Metaphor and Figurative Language in John Donne’s Poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne touches on the topic of the parting lovers that can forever be bonded by the force of love and later brought back together. The thematic message of the poem is that no matter what the distance, lovers will always be spiritually connected and brought back together. The poet explains to his lover that their farewells should not be filled with grief and hopelessness, and is urging her to be calm and accepting of their separation. Throughout this poem Donne uses literary devices such as similes, symbolism, metaphors, etc., figurative language, and a calming and accepting tone to represent this thought that their passion with love should have more than only physical expressions, but spiritual aspects as well.

Donne uses many metaphors, metaphysical conceits, symbols, imagery, similes, the meter, and rhymes to convince his lover that even though they are going to be apart, their love will remain the same.

An example of a metaphor and figurative language he uses is when he writes about a man dying in the first 8 lines of the poem because he is comparing two unlike things; a dying man and his friends with himself and his lover. In the first eight lines, the poem is literally talking about a man dying and taking his last breath while his friends sit around him and watch as he dies. His friends are not crying or weeping nor in despair because they know that he is going to a good place because when he takes his last breath, his soul will be flying up to heaven and they know that they will see him up there soon. When you interpret this piece of the poem figuratively, you will see that he is talking about himself and his lover and how he is telling her that she should not weep nor mourn when they are apart. He says this because he states that their relationship is private in lines 6-8, “No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; ‘twere profanation of our joys to tell the laity our love.”.

What Donne is trying to tell his lover through this metaphor is that she should not give in and weep and cry, nor grieve openly because it will degrade their private love if she broadcasts her emotions to ordinary people. He then goes on by saying that it will be alright so she should not be sad. He includes this line in the poem because tries to make his lover feel better by comparing their love to different things such as a man’s death, a compass, and spheres. Donne is implying that death shall not be feared but should be accepted with very little sadness. This use of a metaphor and his figurative language connect to the theme because when you read the metaphor figuratively it says that it will be alright when he leaves because since they have such a strong connection she shall not be sad since their connection will remain the same and because their love goes beyond physical love, which is what the theme of the poem is saying that no matter how far away he goes, they will still be connected. Donne also uses a metaphysical conceit and imagery in his poem to draw a better picture of the poem and is persuasive and also uses symbols such as a compass and gold. What is interesting about how he uses a metaphysical conceit and a symbol is that he describes the conceit as their two souls are the twin legs of the drawing compass. Donne describes himself as the moving foot of the compass while his lover is the stationary foot.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;

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

To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

At this point in the poem he is beginning his use of his metaphysical conceit and where it begins to sound persuasive. These four lines are saying that if their souls were to split into two, they are still linked in a way that the legs of a compass are linked. The “soul” that he is referring to in this line is the soul of his lover which is represented as the stationary foot of the compass because that part does not move but responds to the other foots movement. For example, if the other foot (him) that is not the stationary foot moves, then the stationary foot (his lover) follows it to balance it out. Then the poem goes on my saying:

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;

When you read this literally it is saying that the stationary foot of the compass is in the center of the paper and is the fixed foot and when the other compass’s foot moves away, the stationary foot changes to lean in it’s direction and when the moving foot returns the stationary foot stands straight. When you read this piece of the poem figuratively it is saying that his lover will stay in the same place, distance-wise and will only move when he moves such as when his lover moves closer which means that they are longing to be near each other. When he uses the word “erect” it is saying that when the two lovers come together (when the two feet of the compass lean into each other) they become excited to be near each other. This stanza is supposed to be a way for him to great an image in your head about a compass and him and his lover distancing themselves from one another while their connection remains the same.

This whole three stanza block quote is persuasive because he is trying to show her that she means a lot to him in a way that he is comparing their love to a compass to show that they will still be connected and harmonized when they are separated. He also does this by taking an ordinary object such as a compass used in math class and made it into a thing with a very powerful and significant meaning tying it into how their love can be resembled as a compass functions. This symbol, image, and metaphysical conceit ties with the theme of the poem because with his description of the compass he is saying that if their souls are every split, they will still be linked in a way that the legs of a compass are linked. This is a different way of saying that no matter the distance, they will still be connected.

Another symbol plus a use of imagery that Donne ties together with the compass is the mention of circles. He mentions a circle in line 35 when he says, “Thy firmness makes my circle just. And makes me end where I begun.”. This line in the poem is a promise from him to his lover that he will return. This line is saying that since she is the stationary leg of the compass, that she will be the significant part of tracing a perfect circle. These lines are the most significant lines of the poem because he addresses the last key point that he did not address in the whole poem until now. In the lines before this, he was saying that their love will still be connected no matter the distance, but he never mentions that they will ever be reunited until the last line. This last line says that true love can not only withstand any separation between them, but will also bring the lovers back together in the end.

The poets decision to introduce the idea of lovers reuniting at the end of the poem is to finally connect everything you read about lovers and separation so it had a happy ending and to prove that lovers can be reunited. The poets decision to use a circle in the poem is because circles represent harmony so he was trying to get a very good, clear picture in your head about when the circle is being connected from line to line, it represents him traveling away from his lover and then getting closer as he returns and then lastly they finally reunite and harmonize to create the perfect circle he traveled in. The use of the symbol and image ties into the thematic message because a circle is all about connection and coming together when you are drawing it, and the theme of the poem is no matter the distance, lovers will always be spiritually connected and later brought back together, which is what the process of drawing a circle is in relation to him traveling from his lover then them reuniting later.

The final symbol and one of the similes that Donne uses but does not go as much into depth in as the other symbols, is a reference to gold as mentioned in lines 22-24. These lines are talking about the speaker says that he has to go but he knows that their souls won’t be broken apart and they will expand to cover the distance between them. What the lines are saying literally are that even though the speaker is leaving they still will not be broken apart, but will expand to cover the distance between them like how gold expands when it is being beaten by a hammer. Donne references gold in this poem as a simile because he is comparing the expansions of lovers souls to the expansion of beaten gold. The use of a simile and symbol; gold connect to the theme because the simile is talking about how they will still be connected when they are apart and they will expand to cover the distance between, and the thematic message says the same thing which is that they will still be spiritually connected no matter the distance.

The poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is written in iambic tetrameter and Donne poetic decision to do this to serve the purpose of a straightforward argument about how the speaker views the lovers’ love on a spiritual connection. For example, he is very persuasive and argumentative in lines 13-20 because he is explaining how their love is unlike regular people’s love and how it means so much more and is a lot stronger on different levels. In these two stanzas Donne views boring people’s love as dependant on sensual connection and they can not handle being apart. He claims in line 14 that ordinary people feel that being apart will take away their bond that their love depends on. While his take on his own love he experiences with his lover is a rare and special bond and claims that he does not know specifically what their bond is but says that they are linked mentally so it matters less when they are not physically connected. This proves why he uses iambic tetrameter because he wants to convince his lover about how strong their connection is so she will feel better and not have anything to worry about when they are separated.

A poetic tool Donne uses that is very unique is a word that he included in line 19 which was “inter-assurèd”. The meaning of this word is to state confidently and he uses it in a way where he is proving that their love is unlike ordinary people love in an argumentative and persuasive tone. This connects to the choice of meter because the meter was supposed to be argumentative and the way he used the word made it argumentative by the context around the word which was him talking about how their love did not consist of a physical bond but a spiritual bond. Another reason that shows the meter is argumentative is the rhyming Donne includes which is “abab” at the end of each line such as for the words “love” and “remove” in stanza four. His decision to use rhyming in his poem is to give the poem a sense of rhythmic ease that allows you; the reader, to focus on the speaker’s argument; about him and his lover’s love, and conceit; the compass. Overall, Donne’s use of the meter and rhyming connect to the thematic message of the poem; no matter the distance lovers will always be spiritually connected, because he is using an argumentative style in rhyming and meter choice to prove their love has much more meaning than ordinary people because they are spiritually connected.

In “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne he talks about the parting lovers that can forever be bonded by the force of love and later brought back together which in other words is saying that no matter what the distance, lovers will always be spiritually connected and brought back together.


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