Look closely at effects of its language/imagery/verse form. Comment on how the poem relates to other poems in the studied selection.
There are a variety of factors which exist in Donne’s collection of ‘songs and sonets’, which serve to make his poems quite unique, in terms of both style and content. This originality is emphasised by a number of common themes, many of which are evident in his poem ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’, which I have chosen to analyse.
As a metaphysical poet, Donne focuses a particular line of argument around a central theme. In this case, it is the idea that ‘Though I must goe’, ‘Our two souls, which are one’ will remain joined in a similar way to ‘stiffe twin compasses’. This conceit (described by Helen Gardiner as ‘a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness’) is somewhat typical of Donne, keen to comply with the fashion at the time for difficulty in thought.
In belonging to a cultured and politically aware society, and thus being keen to write for a select audience, Donne is able to interweave intellectually superior ideas in his poems, sometimes in the form of expanded epigrams. An example of this in ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’ would be the theme of the third stanza. Here, Donne explains that ‘Moving of th’earth brings harmes and feares’, ‘But trepidation of the spheares, /Though greater farre is innocent.’ This introduces the idea of spherical movement, by suggesting that what are regarded as natural disasters or omens (such as earthquakes) are in fact less significant than the moving of the planets; which as humans we are unaware of.
This stanza alone incorporates two methods typical of Donne’s poetry. Firstly, there is an impressive awareness about the role of oneself within the universe, including the relationship between human beings and celestial bodies (also evident in ‘The Sunne Rising). This is particularly interesting in that Donne is able to convey remarkably broad thought using economic language and concise expression. A similar characteristic is his fascination in the discovery of far -away lands. This is referred to more directly in poems such as ‘The good-morrow’ and ‘The Sunne Rising’, although it must be noted that the reason for writing ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’ was as a parting gift to his wife in 1611, on departing with Sir Robert Drury for the Continent.
The second similarity displayed here is the effectiveness of themed imagery, in this case elemental. Donne speaks of the insignificance of the earth’s movements, having previously given instructions to avoid ‘teare-floods’ and ‘sigh-tempests’, and later dismissing those who cannot be parted as ‘dull sublunary lovers’. By having a common strand linking his imagery (later the imagery of a pair of compasses), Donne is able to make his comparisons neat and inert, keeping his expression concise yet highly knowledgeable.
In order to do so, Donne avoids the use of iambic pentameter, instead employing the use of eight syllables per line, described by Helen Gardiner as ‘a limited frame for compressed thoughts’. Indeed, the seamlessly effortless rhythm of the poem produces an air of resignation, especially apt for the context of this poem, which gives instructions to ‘passe mildly away’, and ‘make no noise’. The breaking of this meter is therefore very effective in highlighting particularly emotional lines, for example ‘Our two soules therefore, which are one, /Though I must go’, creating a poignant sense of tenderness. There is, however, an unbroken regularity in the ABAB rhyme scheme of each stanza, reflecting Donne’s ability to produce a well-structured argument suggesting an element of wanting to persuade the reader to a certain point of view, as in many of his love poems.
The question of who is being addressed in these poems is very interesting with regards to their typicality. Here, as in ‘The Apparition’ and ‘The Flea’, the poem is aimed directly to his lover, in this case specifically in its opening, where Donne compares their separation to the ‘whisper to their souls’ of virtuous men whose ‘breath goes now’. However, in the studied selection there does not exist a common recipient, only a common a desire to persuade.
I feel this poem stands out in its desire to do so, by ingeniously incorporating, ‘not by comparison but by assimilation’ (John Carey), the relationship between the parting of two souls with the ‘expansion’ of the arms of a compass. Although Guarino had used this particular metaphor previously, Donne’s enlivenment of an inanimate object is notably effective in its articulate portrayal of the concern of the poem. The idea that two souls can remain bound without physically moving together, becomes easily conceivable with reference to ‘Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show/To move, but doth, if the’other doe’, alongside the principle of being ‘Inter-assured of the mind’.
A similarly romantic use of imagery appears in the sixth stanza, where Donne encourages ‘an expansion’ of their souls across continents, ‘Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate’. This impulse to combine opposites is seen in both single images and themes of entire poems. Here, it is the contradiction of physically changing something immaterial as if it were material, whereas in ‘The Sunne Rising’, for example, the concern of the equality of both having and losing the world similarly suggests a compromise or reconciliation of contradictions.
The poem comes to a succinct ending, in its explanation that ‘Thy firmness makes my circle just, /And makes me end, where I begunne’. The “compass” imagery is thus brought to its logical conclusion in the idea that the lover will return to where he started: ‘in the centre sit[s]’ her soul. The journey has come full circle, and hence they can be reunited after the separation.
Although this poem is almost entirely focused on a particularly sensitive and ‘refin’d’ aspect of love, there is one image of the arm of the compass which ‘growes erect as that comes home’, thus dispelling the sense of bodily contact being unnecessary. The gentle tone does not make its argument any less compelling, due to cleverly constructed comparisons which are equally effective in both their persuasive technique and romantic content. Thus, I feel ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’ typifies many of the characteristics of John Donne’s love poetry, whilst retaining its own uniqueness.