Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
- So, we had a nice little picture of a dying man, but Donne still hasn't told us what this has to do with anything. That's a typical Donne move. Metaphysical conceits (these types of metaphors, for which our guy was famous) often carry along for a while, getting more outlandish as they go. Like a good metaphysical poet, Donne sets up the metaphor in stanza one, then brings it home starting here. And man, is it weird. Poets like Donne were getting bored with the old lines: "Baby, our love is like a rose." They wanted something new, something that would get their ladies' attention. So Donne apparently decided to go with: "Baby, our love is like a dying old man." Yup, I bet that got her attention.
- It's not just any dying old man, though. You've got to look closely at Donne's metaphors—they make sense, but only if you follow their weird logic.
- Let us explain:
- You whipper-snappers are too young for this, but the SAT used to have a section devoted to analogies. You know, "branch is to tree as finger is to hand." They were trying to test vocabulary, but also reasoning ability—the ability to see connections between words and ideas (well that, and they wanted to see if they could make a high-schooler's brain explode). The "so" in line five, then, is the turn in the analogy. The first four lines gave us the first half: "virtuous men are to peaceful death." Now line five gives us the rest: "as our love is to peaceful parting." Just as even their friends can't tell when the old men die, so unnoticeable should be the parting between these lovers.
- But even while Donne is resolving one metaphor, he is already busy setting up his next one. He begins with a nature metaphor: "let us melt." We picture winter snows or icicles on a rooftop—a slow natural process. The metaphors in line 6, though, keep us in nature, but move us to natural disasters: "tear-floods" and "sigh-tempests." These are hyperboles, or exaggerations, like "cry me a river." This hyphenated description is also commonly referred to as an epithet or a kenning. In the space of two lines, we've travelled from an old man's deathbed to the middle of a great storm.
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
- Donne was a lawyer, so he is always on the lookout for a counter-argument. I mean, what if his wife had said: "Ummm, yeah, it's just that I don't want our love to be like a dead guy." So he cuts her off with a brilliant argument: "Here's why we don't cry or throw a fit when we part: it would be a 'profanation of our joys.'" In other words, it would make their love low and vulgar, undignified.
- The "laity" simply means lay people, commoners. It's kind of a backward argument. Aren't you supposed to publicly declare your love? Aren't you supposed to hire a sky-writer to ask a girl to prom? No, Donne says. If we publicize the pain we feel at parting, it cheapens it.
- What's the deal with "'Twere," you ask. Why can't they just write "it were" like a normal person? Well, first, we guess John Donne would ask you why you text "LOLLMAO" and dare to question him about his language. But in actuality, this is about preserving the meter of the poem. We'll have more on this in "Form and Meter," but the poem is written in iambic tetrameter, meaning there are eight syllables per line and they alternate between unstressed and stressed syllables: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. (You can read all about iambic pentameter here, which simply has an extra two syllables.) By combining it and were, Donne still gets his point across and the poem keeps its meter. When you see those weird contractions, it's a safe bet that it has to do with the meter.