illustration of a person standing at the center of a circle and another person at the perimeter walking around, the two of them connected by a compass

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

by John Donne

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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Summary

"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is a poem by John Donne in which the speaker directly addresses his lover to say farewell and to encourage her not to mourn his absence.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker describes how virtuous men die: fearlessly. He tells his love that she must be this fearless when he leaves her.

  • He argues that, because their love is so great and so unusually holy, they shouldn't reduce themselves to the weeping and melodrama of most romantic farewells.

  • He tells his love that the two of them must remain steadfast and promises to return to her soon.

Summary

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Last Updated March 6, 2024.

Introduction 

Written in 1611 by English poet John Donne, “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” marks Donne's departure from his wife, Anne Donne, for a period of extended travel. The speaker, like Donne himself, must embark on a journey and leave his love behind. In this poetic farewell, Donne beseeches his wife not to mourn their separation, using the poem to allude to their connection: A more permanent spiritual connection that transcends the physical. Though the speaker bids his love not to mourn—to allow “no tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move"—he adds that he will return soon, likening their connection (in a now-iconic metaphor) to a compass toward which they are both drawn: 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; 

They firmness makes my circle just’

And makes me end where I begun.

The poem’s thematic core lies in an extended metaphor demonstrating the permanence and magnetism of a love unaltered by distance or time. It compares quiet, transcendent, and spiritual love to its less fulfilling physical counterpart, which is loud but ultimately hollow.

Summary 

The first stanza opens with the word “as.” The word suggests that the speaker will embark on a comparison as indeed he does. This first stanza describes good men dying quietly and urging their souls to the next realm. These men fade away so silently that their friends cannot agree if they have passed on.

Where the first stanza opens this comparison, the second stanza closes it. Beginning with the word "so," the stanza compares the silent departure of these good, dying men to the equally silent departure of parting lovers. The metaphor equates the separation of the soul from the body to those lovers—like Donne and his wife—who must endure separation from each other.

Neither the dying men nor the lovers make any noise, for they understand the transcendent nature of their love, which conquered time and space. Just as the dead approach their reunion with God, so too do the lovers await their return to each other. For this reason, sadness is needless—neither fate is sorrowful, merely bittersweet. 

Building from stanza two, in which the speaker begs his love not to cry or sigh, the third stanza introduces the claim that while earthquakes draw attention, the massive movements of the planet's rotation earn comparatively little attention. Here, the poet equates their quiet, reserved love to the vastness of the heavens.

Having established their love as superior to the forms of love that are loudly displayed, the speaker uses stanza four to conclude that lovers who cannot part share a relationship anchored entirely in the physical realm.

Stanza five continues this thought, as the speaker compares his love to the paltry physical love of other “dull sublunary lovers” and claims his vision of love is more refined. While neither the speaker nor his muse fully understands the depth of their connection, both feel it extends beyond the physical, linking their minds.

Although the speaker must leave his lover, he expresses in stanza six his belief that their souls are linked. As such, their love will expand like hammered metal to cover the physical distance between them, “…an expansion,/Like gold to airy thinness beat.”

In stanza seven, the speaker explains that if the lovers are not one of soul or mind, then they are, at the very least, separate entities forever linked. Here, as with the metaphor that opens the poem, the speaker introduces the extended metaphor at the heart of the poem.

Again using the word “as,” the speaker compares their love to a drawing compass. The lover (for Donne, his wife) represents the fixed foot of the compass, while the speaker (perhaps Donne himself), who must leave on his journey, represents the foot that swings around her fixed position. While she does not appear to move from center, she continually rotates, drawn to face him wherever he goes.

Continuing the metaphor into stanza eight, the speaker observes that when a compass, anchored by one foot, expands or contracts, the stationary (anchored) foot leans towards the moving leg and straightens for its return. The speaker likens this anchored foot to the waiting woman, bent low by her love's departure and excited by the prospect of his return.

Closing the metaphor in stanza nine, the speaker writes: 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; 

They firmness makes my circle just’

And makes me end where I begun.”

Here, the speaker explains that his love's fixed position at home will give his journey purpose and shape—and, ultimately, bring him full circle, home to her.

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