Earlier I posted a paper which discussed the poem by John Donne titled, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” This paper is the new and improved 2.0 edition featuring 100% more content than the last one. I was required to take my literary analysis and turn it into a research paper by pulling outside sources, including other critics and historians.
People love their fair share of raunchy poetry. It seems it’s one of the few mediums left where talking about sex can be considered highbrow. Even in Roman times popular poets such as Catullus wrote of such things. Perhaps such references so common because they are so pertinent to our daily lives. Not all poetry about sex is pornography, however. John Donne compares love and lust in his work A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, and relates to an overarching metaphor about life itself. The poem is considered a love piece written to his wife “as the two were to experience a geographical separation.” (Changzi & Parvin) A close reading of the poetry reveals that the comparison between physical and emotional — and perhaps even spiritual — love is secondary to the examination of human attraction and its relation to a higher truth. The poem is full of wordplay which highlights a metaphor that, during his era, probably would have gotten him hanged by being charged with heresy against the church. Donne writes in extended metaphor within metaphor as well, separating his thought process into two distinct parts: a statement, and an explanation. The mood of the poem contributes to the gravity of the material he is discussing. All of these parts of a whole work towards Donne comparing the act of love, it being physical and emotional in nature, to “ascending” to a higher plane, as in Hermeticism.
Hermeticism is a term for the broader philosophical and religious study and practice of occult and namely pagan beliefs which include alchemy. It was allowed for many years by the church only because of its obscurity, but when it started becoming popular, the church started cracking down on the so-called “heretics.” This resulted in Hermeticism being something practiced only in secret, hence the name. Donne is speculated to have been a practitioner or at least believer of some of the Hermetic codes, and this poem highlights some of his most obvious references to the system. Alchemy, although it was really a way of life, a philosophy, possessed many techniques and tools, and was known to those outside its circles as a way to turn lead to gold. There were the actual physical tools, such as calcs, mortars, and compasses, and there were the methods and auxiliaries, including alchemical circles, which were more representational than useful. Donne writes this poem in extended metaphor of alchemy.
Throughout the work Donne uses the language of the Hermetic alchemists and thus likens his poem to the philosophy of the alchemists. The narrator says, “let us melt,” (Donne 5) as a euphemism for what one can assume to be either marriage or sex. This references the alchemical practice of melting down metals in order to obtain different materials. The narrator likening men and women to different substances, and through bonding, these substances can become something greater. Literary analyst Williams writes that all of the human’s parts are not elements, but things that have been elemented, and the elements which make up a human can only be known as opposed to sensed. () Thus when Donne writes “lovers whose soul is sense” he is stating that though they can only feel each other physically, they must know that there is a greater connection between them. He uses refined (“…a love so much refin’d,” Donne 13) to describe the relationship between the speaker and to whomever he is speaking. He is equating the process of love to the entire process of alchemy. Later he makes an illusion to “gold to airy thinness beat” (Donne 18), painting a picture of the joined people becoming a superior form of existence, such as gold is superior to sulfur and quicksilver. The gold analogy can also be likened to the main difference between physical love and the spiritual love that Donne is promoting. “They do not experience a breach in parting but an expansion,” (Wright) like the atoms in a sheet of gold moving farther apart yet still making up a precious whole.
In the first half of the poem, Donne writes in alchemical metaphor, casting the male as one element and the female as another, with love being the catalyst. They “melt” together and they become connected. He suggests that when a man and a woman join together in some kind of love relationship, their souls become as one, and whole becomes something greater than the parts. He equates the joining of the sexes to the joining of metals. The second half of the poem involves an extended metaphor of a compass sketching a circle. Donne states that a purely physical relationship does not hold any connection, but when two souls are one — in love — they are like two points on a compass. No matter how far apart they are, they are always pointing towards each other, and when they approach, one straightens out or “grows erect.” (Donne 32). (Causing snickers since 1611, John Donne is.) The compass analogy is important as it can be a reference to text in the original edition of the Old Testament, according to Shifra Hochberg. She highlights that Donne was known to have Hebrew knowledge, and would thus be able to read the original script. It is important to note that in the original script it states, “he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in” (verse 22), but in the King James and Geneva Bibles the word “compass” is used in substitute. This is because the word for circle in Hebrew is very similar to the word compass. Donne could have known about this discrepancy and used the verse as inspiration for his choice of the compass analogy. (Hochberg) This gives the compass a double meaning. It could not only be the actual tool used to draw alchemical circles, but also a circle itself, a domain in which all things reside. Donne is equating love, and even existence, to a pattern of shapes entwined in one encompassing circle. Perhaps Donne was one of the first Freemasons. This second part of the poem explains his theory of the conjoined souls.
Donne sets a very somber mood, supporting the seriousness of the material, emulating the setting in which the information is presented. In the very beginning of the poem, Donne alludes to the Renaissance view of death, which does not exactly uplift the spirit. “As virtuous men pass mildly away.” (Donne 1) During the medieval age, alchemy regarded as a magical practice and alchemists were greatly desired by kings, as who does not want free gold? But during the time of Donne’s writing, circa 1600, alchemy was viewed as heresy, and some alchemists, if discovered with their tools (alembics, traced circles, strange metals) were sentenced to death, usually by fire. (Richards 1190) Also, considering that Donne may agree with the philosophy, it would not have been a light subject for him. A very informative but not too pedantic tone is the most appropriate. The title is also a perfect example. Valedictions are not happy enterprises. Donne is saying farewell to a belief that he knows cannot survive in the current atmosphere of thought. To state that either he is forbidding mourning, or that the mourning is forbidden, he further highlights the taboo aspect of the material, the fact that was he is saying cannot be spoken without criticism from others. There is also a dichotomy in the way he presents the material. The poem is structured as an argument but does not put forth a logical one. It uses flowery metaphor to depict a complicated and debated philosophy. The inappropriate vessel “illustrates the characteristic interplay, in Metaphysical poetry, of thought and feeling, ingenuity and emotional intensity.” (Recommended Reading: 500 Classics Reviewed)
A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning is one of Donne’s most well known poems. Many have taken it as a lesson in their marriages. Donne obviously meant more than to support the idea of monogamy, however. His motivation came from his desire to describe Hermeticism in a way that the layman — educated poem enthusiast — could understand. With the subtle choice of alchemical vocabulary, the extended metaphors within metaphors, and somber, serious mood, Donne explains a philosophy using an emotion anyone can understand. Some may argue that this could even push people to more easily accept his views. If this is true, then the poem has fulfilled its purpose.