A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning - Summary and Analysis

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A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say, no:

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.

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.

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

But we by a love, so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

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

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.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

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.

As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls, to go, Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The breath goes now, and some say, no:
A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

Summary and Analysis


      A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is a personal poem showing the pure love and devotion of the poet John Donne to his beloved. Some persons feel that the poem is addressed to his wife Anne More. The poet is about to leave at the end of 1611 for a short visit to France but this absence of a few weeks may not be taken as an occasion of separation and lamentation. The poet's wife was in a bad state of health. The poet shows the uniqueness of true love and that it can stand separation on account of mutual confidence and affection. This separation may be deemed like death, but as good men are not afraid of death, true lovers are not afraid of separation. This is not a farewell to love, but an exposition of true and devoted love which can stand the shock of temporary separation, because it is not based on sex or physical attraction.

      The critics differ about the quality and type of argument used by Donne to console his partner. Helen Gardner thinks that this is "not an argument to use to a wife who does not need to hide her grief at her husband's absence," and therefore the poem may be regarded as an address of a lover to his lady friend. Coleridge, however, remarked: "It is an admirable poem which none but Donne could have written. Nothing was ever more admirably made than the figure of the compass". Dr. Johnson disliked the image of the compass and observed: "To the comparison of a man that travels and his wife stays at home with a pair of compasses, it may, be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has the better claim". Grierson, however, admired it as the 'tenderest of Donne's love poems'. In spite of the differences of opinion, there is no doubt that the love mentioned in the poem is pure and realistic.


      Stanza 1: Virtuous people who are not afraid of death pass away quietly. They tell their souls to leave in silence. Their friends may be sad at their departure and may want them not to die, even so, the virtuous people gladly and willingly leave the world.

      Stanza 2: So let us part quietly without making any scene. Let us desist from shedding tears or heaving sighs. It would be a disgrace to our holy love if we portray it to the common people (This pure and mystic union cannot be appreciated by the people and hence it should remain hidden from them.)

      Stanza 3: Earthquakes cause great damage. People are mortally afraid of them. They estimate the actual damages caused by it or the threatened damage, if it were to occur. However, the movement of the heavenly bodies (larger and subject to greater convulsions) does not cause any damage or destruction. Similarly, their parting should be peaceful and harmless.

      Stanza 4: The love of lowly worldly people is based on physical attraction. To them love means sex and as such they cannot stand separation or absence. This kind of sexual love is unable to accept separation because the very elements which go into its composition are physical (like beautiful cheeks and lips). Our love being holy and pure can stand physical separation.

      Stanza 5: Our love is so pure and noble that we ourselves do not fully understand its implications. Being independent of physical attraction, it rests on mutual confidence and faithfulness. It does not mind physical separation and consequent absence of eyes, lips and hands.

      Stanza 6: Our souls are one in pure love. If I go away from you, it does not mean separation or break of love. It is rather an extension of love or like the expansion of a piece of gold beaten to thinness for the sake of, production of gold leaf.

      Stanza 7: Supposing our souls are not one but two, even so, they are like the compass. Like the, compass, we have one central point (love) and two sides (bodies) which move in a circle. The fixed foot of the compass may not appear to rotate, when the other foot revolves. However, when one foot moves in a circle, the other foot also moves in a point.

      Stanza 8. However, one foot of the compass may remain fixed in the center. When the other foot revolves, the first foot also leaves and stands erect after completing its rotation. Then the two feet get closed at the central point and stand erect. We are now the two feet of the compass meeting together at the center of love.

      Stanza 9. (The poet now addresses his beloved and bids her goodbye, as he is going to a foreign country). My beloved will be like the fixed foot of the compass, because she is staying at home. He will be like the other foot of the compass which revolves in a circle. Even so, the beloved will incline towards him and her firmness will only strengthen his love. Just as the revolving foot of the compass returns to the central point after completing the circle, in the same way the poet shall return to his beloved. Thus, they will again be united in pure love.

Development of Thought:

      In 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning', the poet addresses his beloved to offer her consolation for his short absence. Just as virtuous men are not afraid of death, in the same way true lovers are not afraid of separation: Separation only tests their loyalty and devotion. Ordinary lovers who are addicted to sex may not be able to stand separation. Therefore, his beloved should neither shed tears nor heave sighs. This absence is a sort of touch-stone to test their mutual love.

      Men are afraid of earthquakes and the damage caused by them. However, the movement of the heavenly bodies, though much greater and more violent, is quiet and harmless. Similarly, ordinary lovers may lament a separation but their love is so holy and pure that in spite of separation, they have no feeling of loneliness. Their love is so chaste and refined that physical absence does not matter to them at all. Their love is not based on physical enjoyment.

Critical Analysis

      The poem consists of nine quatrains and is quite smooth in its rhythm. However, its images and conceits enrich its significance. The comparison of separation to death is obvious. Just as good people face death patiently and quietly, in the same way, true lovers face separation willingly. Ordinary lovers may view separation as an earthquake because their love is based on the physical relationship. True lovers are like the heavenly bodies, the movement of which is greater and violent but causes no injury or harm. Holy love is not affected by movement or change of environment. There is another conceit of the gold beaten to thinness. The quality of the gold remains unaffected though its area and its dimensions increase. In the same way, the quality of love remains constant in spite of the extension of the gambit of love. The best conceit of the stiff twin compasses is extremely appropriate and fits the theme like a glove. The individuality of the lover is maintained while their basic unity is symbolized by the screw which fixes the two sides of the compass. The fixed foot rotates while the moving foot revolves in a circle and then gets rejoined to the fixed foot. While moving foot circumscribes, the fixed foot leaves it, showing the mutuality and interdependence of the two. In this connection A.J. Smith writes:

      "The subject of this poem is a metaphysical problem; that of the union of the lovers even when they are separated. It is in the very respect in which they are separated, that he wishes to show his lovers are united. The souls are one substance, which has the invisibility of air, but also the obvious unity of a lump of gold. It is to stress this last point that the compasses are brought in. For gold, though originally solid enough, falls under suspicion of being likely to vanish away, once it has been compared to air. Compasses do not vanish; they have not the remotest connection either with physical or metaphysical subtlety. Hence, once the needful subtlety has been expanded, they close the poem and symbolize it - not, however, by their oddity."

      The strength of the poem lies in its argument and the use of appropriate conceits and images. Sometimes hyperbole is used to emphasize a point that 'tears' are floods and 'sighs' are tempests. The poet has been able to prove his point that his absence is no cause for mourning for his beloved because their love is pure and constant.

Pure Love:

      The lovers cannot define the nature and essence of their pure love. It is a refined love of the mind and has nothing to do with the joys of sex. Their souls are one. Temporary separation cannot cause a breach of love. Absence extends the domain and expanse of love. Just as gold is beaten to thinness and its purity is in no way affected, in the same way their pure love will expand and in no way lose its essence. The lovers are like a lump of gold and the quality of their love cannot change. The frontiers of their love will extend and their mutual confidence and loyalty will in no way be affected.

A Pair of Compasses:

      Donne employs the conceit of 'twin compasses. Their souls may be two but they are united at a center like the two sides of a compass. The soul of the beloved is like the fixed foot of the compass as she stays at home. The poet's soul is like the other foot of the compass which moves, so to say in a circle. The fixed foot leans towards the moving foot, and afterward, the moving foot rejoins the fixed foot. The rejoining of the encircling foot suggests the return of the poet to his beloved and their union - in spite of their separate identities - is the very consummation and joy of love. The poet proves that in spite of separation, the lovers are united in mutual affection and loyalty. James Reeves writes in this connection: "We are like the two legs of a pair of compasses, you are the fixed one in the center. Further, my soul goes from yours, the more yours leans towards mine; and as mine comes home, so yours revives. Your soul is the center of my being, and keeps mine constant as it circles around you."

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