Analysis of “A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”
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John Donne was a major English poet and writer, specialized in composing meraphysical poetry. He also wrote about love poetry, religious poems, epigrams, elegies, songs, and sonnets. He was born into a Roman Catholic family. After his diligent study in theology, he ceonverted to Anglicism. This is the reason for most of his poetry to contain spiritual themes.(Wikipedia) In “A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning,” Donne writes about a lover bidding farewell to his lady and at the same time discouraging her from mourning for his departure. This poem could allude to Donne’s wife, Anne More on the occasion of his leaving for a continental trip in 1611.(Bloom 63) The speaker explains to his lover about the special love that they share compared to other lovers; one which is very strong and very distinctive.
Donne shows the reader about the separation of body and soul in the first stanza which says : “As virtuous men pass mildly away/ And whisper to their souls to go.” (Donne 1-2) According to Donne, when a virtuous man dies, he “whispers” to his soul to leave him. This is indicative of the fact that Donne considers the body and soul as two separate entities. As said earlier, Donne was a theologian. Therefore the writer considers definition of a “virtuous” man as one who is holy. This is the reason why a virtuous person is ready to leave his body and die physically but not spiritually because he was a follower of God’s will.
Donne then compares the friends of the deceased in : “Whilst some of their sad friends do say/ The breath goes now, and some say, No.” (Donne 3-4) This also shows the reaction caused by the death of the virtuous man compared to the regular man. When the regular person dies, his friends realize that he has died and is no more. However, to the virtuous man’s friends, the death of the person only means that his physical body has died; but his spirit and loving memory always is alive. Therefore, the virtuous man’s friends would not be tormented with grief. However, this writer considers the main friend to be seen as the virtuous man’s lover who will never grieve to be parted from her lover by death because she knows that his memory and his love which he left behind will always be treasured in her heart. According to one critic, death was the divorce of the body and soul. As long as the person is immortal, he is still married. However, at the time of resurrection, he will return back to his body; just as how he (as a faithful husband) will return back to his lover.( Freccero 77-78)
The persona then addresses his lover directly and gives her instructions to her behavior during his absence on earth. He knows that they will die one day. In this stanza, he tells her how he expects their end to take place when he says: “So let us melt, and make no noise/ No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move.” (Donne 5-6) Brother Joseph explains the melt part as “The sense in which both , the dying man and his lover may be said to melt is restricted to a loss of physical substande, of physical identity.” Here, the critic is trying to point out that when the lovers die, they simply melt. They can be reformed again because the process of melting does not necessary mean complete death and destruction. They will lose their physical identity, but they will eventually combine in spirit. ( Joseph) Donne says that the people who are mourning for him do so quietly. This writer says that too much outward expression of emotions on the part of one lover would just disturb the other, bringing more anguish to an already sad situation.
Donne uses the imagery of weather to show that when the time comes for him to be parted from his love, he too will bear it with the quiet dignity of a dying man – no flood of tears, nor tempests of sighs. At the end of stanza 2, Donne shows his disapproval of the love of the rest of the population. “Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love.” (Donne 7-8) Donne uses the term “the laity” to make a distinction between him and the common people. The poet says that love between he and his lover is sincere and strong. They are considered to be ” Priests of love and to let the common people know will be a kind of profanation: their love constrains silence.” (Brooks 247) Their love is very intimate that it will be a sort of dishonor for her to let the others know about it by her loud grieving. He therefore expects his lover to remain stoic and resist any show of emotion upon his departure. The wails and screams and tears that the “typical” lovers display when they must part is simply an act with no real emotion in it. He is suggesting that there is something particularly holy about his love. This also alludes to the fact that in real life, Donne was a holy person.
Donne looks at ancient astronomy to explain their love. He says that “Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears/ Men reckon what it did, and meant” (Donne 9-10) This is indicative of how common people fear earthquakes which cause disaster. When such disasters happen, men are aware of this and they fear it. This is the same for two people in love, they (according to Donne) are aware and are afraid of such earthly occurrences and fear that death will separate them. But, to the two lovers in the poem, they are aware of the “trepidation of the spheres” and are not afraid of it. The persona says : “But trepidation of the spheres/ Though greater far, is innocent.” (Donne 11-12) The trepidation (meaning disturbances) is indicative of the planets in the solar system and the other heavenly bodies around the earth. (Phillips) The bond of love is so powerful that even such a disturbance is considered innocent and cannot instill any fear of them parting. This is because of their intimate love between them which makes powerful and frightening hazards trivial.(Bloom 64)
The speaker then condemns the love observed by regular lovers. “Dull sublunary lovers’ love/ (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit/ Absence, because it doth remove/ Those things which elemented it.” (Donne 13-16) This comparison to the love of those beneath the moon introduces the thought that the speakers love crosses far beyond the tangible world. The part which says “(Whose soul is sense),” is explained as “The argument that those who fear death are not whole , but instead are only marginally alive.” (Bloom 64)
However , the lovers in the poem experiences their affection as that which is “Inter-assurèd of the mind/ Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.” (Donne 19-20) Here, the speaker is trying to say that his love to the lady is one which intertwines their minds together rather than the love for the flesh. The lover says that “ordinary” lovers love each others only for their physical being but the lovers in the poem are affectionate towards each other in a spiritual manner.( Phillips) The lovers also boast that their love is so much refined that they “Know not what it is.” Here, the romantic hero claims that their love is so spiritual that and refined that it is beyond their understanding. (Duncan 63) This writer observes that the recurrence of “spiritual love” within the poem is a motif and is used by the speaker to project his superior love.
The speaker then compares their love to gold which he uses to show the preciousness and the malleability inherent in their love. According to him their love is “Like gold to airy thinness beat.” (Donne 24) He brings this analogy to prove that their love can be stretched long enough (just as the malleable property of gold) and still never break. He also uses gold to symbolize their love as precious and beautiful. When he says, “Though I must go/ endure not yet A breach, but an expansion,” (Donne 22-23) he means to say that even though he will be separated from her by death, (which is the breach or the break he is talking about) they will always be attached together as one; just as the gold sheet flattened lengthwise.(Bloom 248 )
Their love is described using a metaphor, as a compass which is a mathematical device. The compass has two feet described as “stiff twin compasses.” The “fixed foot” of the centre foot “leans and harkens” after the other that “far doth roam”. This writer believes that the lady is the one who will be fixed in the center and the husband will be the other arm of the compass which will rotate in a circle. In the beginning of the poem itself, the speaker talks about him leaving his lover. Therefore, the speaker will have to be the one to leave his lover (the rotating foot). And the lady will be the one to await his return (the fixed foot). The lover also says “Thy firmness makes my circle just;/ And makes me end where I begun.” (Donne 35-36)
In this metaphor this writer believes that Donne is trying to emphasis that as the two feet of the compass are inseparable, so were they. He is also trying to specify that only if the lady continues to love him truly and faithfully even after his death, he will return to her because of her firmness. This is also an analogy to the compass. Only if the center foot is firm, the rotating foot can draw an error-free circle. (Phillips). And no matter how far he goes or how long he’s gone he will return to her; because the two feet are one. Just as how the draftsman uses the compass to draw a circle, eventually he will have to join both the legs after his construction is over. (Tate 79-80)
Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” turned out to be a masterpiece. The poet uses powerful imagery to show how strong a love existed between the two lovers which (according to this writer) is very rare and could even be absent in this world. In this poem, the speaker was capable in pointing out and proving how the love between he and his lady was and everlasting. He uses symbolism and imagery to support their love and at the same time, reveal the futile love practiced by other lovers. He also assures her that he will return back to her even after his death. Even though they will separate, their love will behave as a strong magnet and bind them together and forever.