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Poetry Classroom: A Valediction—Forbidding Mourning

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Valediction Forbidding Mourning Petals photo

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.

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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)

Photo by MarimbaJLamesa, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.

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Your Comments

14 Comments so far

  1. My mind is lingering on this beginning part:

    “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.”

    Is this another characteristic of love based on far more eternal things than roses? It doesn’t have to be showy or sentimental — indeed, to make it so would be to “profane” it?

    Oh yes, I think I’m with you on calling it the greatest love poem ever written.

  2. Donna says:

    My favorite: “Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go endure not yet A breach, but an expansion”

    Nothing can separate them… their souls. He says here what is so hard to say… that he knows it’s not “as IF” they are two souls breathing as one, but they ARE. When one soul inhales they both expand in kind because there is no “other” any longer… there is more here… synergy. I really love this.

    I really appreciate the way you set the stage for each poem… I think I would spend a lot of time lost if you didn’t.

    • Karen Swallow Prior says:

      Thank you. As a teacher, those words are gold to me. It’s what I do and what I am. And you’ve definitely got this poem!

      • Donna says:

        I am looking forward to reading your book, Karen, and am now totally convinced that I can read this type of poem… No one ever set it up so that I could “step into” it. I used to think it was beyond me but so far every poem you have brought was accessible to me… HA! Imagine that!? LOL! Makes me wonder what ELSE I can get that I have been passing by not even noticing (or more accurately, not attending to because I didn’t think it was for me)?

        • Karen Swallow Prior says:

          Yes, yes, you can read these kinds of poems! I don’t know how somewhere we learned to make it hard. You just have to read slowly and intentionally, making sense out of the words the same way you would a difficult textbook (except this is more fun). There are no “hidden meanings” — it’s all there on the surface asking us to pick it up and read.

  3. I’d never understood this poem at all until I read “Booked.” Suddenly, it seemed to say everything I wanted to say to my husband. So, thank you, Karen.

  4. Karen Swallow Prior says:

    You are so welcome. That is so cool to hear. :)

  5. Jen Rose says:

    This has pretty much been my favorite love poem for… wow…. years. I remember in my Intro to Lit class a good ten years ago, I figured out what he was saying and fell in love with it. (no pun intended) Now that I’ve experienced it, I feel this poem even more.

    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.

    That. probably the best.

  6. I chanced upon this site via Twitter. After a little perusal, I came to this article which promptly rekindled my love for this era of poetry.

    Donne was truly a master, as evidenced here, and your framing of the context and imagery was entirely complementary and wholly enlightening.

    I’m looking forward to spending a great deal of time absorbing the content you provide here. Thank you for the lesson.

    • Matthew, welcome. We’re glad you found us. Enjoy your time browsing around, and please participate wherever feel like jumping in. If you have any questions, just drop us a comment here or ping us on Twitter at @tspoetry and we’ll be glad to help you find what you’re looking for. :)

    • Karen Swallow Prior says:

      Glad to have connected with another lover of Donne! Welcome!


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  1. English Teaching Resources: Incidentally, That's a Chiasmus | - January 4, 2014

    […] up, down, and sideways on litotes, synecdoches, metonymy, and sundry points of analysis regarding “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” “Tell All the Truth,” and other favorites (of […]

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