Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with author and literature professor Karen Swallow Prior. Karen specializes in classics and will be treating us to a discussion of classical love poetry. We invite you to respond to the poems—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Karen and each other, and write your own poems along the way.
Unlike the previous classical love poems we’ve looked at this month, this one contains no flowers, no birdsongs, no sunbeams, no shepherds, no summer days. Instead, the poem offers a shiny, steel, mechanical compass. Yes, a compass. You know, the kind with two legs (one sharp and one that holds a pencil) that you used to draw circles with in geometry. Not exactly what one expects in classical love poetry, to be sure. But hold your horses for this one, because I think this is the greatest love poem ever written.
It is believed that Donne wrote this poem to his wife before departing for what would be a months-long journey from home. The “mourning” forbidden in the title (and what follows) is the mourning, not of a death, but of a wife over her husband’s long absence. The comfort he offers in these lines is what makes it such a powerful love poem.
The speaker first suggests that their departure from one another should be as peaceful as is the parting of the soul of a virtuous man from the body. Following this opening which links the love of these two to all that is sacred and holy is the poet’s explanation for why his parting should bring no fear. It is because the nature of their love is one based on far more eternal things than a bed of posies or a cap of flowers (or “eyes, lips, and hands”). Their love is not “like a red, red rose, newly sprung in June” (with all due respect to Robert Burns). No, it is rather like a compass. Read on and see.
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, 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
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured 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 airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center 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.
—John Donne (1633)