The Poem

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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King James I of England
James I ruled England from 1603 to 1625. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland in 1567, and James, born just a year earlier in 1566, was named king in her place. Too young to rule, he didn't formally act as king until 1581. At the time, there was much strife between the Catholics and the Protestants in Scotland, and, in fact, James was kidnapped in 1582 by a group of Protestant nobles and gained his freedom a year later by escaping.

He went on to form an alliance with his cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, and upon her death, he inherited the English throne, thus uniting the crowns of England and Scotland. During his reign, relations with the Roman Catholics in England were strained at best, leading to the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which was a plot on behalf of Roman Catholics to blow up Parliament due to the government's harsh penal laws enacted against Roman Catholics. In spite of efforts to quell the tensions, James wound up escalating the feud between Catholics and Protestants by forming an alliance with France and going to war against Spain, a Catholic nation.

Donne soon became involved in the monarch's life after James I read Donne's prose work of 1610, Pseudo-Martyr, in which Donne stated that Catholics could pledge their allegiance to the king without breaching their religious loyalty. This won Donne the attention and favor of James I, who believed Donne would be a strong addition to his church. Thus he put considerable pressure on Donne to become an Anglican priest. James I even went so far as to seeing that Donne received no further offers of patronage in order to force the financially unstable poet to acquiesce. In 1615, James I got his wish when Donne took holy orders and went on to become a prosperous emissary of the Church of England. James I conferred the dean-ship of Saint Paul's on Donne in 1621. Famous for his King James version of the Bible, James I died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I.

Metaphysical Poetry
Metaphysical poetry was borne in large part out of the works of Donne. Marked by metaphor and conceit—juxtaposing unrelated thoughts in a manner that spurs a reader to consider the poem's thesis—metaphysical poetry is more concerned with analyzing feeling as opposed to its predecessor, Elizabethan poetry, which was much more literal and focused more on the physicality of its subject rather than emotion and thought. Other Metaphysical poets include Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell. Although Metaphysical poetry fell out of favor by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it enjoyed a revival in appreciation in the early part of the twentieth century, in great part due to poets Rupert Brooke and T. S. Eliot, the latter of whom penned a very influential essay in 1921 titled "The Metaphysical Poets."

Baroque
Baroque was the predominant influence in the seventeenth century, during which Donne wrote. Baroque encompasses styles of architecture and art as well as literature. Baroque art is often marked by strong contrasts of light and dark (known as chiaroscuro) as well as an air of realism and religious influences. Although Donne falls within the boundaries of the late Renaissance, which overlap with the dawn of the Baroque era, he is more often viewed as a Baroque poet, because the nature of his poetry differs sharply from that of his immediate predecessors and several contemporaries. Baroque writers as other artists were strongly influenced by recent scientific discoveries, such as Copernicus’s discovery that Earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe. The literature of the times, then, specifically drama and poetry, became less literal and more dramatic, imaginative, and metaphorical as well somewhat rhetorical in nature.

Science and the Age of Discovery
The Renaissance ushered in an age of discovery that was marked by an increase in interest not only in man but also in the world around him. Explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon explored the Americas and ushered in an era of colonization that was to last for hundreds of years. Scientists also made great discoveries in the latter part of the Renaissance, including Copernicus’s monumental discovery that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the universe’s center.

Later, Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) invented the mathematical compass (which figures centrally in Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”) and built a telescope of twenty-times magnification that allowed him to view mountains and craters on the moon. His work marked a turn in scientific method: precise measurement would begin to prevail over popular belief. Galileo’s work was done at almost the same time as that of Johanes Kepler (1571–1630), a German astronomer and natural philosopher, who formulated his now-famous laws about planetary motion. Kepler also created a system of infinitesimals that was the forerunner to calculus. Interestingly, although it cannot be confirmed wholly by scholars and historians, Donne is said to have visited Kepler in 1619 during a trip to the Austrian town of Linz.

Literary Style

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Donne constructs “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in nine four-line stanzas, called quatrains, using a four-beat, iambic tetrameter line. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is an alternating abab, and each stanza is grammatically self-contained. This simple form is uncharacteristic for Donne, who often invented elaborate stanzaic forms and rhyme schemes. Its simplicity, however, permits the reader more readily to follow the speaker’s complicated argument.

The first two stanzas argue that the speaker and his love should separate quietly—as quietly as righteous men go to their deaths—because their love is sacred and should not be profaned by public emotional displays. The next three stanzas consider the holy nature of their love, contrasting it with ordinary lovers who base their relationship solely on sexual attraction. The final four stanzas imaginatively consider the ways in which the lovers’ souls will remain joined even during their physical separation.

Media Adaptations

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

Penguin Audiobooks published the audiocassette John Donne Poems in April 1999.

Vanessa and Corin Redgrave narrate Hod-der/Headline Audiobooks' June 1999 release of the audiocassette John Donne: Poets for Pleasure.

An audiocassette titled John Donne: Selected Poems was release by Blackstone Audio Books in August 1997.

In 1987, Spoken Arts released an audiocassette of Donne's works titled Treasury of John Donne.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Dryden, John, "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire," in Essays of John Dryden, Vol. II, edited by W. P. Ker, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1900, pp. 15-114.

Eliot, T. S., "The Metaphysical Poets," in Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 20, October, 1921, pp. 669-670. Reprinted in Selected Essays, Harcourt Brace, 1950.

Gardner, Helen, Introduction to The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets by John Donne, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1965, pp. xvii-xlxii.

Johnson, Samuel, "Cowley," in Lives of the English Poets, Vol I, 1906, reprint by Oxford University Press, 1955-56, pp. 1-53.

McCoy, Kathleen and Judith A. V. Harlan, "John Donne," in English Literature to 1985, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

Tate, Allen, "The Point of Dying: Donne's 'Virtuous Men,'" in Essays of Four Decades, Swallow Press Inc., 1968, pp. 247-52.

Trilling, Lionel, "John Donne: A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning," in Prefaces to the Experience of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 188-93.

Warnke, Frank J., "John Donne," Twayne 's English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999. Previously published in print by Twayne Publishers.

For Further Reading
Bald, R. C., John Donne: A Life, edited by Wesley Milgate, Oxford University Press, 1970. Considered the definitive biography of Donne's life and time.

Carey, John, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art, Oxford University Press, 1981.
A study of Donne's works that takes into consideration the poet's life and his religious beliefs, with an emphasis on his Catholic roots.

Ferry, Anne, All in War with Time: Love Poetry of Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Marvell, Harvard University Press, 1975.
A study of the love poetry of Donne and several of his contemporaries.

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