John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” was published after his death in 1633. It has nine quatrains. One quatrain is a stanza that consists of four lines. It is written in iambic pentameter, and is a beautiful love poem. The title appears to reflect the content of the piece: a farewell. The poem is written in traditional conge d’amour, a consolation upon separation of lovers.
It begins with an image of men passing away, dying. The separation of body and soul is gentle that friends surrounding the dying and dead are unable to tell if they are alive or dead. The poem reads that the lovers should depart without noise for fear of revealing the quality of the love to the ignorant. That is the first reason to forbid mourning.
The second reason to forbid mourning was offered in a comparative and contrasting metaphor. When there is an earthquake, small cracks form in the ground; people regard that as ominous, but when planets move apart, though the distance is great, people view that as harmless. The poet uses earthquakes as a metaphor for the separation of lovers. Similar to earthquakes, lovers fear separation because of their composition of sensory and sensual perceptions. However, lovers who are spiritually and physically in love are less troubled by separation. Like the separation of planets, their souls remain one until their bodies are reunited. Another metaphor is given to reinforce that idea: The separation of lovers is similar to gold stretching thin, but not breaking.
The last reason is presented by using a compass as a metaphor to describe the interconnectedness between lovers. Although lovers retain their souls, they are divided into two parts, similar to that of a compass. The compass is linked at the top, and works in unison. When the compass draws a circle, one point remains stationary in the center, at a fixed point, which ensures the other will complete its circuit. Similar to a compass, if one of the lovers remains home, it ensures the return of the other. Since the lover will return home, mourning is inappropriate.
The poet’s forms and devices include images which are seemingly removed from the subject of parting lovers: death, celestial motion and twin compasses. However, each of those themes has the common denominator of reunion, resurrection and permanence. One example of that usage would be the virtuous man who does not fear death because he knows his body and soul will be rejoined in eternity. Although the poet and his beloved are “dead” when parted, they are confident in a life together in eternity. The poet makes a comparison of lover and beloved to body and soul. He extends the idea by 8incorporating religious implications. Since both love and religion are forms of transcendence, the fusion of the two is justified.
In the second argument, imagery is introduced, and it promises reunion. It compares sensual lovers to an earthquake because they are “sublunary’ or earthly. In this circumstance, the poet believes everything beneath the moon is subject to death. Earthly lovers fear parting because they know not if they will see each other again. Similar to the cracks in the earth caused by earthquakes, these inferior terrestrial lovers may not reunite.
An analogy is drawn of lovers to earth and planets. The poet and his lover are similar to planets because they are joined together spiritually and physically. The macrocosm of the universe and microcosm of an individual are interchangeable because it conveys the feelings of lovers. The poet and lover do mean the world to each other.
In this poem, each metaphor builds upon the next. On purpose, this poem has thirty-six lines. It is similar to a compass making a 360 degree circle planets describe a circuit of 36,000 years. Medieval cosmology explains in 36,000 years the planets and stars will return to their original position at the moment of creation. The completion of that circle will mark the apocalypse and resurrection. The circle is a traditional symbol of eternal love, since it has no beginning or end. The completion of the circle promises the lovers will meet again in the end.
Artfully, the poet incorporates sexual role reversal to demonstrate there is no beginning or end, but together the lovers are just one. The foot that grows erect is hers as the point approaches is his. Her firmness fills his circle and makes it “just.” That word implies the completion of the physical reunion, and circles back to the “virtuous” or just man in the beginning of the poem. Thus, the poem ends where it began.
The poem’s themes and meanings conclude with an image of sex which augments the spirituality. “Dull, sublunary lovers” rely on the physical. Thus, there love cannot survive absence? The poet and his lover may “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss,” but they do care. There is a need for both types of love which is evident in the metaphor of twin compasses. The circular motion of the compasses, like the circular orbits of the planets, symbolizes heavenly love. Sublunary or earthly motion is linear. A plane like the two points the compass descries when moved together. Together, the circle creates the human spiral. The poet rejects the duality of body and soul: Love for him is both, an indivisible entity.
The poet’s love is human, like his beloved. The opening lines imply that she is body, and he is soul. The concept of him being purer then she is presented. The second stanza dispels such a reading, and links the lovers in the pronoun “us.” In the third stanza, each is a planet, and later they become one soul. The twin compasses portray fusion: one is will and the other reason. Similar to body and soul as requirements for life, will and reason cannot operate independently. In the last stanza, the image of sexual role reversal corresponds to the lover’s assuming the control of reason, which guides will. The image converts the will of force into the circle, a constant pattern. Love reconciles opposites and accepts no superiority of one person over the other.
This poem expresses the vision of love’s unifying and godlike power. Love is the center upon which the world revolves, and all things return. The image of the dying men introduces the direction of the piece in its effort towards fusing the poet and lover’s body and soul. Next, the planets are used as a metaphor and promises resurrection. The planets in the poet’s Ptolemaic system describe circles. The metaphor of the twin compasses is where the poet finds that perfect fusion of humanity and divinity, flesh and spirit, line and circle that identifies love as true. The poet moves the reader from death and separation to life and reunion.