Bold and Daring
In the seventeenth century, John Donneís writing was considered extreme. His style became known as metaphysical, a name given to such poets by critics. The term metaphysical is a word used to define something that is based on human reasoning. The Metaphysicals combined mind and intellect with emotion and nature, and they were accused of writing revolutionary poems just to display their learning. Poets who came before the metaphysical writers based their poetry on sweet, smooth musical verse. However, metaphysical poetry wanted no part of the old ways of writing. Thus, metaphysical poetry can be described as bold and daring. It can also be described as sharp and unique. Although this new poetry was criticized greatly, it has become well known in literature.
John Donne is probably the most famous metaphysical poet. One of his most famous poems is "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." In this poem, he combines metaphors, imagery, and emotion to convey the intensity of the poemís meaning. Figurative language is used in the poem to illustrate to his addressee (his wife) preceding an impending lengthy separation that although their separation will be difficult, their sacred love will remain strong. The poem has been suggested to have been written with the intent to explain to his addressee why their separation was not a cause for great sorrow. The poet was probably leaving for France in 1611 on a European tour with his friend Sir Robert Drury. Ann was sick and pregnant and protested being left behind (Cavanaugh).
Donne uses two metaphors to explain just how he and his wife remain united when they are apart. In lines 13-16, Donne describes "dull sublunary loverís love." The poet says that mortal love changes because it is physical. Physical love is only present when the lovers are together. These relationships deteriorate when their bodies become separated from one another. In lines 17-20, Donne tells his wife that because their love is "so much refined," it will withstand the test of distance. He continues to explain to his wife that their love is permanent. He uses the first of two metaphors in lines 21-24; Donne compares their spiritual love to "gold to airy thinness beat." Here he compares their relationship to a thinly pressed sheet of gold. The "airy thinness" emphasizes the stretching of the loverís souls (Cavanaugh). They will remain as one, regardless of the distance between them. The gold used by the poet symbolizes a strong and sturdy material that will not crack simply because of distance. Donne and his wife share a spiritual oneness, and because of their unique relationship, their love is "undaunted by distance" (Louthan 49).
In trying to convey his message to his wife, Donne also compares their relationship to a geometric compass (25-28). Donne uses the compass to say to his wife that if they are two people, they are two souls joined at the top to make one. He continues to tell her that she is the fixed foot or prong because he must go away. When one lover goes away and that prong moves, the other prong leans inward so that the two souls are not separated (Donne 29-32). Just as the legs of a compass are sturdy and will not bend, so is the coupleís unfailing love. "The conceit of the loverís souls as Ďtwin compassesí is the most famous of Donneís conceits" (Unger 53). It is unique that Donne does not compare his love to a more traditional object such as a rock, but he compares his love to a compass instead (Cavanaugh). The compass to which the speaker is referring is a geometric compass. However, a compass is also a tool used to direct oneself when lost. This ambiguous analogy shows that their love will serve as a light to guide them while they are apart. This comparison does serve its function and is rather creative instead of sensual or physical (Warnke).
Donne uses these two metaphors, the thin sheet of gold and the compass, to portray his basic theme of the poem. He says that for them, absence is only an illusion and that parting never occurs (Louthan 50). The lovers share a spiritual love on which distance has no effect. The speaker insists that the two people are one in reference to the biblical meaning of marriage. In these two metaphors, Donne emphasizes the traditional marriage ceremony in which two become one (Cavanaugh).
There is a distinct relationship between theme and imagery, a correspondence that is similar to the relationship between metaphor and the poemís theme (Bauer 98). Donneís images are very different from other Elizabethan poetry. His images are taken from science. He often speaks of maps and travel. The reader can see how the European Renaissance greatly affected Donneís writings. Generally, Donneís imagery is less picturesque and more philosophic (Grierson 26). The scientific imagery he uses brings the reader further into the poem. He captures the readerís intellect. In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne uses imagery to aid in the portrayal of the poemís meaning.
Donneís theme, the spiritualization of love, is shown by the images of the sixth stanza (Bauer 104-105). In lines 21-24 of the poem, the souls of the two lovers, "which are one" are compared to "gold to airy thinness beat" (Donne). The poetís use of gold is explosive with meaning. Traditionally, yellow is a color of warmth and brightness. It is a color that brings light and is often associated with the healing hand of God. Here the yellow color of the gold is meant to bring comfort to the lover in despair. Historically, poets have used gold as an image for decoration in their poetry (Warnke). Gold is also a very valuable and precious mineral, much like the lover Donne is leaving behind. In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne is using gold to provoke an image of desirability and value (Warnke). The imagery Donne uses in the sixth stanza continues the idea of oneness between him and his lover (Bauer107).
Donne also uses imagery when he compares his relationship with his wife to a compass. He gives a vivid description of the compassí use. This description allows the reader to accept the comparison and understand it when there is no real connection between the two objects. The compass is used as an image of the loving couple. The metaphor may at first seem far-fetched and forced, but once the reader grasps the point, it turns out to be enlightening (Bauer 98). "Donne has achieved more than inventing a typical conceit," says Bauer (98). The unexpected connection between the lovers and the compass' feet bring the reader to an understanding of the conceit (98). The reader can visually see the loverís connection. The point where the legs of the compasses are connected lies beyond human understanding (110). Donne himself shows that he does not understand their spiritual love. In line 18 he says, "that ourselves know not what it is" (Donne). The conceit of the compasses shows that "just as the lovers are seemingly apart" they remain connected together (Bauer 97-98). This metaphor brings the theme of the poem to a climax and sets an image to assure the readers of the undying love of the lovers. Although the compass is an image in the readerís mind, it also creates an image. A geometric compass is used to make a circle. The image of the circle shows the perfection of their relationship. It shows the unity of their love. The circle allows the reader to see how each person of the relationship completes the other. Although comparing a love relationship to a geometric compass is odd, Donne creates a conceit that appeals to the readerís heart and emotional feelings.
Donne is a very dramatic poet, which is not surprising when one thinks of the time period in which he writes (Aldridge). From his poems, one can see a suggested philosophy of love that takes the place of the idealism, which he rejects (Grierson 31). Donneís poetry provokes more sensual passion than physical passion. His poetry has a purer passion running through it (27). Donne has very dramatic views on love, which contrast greatly with other Elizabethan poets of his time (Aldridge).
Donneís love poetry often is bold and liberating. He replaces traditional sentiments and diction with aggressiveness (Willy). The speakerís poetry is not a simple matter of the heart or of only the senses. His moods are complex. They are not only witty but also philosophical (Grierson 31). The content of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is intellectual and charged with deep feeling. Donne has a unique way of blending reason with passionate imagination (Willy). T.S. Eliot once said, "A thought to Donne, was an experience; it modified his sensibility" (Willy). "As a love poet, Donne displays a range of mood more varied and a concept of passion more complex and profound than any of his predecessors" (Willy). From "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," one receives a clearer meaning of eternal love, not the love only present when two people are together physically, but the love that unites contented hearts (Grierson 32). This dramatic poetry allows the reader to see a glimpse inside the lover. It strengthens the theme of the spiritualization of the two lovers, and it also makes the reader along with Donneís lover accepting of this supernatural love. When the unity of the two lovers is presented in such a way, all the reader can do is embrace it as truth. Therefore, the tone of the poem is imperative for the acceptance of such a mysterious love.
In this poem there is a complexity in tone. The opening figure, lines 1-4, sets the tone. It urges calm acceptance of their separation. Through these lines, the author shows dignity and genuineness of the love he and his wife share (Louthan 47). Donne displays loyalty to his wife and to their love. The tone is so tender that Donne becomes the model husband addressing his devoted wife (35). As the poem goes on, we see Donne speaking of the perfection of their love. Although he is very convincing that separation will not break their unity, a more somber tone creeps in. The speaker is addressing his lover, the one that completes him, maybe for the last time. The oneness of their spirits creates even more agony over this possibility of never being together again on earth. Even the title portrays this attitude. After reading the title of the poem, it makes one think. Why would anyone forbid his/her lover from mourning over his/her departure? It also makes one stop and question the use of such strong language as forbid. Another element the title brings up is Donneís use of a homonym. Suppose the title was read audibly, mourning might be mistaken for morning. The speaker would then be forbidding morning to come. The use of the homonym makes the reader wonder if Donne knew he might never return. The husband may very well be forbidding morning to come with change and a new life without his beloved. The organization of the whole poem is centralized around the complexity of attitude combined with emotion.
In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne uses metaphors, imagery, and the tone of the poem to strengthen its theme. The human souls are described as joint souls not separated by distance but only stretched. "The two souls are joined within a circle of spiritual strength," says Cavanaugh. In this valediction, Donne attempts to tell his lover not to mourn his departure because it degrades their love. His poem is unique because he uses metaphysical comparisons to show the union of the lovers during their separation. The author brings aspects of the natural world into his poem. These elements seem strange at first, but they engage the readerís whole being into the poem and create a deeper understanding of the poemís theme.
Aldridge, Judith. The Metaphysical Poets. Videocassette. Cromwell, 1999.
Bauer, Matthias. "Paranomasia celeta in Donneís ĎA Valediction
Cavanaugh, Cynthia. "The Circle of Souls in John Donneís ĎA
Donne, John. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning." The Bedford
Grierson, Herbert. "Donneís Love Poetry." John Donne. Ed.
Louthan, Doniphan. The Poetry of John Donne: A Study in
Explication. Westport, CT:
Unger, Leonard. Donneís Poetry and Modern Criticism. New
York: Russell and Russell,
Warnke, Frank. "John Donne." Twayneís English Authors Series
Online. New York: G. K.
Willy, Margret. "John Donne: Overview." Reference Guide to
English Literature. 2nd ed.
"Bold and Daring" was written by Rebekah Shahan, then a sophomore in Dr. Barbara Murrayís ENGL 1102 class during Spring semester 2001. To her credit, Shahan has been on the Deanís List.