Poetry: Donne – A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

One of the more difficult parts of any relationship are the times when one has to be away from the other. We live in a day and age that when we are apart, we can video call to make the distance less extreme. Even so, there is a sorrow in parting. A lot can happen in that time away, and in the moments leading up to that final farewell, all the fears one can have come bubbling to the surface. But you cannot always show all of your feelings in that moment’s farewell, nor should you always. After all, there is not always a need for such a show, and thus, Donne wrote these lines:

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.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, John Donne

Another of the Romantics, Donne describes the all-consuming love one can have for another person. More specifically, the all-encompassing love one spouse has for another. And yet, this love is not for the world to see but just for them alone. But Donne was also a metaphysical poet and a cleric who spoke of love in a different, unlikely way. He combined elements of science and the heart, the physical with the spiritual. Thus, in this poem, we have conceits between measurements of the earth and the fondness of the heart.

There are many conceits in this poem that I love. Where the earth may move and have “trepidation,” though this movement is “greater far, is innocent” in comparison to the shattering movement of space between two lovers. Others have a changing “sublunary” love that fears not departure because what held them together is little more than sense. But they, Donne and his wife, have a greater love that can surpass the earth’s miles. There are “inter-assured of the mind.” Though their bodies are parted by time and space, their souls are intertwined. And thus, we get to my favorite part of the poem:

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, John Donne

Here, Donne creates the great conceit: the compass. When I first learned this poem years ago, I actually forgot the true name of the poem and referred to it as The Compass. So strong was this image in my mind that I forgot all about the fact that this was a farewell poem asking one lover not to be distressed at the other’s leaving!

Look at the beauty of these lines and picture a compass. When one is bound in marriage, they become one to their souls. Thus, though one goes away, they are not truly separated, but merely expanded, like gold stretched between one and the other, a band from ring to ring. And though we are in fact two people, we are in truth made one. For while a compass has two arms, the part that matters, the soul (or base of the compass) does not move though the bodies are apart. And when one turns the compass across the map, one arm stretches towards the other as they “far doth roam,” hearkening after it until they come home. Thus, Donne asks his wife to be a compass, joined inseparably though apart they be, and be the home he comes to, his other half, completion.

There is so much depth in this brief poem. The spiritual nature is an aspect I find uniquely in Donne out of all the metaphysical poets. And while I love many aspects of this poem, including the amusing irony that this is a valediction asking one to not be too sad about saying goodbye, I love most the image of the compass melded with married love. I learned of this poem long before I was married, and there was such emotion to it then. But now that I am inseparably joined to another, this poem means so much more to me now. In fact, it was among the many quotes set around the tables at our wedding. And while I do miss him terribly every time he must travel, there is something deeper than the “sense” that holds us together. For like the compass, we are bound by a spiritual covenant, and thus we are one, ending where the other is begun.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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