What’s Love Got to Do With It?: On John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

Their love is like a virtuous man at death. Their love is like the planets in their orbits, not earthquakes. Their love is like a sheet of flattened gold. Their love is like a compass used in math class. These sentiments as they stand would do little to comfort a lover on the eve before a lengthy separation. They appear random, disjointed, and emotionless. In the context of John Donne’s metaphysical poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” these images comprise an element in the speaker’s assertion of his love, attesting to its sacredness, steadfastness, true worth, and guidance. Despite their sterile appearances, this imagery conveys a touching and profound vision of love within the context of this poem.An extended separation from a loved one can be emotionally wrenching, but Donne argues that overt displays of sadness do a grave injustice to the sacred love between the speaker and his partner. Rather than wailing and lamenting their imminent deaths, “virtuous men pass mildly away” with but a mere “whisper to their souls” that time has come to leave “their sad friends” and venture forth from the earth to heaven (2,3). The passive and peaceful images of a mild and whispered death mirror the speaker’s desire that the lovers “melt, and make no noise” upon his departure (5). He holds that their farewell must be devoid of the “profanation of [their] joys” through overdramatic “tear floods” and “sigh-tempests” (7,6). Their love refuses to be challenged by mere physical separation, thus lamentations insult the depth of their love.Although time and space divide the lovers, their bond transcends immediate and visible obstacles. The “moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears” to some people, yet those same people regard the “far greater” “trepidation of the spheres” as innocent (9,12,11). Likewise, couples grounded heavily in the “dull sublunary” and sensual form of love “cannot admit absence” from one another because the foundation of their relationship is therefore lost (13,14-15). The love between the speaker and his partner, however, possess a “refined” love “inter-assured of the mind” (17, 19). Their love remains undisturbed by “earthquakes” in the physical world because their steadfast bond lies in the spiritual, lunar realm.While the speaker’s departure may appear to be a separation or divide between the two souls, the speaker holds that they remain as one, simply extended over a greater distance. Their love refuses to be broken or “endure… a breach” in their time apart from one another (22-23). “Like gold to airy thinness beat,” their love will become “so fine that it will be spiritual,” and thus able to bridge the physical gap between them (24). The one soul shared between the lovers expands rather than breaks, like the gold as pressure flattens and lengthens it from its former state (23). This comparison to gold and flexibility of their love hearkens to the true worth and faithfulness of their relationship.Though the couple experiences a temporary separation, the speaker holds that their guiding love will bring them back together. The image of the compass illustrates that if the couple is comprised of two separate souls, these souls remain inextricably linked, like the two arms of the compass joined at one point. The movements of the rotating foot as it “far doth roam” causes the “fixed foot” in the center to “lean,” “hearken after it,” and “grow erect as that comes home” (30,27,31,32). While movement impacts them both, the fixed point holds fast. Though the speaker, like the movable foot, must “obliquely run” from his lover, her “firmness” and steadfastness in love acts as the pivot point and “makes [him] end, where [he] begun” (34,35,36). Though he ventures forth from her, she acts as his reference point, guiding where he has been, where he will go, and how to return to where he started.While comparing love to noble and understated deaths, the planetary motion, sheets of metal and an instrument of mathematics appears illogical and unfeeling, Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” employs these images in an attempt to capture the depth of the speaker’s love. A love so consuming is failed by mere description and limited adjectives. Therefore, Donne relies on these metaphors to allude to and attempt to capture the essence of pure love: sacred, steadfast, unbreakable, and guiding. Though the couple may be parted, physical distance holds no power over their pure love for one another. According to Donne, that is what love has to do with those seemingly disjointed images.

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