Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne
The principal theme of the poem is that lovers remain united even when they are physically separated. Donne proves his idea by argument, conceits, passion, and thought. It is believed that Donne left for France in 1611. He gave this poem to his wife at the time of his departure. The poet advises his wife not to mourn the temporary separation, because their love remains intact despite their parting. Parting brings their souls even closer.
The biographical details of the poet, however, are not essential to the appreciation of the poem. The poet has universalized a personal experience. The poem is a remarkable illustration of intellectualization of passion and has Donne’s famous conceit of compass towards the end. The poem quietly begins with a metaphysical conceit. Virtuous people are not afraid of death. They visualize the life beyond death. So they pass away quietly. To the Elizabethans, separation is the death of the lovers.
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The poet believes and convinces his wife that separation strengthens love.
Otherwise, separation is unimportant, even impossible. Even parting lovers don’t part. And separation is the expansion of their love. The poet asks his beloved to part quietly without creating a scene : So let us melt, and make no noise. The word ‘melt’ has many meanings. It implies ‘separation’, ‘death’, ‘tenderness’, etc. Let there be no floods of tears and no tempests of sighs, so characteristic of the Elizabethan lovers. It would be vulgarization of their love. Love is a mystery to the world, but not to the lovers. Let this mystery not be revealed to the world.
Then the poet contrasts the physical love and spiritual love. The ordinary lovers are earthly, but spiritual lovers are divine. An earthquake causes great damage. People calculate the damage and the threat. On the other hand, the movement of heavenly bodies, though much greater, is harmless. The poet wants that his wife should let him part quietly. The earthly lovers cannot separate from the beloved, because their love or lust is tied to the limbs of the lady. They cannot afford to be away from those lips, eyes, and hands.
The love between the poet and his beloved is spiritual and springs from mutual faith and understanding. It is mutual mental assurance. Theirs is the union of the minds and souls. The lovers unite into a single being, sharing a single soul. Their unity is not damaged by physical separation. The greater the distance, the stronger the soul. Separation is no breach, no break. Their love is precious like gold. It is expansive. Gold beaten thin covers an unexpectedly vast area. So their love will not break because of separation, but becomes rare and refined : 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. The phrase ‘airy thinness’ has divine associations. It suggests angels in the air and the angelic or divine love between the lovers. If the lovers do not share a common soul, Donne argues that their individual souls are joined together at the top, like the legs of a compass. Perhaps no other image is used so often to illustrate metaphysical poetry and metaphysical conceit. The beloved who stays at home is like the fixed foot, fixed at the centre. It is fixed.
It does not seem to move, but it does when the other foot moves. It leans and follows the roving (moving) foot. The roving foot, i. e. the lover, having completed the circle, returns to the centre and is reunited with the fixed foot. Donne believes in the love that has faith and firmness of the beloved which helps the lover to complete his circle (or journey) accurately. Eventually, he returns home to his beloved. They are face to face with each other. She is the focus of his life, the beginning and the end of his journey, and of all he wants : Thy firmness draws my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begun. Donne’s use of conceit here and elsewhere is not ornamental but functional. It convinces, persuades, amplifies, and illustrates. Coleridge admires ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. The poem is quiet triumph of the marital romance. It shows a remarkable restraint using a simple poetic form. The poem is even more meaningful today when the marital understanding it celebrates is fast vanishing. A great poet like Donne can produce good poetry out of a geometry box. ‘A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning’ is passionate logic turned poetry.