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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne is a poignant and deeply philosophical poem that explores love and separation with exquisite craftsmanship and intellectual depth. Donne wrote this poem in 1611 when he was leaving for a trip to Europe on diplomatic business and had to leave his wife, Anne, behind in England. The poem concerns what happens when two lovers have to part and explains the spiritual unification that makes this parting unimportant. The speaker argues that separation should not matter to him and his lover because genuine love transcends physical distance. This poem is considered one of Donne’s finest works and is admired for its intricate metaphors, intellectual depth, and exploration of themes such as love, separation, and spiritual connection.

A valediction is a farewell. Donne’s title, however, explicitly prohibits grief about saying goodbye (hence the subtitle of Forbidden Mourning) because the speaker and his lover are linked so strongly by spiritual bonds that their separation has little meaning. Indeed, the speaker characterizes himself and his lover as “Inter-assured of the mind.” Donne created this compound word —which combines the prefix “inter,” meaning mutually and reciprocally, with “assured,” meaning confident, secure, or dependable —to emphasize that the two lovers are linked by a mutual mental certainty about their love. They are so close in this way that separating their bodies doesn’t mean much. The speaker further assures his lover that their souls, as well as their minds, are unified. Physical separation doesn’t “breach” or break this bond. Instead, their souls expand outward to cover the distance between them, as a soft metal is beaten to spread thinly over a larger surface area.

The speaker introduces the most detailed simile in the poem when he compares the soul of himself and his lover to the two legs of a drafting compass to explain how they are still connected even when physically apart. The poem’s addressee is the “fixed foot” of the compass, the point that stays on the paper. The speaker is the moving point, which draws the circle. Although one leg of the compass doesn’t move, the speaker points out that it “leans” as the other leg moves farther, making a wider circle, and “grows erect” when the other leg comes nearer.

The speaker asserts that his lover will play the “fixed foot” to his moving foot. Although the speaker “must” travel away, he will remain correct and faithful on a “just” path. Together, the legs of the compass create a circle, which has an associative resonance with the spheres in stanza 4. In the popular philosophy of the time, circles and spheres represented perfection and harmony. The speaker’s faith in his lover’s “firmness” will make him trace a perfect circle, which ends precisely where it began. This ending also implies a promise of return since the speaker intends to “end where I begun,” returning to his lover after his travels. In the speaker’s summation, true love cannot only withstand any separation, but will always bring lovers back to each other.

Summary

The speaker explains that he is forced to spend time apart from his lover, but before he leaves, he tells her that their farewell should not be the occasion for mourning and sorrow. In the same way that virtuous men die mildly and without complaint, he says, so they should leave without “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests,” for to publicly announce their feelings in such a way would profane their love. The speaker says that when the earth moves, it brings “harms and fears,” but when the spheres experience “trepidation,” though the impact is more significant, it is also innocent. The love of “dull sublunary lovers” cannot survive separation, but it removes that which constitutes the love itself; but the love he shares with his beloved is so refined and “Inter-assured of the mind” that they need not worry about missing “eyes, lips, and hands.”

Though he must go, their souls are still one, and, therefore, they are not enduring a breach; they are experiencing an “expansion” in the same way that gold can be stretched by beating it “to aery thinness,” the soul they share will stretch to take in all the space between them. If their souls are separate, he says, they are like the feet of a compass: His lover’s soul is the fixed foot in the centre, and he is the foot that moves around it. The firmness of the centre foot makes the circle that the outer foot draws perfect: “Thy firmness makes my circle just/ And makes me end where I begun”.

John Donne

Analysis

The poem is structured as a farewell address from the speaker to his departing lover. However, unlike traditional expressions of parting sorrow, Donne’s speaker offers reassurance that their separation should not cause mourning or grief. Instead, he argues that their love transcends physical proximity and is based on a spiritual connection that remains unbroken even in absence.

The central metaphor of the poem revolves around the idea of a compass. The speaker compares himself and his lover to the two legs of a compass, with one leg fixed and grounded while the other roams and explores. Despite the physical distance between them, the connection between the two remains intact, much like the fixed leg of the compass that guides and supports the other leg as it moves.

Donne employs rich imagery and elaborate conceits throughout the poem to convey the depth of his love and the complexity of the relationship. He references celestial bodies, such as the sun and the stars, to emphasize the timeless and eternal nature of their love. The image of the dying virtuous men, who quietly depart from life without causing a stir, further underscores the serene acceptance of separation in the face of enduring love.

The poem’s tone is characterized by intellectualism, wit, and philosophical depth. Donne’s use of complex metaphors and paradoxes reflects his mastery of the metaphysical conceit, a hallmark of his poetic style. Through exploring abstract concepts such as love and soulful connection, Donne transcends the mundane realm and elevates his poetry to a higher plane of thought and emotion.

The Conceit

The most celebrated aspect of the poem is its sophisticated use of a metaphysical conceit, remarkably the comparison of the two lovers to the two legs of a compass. This brilliantly captures the interdependency of their relationship and conveys a sense of unity not diminished by physical distance.

Emotional Intimacy

Despite its intellectual complexity, the poem expresses a deeply personal and comforting message from the poet to his wife. It transcends the physical sphere, highlighting a spiritual bond that is not susceptible to the trials of separation.

Intellectualism and Wit

Donne’s poem engages the intellect with its clever reasoning and portrayal of abstract concepts through tangible images. His argument that more refined love can withstand physical separation contrasts with more common expressions of love that focus solely on physical presence and outward displays of emotion.

Structure and Form

The nine stanzas of this Valediction are pretty simple compared to Donne’s many other poems, which utilize strange metrical patterns overlaid jarringly on regular rhyme schemes. Each four-line stanza is relatively unadorned, with an ABAB rhyme scheme and an iambic tetrameter meter. The form itself embodies the consistency and control that Donne attributes to a mature love.

Imagery and Symbolism

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is laden with images and symbols ranging from the cosmic to the every day, each chosen to elaborate on aspects of a grounded and transcendent relationship.

Philosophical Depth

The poem delves into the philosophical, exploring the nature of the soul and the essence of true love. It offers a stoic perspective in its dismissal of the physical and yet passionate in its affirmation of a love that defies space and time.

Tonal Shifts

The tone shifts from the quiet contemplation of separation to a more assertive assurance of the unique nature of the speaker’s love, thus taking the reader on an emotional journey that culminates in celebrating an unbreakable bond.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is a masterful exploration of love, separation, and spiritual connection. Through its rich imagery, complex metaphors, and profound insights, Donne offers readers a profoundly moving meditation on the enduring power of love to transcend the boundaries of time and space. As a result, the poem continues to resonate with audiences centuries after it was first penned, cementing its status as one of Donne’s most enduring works.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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