Donne's poems are playfully complex. He likes to layer meanings of words and create double, sometimes even triple) meanings. So, it's no shocker that sound plays a big role here, too.
A lot of that play has to do with vowels. Vowels are the breathy, sexy parts of language. Look at the first two lines. They're supposed to be light and peaceful (even though we are talking about death). Look at all the long vowel sounds ("virt-U-ous," "mIldlY," "awAY," "tO," "sOUls," "gO"). Combine that with the nice onomatopoeia of "whisper," and you've got a nice easy start to the poem. There's a similar effect of long vowels (O's and E's) with the lovely line 24: "Like gold to airy thinness beat."
Consonants get some fun in the poem, too. Usually, we see play with consonants in the form of alliteration (repeated sounds at the beginnings of words) or consonance, which is more general sound echoing even within words. Line 13 is a good example: "Dull sublunary lovers' love." All those L sounds! Those sounds are called liquid sounds—the consonant just flows right off the tongue. The parenthetical phrase right after it—"(whose soul is sense)"—combines four S sounds into four syllables, and there's more sound echoing in line 20, first with the "less" and "lips," then creating an internal rhyme between "lips" and "miss."
We should say a little something about the rhyme scheme here, but really, there's not much to say. It's a straightforward ABAB, four-line stanza (called a quatrain), where the letters represent the end rhyme for that particular line (line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 4). The rhymes don't get passed along to the next stanza, so you aren't trying to follow it all the way down the page, and because they alternate lines, they don't draw too much attention.
There's an obvious reason for this—this is a really tough poem. It's an extremely convoluted argument with shifting metaphors and clever reversals all the way through. The last thing we need is to have to track some sneaky rhyme scheme. Even the sounds that are rhymed are pretty simple—he doesn't back himself into a corner trying to rhyme with "lasagna." Donne makes it even easier on us because he only has a couple of eye rhymes in here, words that look like they rhyme because of the letters they end with, but actually don't quite rhyme.
So what's with all the regular rhyme, assonance, and consonance? Why put so much sonic chiming in the poem, like little bells going off every few words? Well, we think the overall effect of sound in the poem makes it sound more and more like a tricky riddle or a playful tongue-twister. And if you consider its original intent—to soothe Donne's wife about their upcoming separation—then how this message gets delivered (through pleasing chimes and flourishes of sound symmetry) would have as been as important as the poem's content.
Donne doesn't beat around the bush here. He tells us right away what's up. This is a valediction. That's not really a technical distinction for a rigid form of poetry, but plenty of valedictory poems are out there. Surely you know that a valedictory speech is delivered on graduation day. A valediction literally means "to say farewell."
The second half of the title is a little bit more interesting. It feels more Donne-y. Donne-ish? We would expect that a goodbye poem would paint a beautiful sunset for us with the lovers kissing through their sobs. We would think a poet would encourage that sort of thing. Instead: no soup for wifey. Donne clues her (and his readers) into his deliberate efforts to go against the traditional goodbye. So, when we set our expectations from the title, we are more readily able to see the cleverness at play in the poem.
The setting of the poem is the occasion mentioned in the title: Donne's parting with his wife before his long trip to continental Europe. It's helpful to picture Donne holding his wife Anne in these last moments—perhaps on a dock with busy deckhands loading supplies behind them—and seeing her begin to tear up as he starts to go. This poem then becomes his seventeenth-century, awesome way of saying: "Don't cry, baby."
There is a broader context, though, that also helps us understand the poem. Donne lived in an age fascinated by wit, and he ran with a witty crowd of lawyers and other high-society men that would hang out in coffee-houses and try to impress each other with riddles, poems, or plain ridiculous arguments. Donne's work was groomed by this crowd and so, even though this is an intimate love poem, it still has that clever flair to it.
In a sense, then, one setting for this poem is the relationship between Donne and his wife, which he attempts to pacify and settle with the arguments he presents here. He uses both his wit, and this romantic devotion, to ensure that the relationship-setting will hold together, in spite of his upcoming breach.
John Donne speaks this poem himself. Now, that's a bold and potentially risky statement. It's often a fatal trap to confuse a poem's speaker with the poet his/herself. In this case, though, we have history and biography to help us out. We know, for example, that he was leaving to go to continental Europe and his wife was to remain in England. And we can just imagine him reading the poem to his wife right before he boards the ship.
This speaker also has Donne's characteristic wit and flair for argumentation, but it's a more mature voice. This isn't some pick-up line, some logical reason why some girl should throw herself at him (seriously, read "The Flea" for a slightly… different approach). This is isn't just a lawyer writing a poem to impress his friends—this is a man speaking to his wife.
There's one notable shift in this poem as a result of his audience. Many of Donne's love poems are cocky and hypothetical, written as if by some semi-sleazy guy trying to pick up just another chick. They often have crazy endings that are intended to be a little shocking or outrageous, almost like the punch line to a joke. But, because this is personal—this is really the poet speaking here—the poem ends on a sweet, quiet note. We think Mrs. Donne appreciated that, don't you?
Donne is one tough nut to crack. What makes his poetry so unique is his deliberate attempt to connect the most far-fetched ideas and create seemingly impossible metaphors. Then he unravels those metaphors through difficult, lawyer-like arguments. Plus, you know, he wrote all this about 400 years ago. Once you 'get' all the metaphors, everything falls into place, but it usually takes a few times through (plus a little Shmoopy help) to unlock it.
A metaphysical conceit is like a metaphor on steroids. Every metaphor is an attempt to connect two unlike things by some commonality, but a metaphysical conceit takes that idea to the extreme. The metaphors are crazy. "Our love? Yeah, it's like a dead guy. Or… no, it's like planetary alignment. No, wait, it's like hammering gold. No, I've got it now, it's like that thing you used in math class to draw circles." Nothing screams John Donne like a good conceit, and this poem has some of his best.
This is a love poem—shouldn't we expect some really gushy, romantic nonsense? Shouldn't this read like the back of a seventh-grade girl's notebook? Maybe, but that's not what we get. Much of this poem reads like the closing argument of a trial, which is no surprise for a John Donne poem. Because of the outlandish conceits, Donne is always out to prove something in his poetry, trying to persuade his audience that even though these images sound completely nutty, they actually (weirdly) make sense. This legal-like language, even in a love poem, is totally Donne.
"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is not written in a specific, named form. But that doesn't mean it isn't formal. The poem follows a very strict structure of its own making and shows remarkably little deviation. It is composed of nine four-line stanzas called quatrains, each with an alternating ABAB rhyme scheme.
The meter is iambic tetrameter, which may or may not mean anything to you at all. An iambic meter means that the syllables alternate between unstressed and stressed syllables. Tetrameter means that there are four stressed syllables per line. (Tetris gets its name from its shapes made up of four square blocks.) This means that each line has eight syllables. For example:
Though I must go, endure not yet. (22)
If you read this line aloud (go ahead, nobody's looking), you should hear four iambs in a row: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Now, almost every formal meter has lots of variation, but this poem sticks closely to its pattern. In part, this helps the reader out. We've got enough to figure out just trying to understand the poem's argument. We don't need a bunch of trochees and spondees freaking us out. But there is some variation and it's worth noticing.
The first line has an insignificant little deviation—it's got an extra unstressed syllable in the word "mildly." This is very common in metered poems and so it's really not safe to read anything into this, but you could argue that crowding a line with extra unstressed syllables de-emphasizes the stressed syllables and makes this nice, peaceful line even peacefuller… uh, more peaceful. The same thing happens in lines 17.
The beginning of stanza 3 reverses the stress on the first two syllables so that the word "moving" gets extra oomph, which makes sense, because we're talking about an earthquake. The next stanza loses its first syllable altogether, letting the first line open with the thudding stressed syllable "dull." Line 14 and 15 have the first hard enjambment, or contrast between the grammar of the sentence and the line break, and that gets extra stressed with the reversed beginning word "Absence."
Stanza 6 has the most variation in the poem. First, the opening line reverses the stress to throw emphasis on the word "souls." Then there is a missing syllable in line 23, which hammers home that whole idea of a "breach."
To sum up then, this poem sets its own rules when it comes to form and meter, but it does a good job of playing by them. Only when it wants to emphasize or mirror its content does it break those self-imposed boundaries.
It's almost always a safe bet that a Donne poem will be about a woman, God, or death—or some combination. So, even though this is a love poem, it's not too surprising that we start off with a metaphor about an old man dying. In this poem, though, Donne gives death dignity—it's a peaceful and welcome thing. It's also his first connection to love. Even though their parting will feel a little like a death, their love is so pure, powerful, and good that they can endure it gently, without any outward sorrow.
Donne contrasts earthly natural disasters with the bigger, grander motions of the heavenly bodies (planets, stars, moons). He lived in an age of discovery, an age in which people were thinking and theorizing beyond their technology. In other words, it was a time of great curiosity. So even though John Donne is cloistered away in the heart of England, he is fixated on geology and astronomy and uses these ideas to show the colossal, even cosmic, power of his love.
Really, this is about the leftover obsession from medieval days with alchemy, or the attempt to transform other metals into gold. Scientists (or pseudo-scientists) made some of the most important chemical discoveries in their unending quest to perform wizardry that would make them rich. A lot of the poetry of the time (and a lot of Donne's poems) deal with working with precious metals.
No, not the compass you'd want if you were lost in the woods. This is more like the compass for finding your way out of a geometry book. A mathematical compass (like this one) is used to draw perfect circles. For Donne, it was the perfect metaphor for the long-distance relationship he imagined with his wife.
You could read into some of the language Donne uses to describe a compass and find a way to make a few "that's what she said" jokes, but this one is actually pretty tame compared to some Donne poems. It's a love poem, but this one is more sweet than spicy. Sorry to disappoint. If you are looking for dirtier Donne, try "The Flea".