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
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,...
(The entire section is 2,504 words.)