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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Simile and Metaphysical Wit in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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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 term wit originally meant intelligence, but in the hands of the Metaphysical poets, wit came to signify a clever or ingenious use of reason to compare and contrast highly dissimilar things in order to develop a persuasive argument. In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," for example, Donne is speaking to his wife, Anne, before leaving on a long journey, and he attempts to comfort her by drawing an unlikely comparison between their love for each other and the way that virtuous men behave at the moment of death.

The first stanza describes a deathbed scene, but it is important to notice that the opening word "as" establishes a conditional statement that is dependent upon the second stanza to complete its meaning. The first two stanzas should be read as a single sentence. "As" is a clue that this poem is really not about the way that "virtuos men passe mildly away," but is concerned with using this image as simile for something else. A simile is a type of metaphor in which a writer makes the reader look at something differently by comparing it to something else. In this opening stanza, Donne describes how virtuous men, who have led good and honest lives on earth, do not put up a struggle on their deathbeds. In fact, a virtuous man allows his soul to depart so quietly that the friends gathered around the bed disagree over whether the man has actually died. A man of virtue has no reason to fear death or the departure of his soul, because he can be certain of his soul's reward in the afterlife. Donne uses this scene of spiritual confidence and composure as an example of how he wants his wife to behave when he leaves for his journey.

Donne urges his wife to remain silent about their love, especially at this particular moment of his departure. "Melt" is a popular image for physical love, and the speaker elevates this love to a spiritual level by suggesting that speaking about this love and their "joyes" would profane it. The final line further elevates their love to a religious experience and refers to those who do not know of their love as the "layetie," in other words, the people who are unordained in the sacrament of their love. It is important to remember that marriage also functions as a type of sacrament, and therefore only a husband and wife can truly know and understand the love that they themselves feel for each other. Donne argues that any attempt to display this love to the "layetie" through "tears" or "sighs" would be an insult to the sacrament itself.

Once he has elevated his physical love to a spiritual level, Donne uses the third and forth stanza to compare this love to those mundane love affairs that are only physical and therefore at the mercy of earthly change. His logical...

(This entire section contains 1355 words.)

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argument is that only "dull" lovers mourn the physical absence of each other, because their love is sublunary (literally beneath the moon or earth-bound). "Elemented" refers to physical objects that are composed of any or all of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). As a result, lovers who cannot "admit" (or tolerate) the physical absence or departure, cannot do so precisely because physical proximity is all that their love was based on in the first place. Such an earthly love is made only of physical elements and when any of these elements are absent, that love is in danger. But Donne argues that his love is not dependent on such elements. His own love is of a far superior kind, a spiritual love, and there is no reason for his wife to be upset over his physical departure.

In the sixth stanza, Donne clarifies this argument, stating that "our two soules … are one" and he expands his argument in this stanza by introducing the first of two new similes to describe how his leaving is actually a good thing. Using the kind of logic for which the metaphysical poets are famous, Donne argues that if their souls are one, then his leaving does not signify a "breach" or division, but rather an expansion or a stretching. The simile that he uses here is that of a piece of gold that has been hammered into a thin sheet in order to be used to decorate a much larger surface area than it ever could have as a solid lump.

In addition to comparing their love to a thin sheet of gold that becomes more beautiful and brilliant as its ends are spread farther apart, Donne also develops a more complicated comparison in the final three stanzas, and this simile is one of his most well-known. He offers his wife an alternative to thinking about their souls as one and the same. Basically, in stanza seven he is telling her that if she wants to think about their souls as two separate entities, then here is how she should consider them. "If they be two," he says, then his soul and his wife's soul are like the two legs of a compass, permanently fixed by a pivot at one end. (The kind of compass to which Donne is referring here is the two-legged device used for drawing circles and, appropriately for this poem, for measuring distances on a map.) Though the bottom of the legs can move far apart, they cannot be separated at the top.

Just as a compass has a fixed point, one leg that rotates on the same spot, so does Donne's soul have a fixed point: his wife. When Donne travels (when his soul "far doth rome") his wife remains fixed in place, but like the center leg of a compass, she "leans" in the direction of his travels and "hearkens" after him. In other words, her thoughts, affections, and, perhaps, letters are directed toward him wherever he might be, and it is this that defines his course and draws him back to her. And just like the two legs of a compass, when he returns home they stand together, straight and upright.

In the final stanza, the concluding image that Donne offers to his wife is one of reassurance. He underscores and clarifies the simile of the compass by saying outright: "such wilt thou be to me." No matter how far he roams, the path of his travels will always lead him back to where he started, just as a compass, anchored by the center foot, completes the circle it is drawing by returning to the point where it began.

It is important to recognize that Donne employs his metaphysical wit to develop not just one but a series of arguments to console his wife on the eve of his departure. He tries to convince her first that spiritual love cannot be affected by physical distance. Then he tries to show her that since their souls are one, distance will only increase their love and make it more beautiful, like gold that is hammered and spread out into a thin sheet. And finally, if these first two arguments are unsatisfying, Donne argues that he and his wife, though separate, function like the legs of a compass. In each case, the similes Donne uses force the reader to see the logic behind comparisons that may at first seem unlikely or far-fetched.

Source: John Pipkin, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001.


An Overview of Imagery in Donne's Poem