John Donne
A Valediction: of Weeping, and
A Valediction: forbidding mourning

by Ian Mackean

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.


A 'valediction' means a parting, leave-taking, and saying goodbye. In both 'A Valediction: of Weeping' and 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' Donne is taking leave of a lover, but while having many similarities characteristic of Metaphysical poetry, the two poems convey very different moods. 'A Valediction: of Weeping' is a passionate plea, while 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' is a gentle confident persuasion.

On first reading 'A Valediction: of Weeping' one is struck by the numerous references to water made by the poet: 'powre . . . tears . . . shore . . . waters . . . dissolves . . . seas . . . weepe . . . drowne'. This immediately gives the impression of weeping and an outpouring of emotion, and the opening line:

Let me powre forth

tells us that the poet intends to 'pour out' his feelings.

Typically for Metaphysical poetry, the poem is written in a colloquial manner, capturing the tone of everyday speech. The poet is talking to his mistress expressing regret that he must leave her, and, again in keeping with the manner of Metaphysical poetry, he is presenting an argument, trying to persuade her to stop crying by conveying ideas in the form of logical reasoning.

In presenting his arguments Donne draws analogies from many sources, particularly from the industry of minting coins, and the craft of cartography. He introduces worldly analogies, even at times mundane ones, in order to make his reasoning seem more logical and more real.

'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' opens with an idea of death:

As virtuous men passe mildly away

This idea of death is not associated with fear, but with peaceful acceptance and mild sadness. As in 'A Valediction: of Weeping', the meaning is presented as a reasoned argument, but here the argument is quieter and calmer.

In contrast to the passion-filled images of water and the outpouring of emotion in 'A Valediction: of Weeping', the main image of 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' is of the stable unity and wholeness of a circle, or sphere.

No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,

. . . Thy firmness makes my circle just

This poem also draws upon crafts and industries for analogies, in this case the crafts of guilding and draughtsmanship. The meaning of 'Thy firmness makes my circle just' lies in it's allusion to drawing a circle with a pair of compasses, where the point of the compass remains fixed while the pencil draws a circle.

The poem has an ethereal quality to it, the poet describing their love as a spiritual uniting of souls which is above the sensuality and emotion of love between men and women.

. . . But we by a love so much refined

. . . Dull sublunary lovers love
(whose soul is sense) . . .

. . . Our two soules, therefore, which are one

The essential idea of 'A Valediction: of Weeping' is the poet persuading his mistress to let him weep while they are together, for they are soon to part and this causes him grief. Using the clever conceit of likening the outpouring of tears to the minting of coins he conveys that his tears are as much a part of her as of him, and they only have meaning because they are for her:

For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they beare,
And by this mintage they are something worth

'and thy stamp they beare' suggests that just as a coin bears the stamp of a head, her face is reflected in his tears.

He says that all they have together will be lost when they are parted:

so thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

When she starts to weep with him he asks that they both stop crying because their expression of emotion takes them closer to death:

Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Who e'r sighes most, is cruellest, and hasts the others death.

He is about to go on a voyage by ship, where he will be at the mercy of the elements. He draws an analogy between her tears and the sea, and between her sighs and the wind, fearing that the elements might take example from her and sink his ship.

In 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' he is also pleading for an unemotional parting, this time not because he feels the emotion is too much for him, but because their love is spiritual and above the level of emotion. He argues that as their love is of the spirit it can never be broken. Their souls are always united, and that is all that is important.

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion

In both poems the ideas the poet is trying to express are so abstract that he needs extended metaphors from the worlds of practicalities in order to support them. In the opening stanza of 'A Valediction: of Weeping', as described above, he compares his falling tears to coins being minted, saying that they would be worth nothing without her 'stamp' on them. In the second stanza he develops this idea by comparing his tears, and his world, with a geographer's globe. He argues that a globe without countries marked on it would be worthless.

On a round ball
A workman that has copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All.

He implies that together he and his lover become 'all', in keeping with one of the themes of metaphysical poetry: the 'all-sufficiency of lovers'. With her his world is all that matters to him; it is his heaven.

Donne also refers to his tears as fruits, that is, perhaps, as the end product of unseen natural processes. He also refers to them as emblems, that is, as interpretable symbols, in this case symbols of more grief to come:

Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,

As well as saying that his heaven will be lost when they part, he makes a picturesque reference to the blurring of vision caused by tears in the eyes:

by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolves so.

His mistress is 'more than the moon'. In the same way the moon pulls the tides on Earth, so she is drawing tears from inside him.

O more than Moone,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy spheare

The first metaphor in 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' compares the expression of human emotion to the force and movement of the elements on Earth.

No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move

The emotions of other people are like floods and tempests, which were thought to have repercussions in human life, but their love is above that, and portends no evil, like the movement of heavenly bodies in space.

Moving of th'earth brings harmes and feares,
Men rekon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
Though greater farre, is innocent.

The physical love of the 'layetie' is far below their heavenly uniting of spirits.

Dull sublunary lovers love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence.

But we by a love, so much refin'd
. . . inter-assured of the mind.

He goes on to argue that their spirits cannot be separated but only extended, as gold is extended when beaten into gold leaf.

Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

The couple in love, separated physically but united spiritually, are like a pair of compasses, two separate points at on end, but joined at the other. She is like the point which remains fixed, and he is like the pencil which draws a circle. The fixed point leans in sympathy with the other when it is at a distance, and straightens up when they are closer.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two

Yet when the other far doth rome
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as it comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me.

Typically of Metaphysical poetry, the poems have a similarity in style in that they are both presented in the form of persuasive speech. In both the poet begins by presenting his mistress, and us - the readers - with analogies to convey the situation he is in. He progresses from there to state what should happen next in terms of the analogy and the dramatic situation, and he chooses his adjectives and metaphors so well that his argument cannot be faulted.

Whether the arguments he is presenting relate to any real life situation or not is beside the point. In these poems Donne is not trying to make any significant or sincere statements, he is simply writing poetry for its own sake.

There is a significant contrast in the form of expression of the two poems, emotionally and in the verse form. 'A Valediction: of Weeping' expresses the idea of great passion, and the versification is lively and varied. He regularly intermixes lines of five feet with lines of two, giving heightened feeling to the lines of two, and adding vigour to the rhythm of the poem.

In 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' the lines are all of four feet, giving the poem a confident peaceful rhythm. There are no urgent passions being expressed, more a feeling of calm serenity.

Finally, we can note that both poems adhere to a strict rhyming pattern, while again the pattern of 'A Valediction: of Weeping' is lively: (ABBACCDDD), and that of 'A Valediction: forbidding mourning' is steady: (ABAB).

The Metaphysical Poets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1957 (revised 1972)
Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Harmondsworth: Pelican. 1972
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. OUP 1973

See also:
John Donne. Love Poetry
John Donne. Religious poetry. Holy Sonnet (Batter my Heart) and A Hymn to God the Father
John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan: Religious Metaphysical poetry

© Ian Mackean, March 2007


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