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A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning -- John Donne

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.
-- John Donne

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.


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

26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Gerry Rowe said...

Readers who aren't aware will be interested to learn
that there is a cassette tape of Richard Burton
reading The Love Poems of John Donne. His
extraordinary intelligence in poetry reading gets full
expression in a great collection of Donne's best known
poems, to which Burton does no less than full justice.
With his great dramatic range he perfectly conveys
their clarity, precision, variety, intricacy and
subtlety. Burton's readings illuminate your
understanding of these difficult poems and will send
you back refreshed to reread the texts, thence to
return to the spoken versions in a revealing cycle of
learning. An extraordinary achievement. For myself I
now 'hear' Donne's poems in Burton's voice.

While on the subject, other great Burton offerings
include his work as First Narrator on Dylan Thomas'
Under Milk Wood and an Anthology that includes some of
the Donne poems, Ancient Mariner and a superlative
Frost at Midnight from Coleridge, a riveting version
of Hopkins' Leaden and Golden Echo and several Dylan
Thomas offerings. He also reads a couple of Betjeman
poems almost as convincingly as Betjeman himself (and
that's high praise!).

All these tapes are available at Amazon and all good
bookshops, virtual and real.

Maybe one day in the future, technology and copyright
permitting, it might be possible to have good audio
versions of poems on The Wondering Minstrels?
Meanwhile, keep them coming boys. A great service,
much appreciated!

Garret M. Lee said...

I'm not so sure this poem is really a true romantic piece. Sure, it sounds pretty and the description of their love is without a doubt one of the most romantic I have ever read, but there is something to be said of the purpose of our speaker's intent.

In the time of John Donne, men were free to travel as they saw fit. Women rarely, if ever, went with their husbands on these trips. The title of the poem, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, tells us this poem is like a love note to his mistress or wife and is for her benefit.

Basically, he talks to her and tells her not to make a scene when he leaves, and then he gives her reasons why she should not cry, mainly that their love is so much more than everyone else's love and that to cry, or mourn the departing speaker would only serve to "lessen" the value of their relationship.

So I ask, is the speaker telling her this because he truly believes it, or is he telling her this story to shut her up? I do not think the comments in the post above are wrong, this is a very romantic poem, but I do wonder of the speaker's intent, which is often where we get the most of a poem. I would like to know more of why and where our speaker is traveling to.

Perhaps we should wake John Donne up and ask him ourselves?

Garret Lee

Mark Lovendahl said...

His mistress? I am more inclined to read this as a note to a male friend ..


McNicholl Family said...

U suck!

Linda Death said...

Where is there a ring in this poem? Surely the main image is of a pair of
compasses drawing a circle. One leg is fixed to the centre, the other
travels round the circumference, but still they remain joined to each other.


Jankinrade said...

The ring IS the circle made by the compass mark.


ehsan ataei said...

out of sight
out of mind

but for me

out of sight
still in my heart

you know
a beautiful sense
cannot be distroyed

we must see the world with your souls eyes
there is no seperation
we live near our souls

Anonymous said...

is there any hint of irony in this poem?

Anonymous said...

Hmm quite

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