Portsmouth Point Poetry: Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

by George Laver


by John Donne

AS virtuous men pass mildly away, 
And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, 
"Now his breath goes," 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 
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove 
The thing 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 aery 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 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 ; 
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.


This fortnight, Mrs Kirby has kindly recommended a work by John Donne (between 24th January and 19th June 1572 – 31st March 1631) dating from the year 1611, written in the midst of a major stylistic transition in his works. Fellow IB English students will of course be familiar with this poem since Donne’s poetry forms a major component of the current course, but I hope that others find the piece enjoyable and interesting as well.

John Donne was born in London and raised by his mother Elizabeth Heywood along with five siblings after the death of his father (also named John Donne) in 1576. He and his family faced religious persecution throughout most of his early life, since their Catholic faith was illegal in England at this time. Aside from the martyrdom of many of his close relatives, Donne faced the denial of an academic degree from both Hart Hall (now Hertford College, Oxford) and the University of Cambridge due to his inability to take the Oath of Supremacy, an act required of graduates at the time. The death of his brother Henry Donne, who had been imprisoned in 1593 on the grounds of religious treason, led to a questioning of Catholicism which influenced many of his most recognized works. He led a successful young life in spite of personal disadvantage, earning a place in legal school and being accepted into Lincoln’s Inn in May 1592. Much of the poetry of this era in Donne’s artistic career took on the typical Elizabethan themes of political satire and derision of other artists and courtiers as well as including overtly erotic sentiments. Some of the most notable of these pieces include The Flea, The Sun Rising and the Elegies, which culminate in one of Donne’s most unapologetically sexual pieces: Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed. It was Donne’s use of calculated wit and complex conceit which earned him the title of “metaphysical poet” from the well-known critic Samuel Johnson; although this was originally intended to be a derisive term, commenting, in simple terms, on the lack of passion and circuitous persuasive techniques notable in the work of Donne and his contemporaries, it eventually became widely accepted as a neutral term describing poets who wrote in this “metaphysical” style. Following a few years spent travelling in Europe, Donne became, in 1597, chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Thomas Egerton. His success was abruptly cut short when Donne married his employer’s niece Anne More in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and Anne More’s father, George More, an act which resulted in a brief prison sentence after which Donne was forced to scrape a living from legal work. Depending on housing provided by Anne More’s cousin Sir Francis Wolly, the couple managed to sire ten surviving children during their sixteen years of marriage. Around ten years after the turn of the seventeenth century, Donne’s work underwent what is perhaps one of the most dramatic thematic changes known in English literature. Abandoning eroticism and courtliness, his poems became far more sincere, focusing on themes of religious devotion and explorations on the aspects of divinity. It was during this period that Donne produced his Holy Sonnets, including what is arguably his most shocking work Holy Sonnet XIV (Batter my heart, three-person’d God). Towards the end of his life, he became a respected figure in the Church of England, writing various prayers and divine meditations. Among these was Meditation XVII, the origin of  the widely known and often-repeated phrases "for whom the bell tolls"  and "no man is an island". Donne died on the 31st of March 1631 and was buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning in many ways embodies Donne’s lyricism through its use of conceit and its clearly persuasive purpose. By addressing his lover in poetic terms, the writer seems to wish not only to console, but also to conceal: “’Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity of our love.” Although Donne outwardly justifies his argument for silence out of a sense of respect for the greatness of the love felt between he and his partner, some may interpret a degree of irritation and a striving towards peace at a time during which the writer’s thoughts seemed to be turning towards divinity and morality – in his own words, when his mind “bends towards the East”. The “metaphysical” styling is apparent throughout the piece, yet the imagery used remains elegant: “Our two souls therefore, which are one,/ Though I must go, endure not yet/ A breach, but an expansion,/ Like gold to aery thinness beat.” Throughout his career, Donne toyed with the concept of love, at some times, as he does here, giving it tangible physical form and at others dismantling this idea entirely, reducing it to nothing more than a “vain bubble’s shadow”. He had the unique ability of manipulating love’s form and judging the effectiveness of a given conceptualization in context. It is his use of sophisticated yet grand metaphors and sharp, near-scientific conceits such as these for which Donne is recognized today.