Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning -- John Donne

I went over this one in class today with my English literature students, and I just had to share it here.  It's definitely one of Donne's most famous poems, and rightly so.  In it, he says farewell to his wife Anne before leaving England on an extended trip to France.  He tells her not to mourn his departure, because, since their relationship is an elevated and metaphysical one, it is not weakened or harmed by physical absence.  In the last three stanzas, Donne uses a fascinating simile to describe his relationship with his wife: the two of them are like the two feet of a compass.  He is the moving foot, while she is the foot in the center of the circle.

Donne's poetry is rather challenging, but very rewarding of dedicated investigation.  Symbolic similes like this one can be revisited again and again, with new ideas coming to light each time.  Take a minute to think about what may be conveyed by the image of the compass.  There is much more implied than just what Donne states outright in the poem!

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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:

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
Absence, because it doth remove
          Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined
           That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd 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 fixed 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.

1 comment:

  1. I remember in high school being confused and asking my dad about the "compasses" reference--even though I had had geometry, I simply couldn't get beyond thinking of a directional compass. Amazing how much more sense it makes when you know what he's talking about! ;-)