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...
(The entire section is 1,900 words.)