Discuss the features of metaphysical poetry in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."

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Jane Ames eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Metaphysical" is an adjective that describes something that transcends the physical world. Metaphysical poets often use complex and concrete metaphors to explore complicated metaphysical ideas—such as death, the subject of Donne's poem. 

Readers and critics characterize metaphysical poetry as explorations of complex, highly intellectual thought. The transition and relationship between life and death is certainly complex, perhaps our most complex subject matter as humans. How does Donne resolve the complexity of dealing with death?

For one, Donne offers multiple ways of thinking about death. Perhaps it is a great conjunction, all things living and dying becoming one, as our souls "endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat." Or, if we remain as individual units when we die, our relationship to the living is a parallel one, "such as stiff twin compasses are two." To offer competing descriptions of what death may be like does not undermine any one idea but conveys the many nuances of death, the many possibilities as to what it is and how it relates to life. 

Aside from its intellectual complexity, this poem encapsulates metaphysical poetry in other ways. For instance, metaphysical poets often use wit or humor. While a metaphysical poem may address such lofty subjects as love, life, and death, its authors frequently reach for levity to ground their poems. In Donne's poem, the entire first stanza comically makes light of death itself: 

"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...."
Donne describes death itself as something mundane and breezes through it with no drama or fear. "Men pass," their loved ones are "sad," and they die—it is as quiet and simple as that. It is funny and a bit jarring that the speaker would treat death as such an unimposing everyday matter. Of course, this first stanza of levity sets the stage for the real discussion: what is death like, what is the essential quality of death? Donne offers a couple of possible explanations, but not before jesting about the human tendency to overdramatize death. 
Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One feature in "A Valediction:  Forbidding Mourning" that reflects what we, today, label metaphysical poetry is stretched metaphors or conceits.  Four of the stretched metaphors, with explanations, follow:

  1. Separation of death compared with separation when one lover leaves another (stanzas one & two).  Let we two lovers not cry or sigh, but keep our separation to ourselves.  The idea is that to speak loosely about their feelings is to lose them.
  2. Movement of the earth draws attention to itself, yet movement among the stars, which is movement of far more importance, goes unnoticed (stanzas three-five).  Their love is like the movement of the stars.  It doesn't need to draw attention to itself to be monumental.  They don't need to cry or make a show of their separation.
  3. Their love does not suffer a breach, or break, but experiences an expansion:  like gold that is beaten to airy thinness (stanza six).
  4. Their love is like two legs of a compass.  One leg travels around, but is always connected to and anchored by the other.  Two legs of a compass cannot be fully separated, just as the two lovers can never really be separated. 

The most famous of the conceits is the final one.  The metaphor is stretched in the sense that two things not usually thought to have any thing in common are compared--the legs of a compass are compared to two lovers.  The metaphor is highly artificial and witty, artsy, if you will.  This is one of the marks of metaphysical poetry.

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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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