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‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is an elegiac poem written by John Donne. It is a poem on the untimely death of his wife Anne More Donne in 1611. It serves as a farewell to her, a parting note where he makes the readers beware of death and its consequences and asks them not to mourn. It also captures the undying love they share.
About the Poet:
John Donne (1572-1631) was a prominent English poet and scholar. A cleric in the Church of England, he was considered the greatest of the metaphysical poets at that time. Famous works of his include ‘The Flea’, ‘Holy Sonnets’, and ‘The Sun Rising’.
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:
The poem begins with the poet stating how honourable men passed away with quiet and peace, their souls leaving in a whisper. They depart silently as some of their grieving friends declare that they are gone while some remain in denial, refusing to accept their demise.
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.
The poet now addresses his wife. He implores that they too part silently, without tears and raging anguish. For he feels that it would be a slander to their past happiness should they announce their love and grief to everyone.
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.
The poet can be seen to be musing here. He states how the moving of the Earth, that is, earthquakes, makes humans fear whereas the moving of celestial spheres, which is far greater in significance, seems innocent enough. What he means here is to state that the passing away of ordinary people is an event of much turbulence while that of greater beings is quiet.
Dull sublunary lovers' love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence, because it doth remove Those things which elemented it.
Here, the poet states how the souls of the lovers under the moon can never be parted as they are ‘elemented’ by the love that binds them together, that constitutes their very being.
But we by a love so much refined, That our selves know not what it is, Inter-assured of the mind, Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
The poet states how the love that he shares with his wife is far more ‘refined’, so refined that they themselves were unable to define it. So connected in the mind are they that the demise of mere bodily organs such as ‘eyes, lips, and hands’ does not affect their love in any way.
Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go, endure not yet A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to airy thinness beat.
The poet declares their souls to be one. Even as he has to leave his wife, for now, all he sees is not a separation but an expansion of their love, just like how gold expands upon being hammered.
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 the other do.
However, if it was to be said that their souls were two distinct souls, then it would imply that their souls are entwined like the two legs of a compass. The soul of his beloved wife is the foot that is stationary, the one that moves only, himself if the other does.
And though it in the center sit, Yet when the other far doth roam, It leans and hearkens after it, And grows erect, as that comes home.
The imagery of the compass continues here. He reiterates how the foot that remains fixed, his wife, only is seemingly stationary. The fixed foot is always drawn to the one that moves, leaning towards it, longing. It goes erect with excitement each time the roaming foot 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.
The poet asserts that such is how his beloved wife was to him, the stationary point in his life around which he revolved. Her stability makes him circle her again and again, ending right where he began–with her, in love.
This metaphysical poem beautifully portrays love and grief entwined. The grief he pushes aside to immortalize their love and cherish her forms the crux of this poem.