Analysis of John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

When Shakespeare takes a rather conventional attitude of boredom and dejection, Donne, characteristically, seeks a paradox: the stronger and purer the love, the less it ought to be affected by absence. The result is a quintessential metaphysical poem. 

 Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is also about the effect of absence on two lovers. Donne sought to convey abstruse scientific fact in a lyric. It gave men a passion for pure learning, set Jonson to turn himself from a bricklayer into the best equipped scholar of his day, and Fuller and Camden grubbing among English records and gathering for the first time materials of scientific value for English history.

A valediction is a saying goodbye; “forbidding mourning” suggests that the saying goodbye shouldn’t involve manifestations of grief. This is pretty much the theme of Donne’s poem, so it helps if we get the title more or less straight.

Donne begins “As”—implying another simile. In fact, “as” is likely to introduce a more complex simile, and we can peek down to the second stanza and see the “so” that will complete the comparison. The second stanza, then, is likely to give us the reality; the first stanza will give us something to which that reality is being compared. Very different from his direct and dignified manner is the closely packed style of Donne, who, Milton apart, is the greatest English writer of the century, though his obscurity has kept him out of general reading. No poetry in English, not even Browning, is more difficult to understand. The obscurity of Donne and Browning proceed from such similar causes
that they are worth examining together.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their should to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say “No.”

What is this a picture of? Good men dying., Why “virtuous”? Why “mildly”? With Donne, especially, we have to assume that he’s chosen every word for a reason. In this case, what is he emphasizing? How imperceptible the transition is from life to death: the “whisper”; those “sad friends” clustered around the death bed are uncertain whether he’s still breathing or not. A “virtuous” man will not fear death. Notice that if Donne had written “As wicked men pass screamingly away” the effect would be very, very different.

So le us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, no sigh-tempests move;
’Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity of our love.

In the first stanza, then, he’s linked virtue with an imperceptible transition. We now see the other term of the comparison: in the same way, “let us melt”—silently, with no big fuss. “Melt” suggests a wonderfully gradual transition: think of an ice cube melting. When does it stop being an ice cube? If you take an ice cube and hit it with a hammer, the result is much more obvious. The floods and tempests are the standard hyperbole of love poetry (even Shakespeare’s), as if the more you weep and howl the stronger you love. Not so, says Donne, introducing some religious images: we would profane our love (drag it through the dirt, make it less holy) if we revealed it to the laity (ordinary people, as opposed to the clergy). Seventeenth century love poetry was idyllic and idealist ; Donne's is passionate and realistic to the point of cynicism.

So there’s his paradox. He now needs to make his case—using the usual metaphysical arsenal of logic and learning. Notice already that his comparison has a different effect from Shakespeare’s. In Shakespeare, the emphasis is on conveying how the “abundant issue” seemed, or felt, to the grieving lover. Donne tends to use comparisons as analogies, to support an intellectual argument.

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

We think that an earthquake is a big deal: everyone worries and seeks its significance. But a “trepidation of the spheres”—something huge that happens far off in outer space: for us we could imagine substituting a supernova—though intrinsically far greater than a terrestrial earthquake, does not worry us much. There’s the analogy: great big things (our love, and our parting) as “innocent” (harmless, fuss-free); intrinsically smaller things (earthquakes) cause a giant fuss.

Not convinced? (He was evidently addressing this to his very clever wife, before he went off on a business trip for a few weeks.) Let’s try another analogy!

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

Here the first “it” evidently refers to “absence,” the second “it” to the love experienced by those “dull sublunary lovers.” Who are they? The word “dull” does not sound too flattering, and “sublunary” in the old Ptolemaic cosmology refers to everything beneath the sphere of the moon: the only part of the universe subject to change. So those “dull” changeable lovers have a love whose “soul is sense”: that is, it depends on the senses. And such a love “cannot admit absence” (notice that you have to keep going from the second to the third line to make “sense” of this) because absence takes away the only thing the love was based on: physical proximity. Donne burst passionately and rudely, pulling up the gay-coloured tangled weeds that choked thoughts, planting, as one of his followers said, the seeds of fresh invention.

Are you catching on? says Donne. We’re not like that.
But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

So: those dull sublunary lovers have a fit when they have to separate, because being physically together is the only thing their love consists of. “But we” (note the opposition) have a “refined” love based on some weird linkage of minds; thus we don’t depend so much on physical things like eyes, lips and hands. of whose images was well-nigh
unbounded. The passion for intricate and far-sought metaphor which had possessed
JJ Donne was accompanied in his work and even more in that of his followers with a passion for what was elusive and recondite in thought and emotion and with an increasing habit of rudeness and wilful difficultness in language and versification.

Donne’s analogies may be strong enough, now, to serve as logical premises. So he can begin to draw a conclusion:

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.

Note the “therefore,” a word the metaphysical poets like to use to suggest a logical (or pseudo-logical) progression. Here, then, his departure will not produce a “breach” (a breaking) but a spreading out, like gold foil. Gold was simultaneously pure and malleable: pound a blob of gold instead of shattering it will spread and spread and spread, getting thinner and thinner. Notice the paradox in the first line: our two souls, which are one. Well, which are they? For Donne, the paradox is part of the point: in a union of true (pure, gold-like, refined, mental) love two individuals fuse into a new kind of unity.

Yet in some sense they remain tow individuals, so Donne needs another analogy to fit this two-in- oneness. He finds this in the final three stanzas: our tow souls are like a compass, the kind you use in geometry to draw a circle. You’re the fixed foot, marking the center of the circle. I’m the other foot, roaming far, but eventually returning:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

A circle (like gold) was an image of perfection; the two feet of the compass are united; the perfect circle will lead me back to where I began. Thus (as Donne had now elaborately and cleverly demonstrated) you shouldn’t make a big fuss when I leave.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter quatrains (dah DAH dah DAH dah DAH dah DAH) with alternating rhymes (abab). But some of the lines are almost impossible to fit into this form—the first line, for example, which certainly seems to have five beats instead of four. Donne’s own contemporaries found this confusing; according to Ben Jonson, “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserving hanging.” Perhaps too harsh a penalty, but you can see (or hear) the problem. Since Donne’s synactic units (clauses, sentences) often don’t coincide with his metrical units (lines), we sense a constant tension between the two. Notice “endure not yet/A breach,” or “cannot admit/Absence.” In each of these cases we can’t even draw a breath between the verb (in the first line) and the direct object (in the second): extreme examples of enjambment.

Jonson also said that Donne: “for not being understood, would perish.” His poetry has been resurrected in the last century in part because it is ideal for rational, intellectual, academic analysis, in part because some of the qualities that make Donne seem so challenging are qualities that have appealed to many modern poets. According to T.S. Eliot (one of Donne’s great twentieth century champions), after Donne and the metaphysical English poetry suffered a dissociation of sensibility—a rather obscure phrase that seems to mean that thought and feeling separated. The modernists tried to bring the two back together.

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