On John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
By Annie A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is a magnificent poem written in 1611 by John Donne, one of famous Elizabethan poets. It’s
said that John Donne wrote it to his wife as a farewell speech when he was about to travel to France and Germany. The poem tenderly comforts the speaker's lover at their temporary parting, asking that they separate calmly and quietly, without tears or protests. The speaker justifies the desirability of such calmness by developing the ways in which the two share a holy love, both sexual and spiritual in nature. Donne treats their love as sacred, elevated above that of ordinary earthly lovers. He argues that because of the confidence their love gives them, they are strong enough to endure a temporary separation. The most outstanding linguistic feature of this poem is its innovative metaphysical conceit. As we know, in English literature conceit is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets, an extension of contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner observed that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.” Reading through the whole poem, it’s not difficult to find there is bizarre and unexpected imagery and symbolism used by Donne. At the beginning of this poem, the poet compared his departing with his lover to the death of the noble man. “As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls, to go”. As a virtuous man dies, he knows that he has reconciled himself to God and will therefore be accepted into heaven. Thus he dies in peace and calm, and the people surrounding him at his deathbed are sad, but not anguished. In the same way, when two virtuous lovers part, there is no pain, because they know that each will be true to the other, even when they are apart. The people surrounding the dying man are quiet partly so as not to disturb him. In the same way, Donne said that too much outward show of emotion on the part of one lover would just disturb the other. He presented his own opinion of departing for the first time in this poem: true love can endure the trial of departing. And the departing between lovers should be calm and peaceful, “So let us melt, and make no noise”, because true love is built on the communication of the two souls but not on physical connection. Although departing is bitter, the souls of the two have melt together. They should separate from each other by making no noise and not explain love by tear-flood and sigh-tempest just as the laity do. In the third stanza, the poet used two peculiar images to describe the difference between true love and love of the laity. To the common people, separation with the lovers is like the moving of the earth, which means the end of everything including love. The poet compared the departing between true loves to the movement of the celestial bodies. Although its influence is bigger than the moving of the earth, it is mysterious. In the sixth stanza, “A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to airy thinness beat”.
Here we may find the important symbolism of gold. The poet used the properties of gold as a symbol to tell the reader that gold is very malleable which means it can be beaten to airy thinness. It is also the most precious of all the metals, the least reactive of all metals, which ties in with Donne's placing of the lovers above the emotional “laity”. In terms of alchemy, gold is also the most noble metal, and the most difficult to destroy. Finally, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” ends with one of Donne's most famous metaphysical conceit, in which he argued for the lovers' closeness by comparing their two souls to the feet of a drawing compass. The two lovers are likened to the two points of a compass. At first it seems ridiculous, but Donne showed how it made sense. As far as we know, a compass has two legs. When we are drawing a circle, one leg of the compass is standing on one location and the other turn around the standing one until it come back to the starting point. The poet used the very feature of the compass to describe the true love. The lovers are dependent on each other, and as long as they cooperate with each other perfectly, can they draw the circle that stands for perfect love. At the same time, the poet explained the main idea of this poem more clearly: departing is not the end of love buy the evaporation of the love’s emotions.