illustration of a person standing at the center of a circle and another person at the perimeter walking around, the two of them connected by a compass

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

by John Donne

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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Themes

The main themes in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" are love, death, and reunion.

  • Love: The speaker argues that true love transcends physical distance and can withstand anything.
  • Death: The poem begins with an image of dying men, but the speaker insists that love will triumph over death.
  • Reunion: In the end, the speaker envisions a reunion with his beloved in which they will be joined together in body and soul.

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Themes

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Death
Death, a theme not uncommon to Donne's writing, is a significant theme in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." In the poem's opening stanza, Donne makes mention of "virtuous men pass[ing] mildly away." He uses this notion of death as a metaphor for his impending departure on a journey that will take him away from his wife for an extended period of time.

Love
Known for his love poetry, it is not unusual that love is an integral theme to "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." After likening his departure to death, Donne reminds his wife that an outpouring of sadness and emotion over his leaving would profane their love for one another. He uses the love of "dull sublunary lovers' love," or love that is decidedly ordinary and even immature, to contrast the "refined" love that Donne and his wife share. Their love goes beyond the physical; it is a spiritual love that transcends the material world and the limitations of their own bodies. Donne goes on to say that his love for his wife can only expand over distance, and that it is her love that will hearken his return to her.

Religious Faith
Piety is almost always present in the poetry of Donne, and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is no exception. In likening his departure to the deaths of "virtuous men," he is making reference to the fact that pious men who are secure in their faith do not fear death. Rather, they embrace it, because they know that eternal life awaits them, and they will be welcomed by the arm of their Lord. The "sad friends" that surround these dying men are upset at their loss, but they too are aware that this passing isn't an entirely sad situation, as the men are going to a better place, heaven. Further, the mens' security in their faith is also used as a metaphor for Donne's security in his relationship with his beloved wife.

Science
Science is a theme that is prevalent throughout Donne's valediction, whether it be present in references to mathematical tools, such as a drawing compass, which was invented by Galileo only two years earlier, or to a circle and its infinite, perfect qualities. Science, too, is present as he references the "moving of th' earth," and that such movements, i.e., earthquakes, strike fear into the hearts of men. He also uses science to the spheres, meaning the Ptolemaic spheres in which the celestial bodies moved. Science plays a role, too, as Donne mentions that his love will expand "like gold to airy thinness beat," referencing both a precious metal and its physical properties.

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.

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