A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning | Summary, Theme, Line by Line Analysis

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning | Summary, Theme, Line by Line Analysis

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is supposed to have been addressed to his wife Ann. In his biographical work-Life of John Donne-Izacer Watton holds the view that the poem was given to his wife (Ann) before his departure to travel France, Germany and Belgium, in the company of Sir Robert Drury in 1611. It was included in his volume of poetry Songs and Sonnets.

Summary of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Stanza 1:

Virtuous men silently pass away and whisper to their souls to go. But some of their sad friends say that life-breath goes now, while some others do not agree.

Stanza 2:

The poet, therefore, wises to melt with his beloved without making any noise. No flood of tears or no tempest of sighs should move them. It is nothing but the corruption of their joy to tell lay, vulgar people of their love.

Stanza 1 and Stanza 2 Analysis

As good men pass away so quietly and peacefully that even their friends remain uncertain of the moment of their death. While some of them admit this, others deny. Similarly the poet and his wife (Ann) should part without any noise, without any flood of tears or tempest of sighs, for it would be profane to them to proclaim loudly their love. (Stanzas 1-2)

Stanza 3:

The movement of the earth briugs (to the lovers) harms and fears, Men might reckon what that did and meant, but the equinoxe or movement of the spheres, though far greater, is innocent.

Stanza 3 Analysis

The earthquake causes harms and fears to the men who consider the impact and significance of the same, but the turbulation in the spheres, though much greater in force, is neither damaging nor fearful to them. (Stanzas 3)

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Stanza 4:

Dull, sublunary, love of the lovers whose soul is sense cannot admit absence because this removes the elements which constitute their love.

Stanza 5:

But the poet and his ladylove, by their love, are so much refined that they do not know what this (love) is. They are inter-assured of their mind and careless of missing their (faculties of) eyes, lips and hands.

Stanza 4 and Stanza 5 Analysis

The dull, vulgar lovers, whose love is sensual, cannot bear any absence or parting, for this takes away from them, the very elements which seem to them the basis of their love. But so far as the poet and his wife are concerned, their love is so pure that they do not know what this is. Their minds are so mutually ensured that they least bother about their physical separations. (Stanzas 4-5)

Stanza 6:

Their true souls, therefore, are one. They endure not any breach, though the poet must go. This (separation) is rather an expansion like a beaten gold, spread to an airy thinness.

Stanza 7:

If their souls be two, these are just like the two stiffen needles of the compass. The lady-love’s soul has the fixed foot and makes no show to move, but it does, if the other (the poet’s) soul moves.

Stanza 6 and Stanza 7 Analysis

Their souls, no doubt two, are one actually. As such, when the poet departs, there is no breach or separation between their souls. On the other hand, they expand like gold, beaten to airy thinness. In fact, they are two just as the two needles of a compass. The wife’s soul is firmly fixed, and does not move, unless his soul does in the manner of the needles of a compass. (Stanzas 6-7)

Stanza 8:

Though it (the lady’s soul) sits in the centre, when the other (the poet’s) soul roams far, it leans and harkens after it and grows erect as that (the poet’s soul) comes home.

Stanza 9:

Thou (the lady love) will be such to the poet, who must like the other foot incline and obliquely run. Her firmness makes his circle just and makes him to end where he began.

Stanza 8 and Stanza 9 Analysis

Though this (i.e., his wife) remains fixed in the centre, when the other (the poet himself) moves, she leans and yearns for him. She returns to her natural position, as he returns to her.

This is how she will be to him, like the steady needle of the compass. Her very steadfastness ensures that his circle is true and his end will be what is the very point of his beginning. (Stanzas 8-9)

Theme of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

In his well-known lyric, A Valediction: forbidding mourning. Donne gives out his view of true love. The poem, addressed to his wife Ann, just before his departure for France. Belgium and Germany, contains his advice to her to refrain from mourning for their ensuing separation. In this connection, he emphasizes the nature of their love that is perfect, far above any vulgar sentimentality.

According to Donne, dull, vulgar lovers’ love is sensual and physical, and as such, such lovers cannot bear any separation. After all, they cannot think of love except from their physical existence, and bodily parting is unbearable to them.

The poet, however, asserts that true love is so pure and sublime that the lovers least bother about its physical constituents. Their minds are mutually secure, and they are, therefore, least concerned with any physical parting. The poet is quite positive in his claim that their love is of this sort, and that any bewailing or lamentation for their separation is profane to it.

In fact, in true, pure love, there is no parting, no separation between the lovers, even when one goes far away. This love exists not in any bodily relation but in the mutual trust of their souls. The lovers here are just like the needles of a compass, never to run far away individually. One remains firmly fixed, and moves, unless by the force of the other moving needle. So the poet’s wife is to him, who is just like the moving needle of the compass. As, like a needle he inclines away from her, she leans and longs for him and returns to her natural position, as he returns to her. When love is steadfast, it is immaterial whether the lovers are away or intimate. Their spirits ever live together, like the legs of the compass, though their bodies part.

Significance of the Title A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Donne’s lyric A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning has a quite interesting yet appropriate title. The term ‘valediction’ has an academic sense and is actually used in connection with the farewell oration, delivered by an academician on a senior scholar on young graduates. Donne, however, has used this in a much concise sense ‘biding farewell’. In fact, the poem was addressed and written to his wife Ann before leaving her to travel in France, Belgium and Germany in 1611. Of course, this is not merely to ‘bid a farewell’, but rather advising and explaining to her the nature of their love.

In fact, the poem is an advice by the poet to his wife to refrain from mourning for their parting. He forbids her here to mourn, because he is going elsewhere. Of course, he gives his own argument in support of his contention. In this connection, he dwells on the quality of pure, true love that permits no dull sublunary lovers’ loud bewailing because of their separation.

The true lovers, whose love reposes on their souls, ‘make no noise”, raise no flood of tears and give out no tempest of sighs. Their love is so much refined that it has attained a high level, at which it seems to have become a mystery of which they themselves are unable to account for. In this love, sublimated and spiritualized, it is profanation to mourn and weep like the lay persons whose love is essentially physical and ceases after their physical separation.

The poet forbids his wife, in an unequivocal term, to mourn for their temporary parting. He reminds her that their love is mutually confident and above any breach or break. This is like the two legs of a compass, ever close to each other and fixed in this position and circle.

As the poem contains the poet’s valediction to his wife, forbidding mourning for their physical separation during his absence, the title of the poem seems apt, befitting.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Line by Line Analysis

Stanza 1-2

The poet is to part from his wife, who is unwilling to let him go and so he argues with her.

As Virtuous men……etc. The poet asserts that their parting should be quiet, noiseless. like a virtuous man’s death: that comes without the least awareness of the dead man’s friends and relations. The poet describes the situation, when such a virtuous man passes away. Passe mildly away-virtuous men pass away silently without making any ado or noise. Whispers their soules to go-softly directs that the time has come for the soul to leave the body. While some……..no-there remains a dispute among people about the time of death. Some say that life has just passed away, while some others object and dispute.

So let us-the poet brings in his analogy. Let the poet and his wife part quietly in the same way. Make noise…….move-they are to make no noise, shed no tears profusely, or breathe no high sighs. Teareflood– flood of tears; tears flown profusely. Sigh-tempests-tempests of sighs, high sighs.

N.B. These are conventional expressions of grief and despondency.

I’were prophanation-it would be prophane on their part. To tell the………..love- to publish their love to lay people.

N.B. The poet contends why they should not lose themselves in grief and despondency. To publish their sorrow to some vulgar persons would be an act of prophanation for their true, deep love.

To Donne, the floods of tears and the tempests of sighs would merely expose what might be offensive, profane in their true love.

Stanza 3

Moving of the earth-the reference is to the occasional movement of the earth such as earthquakes. Brings harmes and feares-such a movement of the earth, as the earthquake, alarmed and made men afraid of the harmful consequences of the same. But…….is innocent-but the continual quivering that runs through the whole universe that is far greater in dimension, neither harms nor causes any fear.

N.B. Actually the poet resorts to a contrast between the obviously occasional movements of the earth, such as the earthquake, and the tremor in the heavenly spheres, no doubt of a much greater effect, but not deemed as dangerous and fearful. Of course, the deep feelings of the lovers are likened to the second and mightiest quake in the whole spheres.

Stanzas 4-5

Dull sublunary lovers love– dull, vulgar lovers’ love. Whose…….sense- the essence of whose love is physical attachment only Cannot admit absence-are unable to bear any physical separation. I doth……elemented it-it removes that of which this love is composed.

N.B. After all, the essentially physical love cannot survive any physical separation. We by a love so much refin’d-this is a favourite theory in Donne’s love poetry. This love has reached that very high level at which this appears even a mystery to them and they are unable to account for the same.

Inter-assured of the mind-they are mutually confident of their love for each other. Carelesse eyes………etc. They are least concerned or anxious about their physical parts. That is to say. they bother least about the physical element in their love.

N.B. Donne here dismisses physical love, as he extols spiritual love or the love of souls.

Stanza 6

Our two…….one-again, Donne’s favourite theory-unity in diversity in true love. The lovers are physically two, but their two souls, in their mutual trust and love, have become one. Cf. The Good Morrow

“If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.”

Though I must goe-the poet must have to go. Endure……..breach– nonetheless they are not to suffer from any break or breach. Their physical separation will not slacken their love. But an……. beate-on the other hand, there will be the expansion of their love to fineness, just as gold piece is beaten out to expand to thinness. N. B. The simile here is well conceived.

Stanzas 7-10

If they be……..are two-this is another highly stylistic simile from Donne. The poet and his wife are two, just as the needles of a compass are so. What the poet implies is that though needles are two, they belong to the same element, and are actually one in the form. The lovers, too, are physically two, but their souls, in mutual trust and love, are but one.

Thy soul the fixt foot-one foot of the needle stands fixed, just as the poet’s wife’s soul is. N. B. There is an implied comparison here. Makes no…. to move-this does not normally move.

But……..other does– this needle, however, moves, when the other begins to do so.

N.B. Through the operation of a compass, the poet contends the oneness of their love. One foot of the compass is fixed, but as the other foot leans and moves, it also begins to move. The souls of the lovers are the same. The wife is firmly fixed not seeming to move, unless by the force of the other moving needle, which is the poet’s soul.

And though………..sit-like the foot of a compass, she remains stead- fast in the centre. Yet when……….rome-but when the other needle begins to move. It leans…..after it-the first needle begins to lean and follow. Grows erect…..home-this returns to the natural position, as the other returns back.

N.B. The comparison, though compact, is clear enough.

The two legs of the compass are likened to the poet’s wife and he himself. She is, like one leg, is fixed, and does not move, unless the other, the poet, roams, and then she returns to her natural position, only when he returns to his original station. What Donne emphasizes, that the lovers are never detached, but remain ever together.

Such wilt………mee-this will be their relation. Like the unmoving needle of the compass, his wife is to the poet. Like the other……rome– she moves like the needle of the compass that leans and moves after the other one.

Thy firmness…..just– the wife’s steadfastness ensures that the poet’s circle is just and true. And makes…. begunne-and he completes his journey and comes back wherefrom he started.

N.B. The poet’s point of assertion is that the fidelity of their love retains their perfect relationship and never makes one aloof from the other.

Explanation 1

“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.”

(Stanza 2)

This stanza forms an entreaty of the poet (Donne) to his wife, Ann, in the poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. He has already desired that his parting from his wife must be in quietude and peace. The poet now gives out why this sort of parting is necessary.

The poet pleads with his wife. He asserts that they must part as softly and silently as a virtuous man passes away. They must not indulge in shedding tears as profusive as the flood water, or in sighing violently. He reminds her of the grave wrong of making such a loud demonstration of their love in their parting from each other. After all, they thereby make their true love a matter of trifling talk and entertainment of ordinary vulgar people.

The lines serve to bring out Donne’s view about true love. This love is above the understanding of lay, vulgar people. He also feels that to expose the depth of their true love to such people is thoroughly prophane.

Explanation 2

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

(Stanza 4)

In this stanza, extracted from his love-lyric- A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, John Donne reflects on the love, that is based on physical relationship.

The poet has advised his wife to take his parting from her quietly and gracefully. After all, they are not the conventional, dull lovers to care only for their physical contact. Such lovers’ love is based on their physical senses. So they cannot tolerate any physical parting. This is because their love is purely physical, and ceases to exist, when their bodies part. Their love is composed of physical senses, and perishes as soon as their bodies part.

Donne is here idealistic in his argument. Physical love exists in the physical passion. This passes away as soon as the very physical, bodies are separated.

Explanation 3

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

(Stanza 6)

In this stanza, taken from his poem, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Donne affirms how true love is not depressed but expanded with the parting of the lovers.

Donne assures his wife Ann here of the extension of their love as they have to part under some pressing situation. The poet and his wife have, no doubt, two souls, but their true love brings them closer and makes them one. The poet is to depart definitely, but that does not, in any way, indicate the extinction of their love. In fact, their physical separation draws them closer and expands their love to finer points. The poet, in this connection, introduces an analogy in support of his view point. A piece of gold, when beaten, spreads and expands, rather that breaks down. So is the case with their love that lightens and straightens, as one goes away from the other.

The stanza is a positive assertion on the part of the poet of the strength of their love, true and pure, that does not break down in any physical separation.

Explanation 4

“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 the other do.”

(Stanza 7)

In this stanza of his lyric A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Donne reflects on the oneness of the love of his wife and himself, despite their separate bodily existence. The genuine unity of their souls, residing in their two bodies, is here explained by means of his celebrated compass imagery.

The compass imagery celebrates Donne’s favourite concept of unity in diversity in love. He admits that their souls are thought of as two, just as the compass is taken to have two feet. One foot remains fixed, while the other moves. But this leans, and is made to move with the movement of the other. This is the operation of the compass. Donne has recourse to this to testify to the oneness of their love, heedlessly of their physical diversity. The wife’s soul is the fixed foot, and makes no effort to move, unless the other foot, the poet himself, does. So the two remain together and become one in two, just as the two feet of the compass comprise a single operation.

The expression bears out Donne’s idealistic approach to love. That love is one though the lovers are two. This is shown very aptly through this commendable compass imagery.

Explanation 5

“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.”

(Stanza 9)

Thereafter, she remains in the centre-the centre of their home and love, but he goes out. But she leans and yearns, as he is out and moves. As the poet completes his journey and comes back, she resumes her erect position, and thus restores the original state like the feet of the compass. The compass imagery is exploited well to show the relationship of true lovers. When one is away, the other is steadfast at the very centre that enables the former to draw a complete circle and return to the starting point.

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