Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on June 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

The sexual imagery that concludes the poem does not contradict the pervasive spirituality of the piece, but complements it. John Donne has been called the poet of mutual love, and though he may play diverse roles—the cynical lover of “The Indifferent,” the Platonic lover in “The Relic”—he is also the advocate of physical and spiritual love united. “Dull, sublunary lovers” rely totally on the physical, so their love cannot survive absence. Donne and his beloved may “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss,” but they do care. The need for both types of love is evident in the metaphor of the twin compasses. The circular motion of the compasses, like the circular orbits of the planets in Aristotelian physics, symbolizes heavenly love, since all movement above the moon takes this shape. Sublunary motion is linear, and that is the figure the two points of the compass describe when they move together in a plane. Together, the divine circle and animal line create the human spiral. Donne rejects the duality of body and soul: Love for him is not one or the other, but both—a single, indivisible entity.

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Hence, Donne rejects the Petrarchan idealization of the beloved as untouchable and godlike. He employs the imagery of Petrarch in the second stanza when he speaks of “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests,” but in forbidding such forms of mourning the poem distances itself from the philosophy that relies on such metaphors. Donne’s love is human, as is his beloved. The opening lines may imply that she is body and he soul, thereby suggesting that he is purer than she; the second stanza dispels such a reading, linking the lovers in the pronoun “us.” In the third stanza, each is a planet, and later their souls are one. The twin compasses may be understood as portraying that same fusion, one foot being the will, the other reason. As body and soul require each other for life, so will and reason cannot operate independently. The sexual reversal of the last stanza corresponds to the beloved’s assuming the controlling role of reason, which guides the errant will; its fixedness converts the will’s centrifugal force into the circle, a pattern of constancy. Love reconciles opposites and accepts no mastery of one party over the other.

In chapter 12 of La vita nuova (c. 1292; The New Life), Dante writes, speaking as love, “I am as the center of a circle, to which all parts of the circumference stand in equal relation.” This passage may have provided Donne with the idea for his famous conceit of the twin compasses; it certainly expresses the same vision of love’s unifying and godlike power, of love as the still center around which the world revolves and to which all things return to find that rest that they can experience nowhere else.

The image of the dying men that introduces the piece indicates the fusion of Donne and his beloved as body and soul and promises resurrection, but the focus on death is too gloomy for the purpose the author intends. The planets have much to recommend them as a metaphor: Again the imagery promises return, and the orbits of the planets in Donne’s Ptolemaic system describe circles. Yet if the first metaphor falls short because of its rootedness in mortality, the second proves equally unsatisfactory because it divorces itself from humanity. Only with the twin compasses does the poet find that perfect fusion of human and divine, flesh and spirit, line and circle, that constitutes true love. The author has succeeded in his quest for the correct language in which to couch his meaning, and in the process of creating his poem he has moved from death and separation to life and reunion, imitating the experience the verses promise.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

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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