A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning | Analysis

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning by John Donne | Analysis

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning Analysis

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is one of the most admired poems of Donne, particularly famous for its much praised conceit of the compass. It is a tender love lyric, addressed to his wife, Anne More, and, like Song: Sweetest Love and Elegy XVI (On His Mistris’), written on the occasion of the poet’s departure from home for the continent in the year 1611.

His wife was unwilling to let him go. He exhorts his wife not to be sad at the time of his departure. His argument is that their love is spiritual, not physical. Spiritual love is something holy and divine, and far superior to the physical love of ordinary men and women. Physical love breaks by separation, but not spiritual love. Bodies can be separated, but not the souls, which always remain united.

Valediction means ‘farewell.’ Donne’s poetry is characterized by argumentative quality and ‘emotional intellectuality,’ or a fine balance between emotion and intellect. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is a good example of Donne’s method of supporting a proposition by arguments from analogy.

In the first three stanzas the poet states the proposition- the lovers should part quietly and peacefully. This proposition is supported by two similes or analogies–their parting should be as peaceful as the deaths of virtuous men, and as natural as the ‘trepidations’ or movements of the spheres. The poem is also a good illustration of two other distinctive qualities of metaphysical poetry–frequent use of conceit and display of wit.

Like a true Metaphysical poet Donne makes abundant use of conceits and hyperboles in his poetry. A ‘conceit’ is a literary term which means a strained or far-fetched comparison. In this poem the two conceits used are those of gold and compass. They are very ingenious, far-fetched, and fantastic. The argument is their two souls, which are really one, will not break by separation, but expand as gold becomes more ethereal and refined when beaten, and their two souls are really one like the two feet of a compass which appear to be two but are really united at the top.

The theme of the poem is, no doubt, love, in which physical demonstration or passion has no place. The poem begins with the appeal to his wife to part from him gracefully and quietly. There should be no flood of tears nor any tempest of sighs. What the poet asserts is that any such loud proclamation of grief or mourning is nothing less than the profanation of their love that is pure and true

This is Donne’s proposition at the beginning of the poem that is based on the sermon on sublimated, spiritualized love. This opening proposition is, however, supported by two similes. The first one is about the death of a virtuous man quietly and noiselessly without the least awareness of his sad friends and relatives. The second one is about the tremor in the earth and the universe, causing no harm or fear.

This opening proposition is followed by the poet’s argument about the nature of true and pure love. He claims that there is no dull, sublunary love, based on physical relationship. This sort of essentially physical love cannot survive physical separation. But the poet and his wife are no dull, sublunary lovers. Their love is so much refined that they themselves do not know what this actually is. It is a union of the souls that have no decay, no end.

This argument, again, is illustrated by two similes the beaten gold and the compass needles. In the first case, the lovers, actually two, are made one by their spiritual love. No departure constricts their love but rather expand just as the beaten gold spreads rather than breaks. In the second case, the needles of the compass remain ever attached to each other. So are their souls. One is firmly fixed, not seeming to move unless by the force of the other moving needle. The wife is the unmoving needle. As the poet moves a way, she leans and yearns and returns to her natural position, as he returns to her. Her steadfastness, like the unmoving needle, ensures that his circle is true and journey complete.

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All such images and analogies well illustrate Donne’s poetic process which is definitely metaphysical. This is based on logical thoughts and the use of abstract ideas as analogies to arrive at the conclusion. The perfect synthesis between passion and logic gives novelty to his poetry.

What is more? Donne’s conception is enough comprehensive and includes even poetically uncommon materials. In this respect, his astronomical concept, no doubt medieval, may be mentioned. This is found expressed in the third stanza of the poem-

“Moving of th’ earth brings harmes and feares.

Men reckon what it did and meant.

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater farre, is innocent.”

Apart from this, the images used are vivid, clear and poetically novel enough, Thus, for example, the clear-cut, concrete imagery of the geographical drawings of lines are marked in the concluding lines of the poem-

“Thy firmness makes my circle just

And makes me end, where I begunne.”

Again, precise as well as elaborate similes, adding to the poetic grace of the poem, are commendable. Some instances need be mentioned here to confirm the contention

“……………..but an expansion

Like gold to ayery thinnesse beat”

“If they be two, they are two so

As stiffe twin compasses are two……..

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must

Like th’other foot, obliquely runne.”

“As virtuous men passe mildly away…

So let us melt and make no noise.”

Donne’s verse-from in the poem is found to echo its theme. Rhymes are regular all through, with their alternate uses in each stanza. The rhythm, with occasional variations, maintains four stresses in each line. The effect is unassuming and constant, ending, indeed, where it began.

“And though | it in | the cen|ter sit

Yet when | the o|ther får | doth róme,

It leans | and hear | kens a|fter it

And grows | e-rect |as that | comes home.”

The lines are iambic tetrameter with a trochaic variation in the first foot of the second line.

Coleridge, the renowned Romantic poet and critic, is very enthusiastic in his praises of this poem. He says, “An admirable poem which none but Donne could have written. Nothing was ever more admirably made out than the figure of the compass.” There is throughout a continuous argument in the poem, and the argument is inseparable from the poetry.

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning Line by Line Analysis

  1. Virtuous- good, saintly,

Passé- die

mildly- quietly, peacefully

  1. Whisper to their soules to goe- they gently ask their souls to leave their bodies and depart from this world


  1. us- the poet and his beloved wife.

melt- bid good-bye to each other,

  1. teare- floods-floods of tears,

sigh-tempests- storms of sighs,

move- raise.

  1. prophanation-violation of the sanctity of, or
  2. layetie- laymen, common men who do not know the meaning of true spiritual love
  3. Moving of th’ earth- an earthquake,
  4. reckon- calculate

what it did–what damage it caused,

meant- causes of the earthquake,

  1. trepidation- movement, agitation,

spheres- planets, heavenly bodies

  1. innocent- harmless,
  2. Dull sublunary- earthly lovers not realizing higher spiritual love
  3. soule is sense- whose love is merely physical
  4. Absence- Separation, for
  5. elemented it- of which it is composed,
  6. so much refin’d- of pure essence,
  7. Inter-assured of the mind- They are fully assured of living in each other’s minds,
  8. breach- division, break,

expansion- increase,

  1. ayery thinnesse- airy thinness of a leaf

beate- when beaten.

  1. stiffe-strong, firm

twin compasses are two- like two feet of a pair of compasses.

  1. makes no show, etc.- which does not seem to move.
  2. if th’ other doe- moves with the other foot.
  3. it in the centre sit- As the fixed foot of a pair of compasses remains at the centre, so the beloved stays at home.
  4. rome- roam, Wander.
  5. hearkens- runs after (figuratively).
  6. growes erect- gets revived.
  7. obliquely runne- move in a circle, was
  8. firmness- constancy,

my circle just- is the cause of my journey’s success.

  1. end- i.e. return home.

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