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John Donne’s metaphysical poetic work A Valediction: Of Weeping explores the emotional ending of a relationship between the narrator and his lover, specifically centered around their outward emotional response through crying to express their adoration towards one another. The poem additionally follows the speaker’s developing opinion on what crying and tears represent and mean to him and his relationship with the listener. Throughout Donne’s extensive and dramatic mastery of metaphor as well as the use of figures of thought, tropes and non-tropical devices, the reader is able to delve into the world and imagination of the reader when saying farewell to their lover and additionally make us question whether the relationship is one that allows one another to create, or shall simply end in destruction.
The first stanza of the poem represents a man who is in the throws of anguish at leaving his lover, and is wishing to express just how much of a profound affect the grief is having on him through shedding tears. The speaker initially puts forward to his lover that he wishes to cry in her presence before he departs on a long journey that will separate them and end their relationship. By utilising the phrase; “Let me pour forth”, it illustrates to the reader that the female lover does have an element of power over the speaker, as he is asking for her permission if he may act on his emotions, and by utilising the word ‘pour’ it conveys ideas of an immense wave of tears that he wishes to spill in order to encapsulate his grief. In line 3, by Donne using sibilance when describing the metaphor of his tears becoming coins stamped with his lover’s image, it allows the line to swell and lead onto the next, which showcases how it is only through the lover’s reflection that tears are given any worth. When describing what the contents of the tears represent to him, the speaker describes them as being “pregnant” and “fruits”, which gives them a metaphor of creating and also of the female reproductive organs, as if she is the sole cause of his grief and is responsible for whether it destroys him or not. The final two lines of the first stanza contain a rather complex metaphor, as it could signify either the speaker being in anguish that he must separate from his lover in every sense, or is an act of bitterness and a sudden harsh reality of what their relationship shall become:
“When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.”
As the speaker’s tear falls, as does his lover’s portrait within, and the tear becomes empty and devoid of meaning, it becomes ‘nothing’. Both the tears and the ocean separating the lovers from one another are bodies of water, and so too they signify the separation that they shall undoubtedly face. The word “fall” additionally has connotations of unfaithfulness, and throws into question what the true nature of the relationship is. This emphasises how equivocal John Donne’s poetry can truly be, as it allows the reader to interpret the lovers in any way they desire. The first stanza of the poem commences the conceit that encompasses the entirety of its three stanzas, in which we discover just how many ways that tears can be represented and meaningful to the speaker as well as his connection to his lover.
The second stanza commences with another spherical object, but instead of the speaker’s tear, he is describing the world without any geographical lands; a “round ball”. By using metonymy to describe a world that has yet to be created in order to give it meaning, it ties a link between the earth and the speaker’s tears; without the lover’s reflection to give meaning to his tears, then it is also ‘nothing’. Donne also makes use of irony when describing how a workman would create a globe:
“And quickly make that, which was nothing, all;
So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow”.
Just as a workman creates something beautiful from virtually nothing, so too Donne has managed to take something as simple as a tear, and transform it to represent earth, heaven and the entire universe that these two lovers share through his masterful use of conceit. By using parembole when saying ‘yea world’, it exhibits how the tear is a microcosm which symbolises the macrocosm of the lovers’ entire world. The tear is a product of the life and the world they have created together, and is parenthesised so as to emphasise this. Once again, similar to the first stanza, the last two lines in the second stanza are capable of multiple interpretations;
“Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow
This world; by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.”
The final lines could represent either the lovers’ physical world or emotional reaction to the others’ grief. By them parting ways, they are physically destroying the life that they have created together, and emotionally, if either one of them gives in to weeping in front of the other, they shall be forever tormented. It is obvious in the final line that the speaker’s happiness depends on their lover, and this is illustrated through the hyperbole that love and happiness is ‘heaven’. The conceit has now developed as a metaphor that encompasses the entirety of the world and the spiritual realm, illustrating how this love has created everything for them, and their grief has the potential to tear it all down.
The final stanza represents the stage in which the conceit is brought to its full extent, as the tear has now fully transformed itself into another globe; the moon. In this final metaphor, we are able to see just how much power the female lover actually has over the speaker and especially over his grief. The first line of the stanza; “O more than moon” employs assonance and alliteration in order for the speaker’s declaration to sound both mysterious and loving, as he adores his lover, but is nevertheless wary concerning the level of power she holds over him, and this is something that he does not wish to experience. Within this stanza the turning point occurs; when the speaker changes his stance on shedding tears, and believes it shall just bring about more grief. This is effective as it showcases the paradoxes within the relationship, as they both want to show the other that they care, but they do not wish it to destroy one-another. By Donne personifying the sea and wind throughout this stanza, it highlights the unpredictability that is connotated with sorrow, how experiencing an insurmountable amount of any type of emotion is extremely overwhelming and how it usually does more harm than good to the person that you love. The final two lines of the entire poem ends in a rather fitting form of a Donne poem; with a paradoxical statement. ‘Sighs’ are usually connotated with being alive or lovingly desiring someone or something, but for the speaker, it would bring neither them nor their lover anything but unsurmountable pain and grief. We are left with the paradox that the lovers each have the ability to create and destroy, to build one another up or tear each other down, and this is left open to elucidation by the reader.
Overall, A Valediction: Of Weeping by John Donne is a complex and multi-faceted poem that explores not only the triumphs and challenges that the two lovers face when deciding how overcome their own grief, but also how as a reader it is open to interpretation. Throughout Donne’s use of a variety of features such as conceit, word choice, metonymy and metaphor, we are able to form our own explanation of his moving poetry. Whether it represents a love that is meaningful or bitter, equal or unbalanced, ‘nothing’ or ‘all’.
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