth century symbol for gold (Divine), as mentioned earlier it stands for the ability to stretch out but not to break of the soul. Seeing no loss in the parting, the couple pictures their happy reunion: “thy firmness makes my circle just, and makes me end where I began” (35-36). Like a circle, the lovers will end up together. They have to experience separation, but after the separation comes uniting. Once a circle is formed, the beginning point and the ending point become one.
The poem is full of original ideas and associations; it is complex, and highly intellectual. John Donne incredibly creates unique figurative language in his work, making “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” his most famous love poem. Along with using the rich imagery and metaphors skillfully he dedicates the poem to his beloved wife with a beautiful message: the deserving soul will return to the awaiting body, as the traveler will return to his darling (Freccero).
Brackett, Virginia”‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’.” Facts On File Companion toBritish Poetry, 17th and 18th Centuries. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008.
Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.aspItemID=WE54&SID=1&iPin=CBP1029&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 17, 2009).
Divine, Jay Dean. “Compass and Circle in Donne’s ‘A Valediction: ForbiddenMourning,'” Papers on Language and Literature 9, no. 1 (Winter 1973): pp. 78-80.
Quoted as “The Symbolic Importance of the Compass” in Harold Bloom, ed. John Donne, Bloom’s Major Poets. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1998. (Updated 2007.) Bloom’s Literary Reference Online.
Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=1&iPin=BMPJD30&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 17, 2009).
Donne, John. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”. 1611. Rpt. in Compact LiteratureReading Reacting Writing. By Kirszner and Mandell. 6th ed. 2007.
Freccero, John. “Donne’s ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'” from English LiteraryHistory 30, no. 3 (March 1963): pp. 336-38.
Quoted as “The Circle of Love” in Harold Bloom, ed. John Donne, Bloom’s Major Poets. Philadelphia:
Chelsea House Publishing, 1998. (Updated 2007.)
Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.aspItemID=WE54&SID=1&iPin=BMPJD32&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 17, 2009).
Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968): pp. 247-49.
Quoted as “Movement in the ‘Valediction'” in Harold Bloom, ed. John Donne, Bloom’s Major Poets. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1998. (Updated 2007.)
Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=1&iPin=BMPJD33&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 17, 2009).
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