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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An Overview of Imagery in Donne's Poem

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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 understanding that outsiders do not. The grieving friends do not know that the dying man is unafraid and tranquil about death, nor do they know if he has yet died. The public will not know what the lovers are feeling nor the depths of their love, as they face separation.

In the third stanza, Donne introduces one of the classic images of the metaphysical conceit— the Ptolemaic universe. He begins by extending the weather imagery from the previous stanza: "Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears, / Men reckon what it did and meant." Referring to dramatic thunderstorms and natural disasters, Donne observes that these forces are destructive and terrifying, and they leave people confused about their meaning. The next lines indirectly compare the couple's love to a force greater than natural disasters, and yet harmless, by introducing Ptolemy's astronomical theories. (The comparison is indirect because the poet does not allude to the lovers at all in this stanza.) Donne writes, "But trepidation of the spheres, / Though greater far, is innocent." Ptolemy theorized that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the other celestial bodies orbited it. What his complex mathematical "proof of his theory could not explain, Ptolemy accounted for by describing heavenly trembling that supposedly brought about unexplained phenomena of celestial events, such as equinoxes. Donne's phrase "trepidation of the spheres" is a reference to Ptolemy's "trembling." Donne notes that these mighty tremblings in the universe do not harm anyone, despite their magnitude and force. The indirect parallel is that the inner trembling that the lovers feel at the prospect of being apart is powerful yet causes no real harm. Another element of the Ptolemaic universe is astrology, a belief that the stars foretell the future of individuals and nations. By extension, the speaker may be suggesting that his love is destined, as it is "written in the stars."

Donne uses gold imagery in the sixth stanza, which carries meaning on many levels. This image is the only one in the poem that is not an example of the metaphysical conceit because it is not unexpected. Poets (especially in the Renaissance) had long used gold imagery in their verse. Donne writes, "Our two souls therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat." Being bright, luminous, durable, and valuable, gold is obviously analogous to the type of love the poet describes in this poem. Donne, however, takes the imagery a step further. Describing the malleability of gold, the poet compares gold's ability to change shape and to extend with the lovers' ability to bend to circumstance yet keep each other spiritually close by virtue of their deep bond. Gold's qualities are expressed in two ways: it can be melted and merged, as suggested in line twenty-one, and it can be hammered and elongated. This analogy is well crafted because it works from every angle: both gold and love can be melted and merged; both can be "hammered" and yet remain strong and essentially unchanged.

In the seventh, eighth, and ninth stanzas, Donne develops the compass imagery that has become almost synonymous with the term "metaphysical conceit" in contemporary literary discourse. The image is first presented in the seventh stanza: "If they be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two; / Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if th' other do." Here Donne is referring to a compass used in geometry (not a directional compass) and explains that his beloved is the stationary leg in the center, while he is the outer leg that must travel. This idea is carried into the eighth stanza, where the poet adds, "And though it in the center sit, / Yet when the other far doth roam, / It leans and hearkens after it, / And grows erect, as that comes home." With his depiction of the lovers as two legs of a compass, the poet seems to contradict the earlier claim that their souls have become one ("Our two souls therefore, which are one.") The separate analogies maintain their integrity, however, because the compass is a unit, and its two legs only represent physical separation; they are not structurally separate. The compass' behavior (leaning, straightening) conveys that the two legs are connected.

If the reader pictures a compass being used to draw a circle, Donne's imagery makes perfect sense. The center leg remains still, but leans toward the moving leg, and when the outside leg is brought back in to the center, they both stand up straight again. The poet's lover is the one left behind, like the compass leg in the center, while the speaker is traveling, like the outer leg. The beloved left behind will certainly miss the other, as Donne acknowledges when he notes, "Yet when the other far doth roam, / It leans and hearkens after it." When the travels come to an end, and the lovers are reunited, they both stand tall and remain steadfastly side by side, as the two legs of a closed compass.

In the final stanza, Donne concludes, "Such wilt thou be to me, who must / Like th' other foot, obliquely run; / Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun." Making full use of the compass metaphor, the speaker explains that while he is away, the steadfastness of his distant lover keeps him true. The image of the circle in line thirty-five carries multiple meanings and is particularly appropriate with the compass metaphor. Circles traditionally symbolize infinity, perfection, balance, symmetry, and cycles. This is the reason that rings are important in wedding ceremonies. In addition, the circle with a dot in the center (like the one left by the center leg after a circle has been drawn with a compass) was the alchemist's symbol for gold. Again, Donne establishes unity and integration by tying the various images together throughout the poem. The allusion to the circle signifies that the lovers will be together forever in perfect love. Since compasses create circles, the image of the compass legs separating, drawing a circle (where the beginning meets the end), and then coming back together thoroughly illustrates the lover's journey that "makes me end where I begun."

Through the progression of the poem, the poet has built a complex, yet flowing and beautiful, argument for why the lovers should not be saddened or worried about their upcoming separation. Donne's method is unique and a wonderful tool for understanding the Metaphysical poets. The poem, though intricate, is accessible precisely because of the array of interconnected images presented throughout. Although the images may not at first seem to be related, Donne's poetic genius becomes apparent as the thoughtful reader pieces the images together.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

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