A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne

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What are the figures of speech of the poem, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"?

What are the figures of speech of the poem, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"?

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Jay Gilbert, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is actually a simile extending across the first two stanzas of this poem, although it may be a little difficult to spot, given that it begins with the opening "As . . . " and then resumes with the "So . . . " that begins the second stanza. Donne describes how "virtuous men pass mildly away," quietly, and then compares this to the situation he hopes will arise between himself and his love. As these men pass away quietly, "so let us melt, and make no noise." He uses the compound nouns "tear-floods" and "sigh-tempests" to allude to a metaphorical flood of tears or tempest of sighs, but begs that these should not arise, lest they be "profanation of our joys" in giving away the depth of the couple's love to "laity." The use of the words "profanation" and "laity" immediately suggests that the love is something holy, above the understanding of the "laity," or ordinary people.

The love between the two, indeed, is "refined," a word which can be applied to gold. Donne confirms that this is the comparison he is making when, later, he compares the space between them when he leaves to "an expansion," "like gold to airy thinness beat." Because their love is pure and "refined," like gold, it can be beaten out to an incredible thinness and stretched over a supposed "breach" without breaking.

Donne says that if two people in love are really two people (elision is used here, an omission of the implied second part of this thought: are two people in love really two people, or are they one?) they are like "stiff twin compasses." An extended metaphor then follows, in which Donne compares his love to "the fixed foot" of the compass, sitting in the middle while the other part of the compass, the arm, "far doth roam." Donne himself represents the moving part of the instrument; his lover "leans and hearkens" after him and then "grows erect," or points towards him, when he finally returns.

The concluding couplet of this poem is very beautiful and concludes the compass metaphor:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Because his love is so steadfast, Donne says, he himself is able to make a perfect circle on his travels and return to the exact point from which he started, because like a compass, his love guides him back perfectly to where he should be.

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There are several--the speaker compares the love he and his wife share to a compass and to gold.  These are examples of metaphorical conceits--extended metaphors or comparisons between two items that at first seem to have absolutely nothing in common.  The compass, an instrument used to draw circles, is used because the speaker is leaving his wife on a trip.  She is the fixed foot who stays at home while he is the part of the compass who leaves--she leans toward him as he is gone, and when his trip is done, the circle is complete, and he returns home--together again with his wife.  The circle also is a figure of speech since the comparison is to the wedding ring and the bond they have--no beginning or ending--only perfect love that completes one another.

The gold reference is to the malleable metal that can be beaten, but never broken.  Gold turns into gold foil...it spreads but never breaks...much like the two of them.  They leave one another, but the bond between them never breaks...just becomes thinner.  He says that he does not need her eyes, hands, or lips nearby to love her still.  Their love is deeper than that--it is emotional, spiritual, and intellectual.  Their bond is more than just the typical physical attraction. 

I love this poem--it is very romantic, though at first it doesn't seem to be.  Read it again, and these things will be so clear to you. 

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