Wednesday, 7 October 2015
A Valediction Forbidding Mourning: A Critical Analysis
Parting is in Donne’s love poetry is what Death is in his religious poetry – the test of faith. He handled this theme in different ways. His Picture, where the lover is about to go to the wars, fears how he may look when he returns, is one of the most beautiful of Donne’s songs: “Sweetest love, I doe not goe/ For weariness of thee.” The theme is handled at greater length in one of Donne’s most torturous poems: A Valediction: of my Name, in the Window. Here the lover scratches his name on a pane of glass as a charm to secure his mistress’ fidelity during his absence. In A Valediction: of the Book, he advises her to spend time while he is away making a book for the lovers out of the letters that have passed between them. On these last two, though they contain fine messages, intellectual ingenuity has destroyed the sense of poignancy of parting. But in A Valediction: of Weeping, in spite of its celebration, the loss and pain of parting are rendered by the passionate music of the verse.
But the present poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, that depicts the lover’s attempt to dissuade the beloved from mourning their separation by showing logical reason, lacks the emotional and passionate mood that may drench the sorrow of separation. Like The Good Morrow, the poem celebrates higher spiritual love that stands apart from the gross sensuality of ordinary lovers. That’s why the lover asserts that the separation cannot affect their love which is not associated with bodies that may be separated, but with soul that cannot be separated. But the lover comes to his conclusion logically citing examples, witty comparison, ingenious conceits and far-fetched metaphors.
As the poem opens, we find the poet comparing their separation with the death of “virtuous men” who “pass mildly away/ And whisper to their soul to go.” Similarly the poet bids her beloved to accept their separation quietly without “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”: “So let us melt and make no noise/ No tear-floods nor sigh sigh-tempest move”. Otherwise it will profane their sacred love by revealing it to the common people. Men are afraid of earthquakes and the damages caused by them. But the moment of the heavenly sphere, cause by them, though much greater and violent, is quiet and harmless. Similarly ordinary lovers may lament a separation but their love is so holy and pure that they have no feeling of loneliness. This contrast of the corruptible earth and the incorruptible heaven leads to the contrast between “Dull Sublunary lover’s love” whose animating principle is sensual desire and the refined love of the poet and his beloved. A love which is “elemented” or “composed” of physical contact cannot endure absence. But the refined sort of love which joins soul to soul can endure absence. As their souls are joined into one, there can be no breach but only expansion. The poet explains with the image of gold, the purest metal, which can be beaten out almost to transparency, but it will not break: “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 alchemical symbol for gold was a circle with a point at its centre and it has been suggested that the memory of this led Donne to his final image of the compass. If their identities are not one, but two separate entities, the poet compares them to the two feats of a geometrical compass. The soul of the beloved is like the fixed foot of the compass as she stays at home. The poet’s soul is like the other foot of the compass which moves in a circle: “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.” The fixed foot leans towards the moving foot and afterwards the moving foot rejoins the fixed foot. The rejoining of the encircling foot suggests the return of the poet to his beloved and their union – in spite of their separate identities – is the very consummation and joy of love: “Thy firmness makes my circle just,/ And makes me end where I begun”.