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.