‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne was written by Donne for his wife Anne, in either 1611 or 1612. It was penned before he left on a trip to Europe. It was not published until after his death, appearing in the collection Songs and Sonnets. The poem is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains.
Donne has also structured this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme, following the scheme of abab. In regards to meter, Donne chose to use iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats. Generally, the first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
There are a few moments though where this reverses and instead, the first syllable is stressed (trochaic tetrameter). One of these moments is in the first line of the third stanza with the word “Moving.” The reversal of the rhythmic pattern here is a surprise, just as is the “Moving of th’ earth” which is being described.
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Summary of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
The poem begins with the speaker describing the death of a virtuous man. He goes to the afterlife peacefully, so much so that his friends are not sure if he is dead or not. Donne compares this kind of peaceful parting to the way he and his wife will separate. Rather than throwing an emotional fit, as a shallow couple would, they “melt” from one another.
In a similar metaphor, Donne also compares their love to the movement of the “celestial spheres.” Even though these moments are invisible to those on earth, they are much more powerful than the highly visible “Moving of th’ earth.” The next analogy shows how their parting would be an “expansion” rather than a “breach.” Their love will stretch, like gold leaf pounded thin.
The poem concludes with the well-known conceit comparing love to a drafting compass. Donne states that his wife is the leg that holds them steady, fixed point while he “roam[s].” It is due to her steadfastness that he always finds his way back.
Themes in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
As was common within Donne’s poetry, there are pervading themes of death, the celebration of love and spirituality in this text. In regards to love, Donne spent the majority of the text trying to define what his love is like. Donne utilizes a number of images and analogies, which will be discussed later in this analysis, that accomplishes this. By the time the speaker gets to the end, he has come to the conclusion that no matter where he is, their love will live on.
The theme of spirituality is intimately connected with that of love. Donne’s speaker, who is certainly Donne himself, declares the love he shares with his partner to be spiritual in nature. It goes beyond that which ordinary people experience. This means it can overcome any mundane barrier life throws at it.
The first lines of the text bring up death. He describes a group of friends who are gathered around the death bed of a “virtuous” man. They are discussing amongst themselves when this person is going to die, and which breath might be his last. By utilizing death to later speak on life, Donne is tapping into the tradition of Carpe Diem poetry. These types of poems promote a way of living that keeps in mind the ever-present prospect of death.
Images and Conceits
One of the most important and recognizable images associated with ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is that of a compass. It appears towards the end of the text, in line 26. It is important because it symbolizes the strength of their relationship, but also the balance that exists between the speaker and his wife.
Donne describes the compass as being “stiff” with a “fixed foot,” this is his wife’s part of the metaphor. She remains stationary while her husband, the speaker, “roam[s]” around. It is due to her steadfastness that he always finds his way back home. The speaker clearly sees this conceit, or comparison between two very unlike things, as a romantic. One should take note of the fact that the speaker’s loyalty to his wife seems to hinge on her placidity. If she were to “roam” the entire balance would be thrown off.
Another image that is important to the text appears throughout the first half of the poem, that of natural, disastrous weather patterns. The first time one of these disasters is made clear is in the fifth line with the mention of a “flood” and a “tempest,” or a powerful storm. In this instance, the weather is being used to show the exaggerated emotions of lesser love. The couple he is imagining cries and sighs outrageously as if hoping someone will take note of their passion.
Analysis of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
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:
In the first stanza of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, the speaker begins with an image of death. He is speaking on the death of a man who is “virtuous.” Due to his good nature, his death comes peacefully. Donne compares dying in this instance to “whisper[ing]” one’s soul away. There is nothing traumatic about it. “Whisper” is a perfect example of onomatopoeia. The word sounds or resembles the noise it represents.
The dying man is not alone. There are “sad friends” around his bed who are unable to decide whether or not the man is dead. His final moments are so peaceful that there is no sign to tell the onlookers the end has come. They speak to one another asking if “The breath goes now” or not.
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.
The second stanza might come as something of a surprise to readers unused to Donne’s complicated use of conceit. Rather than explaining what the first stanza was all about, it adds additional information. The speaker is comparing the peaceful death of a virtuous man to the love he shares with the intended listener. When they separate they do so without the “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” of the shallow. Donne’s speaker sees the way other partners are around one another and knows his relationship is better.
He and his partner would never be so crass as to expose their emotions to the “laity” or common people. It is something they keep to themselves. He states that it would be a “profanation,” or disgrace to their “joy” to expose it. They will “make no noise” and remain on the high ground above those involved in lesser loves.
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.
The third stanza introduces another image of natural disaster, the “Moving of th’ earth” or an earthquake. It is something unexpected and unexplained. Earthquakes also bring along “harms and fears.” These lines have been added to emphasize the absurdity of making a big deal over the speaker’s departure.
The next two lines of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ are a bit more obscure. They refer to the celestial spheres, or concentric circles, in which the moon, stars, and planets moved. Although they are sectioned off, they still shake and vibrate in reaction to other events. Here the speaker is describing their “trepidation,” or shaking. It is a greater shaking than that which an earthquake is able to inflict but it is unseen, innocent. This is another metaphor for how the speaker sees his relationship. It is not the showy earthquake but the much more powerful shaking of the celestial spheres.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
The speaker returns to describing the lesser love of others in the fifth stanza. It is “Dull” and it is “sublunary,” meaning it exists under the moon rather than in the sky. Those who participate in these relationships are driven by their senses. The “soul” of the relationship is based on what one’s senses can determine. Physical presence is of the utmost importance to these loves. They “cannot admit / Absence” because it “doth remove” the entire relationship. Everything shallow lovers have with one another is based on touch and sight.
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.
The fifth stanza of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ provides a contrast to the fourth. He returns to his own relationship and speaks of himself and his wife as “we.” They have a “refined” or well-tuned and highbrow relationship. Their love is so beyond the physical world that they, physical beings, have trouble understanding it. They “know not what it is.”
The next two lines reiterate the fact that the love the speaker and his wife have is spiritual. It is more mental than it is physical. This means they are “Inter-assured of the mind” and do not care for the “eyes, lips, and hands.” When they part these are not the elements they will miss about one another.
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.
The sixth stanza begins with a fairly straightforward and recognizable declaration about marriage. They might have two separate souls but now they act as “one.” It is due to this fact that when they part, they will not “endure” a “breach, but an expansion.” Their love will stretch as gold does when it is beaten thin. It is the same, even when pushed to the limit.
It is also important to take note of the fact that Donne chose to use gold as a representative of their love. He recognizes the elements of his relationship in its durability and beauty.
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.
It is at this point in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ that the image of the compass, as discussed in the introduction, becomes important. First, Donne goes back on his previous statement about their “oneness.” He knows there might be some doubt of their “inter-assured” relationship so he makes this concession. “If they,” meaning himself and his wife, are “two” then they are the two legs of a compass.
Donne speaks of his wife as being the “fixed foot” of the device. She has the steady “soul” that remains grounded and never makes a “show / To move.” His wife only moves if “the other do,” meaning himself.
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.
In the eighth stanza of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, the movement of the fixed foot is further described. Initially, it is in the center of their world, everything revolves around it. Then, if the other leg, the one compared to Donne, decides to “roam” far into the distance, it leans. This is the only movement that his wife makes. When he needs her to she “hearkens” after him then straightens up again, or “grows erect” when he comes home or returns to the fixed point.
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.
The final four lines describe the metaphor in full, just in case any part of the compass analogy was in doubt. The speaker is very much addressing his lines to his wife. He tells her that she will be to him the line that brings him back in. She has a “firmness” that makes his “circle just,” or keeps it within a limited area. No matter what he does or where he roams, she will always get him back to where he began.