Published On: Tue, Mar 12th, 2013

An Analysis of John Donne’s Poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

By Somaya Bahji

Morocco News Tribune


Kenitra, Morocco| This article here is to analyse John Donne’s poem A Valediction Forbidding Morning, signalling the importance of the thematic and stylistic functions of the metaphysical conceit, a unique and unconventional technique or figure of speech the poet uses to amplify the significance of his thoughts and ideas as well as to add an aesthetic value to his literary pieces. The key word I will be using in the analysis of this poem is chiefly the metaphysical conceit

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is considered as one of the most influential poems that reflect John Donne’s poetic style and witty use of conceit. Written in 1611, the poem was posthumously published and made known in 1633 in a collection entitled Songs and Sonnets. According to Izaac Watson, Donne penned this poem before travelling to France and Germany as a farewell speech to his wife with whom he had a remarkable attachment1. In his farewell, he urges his wife/ beloved neither to mourn his absence nor to grieve upon their distantness on the basis that their separation is ephemeral and that they will soon reunited to delight in an elysian immortality. The entire text of the poem will help back up our understanding of the thematic and stylistic functions of the conceit:

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;

‘Twere² 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

ourselves 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 airy thinness beat.


If they be two, they are two so As stiff

twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th’ other do.


And though it is in the center sit,

Yet, when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

A,d grows erect, as that comes home.


Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

The firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun2


The poem starts with the speaker’s metaphoric comparison of the separation with his beloved. He analogises the lovers’ spiritual attachment with one another to body and soul whose parting can be quite disheartening and purgatorial. For the speaker, this parting is by no means fearsome since it is an earthly embodiment of the divine and heavenly relationship of “virtuous men”3 to God. In this sense, the speaker’s connection to his beloved becomes Petrarchan in that it is by no means vanquished or weakened by physical separation. The image of other men being startled by the ephemeral journey to the hereafter, which is a representation of other lovers’ unwillingness to part physically, foregrounds the speaker’s almost sacred love that transcends the sexual and the romantic.

It is likened to faith and religious devotion, an analogy that creates an image of conceit. Whilst love is often associated with sexual desires and physicality, as manifested in precedent literary works about the theme of love such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which separation is a sweet sorrow, John Donne’s love is paradoxically religious, reflecting the sanctity of his marriage with Lady Ann More. This conceit can also be highlighted when compared to secular poems concomitant with Donne’s like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress’ in which the speaker describes his physical love and longing for a lady. In the second stanza, the speaker’s appeal to his beloved to melt might seem to have a sexual connotation, but based upon the essence of the previous poetic lines, the expression acquires a religious tone. It alludes to the lovers’ spiritual and harmonious unification opposed to their physical distantness. It is the shield that wards off the flood their abundant tears and the tempest-like sighs that may tarnish the purity of their jolly love. The outpouring of their emotions should be repressed and entombed not to be witnessed by the “laity”, meaning the members of the church or pious men who are represented as bystanders with moral or ethical powers. John Donne intensifies the significance of these repressed feelings through the use of conceit and geographical jargon.

The flow of tears is likened to floods, and the deep sighs are compared with tempests or gales howling violently. This particular technique widens the speaker’s scope of expression. The speaker goes on in the third stanza to describe the sorrows and fears that the separation of two lovers might afflict using appalling images of the metaphysical conceit. He compares the parting to earthquakes and tremblings of earth that afflict on men fear and grief. These natural disasters are quite destructive and unsubdued, but the love of the couple is mightier to be quenched. It is a powerful natural force, yet it is “innocent” or harmless similar to the “trepidation of the spheres”. Here, John Donne introduces the tenets of traditional astronomy known as the Ptolemaic theory of the universe. This theory by the Greek astronomer, astrologer, and geographer Claudius Ptolemy whose astrological observations began in Alexandria between 127 and 141 BCE is meticulously analysed in his book the Almagest.

It remained standard in Christian astronomy until the sixteenth century, influencing various disciplines such as theology and literature. Ptolemy claims that the planet earth is at the centre of the universe and that other celestial bodies including planets and stars orbit it. In the last day, according to the Ptolemaic astronomical rule, the moving bodies will harmoniously reunite, marking the end of their trajectory. This “trepidation” or agitation of the planets becomes in many ways similar to the emotional trepidation of the lovers. The frequent displacement of the planets embodies the lovers’ separation, and the tranquil end of the planets coming together alludes to the lovers’ unity after quite a long time of distress.

The use of the metaphysical conceit renders Donne’s style quite appalling and specific in that it transcends the conventions of the Elizabethan poetry. For instance, the speaker audaciously draws an analogy between lovers and planets instead of comparing them to two roses, birds, or even representing them as they really are.

The following stanza is based on the juxtaposition of commonplace and Platonic love. Commonplace or physical love is described as “dull” on the basis that it is bound to vanish every time the lovers are apart. The adjective “sublunary” can bear two different meanings: the first is intended to describe physical love as earthly and; thus, unlikely to ascent to a state of spiritual satisfaction, whilst the second is perhaps referring to the lovers’ love as being “sublunary”, meaning, in the physical sense, a concrete relationship similar to the one held between the two celestial bodies, the earth and the moon as two elements that make up the imagery of conceit.

The moon orbits the earth, and at times of its cycle it disappears, casting a dark shadow on earth. Similarly, ordinary lovers might be quite apart, and their souls that are concreted as “sense” do not accept or fathom one another’s absence. In this respect, their love becomes precarious and immature since it cannot withstand separation. But the speaker’s love is quite different in the sense that it transcends the constraints of physicality. It is the pious and “refined” love of mind and soul, where both lovers do not consider the “eyes”, “lips”, and “hands” as the kernel of their relationship. Donne reassures the spirituality of his love through the unification of his soul and that of his beloved. As a testimony proving the divinity of his connection, he declares that separation makes his heart and mind grow fonder of his wife, as opposed to commonplace lovers who endure a “breach” when apart. For the speaker, love becomes as precious as gold when nourished and fostered by its own divinity and purity.

It is as strong and beautiful as gold that is beaten and hammered, yet remains intact. Here, another imagery of conceit can be drawn. The separation of the two lovers is likened to the beating of gold. The “expansion” is bitter but sweet and even fruitful since at the end of their division, the lovers get spiritually closer than they initially were, and the lengthened gold becomes rendered into a refined and admired work of art.

In the last two stanzas, Donne draws an analogy between the pure relationship with his beloved and the two legs of a compass, creating a strange yet strikingly beautiful imagery of the metaphysical conceit. Assuming that his soul and that of his beloved are two, the speakers likens them to two “stiff” legs of a compass that are permanently and inextricably linked to one another. The soul of his beloved is “the fix’d foot” around which the moving leg of the compass rotates, suggesting the lover’s soul. Here, the kind of compass Donne refers to is the one geographers use to measure distances between places on maps. This can perhaps refer to the idea that wherever the lover travels or heads, like the moving leg of a compass, his beloved leans towards his direction. She leans emotionally, spiritually, and even physically exactly as the fixed leg of a compass does.

Donne’s reference to Ann’s “firmness” suggests her belief in her feelings towards him, and the centre might be a symbol of divinity and immortal love. Throughout the poem, John Donne abundantly uses metaphors and similes that create images of conceit. Such images include the comparison of two lovers to body and soul, heavenly bodies, and two legs of a compass. These analogies might seem to the reader far-fetched, equivocal or even contradictory since the examples cited above, if looked at superficially and grasped from a conventional perspective, can lose their gist and significance. The metaphysical conceit as a major feature of Donne’s poetry and as an elaborate figure of speech intensifies the thoughts and ideas of the speaker. The strong attachment between the two lovers in the poem would not be grasped to its depths if expressed in traditional terms. This could possibly be exemplified in drawing an Elizabethan analogy between the lovers’ attachment and the relationship between a rose and a drop of dew instead of searching for other unconventional items such as a golden strip being stretched.

This technique makes common themes such as death, love, and life which were also present in Elizabethan poetry seem stronger and more influential. The metaphysical conceit makes of the poem not only an outstanding and creative piece of literature, but also a scientific text laden with technical terms such as “trepidation” or “sublunary” in addition facts about space and nature. The merging between the poetic and the purely scientific creates a distinct style characterised by hybridity and richness. A good example would be the theory of Ptolemy on space that the common reader might not be acquainted with before reading the poem. In this sense, the poem becomes a site for exploration and a means of acquiring certain disciplinary notion

John Donne uses the metaphysical conceit to enrich the significance of his poem as well as to give certain solid arguments to console his wife and to persuade her into accepting the farewell he bids, given that they will soon reunite. According to the theory of Ptolemy, the universe including the celestial bodies in it would reunite after thirty six thousand years. The poem has thirty six poetic lines, and this can possibly refer to the unification of the separate lovers after quite a long time as the planetary bodies would do.


 Works Cited List:

  1. Watson, Izaac. Life of Dr. John Donne.2010, Adelaide University Library Australia. Web edition
  2. Donne, John. Poems of John Donne.volI. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 211-212.
  3. Ibid. 212