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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
By John Donne (1572-1631)
A Study Guide
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Summary, Title Explanation
John and Anne Donne
Type of Work
Publication Year
Metaphor
Paradox
Simile
Alliteration
Theme
Rhyme Scheme and Meter
Text and Its Meaning
Donne's Works: Free Texts
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
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Type of Work

......."A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is a lyric poem. Some scholars further classify it as a metaphysical poem; Donne himself did not use that term. Among the characteristics of a metaphysical poem are the following:

  • Startling comparisons or contrasts of a metaphysical (spiritual, transcendant, abstract) quality to a concrete (physical, tangible, sensible) object. In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne compares the love he shares with his wife to a compass. (See Stanza 7 of the poem).  
  • Mockery of idealized, sentimental romantic poetry, as in Stanza 2 of the poem.
  • Gross exaggeration (hyperbole). 
  • Presentation of a logical argument. Donne argues that he and his wife will remain together spiritually even though they are apart physically. 
  • Expression of personal, private feelings, such as those Donne expresses in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." 
Publication Information

......."A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" was first published in 1633, two years after Donne died, in a poetry collection entitled Songs and Sonnets.

Summary With an Explanation of the Title

.......In 1611, John Donne wrote "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" to his wife, Anne More Donne, to comfort her while he sojourned in France on government business and she remained home in Mitcham, England, about seven miles from London. The title says, in essence, "When we part, we must not mourn." Valediction comes from the Latin verb valedicere, meaning to bid farewell. (Another English word derived from the same Latin verb is valedictorian, referring to a student scholar who delivers a farewell address at a graduation ceremony.) The poem then explains that a maudlin show of emotion would cheapen their love, reduce it to the level of the ordinary and mundane. Their love, after all, is transcendant, heavenly. Other husbands and wives who know only physical, earthly love, weep and sob when they separate for a time, for they dread the loss of physical closeness. But because Donne and his wife have a spiritual as well as physical dimension to their love, they will never really be apart, he says. Their souls will remain united–even though their bodies are separated–until he returns to England. 

John and Anne More Donne

.......John Donne (1572-1631) was one of England's greatest and most innovative poets. He worked for a time as secretary to Sir Thomas Edgerton, the Keeper of the Great Seal of England. When he fell in love with Anne More (1584-1617), the niece of Edgerton's second wife, he knew Edgerton and Ann's father–Sir George More, Chancellor of the Garter–would disapprove of their marriage. Nevertheless, he married her anyway, in 1601, the year she turned 17. As a result, he lost his job and was jailed for a brief time. Life was hard for them over the next decade, but in 1611 Sir Robert Drury befriended him and took Donne on a diplomatic mission with him to France and other countries. Donne's separation from his wife at this time provided him the occasion for writing "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."
.......Anne bore him twelve children–five of whom died very young or at birth–before she died in 1617. 

Figures of Speech

Metaphor

.......Donne relies primarily on extended metaphors to convey his message. First, he compares his separation from his wife to the separation of a man's soul from his body when he dies (first stanza). The body represents physical love; the soul represents spiritual or intellectual love. While Donne and his wife are apart, they cannot express physical love; thus, they are like the body of the dead man. However, Donne says, they remain united spiritually and intellectually because their souls are one. So, Donne continues, he and his wife should let their physical bond "melt" when they part (line 5). 
.......He follows that metaphor with others, saying they should not cry sentimental "tear-floods" or indulge in "sigh-tempests" (line 6) when they say farewell. Such base sentimentality would cheapen their relationship. He also compares himself and his wife to celestial spheres, such as the sun and others stars, for their love is so profound that it exists in a higher plane than the love of  husbands and wives whose relationship centers solely on physical pleasures which, to be enjoyed, require that the man and woman always remain together, physically. 
.......Finally, Donne compares his relationship with his wife to that of the two legs of a drawing compass. Although the legs are separate components of the compass, they are both part of the same object. The legs operate in unison. If the outer leg traces a circle, the inner leg–though its point is fixed at the center–must pivot in the direction of the outer leg. Thus, Donne says, though he and his wife are separated, like the legs of the compass, they remain united because they are part of the same soul.

Paradox

.......In the sixth stanza, Donne begins a paradox, noting that his and his wife's souls are one though they be two; therefore, their souls will always be together even though they are apart. 

Simile

.......Stanza 6 also presents a simile, comparing the expansion of their souls to the expansion of beaten gold. 

Alliteration

.......Donne also uses alliteration extensively. Following are examples:

Whilst some of their sad friends do say (line 3)
Dull sublunary lovers' love (line 13)
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit (line 14)
That our selves know not what it is, (line 18)
Our two souls therefore, which are one (line 21)
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun (lines 35-36)

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Theme

.......Real, complete love unites not only the bodies of a husband and wife but also their souls. Such spiritual love is transcendent, metaphysical, keeping the lovers together intellectually and spiritually even though the circumstances of everyday life may separate their bodies. 

Rhyme Scheme and Meter

End rhyme occurs in the first and third lines of each stanza and in the second and fourth lines. The meter is iambic tetrameter, with eight syllables (four feet) per line. Each foot, or pair of syllables, consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The first two lines of the second stanza demonstrate this metric pattern:

    ....1......  .      ..2...........  ....3.................4
    So LET..|..us MELT..|..and MAKE..|..no NOISE
      ....1............     ..2...........    ....3........  .........4
    No TEAR-..|..floods NOR..|..sigh-TEMP..|..ests MOVE


A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
By John Donne
Text and Stanza Summaries
1
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
    The breath goes now, and some say, No:

Summary, Stanza 1

Good men die peacefully because they lived a life that pleased God. They accept death without complaining, saying it is time for their souls to move on to eternity. Meanwhile, some of their sad friends at the bedside acknowledge death as imminent, and some say, no, he may live awhile longer.



2
So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move, 
'Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love.

Summary, Stanza 2

Well, Anne, because I will be in France and other countries for a time while you remain home in England, we must accept our separation in the same way that virtuous dying men quietly accept the separation of their souls from their bodies. While the physical bond that unites us melts, we must not cry storms of tears. To do so would be to debase our love, making it depend entirely on flesh, as does the love of so many ordinary people (laity) for whom love does not extend beyond physical attraction.



3
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent.

Summary, Stanza 3

Earthquakes (moving of th' earth) frighten people, who wonder at the cause and the meaning of them. However, the movements of the sun and other heavenly bodies (trepidation of the spheres) cause no fear, for such movements are natural and harmless. They bring about the changes of the seasons.



4
Dull sublunary lovers' love
    (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

Summary, Stanza 4

You and I are like the heavenly bodies; our movements–our temporary separations–cause no excitement. On the other hand, those who unite themselves solely through the senses and not also through the soul are not like the heavenly bodies. They inhabit regions that are sublunary (below the moon) and cannot endure movements that separate.



5
But we by a love so much refined
    That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Summary, Stanza 5

By contrast, our love is so refined, so otherworldly, that it can still survive without the closeness of eyes, lips, and hands.



6
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to aery thinness beat.

Summary, Stanza 6

The point is this: Even though our bodies become separated and must live apart for a time in different parts of the world, our souls remain united. In fact, the spiritual bond that unites us actually expands; it is like gold which, when beaten with a hammer, widens and lengthens. 




7
If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do.

Summary, Stanza 7

Anne, you and I are like the pointed legs of a compass (pictured at right in a photograph provided courtesy of Wikipedia), used to draw circles and arcs.



8
And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

Summary, Stanza 9

One pointed leg, yours, remains fixed at the center. But when the other pointed leg, mine, moves in a circle or an arc, your leg also turns even though the point of it remains fixed at the center of my circle. Your position there helps me complete my circle so that I end up where I began.



9
Such wilt thou be to me, who must
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun.

Summary, Stanza 10

Donne continues the metaphor begun in Stanza 7, in which he compares himself and his wife to the legs of a compass. Because the leg of Anne's compass remains firmly set in the center of the circle, she enables the leg of her husband's compass to trace a circle and return to the place from which he embarked.

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