“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” probably written to his wife in 1601 before Donne left on a trip to the Continent, has often been anthologized. It is not only one of Donne’s most popular works but also one of his most representative.
The poem rests, as do most of Donne’s love poems, in the tradition of Renaissance love poetry. There is, for example, the conventional analogy of dying and the parting of lovers; there are references to floods of tears, tempests of sighs, and the spiritualizing quality of love. The poem is not different in kind from other poetry of the period, but it is different in degree. Donne and his lover exceed the traditional model for lovers, for they have so spiritualized their love that to reveal it to common lovers by weeping at parting would profane it much as a mystic discussing his or her ecstatic union with God would cheapen that experience.
Further, the poem reveals Donne’s awareness of and interest in Renaissance topics such as astronomy. For his own purposes in this poem, Donne takes the traditional view and derives his phrase “sublunary lovers” from the older Ptolemaic system, which argued that everything beneath the moon was imperfect and corruptible while all above the moon was perfect and incorruptible. Donne insists that ordinary love, being beneath the moon, is inferior to his love, which has been made perfect beyond the moon.
Typically, Donne pushes his argument to more complex levels of understanding and turns next to the notion of Platonic love, which he also compares with his own. The basic idea of Platonic love is the idea that, in another world, the Real World, there exist perfect ideals or archetypes for all particular things that exist in this, the actual world. Thus, all examples of love in human experience must be compared to the ideal of love in the Real World in order to determine their validity. In this framework, Donne argues that his love is the Platonic archetype. Unlike sublunary, inferior love, which is activated by the senses, Donne’s love is nourished by the soul. Because of the superior love Donne and his lady enjoy, they should not behave as ordinary lovers and weep and sigh at parting.
Bringing to bear yet another argument against acting like inferior lovers, Donne next insists that his soul and the soul of his lover through a mystical union have become one. Thus, they do not experience a breach in parting but an expansion “like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.” Actually, this argument is two-pronged, for it posits the superiority of Donne’s love in that he compares it to gold, the costliest metal, and it offers further support that perfect love does not weep at parting, for it cannot admit absence.
The apex of Donne’s argument is developed in the last four stanzas of the poem as he unfolds his famous compass conceit. The metaphor is relatively simple; its value lies primarily in its success in shocking the reader into new sensibilities. The lady is the fixed foot of the compass; Donne is the moving foot. The firmer the fixed foot (the truer the lady’s love), the more just the circle of the moving foot.
This conceit, typical of Donne’s best, represents an elaboration of a metaphor to the furthest stage intellect can pursue it. It unifies sensation and reason, description of things and feelings. Donne stresses the logic of his argument more than the beauty of his metaphor, and ultimately the reader is likely to be more impressed with the puzzle of the image, with the fact that it really works, than with its delineation of character or passion. Thus, the conceit serves as a fitting climax to a powerful but gentle argument that true lovers secure in the exaltation of their love disdain public shows of affection.