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'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' (1633) is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. The central conceit compares two lovers to the legs of a drafting compass. Written by Donne shortly before an extended trip away from his wife, Anne, the poem is considered a classic of its genre.
A conceit is an extended metaphor, used mainly in Metaphysical poetry.
John Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family in London in 1572. At the time, being Catholic was outlawed, and members of his family were persecuted for their beliefs. Donne’s father, who was also named John, was an iron merchant. He died when Donne was a young child. Donne's mother, Elizabeth Heywood, later remarried a wealthy physician, John Syminges.
Donne attended Oxford University for three years, but due to his Catholicism, he was unable to be awarded his degree. He later converted to Anglicanism after being secular for some time.
Secular indicates not belonging to any religion or sect. It is different to atheism, which denies the existence of a deity or deities. Secular simply means not affiliated to any particular organised religion or religious or spiritual sect.
In his youth, Donne had a reputation for being a womaniser. He also spent most of his inheritance travelling the European continent, where he studied political systems and fought in a few wars. On his return to England, he worked for a group of barristers and then became the secretary to Lord Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Seal. His promising political career ended when he secretly married Anne More, the 17-year-old daughter of one of Lord Egerton's relatives. Donne was temporarily jailed and fired from his job.
Donne and Anne moved to the countryside, where he wrote prose and poetry but remained largely unemployed for a decade. His poetry was shared and carefully copied amongst his friends and associates but never officially published during his lifetime. In 1615, King James I requested that Donne take Holy Orders, so he became an Anglican priest. In 1617, Anne died in childbirth. Donne never remarried. By 1621, he had been elected Dean of St Paul's and became well known for his sermons.
After his years as a poet who wrote poems full of contradictions about politics, religion, love, and lust, Donne became the most famous cleric of his age. His religious sermons and prose were widely read but are less well-known than his poems today.
Donne died in 1631. His poems were published after his death, and he was categorised as a metaphysical poet by the critic Samuel Johnson. Johnson was not a fan of metaphysical poetry, and it was only later in the 20th century that poets like T.S. Eliot took inspiration from the genre. This helped to establish it as a more famous style of poetry in the modern era.
Donne wrote this poem shortly before he went on an extended trip to France. It is thought to be for his wife, Anne.
|'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' (1633)|
|Written in||1611 or 1612|
|Structure||36 lines made up of 9 quatrains|
|Meter||Iambic tetrameter and Trochaic tetrameter|
|Literary Devices||Conceit, metaphor|
|Imagery||Drafting compass, weather|
|Themes||Death, love and spirituality|
'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' is considered one of the most famous metaphysical poems and uses various metaphors as well as a central 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;
'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.
The poem is written in Iambic tetrameter and Trochaic tetrameter, creating a sense of uniform rhythm but with a few subtle variations of emphasis. You can find an example of the reversed stress order in the first line of the third stanza. In this line, the word 'moving' is stressed, creating a change in rhythm to mimic a movement.
Donne uses a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB throughout the poem.
Iambic tetrameter is a poetic meter of four iambic feet, each with two syllables. The first syllable is unstressed, with the second being stressed.
Trochaic tetrameter consists of four trochees, each with two syllables. In contrast to iambs, these syllables follow a stressed and then an unstressed rhythm.
As a metaphysical poem, 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' has a few layers of tonality. The speaker is serious and a little melancholic about having to be separated from his lover for a short time. He is also optimistic about their ability to remain connected while physically apart.
For its time, the poem was not melodramatic in tone, although it may seem that way to more modern readers.
The poem, as is common with Donne’s poetry, has themes of death, love, and spirituality. Let's take a look at these in more detail.
'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' opens with reference to the deaths of virtuous men. The speaker implies that men of virtue do not fight against death; rather, they die quietly. He alludes that he and his lover should approach their separation similarly.
So let us melt and make no noise,
No tear-floods nor sigh-tempests move;
Although the subject of death can be a morbid subject depending on the approach, in this example, it is used to promote a Carpe Diem line of thought. Carpe Diem poetry was popular during the time that Donne wrote 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' and tends to reference death as a way to promote enjoying life in the moment.
Carpe Diem is a phrase in Latin which means 'to seize the day'. Poetry based on this philosophy tended to promote enjoying the present rather than worrying about the future.
The speaker uses an extended metaphor called a conceit to link the two lovers to the idea of a drafting compass. The lovers are described as being connected, like the legs of a compass. Although the legs of the compass can move apart from each other, they always remain connected. The speaker infers that the two lovers will remain connected, despite the physical distance between them.
He describes his lover as the 'fixed foot' who keeps him stable as he moves around or 'roams'. Taken literally, this could imply that her staying put allows him to roam but that if she were to roam, the conceit would not hold up.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
The use of the extended metaphor or conceit in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' occurs later in the poem, which is usual for a metaphysical example. Only showing up in line 26 of the 36-line poem, this conceit is central to understanding the meaning of the poem.
The drafting compass is not a typical comparison or metaphor to use when writing poems about love, lovers, or even temporary separation. It is the unusual nature of the comparison that makes it a conceit.
The conceit in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' compares lovers to a compass.
In the first stanza, death and ways of dying are used as a metaphor for the different ways to express love. The speaker likens the love he shares with his lover to a mild death, implying it is not grandiose.
The speaker then switches to weather metaphors. Weather, specifically extreme weather, is used to contrast lesser loves with the speaker's love. 'Floods' and 'tempests' are used to represent exaggerated or shallow displays of love.
John Donne was a metaphysical poet who later became a famous cleric.
'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' is one of his most famous metaphysical love poems and is considered to have been written for his wife, Anne.
The poem is written in both Iambic tetrameter and Trochaic tetrameter, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB.
The typical metaphysical conceit used compares the two lovers to a drafting compass.
Key themes include death, love, and spirituality.
Yes, it is a typical metaphysical poem, largely due to its use of a conceit.
The main idea is that the lovers are linked even when physically apart, much like a compass.
The poem was written as John Donne was leaving for a trip and would be away from his wife.
The death of virtuous men is described as 'mild'.
This is an extended metaphor, called a conceit. Donne compares two lovers to a compass.
Who wrote 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
What kind of poem is 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
A metaphysical love poem.
When was 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'? published?
Who coined the term 'metaphysical poets'?
What meter is 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' written in?
The poem is written in Iambic tetrameter and Trochaic tetrameter.
What type of stanzas are used in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
What is the rhyme scheme in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
What is the conceit used in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
Two lovers are compared to a compass.
What is another metaphor used in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
The weather, or extreme weather is used as a metaphor for excessive or staged displays of love.
What are the key themes in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning'?
Death, love and spirituality.
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