A Valediction Forbidding Mourning Summary
Donne's speaker begins with the very weird metaphor of an old man dying. Romantic, right? He says that the parting between him and his wife should be like the gentle death of an old man—you can't even tell when he's stopped breathing. You had us at 'dead guy,' John.
Then he shifts gears and compares shallow love to earthquakes that make a big scene and cause a big fuss, but don't have tremendous lasting effects. On the contrary, his love is like the unnoticed, subtle movements of the stars and planets that control the fates of every person (well, according to popular belief). That super-handsy couple can't stand to be apart because their love is based solely on physical contact, but the love he has can stretch any distance because the pair share one soul. Now he's turning on that old Donne charm.
To further prove the greatness of their love, he gives his last metaphor: a mathematical compass—because nothing says sex appeal like mathematical apparatus. But he says that he and his wife are like a compass when drawing a circle. One foot of the compass (Donne) goes way out and travels around, while the other (his wife) stays planted at home and leans after it. But those two compass feet are part of one unit and will always end up back together. And we give props to anyone that can drop the microphone with that as a closing image.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
- Bummer. Folks are dying. In this case, the speaker is talking about the death of "virtuous" men, who "pass mildly away" because they have no regrets or shame. Death, for these men, is peaceful. So, maybe it's not such a bummer.
- More than that, they are in control. They can simply "whisper" their souls away off to heaven. A little morbid, sure, but it's kind of nice.
- The long vowel sounds like the U in "virtuous," the A in "away," and the O in "souls" and "go" make the lines long and breathy to say, even though they have the same meter as the rest of the poem (check out "Form and Meter" for more on that stuff). "Whisper" is also a sneaky onomatopoeia—the "wh" makes a soft, whispering sound.
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say, No:
- Lines 3-4 tell us that, when these virtuous men die peacefully, all their friends gather around the deathbed. Sure, they're sad, but it also gets a little boring just sitting around and, you know, waiting on death. So they spend their time debating—one of them looks at the man in the bed and says, "He stopped breathing!" But then everyone else leans in and shake their heads, "No." I mean, it's the seventeenth century, people—it's not like he's hooked up to a heart monitor.
- Whether or not this is the sort of thing that actually happened around a deathbed, Donne's really just emphasizing the point he already made. It's like a joke:
- "Virtuous men die really peacefully."
- "How peacefully do they die?"
- "They die so peacefully that even their friends can't tell when they've checked out!"
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.
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
- "Moving of th' earth" is a funny way of saying "earthquakes." Earthquakes were (and still are, really) pretty unexplained phenomena. Donne refers to them, though, to emphasize their violence—earthquakes bring "harms and fears." They shake everyone up and make them wonder "What the heck just happened?"
- Line nine begins with a reversed iambic foot, called a trochee. Instead of the expected iambic rhythm (da-DUM), we get "Moving." This is pretty common, especially at the beginning of a line, but the fact that this is the first reversed beginning might be Donne's way of putting extra emphasis on the violence of the earthquake. By opening the line with a stressed syllable, it packs a little more energy.
- Notice that line 10 moves us from the earthquake to peoples' reactions. Donne reminds us that all this talk about natural disasters is just a long-winded explanation of why it would be wrong to make a big show over his departure. Here, he is saying that earthquakes cause mass confusion and panic.
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
- You can't go too far in a seventeenth-century poem without some reference to the cosmos. So fine, let's get a quick primer on all these celestial references. Everything above the earth moved in spheres: the moon, planets, the stars and sun. The spheres were concentric—picture those Russian nesting dolls. Those spheres moved in their own patterns, but different motions, vibrations, and alignments created what they referred to as "celestial music" and that divine symphony controlled everything in the universe—from the creation of planets and stars to what you are going to eat for breakfast.
- Now "trepidation" usually means to be afraid or anxious, but this older meaning actually means to make a literal trembling motion. So Donne is referring to the trembling motions and vibrations of the heavenly bodies.
- Hmm. Looks like we may be off again on another metaphor. This one may take a while to unpack—stick with us.
- The two important points of the metaphor are in line 12. First, the motion of the spheres is "greater far." Yeah, sure, earthquakes make a big scene down here on our little rock, but we are talking about the freaking universe here, folks. An earthquake might shake stuff up for a little while, but the motions of the spheres controls all eternity—much bigger deal.
- The second point in line 12 is that these motions (unlike the earthquake) are "innocent." Not innocent like guilty/innocent, but innocent as in unseen or unnoticed. We are innocent of these all-powerful forces. Earthquakes are all show, but the motions of the stars are subtle, quiet. Earthquakes, in other words, are shallow.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
- Alright, alright, just in case you haven't put two and two together, let's get this metaphor wrapped up and for all. Stanza 4 moves us away from the natural disasters and is going to connect it back with his argument.
- Line 13 is a mini tongue-twister, with lots of playful L sounds twisting through it. The playfulness of his argument is also emphasized by the repetitive phrase, "lovers' love."
- We also skip right into this line by losing the first syllable. We ought to start with an unstressed syllable here, but we hop right in with the thudding sound of "Dull." After that, things go right back to the iambic pattern we expect to see.
- "Sublunary" is a fancy, Latinate way of saying "beneath the moon." More specifically, he is connecting shallow lovers' love to earthbound earthquakes, as opposed to the motions of heavenly bodies.
- The parenthetical note really spells out what makes this type of love so wrong. With the alliteration of "Whose soul is sense," Donne explains that earthly lovers are only connected by earthly things, namely the five senses.
- Line 14 ends with a cliffhanger. This is the first real enjambment of the poem, meaning a line break that also breaks up a continuing thought. Tune into the next line to find out what these lovers can't admit!
- The enjambment also allows for the more common definition of "admit": confess, to assert itself.
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
- The first word of line 15 is like a punchline. First, we were waiting for the resolution to the previous line. What can't they admit? Just tell us, already! Second, "absence" is another trochee, meaning a reversed iambic foot that puts the stressed syllable before the unstressed one. This adds to the emphasis that we naturally feel.
- The rest of these two lines are unpacking the crafty logic of Donne: The reason that these shallow lovers can't stand to be apart from one another is that their entire relationship is based on their physical presence. They can't unglue themselves from one another for two seconds. Because their physical desires started ("elemented") their love, absence extinguishes it. In your face, shallow lovers.
But we, by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
- Here's the flip side to those shallow lovers. Donne returns (finally!) to himself and his wife, the actual subjects of the poem. He reintroduces them ("we"), but then immediately skips off again. It's another two lines for we get a verb for "we." These extra phrases act almost like royal titles, elevating him and his beloved above the commoners.
- Donne is sneaky again in line 17. In line 16, he used the word "elemented" to mean "began." Of course it also reminds us of the physical elements. With the word "refined" here, he very subtly prepares his audience for his next metaphor. But we're not there yet…
- At first glance, it's tough to see a real purpose to the easy-to-understand line 18. Everything in the poem seems to have tricky double-meanings, but this one seems like good old embellishment and that's it. May we submit a possibility? The line actually parallels the original metaphor—the earthquake and the motions of the spheres. The motions of the planets and stars, remember, was "innocent," undetected and unknown by anyone. Well, so is their love. It is so refined, so far above this world, that not even the poet himself knows what it is. Line 18 refers all the way back to line twelve to help the whole extended metaphor hold together. That kind of staying power is a sure sign of a conceit.
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips and hands to miss.
- A couple of the central contrasts of the poem come into play in line 19. First, you've got the contrast between lovers who are only connected by their physical bodies and those who share a spiritual bond. Donne emphasizes that he and his beloved are connected by their minds.
- The other central contrast that is introduced here is hidden in that not-so-poetic phrase "inter-assured." Donne claims that he and his wife share their mind and spirit with one another.
- It's easy to say that Donne looks down on physical attraction, but that's not quite fair. He is merely stating that, when that physical attraction in the only thing a relationship is based on, it's never enough. He loves his wife, and he will miss her dearly. They just "care less" about missing each other physically than their spiritual connection.
- Notice in line 20 that Donne divides up the person into parts ("eyes, lips and hands"). This synecdoche (representing a whole with just a part), reminds us that when our 'love' is only physical, it cheapens the other person and turns them into a commodity.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
- Now we are hot and heavy with Donne's theology. He is practically quoting the Old Testament book of Genesis here, which establishes marriage as making two individuals into one unit.
- Like any good metaphysical poet, Donne doesn't shy away from a paradox. He deliberately uses the words two and one in the same line to emphasize the confusing, mysterious force of wedded love.
- Line 22 gives us our second big enjambment, or harsh line break. We get the verb, telling us that the two souls will endure something, but we don't know what yet.
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
- Now we figure out what we aren't enduring: "a breach." "Breach" is a harsh word, with its B that explodes out of our mouth and its screeching long E sound. It fits perfectly. More than that, the enjambment itself made us feel a break in the grammar, which mirrors the meaning as well.
- Hmm. How can a breach also be an expansion? This is yet another paradox that will have to be explained: they won't break—they will expand… somehow.
- The alliteration with rapid B sounds at the beginning of the line also contrasts with the long sound of the word "expansion."
- Line 24 is one of Donne's easier analogies, both in form and content. It's a simple simile and only takes one line to spit out, so that's nice. But if you are at all familiar with metal-working (and who isn't, really?), it's also a clear and straightforward image. Gold is a soft metal, easy to hammer and work with. It can be hammered ("beat") into super-fine gold foil, and a little bit can go a long way. Where other metals or materials would break when you stretched or beat them, gold retains its "one-ness," even across a great distance.
- The vowels in line 24 are mostly high and melodic, indicating the airy lightness Donne is talking about. (Check out "Sound Check" for more stuff on the sound of this poem.)
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
- Once again, Donne attempts to cut off any and all counter-arguments, just in case some jerk wants to bring up the fact that, as nice as it is to talk about being "one" and everything, they still are literally two people who are going to be separated by hundreds of miles. So the beginning of this line concedes a little bit: "Fine. We're two. But if we are two…"
- He immediately whips up a new metaphor, one as weird as any we've seen yet. Nothing says romance like mathematical equipment, right? In this case, Donne begins to draw comparisons between he and his wife and the two legs of a compass.
- The metaphor works with Donne's theology well enough. Even though the legs of the compass are separate parts, they have been joined together permanently and are useless apart from their partner.
- The repetition of the word two in these two lines is to slowly begin to redefine the term. You've heard politicians subtly shift the meanings of words to suit their argument. Same thing's happening here. He admits that he and his wife are two, but then redefines two to mean what he wants.
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
- We are reminded here that this is a poem written from Donne to his wife. It's easy to forget because the argument becomes so convoluted, but the "thy" brings us back to his audience.
- Donne's wife is "the fix'd foot" of the compass, meaning the one that stays planted in the center of the circle.
- Donne begins to establish the quality he finds so vital in his wife—her constancy. She is not only the fixed foot, but she "makes no show to move" until he (the other foot) does. She is completely faithful to him and supports him in whatever he does.
- It's easy to read this in the 21st century and say that this is Donne emphasizing his wife's need to stay at home and depend on him for everything, and we guess that's true enough. But try to remember that, given their age and culture, this is still an impassioned praise of a woman's love.
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.
- These lines go some way toward making us feel better that Donne is more than a chauvinist. The whole stanza is dedicated to the "fix'd foot," to her. He doesn't blab on about all the great things he's going to do while he's away. He focuses on the importance of that fixed foot.
- The first two lines here keep us turning and turning with more contrasting, paradoxical language: "though" and "yet." When we boil it down, though, it's not too bad. Even though the fixed foot is stuck there in the center, it follows after the roaming foot by leaning.
- The leaning is personified with the word "hearkens." This calls to mind the title of the poem, which forbids mourning at his departure. We imagine Donne's wife (or her heart) longing outward toward her husband across the channel. That personification is mirrored in line thirty-two—the other foot, like Donne, will come "home" again.
- The word "erect" will inevitably always elicit a snicker when the poem gets read out loud in class. (And honestly, most of the time, Donne's wordplay is hinting in that direction. He's got some really naughty poems out there.) In this case, though, considering we are talking about his wife, it's probably a safe bet that we are just talking about how she will (like the compass foot) stand tall and firm again when her husband is on his way safely 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 end of the poem spells out the metaphor and winds down the poem with more praise for his wife. Line thirty-three connects the fixed foot firmly with his wife.
- This stanza is similar to what is called the 'turn' in a sonnet (Donne wrote lots and lots of those). Everything before the turn is metaphorical and convoluted, but now at the end he makes everything plain.
- Once again in line 35 Donne praises his wife for her faithfulness, for sticking with him even as he runs all over the place. We can connect the word "firmness" with "fix'd."
- Of course Donne means that the center foot makes a circle accurate and perfectly round, but "just" also carries with it a legal or even moral connotation. It's possible that Donne is saying that the faithfulness of his wife will keep him from straying while he is away. (Let's hope that she didn't need that kind of reassurance.)
- The last line has a nice ring of finality to it. We've really come full circle (see what we did there?). Seriously though, this line is Donne's final promise, his final reason why they shouldn't mourn at his parting: if they are both firm and strong, he will be back soon enough—right where he belongs.