Returning to our chronology of English poetry...
(Poem #330) 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 our selves know not what it is, Inter-assur'd 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.
1633. Although as a rule I try to avoid dissecting poems on the Minstrels, today I'll make an exception: I find it a fascinating exercise to analyse the construction of this wonderful poem. 'Valediction' begins quietly, at the deathbed of a 'virtuous man'. The scene reminds Donne of the familiar Petrarchan conceit of a parting between lovers being like death; he hopes that when the time comes for him to be parted from his love, he too will bear it with the quiet dignity of the dying man - no floods of tears, no tempests of sighs. The imagery of the weather leads into the motion of the Earth and and the 'trepidation of the spheres'; the scientific and astrological element grows until we reach the central word of the poem, 'refined'. But we by a love so much refined That our selves know not what it is, Inter-assur'd of the mind, Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. (It's stanzas like this which account for Donne's place as possibly the greatest love poet in the English language). 'Refined' suggests to Donne the practice of alchemy (a favourite poetic subject of his, and the source of much of his finest imagery), which in turn leads to the picture of beaten gold; when a ring is heated, there is no breach, only an expansion (this ties in with the dignity with which the lovers part). The ideas of 'breach' and 'gold' then combine to form the most famous metaphor in all of poetry, that of the compasses. Note that the 'Valediction' is not so much an exploration of feeling as an enactment of it; the range of Donne's poetic reference is incredibly wide, yet the images merge and fuse into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Again, although the construction of the poem _seems_ logical, in truth it is not; Donne merely uses the idea of logic, of logical sequentiae, to tie together the complexities of his emotion. The poem as a whole is a torrent of ideas and associations, dazzlingly complex, densely intellectual; at the same time, it remains, fundamentally, a love poem, and a deeply touching one at that. thomas. Brittanica has this to say on the Metaphysical Poets: - Any of the poets in 17th-century England who inclined to the personal and intellectual complexity and concentration that is displayed in the poetry of John Donne, the chief of the Metaphysicals. Others include George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, John Cleveland, and Abraham Cowley. Their work is a blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity, characterized by conceit or "wit" -- that is, by the sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things so that the reader is startled out of his complacency and forced to think through the argument of the poem. Metaphysical poetry is less concerned with expressing feeling than with analyzing it, with the poet exploring the recesses of his consciousness. The boldness of the literary devices used -- especially obliquity, irony, and paradox -- are always reinforced by a dramatic directness of language, whose rhythm is derived from that of living speech. Esteem for Metaphysical poetry never stood higher than in the 1930s and '40s, largely because of T.S. Eliot's influential essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921). In this essay Eliot pointed out that the works of these men embody a fusion of thought and feeling that later poets were unable to achieve because of a "dissociation of sensibility," which resulted in works that were either intellectual or emotional but not both at once. In their own time, however, the epithet "metaphysical" was used pejoratively: in 1630 the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden objected to those of his contemporaries who attempted to "abstract poetry to metaphysical ideas and scholastic quiddities." At the end of the century, John Dryden censured Donne for affecting "the metaphysics" and for perplexing "the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts ... with the softnesses of love." Samuel Johnson, in referring to the learning that their poetry displays, also dubbed them "the metaphysical poets," and the term has continued in use ever since. For an attempt to establish the justice of this term in relation to their work, Sir Herbert Grierson's Metaphysical Poems and Lyrics of the 17th Century (1921) and James Smith's essay "On Metaphysical Poetry" in Determinations (ed. F.R. Leavis, 1934) are of interest. And this on Donne: Donne has been taken to be the apex of the 16th-century tradition of plain poetry, and certainly the love lyrics of his that parade their cynicism, indifference, and libertinism pointedly invert and parody the conventions of Petrarchan lyric, though no less than the Petrarchans he courts admiration for his poetic virtuosity. A "great haunter of plays" in his youth, he is always dramatic; his verse cultivates "strong lines," dissonance, and colloquiality. Thomas Carew praised him for exiling from poetry the "train of gods and goddesses"; what fills it instead is a dazzling battery of language and argument drawn from science, law and trade, court and city. Donne is the first London poet: his early satires and elegies are packed with the busy metropolitan milieu, and the songs and sonnets, which include his best writing, with their kaleidoscope of contradictory attitudes, ironies, and contingencies, are authentic to the modern phenomenon of urban living. Donne treats experience as relative, a matter of individual point of view; the personality is multiple, quizzical, and inconsistent, eluding definition. His love poetry is that of the frustrated careerist. By inverting normal perspectives and making the mistress "all states, and all princes, I, nothing else is," he belittles the public world, defiantly asserting the superior validity of his private experience, and frequently he erodes the traditional dichotomy of body and soul, outrageously praising the mistress in language reserved for platonic or religious contexts. The defiance is complicated, however, by a recurrent conviction of personal unworthiness that culminates in the Anniversaries (1611-12), two long commemorative poems written on the death of a patron's daughter. These expand into the classic statement of Jacobean melancholy, an intense meditation on the vanity of the world and the collapse of traditional certainties. Donne would, reluctantly, find respectability in a church career, but even his religious poems are torn between the same tense self-assertion and self-abasement that mark his secular poetry. -- EB