“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is one of John Donne’s most justly famous poems. Since this work has been analyzed in some detail elsewhere on enotes (see link below), I will try to stress some aspects of the poem that have not received much attention. For instance, it is possible to read this poem as an extended meditation on two kinds of love: genuine, selfless love, rooted in a prior love of God, and mere selfish desire, rooted first and foremost in love of oneself. The first kind of love was known in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as caritas (charity); the second kind of love was known as cupiditas (cupidity). Cupiditas was not really love in the truest sense at all; it was a symptom of pride and would inevitably prove self-defeating. Donne’s “Valediction” can be read as a poem in which the male speaker urges his female beloved to hold strong to caritas, despite the fact that they must physically separate. The speaker praises caritas as the superior kind of love and contrasts it explicitly with cupiditas.
In the opening two stanzas of the poem, for instance, the speaker uses a simile to compare virtuous lovers to virtuous persons who, on their deathbeds, can die quietly because they are at peace with their consciences and with God. The speaker urges his beloved not to give into passions (which were considered the opposite of reason, the God-given trait which we share with God and which is not possessed by animals). At first, the speaker merely suggests that other lovers are like the “laity” (the common people) in a church. He thereby suggests that he and his beloved are more spiritually elevated.
Later, the speaker’s criticism of false lovers becomes more explicit and pronounced. He speaks of “Dull sublunary lovers’ love” (13). Their love is “dull” in several senses of the word: it is foolish, obtuse, sluggish, associated with melancholy, tedious, and insipid (see the Oxford English Dictionary). This is because their love is rooted in sensual attraction. By implication, caritas is just the opposite of “dull.” Cupiditas is also highly mutable, or subject to change. Because it is the result of fleshly desire, it will change whenever its fleshly object changes, either because of physical separation or because of a deterioration in attractiveness. The speaker implies that caritas, by contrast, is unchanging; it is dependable and indeed can last into eternity.
Caritas is so “refined” (17) or spiritually pure that it is almost impossible to define precisely. However, it is important to stress that in the very stanza in which the speaker makes this claim, he also suggests that caritas can (and often does) have a real physical aspect. After all, the speaker does not say that he will not miss physical contact with his beloved. Instead, he says that he will miss such contact “less” than he would if his love were motivated purely by fleshly desire (20).