»  John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

 

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

by John Donne, 1572-1631

 

•  Background

Important enough to have its own Wikipedia page, this poem was written for the poet's wife in 1611, when Donne was 38 or 39, she about ten years younger. Donne was about to leave on a trip to France and Germany.

Donne adored his wife, mourned her extravagantly after she died in 1617, and never remarried.


•  Notes

"To tell the laity" — to give our love away, by such sounds and displays, to bystanders (as if we were priests and they were the laity).

"trepidation of the spheres" — precession of the equinoxes.

"innocent" — harmless.

"sublunary" — earthly, non-spiritual.

"Whose soul is sense" — "sense" as in "the senses."  There is nothing to this inferior kind of love but what comes in through the senses.

"elemented" — constituted.

"Inter-assurèd of the mind" — "assure" here has the sense "made secure, pledged."  "Inter-" is "between" (the two of us). So our love is made secure by mutuality of thought and feeling, not merely by physical sensation.

"beat" — beaten.

"compasses" — of the kind used for drawing circles. One foot of the compass is fixed, while the other traces out a perfect — "just" — circle, returning at last to its starting point.

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•  Text of the poem

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 the 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 ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd 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 centre sit,
    Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as it comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
    Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun.