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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning : A Critical Appreciation
English Dept. UGM
Final Project of Practical Criticism Class
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning was written in 1611 when John Donne leaves his wife for an expedition (Jacobus and Moynihan, 1974: 220). A ‘valediction’ means a parting, leave-taking, and saying goodbye. The poem consists of nine stanzas, four lines each, in the first person point of view. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is the same, i.e. ABAB.
Generally, the poem is divided into two parts. The first part consists of stanza I to stanza IV and functions as an introduction to the following part. The second one consists of the rest. Here, the poet describes the subject matter of the poem, i.e. focusing on the love between himself and his lover related to his leaving. The following explanations are the analyses of each stanza.
Stanza I: As virtuous men pass mildly away
And whisper to their souls to go
While some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, no
This stanza has a visual imagery of the dying of virtuous men. If virtuous men die, they will die so smoothly and painlessly that their relatives almost did not realize his leaving and wondered whether he has gone or not yet.
Here, the idea of death is associated with peaceful acceptance and mild sadness. From this description, it is likely that the speaker wants to compare his love toward his lover is so true that when he dies or leaves the separation will be less painful. The description is emphasized in the next stanzas.
Stanza II: So let us melt, and make no noise
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move
T’were profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love
With audial imagery, the speaker wants his lover not to cry and forbids her to make a big fuss upon his leaving because the speaker assumes that showing off the depth of their love is a betrayal to the joys they spent together.
From the description, it seems that the speaker wants his lover to be resilient when he leaves. He also wants her not to exaggerate her sorrow because the over-showed expression of sorrow only shows that her love is not deep. Since he forbids his lover not to exaggerate her sorrow, it is very likely that he wants to say that their love is extraordinary.
Stanza III: Moving of th’earth brings harms and fears
Men reckon what it did and meant
But trepidation of the spheres
Though greater far, is innocent
The stanza describes that the moving of earth brings harms and fears to human being. However, the movement of the spheres (of the Ptolemaic universe conception1) is innocent or pure.
It seems safe to assume that the speaker wants to say that the greater their love is, the less pain they show when parting. It is analogized with the earth and the universe. If something happens on earth, people will feel it; but if there are two planets colliding in the universe, people will not feel the great impact of it. And so is love. The greater the love, the deeper it touches people, the lesser pain showed when parting because the love is more complex and perfect.
However, the phrase “trepidation of the spheres” can be related to the Ptolemaic theory of universe. Allen claims:
The Ptolemaic theory envisions the universe as a series of concentric spheres … which move around the earth, and as they rub against each other they produce the music of the spheres, which … represents the perfection of God’s creation. Our problem is that as fallen humans, we have lost our ability to perceive the music of the spheres. Indeed, as a result of the fall of man, everything beneath the sphere of the moon is imperfect. (Allen, “Ptolemaic Universe”)
Thus, it seems that the speaker wants to say that their love is like the celestial beings outside the moon’s sphere-it means that their love is so pure, perfect, and heavenly. Therefore, parting is not a problem for them.
Stanza IV: Dull sublunary lovers love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it
The love of human beings on earth is dull and cannot admit absence because it removes those things which become the elements of the love. The word “sublunary” refers to earth because, according to Ptolemaic Universe, earth is located in the center, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile (Allen, “Ptolemaic Universe”). Related to this, it is generally believed that nothing beneath the moon is pure.
Here, the speaker wants to explain the ordinary love of human being in general. People love only for physical reason, and this love cannot admit separation-if they separate, the factors that bring them together will disappear.
Stanza V: But we by a love, so much refin’d
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss
The love between the speaker and his lover is so much refined until they do not know what it is, and this love does not care about eyes, lips, and hands (physical).
Here, the speaker compares the love between him and his lover to the ordinary love on the previous stanza. In this stanza (stanza V), he wants to convey that their love is pure and above the ordinary love. Their love does not mind physical contact because it is not a big matter in their love. Their love is more to spiritual love that needs no physical closeness to keep it growing.
Stanza VI: 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
The soul of the speaker and his lover are actually one. Although the speaker has to go, it is not a break but an expansion, like gold beaten into airy thinness.
This stanza, especially lines one and two, shows that-actually-the soul of the speaker and his lover are bound to be one, so it cannot be separated. However, such as described in lines three and four, if they are separated, it is not a real separation that can break their love, but it is actually a means to develop and mature their love that is like gold: pure and unbeatable.
Stanza VII: 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 th’ other do
The comparison between compass and the soul of the speaker is the central idea here. If the soul of the speaker and his love are two, they are like compass. His lover is compared as the stiff foot, while he himself is the moving one.
It is likely that the speaker wants to say that his lover is the main support and encouragement for himself, just like the stiff foot of a compass which supports the moving foot.
Stanza VIII: And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it
And grows erect, as that comes home.
It is a description of a compass. Although the stiff foot stands in the center, if the other foot roams further, the stiff foot will lean. This stiff foot will stand again if the moving foot ‘returns’.
This stanza is the continuing part of stanza VII. In this stanza, the speaker wants to emphasize his previous idea that his lover is his supporter who will always welcome him and support him no matter what (as the leaning foot of a compass that supports the other foot when it roams).
Stanza IX: Such will 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.
The stanza describes the meaning of the lover to the speaker. While the speaker is like the other foot that moves, the firmness of his lover makes the speaker’s circle just and perfect and makes him end where he begun.
In this stanza, the speaker says that he compares his lover as the stiff foot while he himself is the moving one. It is clear that the speaker wants to say the real meaning of his lover to him. He wants to say that his lover is his everything; she is the one who makes his love and life perfect; and she is his sanctuary. The “circle” here is the representative of the speaker’s pure and perfect love that is like gold since “circle is a symbol of perfection and gold” (Allen, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”).
After analyzing each stanza, it seems safe to assume that this poem concerns on the meaning of real love and separation-not death (it is likely that death in the first stanza is an analogy of a parting). From stanza I to V, Donne explains a Platonic love. According to Connor, Platonic love means “a love between individuals which transcends sexual desire and attains spiritual heights” (Connor, “Metaphysical Poetry”). It is a love that is above physical love, simple, everlasting, and pure. This idea is proven especially in stanza V in which Donne says “but we by a love so much refin’d that … care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”
Then, since their love is Platonic, separation, the main theme of this poem, is not a problem for them-as stated in stanza VI “though I must go, endure not yet a breach, but an expansion.” It is likely that Donne believes their love is unconditional and unaffected by distance. He does not emphasize that closeness can maintain love because sometimes stay close does not always mean that the heart are also close.
Donne also emphasizes the meaning of his wife in stanza VII to IX. It seems that Donne’s admiration to his wife is so pure. Here, in those stanzas, a description of the position of a woman as a supporter to his husband while they are separated is clearly made by the description of the leaning position of the stiff foot of a compass while the moving foot roaming and its stand position when the other foot comes back. It is like a wife who follows the motion of his husband and then receives him home.
Thus, from those analyses, it is important to emphasize that A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is a poem that gives the description of an unconditional love. It is a love that is so fine that do not care about physical contact and separation. Although the couple was separated, they will be fine and their love will not fade.
Paper based sources
Abrams, M.H. 1976. The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical Tradition. United States of America: Oxford University Press.
Bennet, Joan. 1957. Four Metaphysical Poets. London: Cambridge University Press.
Gardner, Helen. ed. 1961. The Metaphysical Poets. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.
Grierson, Herbert J.C. 1958. Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century. London: Oxford University Press.
Griffith, Kelley, Jr. 1986. Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet. Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.
Holman, Clarence Hugh. 1981. A Handbok to Literature. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Education Publishing.
Jacobus, Lee A. and William T. Moynihan. 1974. Poems in Context. United States of America: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Allen, Rosemary. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Georgetown College Online. Accessed: 10 January 2009. <http://www.spider.georgetowncollege.edu/english/allen/donne4.htm>
Allen, Rosemary. “Ptolemaic Universe”. Georgetown College Online. Accessed: 10 January 2009. <http://www.spider.georgetowncollege.edu/english/allen/ptolemaic.htm>
Connor, Marguerite, Dr. “Metaphysical Poetry.” Fu Jen University Taiwan Online. Accessed: 10 January 2009. <http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/English_Literature/metaphysicals.html>
1 Ptolemaic Universe was the idea of the universe that was current throughout the Middle Ages and into the early renaissance. It was advocated by Aristotle and was refined by Ptolemy. The concept was based on a geocentric model: the belief that the earth was at the center of the universe. The earth was surrounded by a series of nine concentric spheres, each of which was associated with celestial motions (Allen, “The Ptolemaic Universe”).