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 the depth of...
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This elevated state to which he ascribes his and Ann's bond is contrasted in the next stanza with the love of "dull sublunary lovers," meaning the love of ordinary lovers in most of society. This common love, "whose soul is sense," cannot withstand absence, as physicality is the very thing upon which such precarious, immature love is cemented. By contrast, Donne posits that he and his wife share a "refined" love that is almost indefinable. It is "inter-assured of the mind," which again points to an affection that is much more spiritual in nature rather than being dependent upon proximity of an individual' s beloved. Donne insists that he "care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss." His flesh doesn't burn for his wife; his heart and mind do, and so does his soul.
Donne has found in his wife his soul-mate. He reminds her that their two souls "are one." This proclamation is again indicative of the divine connection the two share. And, again, flying in the face of the constraints of ordinary love that demands closeness and abhors absence, Donne makes another grand statement, urging his wife to "endure not yet / a breach, but an expansion, / like gold to airy thinness beat." This statement calls to mind the adage, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Donne is telling Ann that their love will grow to cover whatever physical distance separates them. The distance will not cause a rift in their love; rather, their devotion will actually increase in area as a result of the division. The reference to gold, a precious metal, also belies his view of their relationship as something precious and rare.
The last three stanzas of the poem contain one of Donne's most famous metaphysical conceits. He likens himself and his wife to the two feet of a mathematical compass. The compass in itself calls to mind sturdiness (because of its composition) as well as accuracy, precision, and certainty. It is also an instrument whose function depends on two parts working in tandem. Confidence and teamwork are clearly the hallmarks of a mature love relationship. Fiery feeling alone will not accomplish anything. A mature relationship requires strength too. Ann, as the "fixed foot," provides strength to Donne who, as the other foot that moves about, must roam far. He points out though, that it is Ann who "leans and hearkens" after him. This supports his claim that their love will expand to fill the space between them. Donne references Ann's "firmness," which belies, again, his confidence in her feelings toward him. It is this firmness, he states, that "makes [his] circle just." Circles are an image not uncommon to Donne's poetry and symbolize not only perfection but infinity. The notion of the infinite, something that is without end, cements the notion of Donne's elevated affection for his wife. The mature tone of this poem is in sharp contrast to some of Donne's other works, written presumably in his younger days. In "Song," for example, Donne writes of the impossibility of finding a woman who is both beautiful and faithful. He likens the task to catching a falling star or impregnating a plant. This cynicism can be taken as evidence of the fact that Donne had not yet experienced love that transformed his soul and his poetry.
Even though Donne wrote of a deep love that transcends physical proximity, he did believe in the physical side of romance. In fact, many of Donne's poems are actually quite suggestive in nature. His poem "The Ecstasy" discusses the commingling of two lovers' souls, leading to the formation of one perfect soul. Despite this, though, the poem ends on a note in which Donne acknowledges that the cerebral is still ideally manifested in the physical.
The sacred nature of Donne's relationship may also be contrasted with the poetry of his contemporary Andrew Marvell. Marvell's famous poem "To His Coy Mistress" is a thinly veiled seduction from a suitor urging his intended that they haven't the time to indulge in forming a deep-rooted bond; he believes they should act on their physical urges rather than form an alliance of the mind and soul. For Donne and Ann, however, physical possession, while the reward of the relationship, is not necessarily a factor integral to the immediate viability of the relationship.
There is a certain degree of irony surrounding "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in that Donne's beloved wife Ann died after giving birth to the couple's twelfth child while Donne was on one of his many business excursions. Legend has it that Donne was dining with friends while an apparition of his wife appeared to him. Shortly thereafter he was notified that she had fallen desperately ill. Certainly, this is evidence of their devotion and the exceptional connection that they shared, even to critics who may claim that his poetry is not a direct reflection of his personal emotional experiences.
Source: Caroline M. Levchuck, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001.