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 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 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...
(The entire section is 1,355 words.)