A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Analysis

John Donne

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Donne’s nine quatrains of iambic pentameter make up one of the most beautiful love poems in the English language. In the 1675 (fourth) edition of his Life of Donne, Izaak Walton claimed that the author gave these lines to his wife in 1611 just before leaving for France. Whether the details of Walton’s account are true, the title reflects the content of the piece: a farewell. The poem is thus in the tradition of the congé d’amour, a consolation when lovers part.

The poem begins with the image of virtuous men mildly accepting death. The separation of body and soul is so gentle that those friends surrounding the dying cannot tell whether the men are alive or not. So, Donne says, should he and his beloved part, because they do not want to reveal the quality of their love to the uninitiated. Here, then, is the first reason to forbid mourning.

Through a series of elaborate metaphors, Donne offers a second reason. When an earthquake occurs, causing only small cracks in the ground, everyone is disturbed and regards the event as ominous, but when planets move apart, though the distances are great, no harm results. Earthly lovers, Donne continues, cannot accept separation; they fear it as people do earthquakes, because sensory and sensual stimuli make up the entirety of their affection. Donne and his beloved, however, who love spiritually as well as physically, are less troubled by being apart. Their two souls, being one, remain united even when their bodies are apart, just as gold stretches thinly without breaking.

Even if the lovers retain their individual souls, they are divided only like the two parts of a compass used to describe a circle, linked at the top and working in unison. When the compass draws a circle, one point remains stationary in the center but leans toward the other, and by remaining firmly in one place, the fixed point guarantees that its partner will complete its circuit. So the beloved will, by remaining at home, ensure Donne’s return; since he will certainly come back, mourning is inappropriate.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Life of Cowley,” Samuel Johnson labeled the poetry of John Donne and others of his ilk “metaphysical.” In such writing, Johnson observed, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” The images that Donne employs seem removed from the occasion of the lovers’ parting: death, celestial motion, twin compasses. All, however, carry within them the promise of reunion, resurrection, and permanence after change. The virtuous man does not fear death because he knows that at the Last Judgment his body and soul will be rejoined forever in bliss. Though Donne and his beloved are “dead” when divided, they may part confident in having a life together hereafter in this world. The comparison of lover and beloved to body and soul is conventional; Donne extends the idea to make it fresh by incorporating religious implications, a technique he uses often in his poetry. Since both love and religion are mysterious and forms of transcendence, the fusion of the two is justified.

The geological-astronomical imagery that introduces the second argument similarly promises reunion. The separation of sensual lovers is like an earthquake in part because these people are “sublunary”; Donne here draws on the belief that everything beneath the moon is subject to mutability and death. Sublunary lovers fear parting because they can never be certain that they will see each other again. Just as the cleavages caused by earthquakes do not necessarily repair themselves, these terrestrial, hence inferior, lovers may not reunite.

Likening lovers to Earth and other planets is typical of Donne and his fellow Metaphysical poets. Yet the metaphors are not mere poetical trickery. The macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the individual become interchangeable because the metaphors convey the lovers’ feelings. Donne and his beloved are the world to each other.

Donne and his beloved are, like the planets, beyond the realm of change because they are joined spiritually as well as physically. Since their love is not subject to alteration, they need not fear parting. Moreover, medieval cosmology maintained that in 36,000 years the planets and stars would return to their positions at the moment of creation. The completion of this epoch will mark the apocalypse and resurrection. This image thus unites with and extends the previous one anticipating the Last Judgment.

The conceit of the twin compasses, probably the most famous of Donne’s metaphors, similarly builds on the previous one. Just as the planets describe a circuit in 36,000 years, so the compasses make a circle of 360 degrees. It is no accident that the poem has thirty-six lines. The circle is a traditional symbol of eternal love, since it has no beginning and no end (hence the tradition of the wedding ring). The completion of the circle once more promises the lovers’ meeting at journey’s end.

In a curious sexual reversal, Donne likens his beloved to the masculine principle. Hers is the foot that grows erect as his point approaches. Hers is the firmness that, phalluslike, fills his circle and makes it “just”; the word not only implies the completed round and physical reunion but also circles back to the virtuous (just) man at the beginning of the poem, so that the poem, like Donne, ends where it began.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Donne’s poem is a closely reasoned farewell consisting of a premise and a conclusion that inevitably follows. The first five stanzas establish the premise: The love that unites the souls of Donne and his lover is spiritual and not physical in nature. Therefore, the last four stanzas conclude, physical separation, since it does not alter the spiritual oneness of their souls, is no cause for mourning.

Donne supports this argument by two striking comparisons. In the first, their souls do not separate, but undergo “an expansion,/ Like gold to airy thinness beat.” In the second, even if their souls are logically two, they are united like the feet of a drawing compass. His lover’s soul, the “fixed foot,” occupies the center of an imaginary circle. If Donne’s soul, the other foot of the compass, moves outward, his lover’s soul “leans and harkens after it.”

The exploration of this metaphor in minute detail results in a conceit, a comparison elaborated at considerable length. In this celebrated conceit, one of the best known in English poetry, the feet of the drawing compass function as the “objective correlative” (Eliot’s phrase) for the lovers’ souls.

The poem’s structure resembles a logical argument, but the logic supports an essentially irrational texture consisting of lovers’ souls likened to beaten gold and to the feet of a drawing compass. This combination of rational structure and sensuous texture illustrates the characteristic interplay, in Metaphysical poetry, of thought and feeling, ingenuity and emotional intensity.

The ideational lyric of the 20th century, at once controlled and unbridled, cool yet impassioned, is much indebted to this poem and others by Donne.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

King James I of England
James I ruled England from 1603 to 1625. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate the...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Donne constructs “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in nine four-line stanzas, called quatrains, using a four-beat, iambic tetrameter...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Read William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming." What would the speaker of Yeats' poem say about the images that Donne uses?


(The entire section is 86 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

An audiocassette titled The Love Poems of John Donne (narrated by Richard Burton) was released in June 1998 by Caedmon Audio...

(The entire section is 78 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Andre Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," published first in 1650, is a poem of seduction in which a man attempts to persuade a woman to...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Bernstein, Jeremy, "Dr. Donne & Sir Edmund Gosse," in New Criterion, March, 1998, p. 16.


(The entire section is 272 words.)