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“A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” is recognised as one of Donne’s most famous yet simplest poems. It is his most direct statement of his ideal of spiritual love. Unlike, “The Flea,” in “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” Donne professes a devotion to spiritual love that transcends merely the physical. In this poem, the persona anticipates a physical separation from his beloved; he invokes the nature of that spiritual love to ward off the “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” that might otherwise attend on their farewell. The poem is quintessentially a sequence of metaphors and comparisons, each describing ways of looking at their separation which will help them avoid the mourning forbidden by the poem’s title.
Firstly, the persona explains that their farewell should be as mild as the uncomplaining deaths of virtuous men, for to weep would be “profanation of our joys.” Next, the persona compares harmful “Moving of th’ earth” to innocent “trepidation of the spheres,” equating the first with “dull sublunary lovers’ love” and the second with their love, “Inter-assured of the mind.” Like the rumbling earth, the dull sublunary lovers are all physical, unable to experience separation without losing the sensation that comprises and sustains their love. But the spiritual lovers “Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss,” because, like the trepidation (vibration) of the spheres (the globes that surrounded the earth in ancient astronomy), their love is not wholly physical. Also, like the trepidation of the spheres, their separation will not have the harmful consequences of an earthquake.
Though he must go, their souls are still one, and, therefore, they are not enduring a breach, If their souls are separate, he says, they are like the feet of a compass: His lover’s soul is the fixed foot in the center, and his is the foot that moves around it. The firmness of the center foot makes the circle that the outer foot draws perfect: “Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end, where I begun.”
The persona then declares that, since the lovers’ two souls are one, his departure will simply expand the area of their unified soul, rather than cause a rift between them. Here Donne beautifully compares this to the same way that gold can be stretched by beating it “to aery thinness”. As Donne continues, he says that their souls are “two” instead of “one”, they are as the feet of a drafter’s compass, connected, with the center foot fixing the orbit of the outer foot and helping it to describe a perfect circle. This metaphor of the compass shows that persona’s love cannot be “perfect” without his partner, which shows the utmost adoration for his lover. The compass is also one of Donne’s most famous metaphors. It is the perfect image to summarise the values of Donne’s spiritual love, which are balanced, symmetrical, intellectual and beautiful in its sophisticated simplicity.
Similar to “The Sun Rising”, “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” creates a dichotomy between the common love of the everyday world and the uncommon love of the persona. At this juncture, the persona claims that to tell “the laity,” or the common people, of his love would be to profane its sacred nature, and he is clearly condescending of the dull sublunary love of other lovers. The purpose of this dichotomy is to create a form of emotional aristocracy. This emotional aristocracy that Donne creates shows superiority of their love and how his travels will not affect it at all.
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