A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’

A commentary on Donne’s great poem of farewell – by Dr Oliver Tearle

One of the great ‘goodbye’ poems in the English language, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is, in a sense, not a farewell poem at all, since Donne’s speaker reassures his addressee that their parting is no ‘goodbye’, not really. The occasion of the poem was a real one – at least according to Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler and friend of Donne’s, who recorded that Donne wrote ‘A Valediction’ for his wife when he went to the Continent in 1611. Anyway, before we proceed to an analysis of the poem, here’s a reminder of it.

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-assured 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 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.

Before we roll up our sleeves and analyse this one, it might be worth summarising the poem’s argument, through paraphrasing it:

‘Just as virtuous men don’t complain when they have to die and leave this world behind, so let us two part without tears and sighing – to make a public display of our sadness at having to part from one another would do a disservice to our love. The movement of the earth, such as in earthquakes, can cause harm and fear, but the trembling of the celestial spheres such as the planets, although it is on a much bigger scale than earthquakes, should not worry us.

‘Other lovers, whose love is fickle and changeable like the moon, cannot bear to be absent from each other, because their love is based purely on physicality, and so when they are physically apart from each other, they cannot abide it.

But our love’s different: it’s so refined and subtle that we don’t fully understand its constitution ourselves, and it’s based on a meeting of minds as well as bodies, so we don’t care as much to be apart from each other physically, and be unable to see and touch each other’s eyes, lips, and hands.

‘Therefore, although I must physically leave you, our souls don’t feel there’s any distance between us: it feels more like an expansion, much as when gold is beaten out into thin sheets so it covers a greater area. Or it’s like a pair of compasses, where you are the one in the centre and I the one which circles it: you stay on the same spot, yet you still move, since you revolve as I move around the perimeter. (What’s more, the compasses are two in that they’re a pair, but they’re really one, since they comprise the same one instrument.)

So this is how you will be to me, as I move away from you: you will remain here but move aslant in line with the direction I travel. You remaining here enables me to travel in a perfect circle, ensuring that I’ll end up right back here where I departed from – back with you.’

So much for a summary of the poem. How should we analyse it? In ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, Donne likens the relationship between him and his wife to a religious or spiritual bond between two souls: note that he uses the word ‘laity’ to describe other people who cannot understand the love the two of them bear one another.

This kinship between their souls means that they can transcend the physical basis of their relationship and so endure time apart from each other, while Donne is on the Continent and his wife remains back at home. Other couples, who are bonded physically but don’t have this deeper spiritual connection, couldn’t bear to be physically apart like that. But look at how Donne expresses this difference between them and other married couples:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

Of course, ‘sublunary’ follows hot on the heels of the previous stanza’s talk of the ‘spheres’ – the planets but also the moon and the sun (which were lumped in with the planets in Donne’s time). Such couples are a slave to the moon’s fickle influence, implying that their relationships will not last, but Donne has just told his wife that he and she are stronger because they can bear out ‘trepidation of the spheres’.

(It’s also pleasing the way the brackets which house ‘Whose soul is sense’ enact the crescent shape of the moon: indeed, another name for parentheses was lunulae, or ‘little moons’. Note also how ‘sense’ returns in ‘absence’ in the following line: a relationship that is founded on ‘sense’ only, i.e. on physical stimulation of the five senses, will be wiped out by prolonged absence or long distance.)

If you found this short analysis of Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ useful, you might also enjoy our thoughts on his poem ‘The Canonization’, his classic poem ‘The Ecstasy’, and our discussion of his ‘A Hymn to God the Father’. The best edition of Donne’s work is, in our opinion, the indispensable John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’”

  1. And of course there is much double entendre there, which suggests there was a lovely, fulfilling physical relationship too. One of my favourite love poems in all of the English language! Thank you for looking at it.

  2. I haven’t read this poem in decades, yet I could never forget Donne’s extended compass image. When I last read it in school, my desk would have contained just such a compass, the exotic instrument of our geometry exercises, and it pleased me to no end that Donne could see that as part of a love poem. For awhile he changed how I looked at love, but ironically, he forever changed how I looked at compasses.


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