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A valediction forbidding mourning by John Donne


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by John Donne

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,

    And whisper to their souls to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say,

    "Now his breath goes," 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

Of absence, 'cause it doth remove

    The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,

    That ourselves know not what it is,

Inter-assuredиd 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 fix'd 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.

        At the beginning of "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," the
poet, John Donne, engages in a didactic lesson to show the parallel
between a positive way to meet death and a positive way to separate from
a lover. When a virtuous man dies, he whispers for his soul to go while
others await his parting. Such a man sets an example for lovers. The
separation of the soul from the body, and the separation of lovers from
each other, is not an ending but the beginning of a new cycle. The poem
ends with the image of a circle, the symbol of perfection, representing
the union of souls in a love relationship. This perfection is attained
by parting at the beginning of the circle and reuniting at the point
where the curves reconnect.

        According to Helen Gardner, the metaphysical poem takes the
reader down a certain path, a fixed line of argumentation. This
valediction, an act of bidding farewell, proceeds in the guise of a
monologue in which a speaker attempts to persuade a lover to remain
faithful during his absence. The monologue is dramatic in the sense that
the stay-behind lover is the implied listener. Donne's monologue is
unique because he uses metaphysical comparisons to show the union of the
lovers during their period of separation.

        Although the poem attempts to persuade the lover as an implied
listener, it also speaks indirectly to the reader who is drawn into the
argument. The speaker's argument is supported by an implied reference to
the authority of Greek philosophers and astronomers. According to
Patricia Pinka, this use of esteemed authority to justify a view about

is use of esteemed authority to justify a view about
love is a common unifying element throughout many of Donne's Songs and

        It is probable that Donne wrote this poem for his wife, Ann
Donne, and gave it to her before leaving to go abroad in 1611. Ann, sick
and pregnant at the time, protested being left behind as her husband
began a European tour with his friend, Sir Robert Drury.

        The poem begins with a metaphysical comparison between virtuous
dying men whispering to their souls to leave their bodies and two lovers
saying goodbye before a journey. The poet says:

"Let us melt and make no noise....

'Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity of our love".

The word "melt" implies a change in physical state. The bond of the
lovers will dissolve quietly like the soul of a dying man separating
from his body. "Noise" refers to "tear floods" and "sigh tempests" that
the speaker implores his love not to release.

        He continues by comparing natural phenomena to a love
relationship, the "sigh tempests" relating to the element of air, and
the "tear floods" to the element of water. He uses this hyperbole to
demand that his lover remain stoic and resist any show of emotion upon
his departure.

        Next, the element of earth is introduced. Earthquakes are
perceived by everyone, and people often interpret them as omens of
misfortune. It is understandable that an earthquake would be looked upon
with fear because of its potential to ravage the land; whereas a
trepidation affecting a celestial sphere would be viewed in a different
light, especially one that is imperceptible and has no apparent meaning
for the average person.

        In order to understand the meaning of the third quatrain in the
poem, it is necessary to consider the Ptolemaic Universe and the
symbolism of the sphere. During the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Age,
the circle and sphere were looked upon as perfect shapes. The main
influence behind that thinking may have been Greek philosophers such as
Aristotle, who believed that since, "The motion of the celestial bodies
is not straight and finite, but circular, invariable and eternal. So
they themselves must be eternal, unalterable, divine".

        The well-educated Donne, 1572-1631, certainly studied famous
Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and their views concerning
the universe. Donne lived during a time when many people accepted the
Ptolemaic theory of the universe, which held that the spherical planets
orbited the earth in concentric circles called deferents. HYPERLINK
"http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/gloss.htm" 2 Writing this poem in
1611, Donne would most likely be influenced by his previous classical
studies, and he chose to use the circle and the sphere to represent a
perfect relationship based on reason and harmony.

        The "trepidation of the spheres" is another obsolete
astronomical theory, used to support the speaker's point that great
changes in the heavens may be imperceptible to the layman. The speaker

eavens may be imperceptible to the layman. The speaker
presents this comparison between the earthquake and the "trepidation of
the spheres" to suggest that matters beyond one's control should be
approached rationally.

        In quatrains four and five, the speaker urges his love to remain
stoic by making any change in their relationship as imperceptible to
others as the "trepidation of the spheres," and again, he uses terms
from astronomy to illustrate his point. The term "sublunary" refers to
the surface below the moon. According to the Greek astronomers, this
sublunary area, composed of the four elements, was imperfect. The
sphere's surface, composed of quinta essenta, the perfect part, radiates
light and heat.

        The dull sublunary lovers are imperfect human beings who do not
practice mature love. The soul of their love is "sense", so they need
physical contact to cement their relationship. However, the speaker
suggests that reason can free itself from any connection with a sensory
experience. Therefore, the lovers with fully developed souls "Care less,
eyes, lips, and hands to miss", having developed rational souls, the
third part of the Aristotelian model for the human soul, consisting of
vegetative, sense and rational parts.

        In quatrain six, Donne echoes the traditional marriage ceremony
in which two become one, so the "two souls" of the lovers are joined
together. He describes separation as a stretching exercise in which the
joined soul of the lovers is gold beat to an "airy thinness". According
to Pinka, the comparison is "beautiful and pure" but "fragile" since
there is "expansion without increase". The "airy thinness" emphasizes
the stretching of the lovers' resources, in that the love continues to
exist, but its strength is weakened by the circumstances. He urges the
lover to look at the separation in a positive light, but he sends out
undertones suggesting that he is aware of the fragility of the

        The speaker then begins his closing argument, in which he
changes his symbol of perfection from the sphere to the circle. One
might argue that the circle and the sphere are slightly different
objects and should not be considered one and the same; however, the
Ptolemaic Universe consisted of both perfect spheres and perfect
circular orbits, and so the concept of circle and sphere both
represented perfection. Poets and songwriters have often used sphere and
circle symbolism.

        In Dante Alighieri's Paradiso, a story of a pilgrim journeying
through Paradise, Dante sees nine concentric circles in the eyes of
Beatrice, his guide. Beatrice explains to him that each of nine circles
represents an angelic order. The brightest circles are in the center
nearest to God and represent the highest order of angels and the
greatest good. According to Beatrice, each circle also corresponds to
one of the nine spherical heavens consisting of the five planets, the
sun, the moon, the fixed stars, and the Prime Mover.


        It does not seem unusual for Donne to include both the sphere
and the circle in his poetry as symbols of perfection, since other
writers had linked the circle and the sphere together in various ways
throughout the history of science and literature.

        The speaker in the poem is unique in that he does not compare
the perfection of his love to a traditional object such as a rock or a
fortress; instead he chooses to compare the twin legs of a compass to
the lovers' sense of union during absence. Such a comparison would be
called metaphysical according to Gardner, who states that a metaphysical
conceit must concern two things so dissimilar that we "feel an
incongruity". Here, the poet must then proceed to persuade the reader
that these things are alike in spite of their apparent differences.

        The speaker proves the point by drawing the circle with the
compass. The lover who stays behind is the fixed point, and the speaker
is the other leg of the instrument. Without the "firmness" of the fixed
point, he would be unable to complete the journey and make the circle
just (precise). The adverb "obliquely" (l. 34) may have several
different meanings. John Freccero supports the interpretation that
obliquely means a spiral motion, referred to by the Neoplatonic
tradition as a movement of the soul. Obliquely may also indicate a
slant. Either the drawing instrument can be interpreted to move in a
spiral, or the motion may refer to the second foot's tilted position in
relation to the fixed one in the center. Such a position would be
required during the drawing of a circle.

        According to Freccero, "No matter how far Donne roams his
thoughts will revolve around his love.... At the end of the circle, body
and soul are one". In Donne's "Valediction," the human souls are
described in the context of a joint soul that is stretched by the
separation, or two souls joined within a circle of spiritual strength.
Donne once stated in an elegy, "...perfect motions are all circular."
HYPERLINK "http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/gloss.htm" 5 The circle
in the "Valediction" represents the journey during which two lovers
endure the trial of separation, as they support each other spiritually,
and eventually merge in a physically and spiritually perfect union.

"Circle." Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 1979 ed.

Donne, John. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning."

John Donne. Frank Kermode, Ed.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Freccero, John. "Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning."

Essential Articles: John Donne's Poetry. Roberts, John, Ed.

Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1975. 279-304.

Gardner, Helen. "Introduction." The Metaphysical Poets.

Helen Gardner, Ed.

London: Penguin Group, 1985.

Pinka, Patricia. This Dialogue of One: The Songs and Sonnets of John

Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1982.

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