A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Essay - Critical Essays

John Donne

Essays and Criticism

Spiritual Connection in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," a poem written upon the occasion of Donne parting from his wife for an extended period, is a shining example of the mature, spiritual relationship that Donne had with his wife. Certainly, sexual love was often a theme in Donne's poetry and Donne had had a reputation as being something of a rake before falling in love with his wife, Ann More. In reading this selection it seems that it was because of his love relationship with Ann, that Donne experienced a love that knew no bounds; physical separation could not quell it. While certain scholars believe that Donne's poems do not actually document his personal experience, this work, which was written for a genuine occasion and was never published in his lifetime, might be interpreted as a personal testimony to not only Donne's sadness over his departure but to the depth of his feelings for and faith in his wife.

In the poem's opening lines, Donne likens his faith in his and his wife's connection to that of virtuous mens' confidence in their relationship to God. While others may fear death, the truly pious will journey to the hereafter with quiet resignation and even a bit of optimism. Likening religious devotion and faith to love, especially romantic or sexual love, is a theme that is often seen in other works of the era, particularly in Gianlorenzo Bernini's marble sculpture Ecstasy of St. Theresa, in which St. Theresa is overwhelmed with ecstasy because of her devotion to her lord. Religious faith, then, is more often than not unshakable, and this conceit on Donne's part in comparing the sanctity of his marriage to deep-rooted, religious faith exalts his and Ann's bond to something even beyond the romantic or the sexual; it is exemplary of the true, spiritual bond that existed between them.

Donne asserts that shedding tears over their parting would profane the sanctity of their love. Whereas Donne's poetic predecessors often wrote of the physicality of a lover or the urgency with which one desires to see one's lover (i.e., William Shakespeare's famous line from Romeo and Juliet: "Parting is such sweet sorrow"), Donne insists that public displays would be vulgar and inappropriate in light of the unique tie he and Ann share. Further, he insists the such actions would "tell the laity our love," thus making public their sorrows to the laypeople would be inconsistent with the private nature of their mature association and would fly in the face of its sacred nature.

As Donne continues on, he speaks further of the calm that should surround his taking leave of his beloved, insisting that it should be as unappar-ent as the planets revolving in the skies. This movement of the planets, he points out, is certainly more powerful than something ordinary, such as an earthquake, an image that he likens to an obvious outpouring of emotion. In associating his and his wife's love to a heavenly yet silent act, Donne is once more elevating their relationship to a supraearthly status. The use of such a metaphor casts the relationship in a light that makes it appear that few could truly grasp the gravity of Donne and Ann's entire relationship, as they would not be fully aware of all its machinations. This air of privacy is not dissimilar to the private nature of deep religious devotion. Faith and some of its more important activities, such as confession and prayer, are highly intimate acts; faith itself is also an internal process, and the truly pious are not always obvious about...

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An Overview of Imagery in Donne's Poem

John Donne wrote "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in 1611 as he was preparing for one of his frequent journeys away from his wife, Ann. Donne's deep love for his wife is evident in the poem, which explains that the couple should not be sorrowful when they are apart from each other because their love binds them together, regardless of distance.

Donne and his young wife had been married for ten years at the time the poem was written. She was the niece of Donne's employer; when he eloped with her in 1601, he ruined his career prospects. As a result, Donne had considerable difficulty finding work, and the couple struggled to provide for their ever-growing family. (Ann died in 1617 while giving birth to their twelfth child.) The background to this poem is significant because it gives the reader an understanding of the kind of love Donne and his wife shared; it was a love that kept the marriage strong and vibrant in the face of hardship.

As a Metaphysical poet, Donne expressed love in a particular way. Many of the characteristics typical of Metaphysical poetry are found in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." These include intellectual descriptions of emotions; unusual and often startling comparisons; a preoccupation with love, death, and religion; simple diction; images taken from everyday life; and the formulation of an argument.

Besides being a beautiful love poem, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" endures because it contains classic illustrations of the metaphysical conceit. This term refers to a technique used by metaphysical poets in which commonplace objects or ideas are used to create analogies, offering insight into something important or profound. Modern students are sometimes misled by the word conceit, because in contemporary language it means "arrogance"; but at the time the term was coined, it meant "concept." The metaphysical conceit is especially effective when the reader is almost immediately able to identify with the poet's meaning, despite the unexpected nature of the comparison. Today, discussion of the metaphysical conceit inevitably refers to "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" because of Donne's skilled use of unexpected imagery. In fact, of all the imagery in the poem, only one example does not represent the metaphysical conceit.

The poem addresses the moment when the lovers are preparing to bid each other farewell. Although the separation will be only temporary, it is a potentially emotional scene, and the speaker is explaining why there is no need for tears or sorrow. The speaker's task is a difficult one, and his argument is carried by the poem's unusual imagery. With the very first word of the poem, "as," Donne conveys the importance of simile and analogy in the poem. To some readers, the opening word, "as," is confusing because it can be read as meaning "while," when it actually means "like." The stanza compares the dying of virtuous men to the speaker's upcoming separation from his beloved. This is an odd analogy (and is, therefore, an example of the metaphysical conceit), but Donne's purpose is to explain that the virtuous accept both death and separation calmly and without fear ("As virtuous men pass mildly' away, / And whisper to their souls to go.") To emphasize the quietude of virtuous men's deaths, Donne adds that death comes so imperceptibly that friends cannot tell if the last breath has actually gone ("Whilst some of their sad friends do say / The breath goes now, and some say, No.") This stanza's serene tone contrasts with much of Donne's poetry, which often opens with great drama and passion. A few examples include: "For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love," "Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids," and "Batter my heart, three-personed God." Readers familiar with Donne's work as a whole will make special note that the calm entrance into this poem in itself has meaning, as Donne is setting the tone for his argument as well as for the lovers' parting.

In the second stanza, Donne introduces imagery of molten gold ("So let us melt, and make no noise"), to which he will later return. He then draws on extreme weather conditions as imagery for emotional outpouring. The analogy is not flattering because he is discouraging this behavior; the poet suggests that dramatic "tear-floods" and "sigh-tempests" are profane and unfitting for these lovers. He adds that onlookers ("the laity") are unworthy of witnessing the lovers' expressions of their feelings. Donne's mention of onlookers recalls the first stanza, where the poet comments that the dying men's friends are assessing him. In both images, the persons experiencing the events possess...

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Simile and Metaphysical Wit in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

A valediction is a speech or a poem of farewell, one that often carries with it some sense of foreboding or uncertainty about the events to come. Although the title "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" might seem to suggest a dark, brooding theme, John Donne's poem is actually a love poem, and as such it is a fine example of sixteenth-century Metaphysical wit. The Metaphysical school of poets (whose members included Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell, among others) were formally given this name by the critic and essayist Samuel Johnson (perhaps best known for his Dictionary of the English Language of 1775), who criticized them for introducing metaphysics or a kind of abstract logic into their poetry.


(The entire section is 1355 words.)