Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Poem of the Week 8/31/2011: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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 our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured 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 center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that 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.

John Donne

At last, a mourning poem that gathers together lovers, places, people, life and death; in its circled compass, one of Donne's primary metaphors, it inscribes the comings and goings of the things of our lives.

To approach this poem, I'd suggest following the similies, images, and metaphors Donne uses, and try to decode the story they tell. It begins with a potent similie: with a dying man and his surrounding companions. Through this image Donne presents the poem's tension and argument. While the dying man lets his own soul go, some of those around him say "no." Translated - some will accept passing, and others try to deny it.

This tension continues in the next stanza --

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.

Cosmic events replace the dying man as the metaphors at hand. When earth quakes, men scramble to explain, tensely grasping knowledge out of fears. In stark contrast -- they ignore the rotation of the planets, though that movement and change is far more vast. So why tremble when the earth does if it's merely a change; like the stars, part of the everlasting movement of all things?

Now the poem transitions to its subject; lovers appear in the lines. "Dull sublunary lovers / whose soul is sense" cannot allow one-another to part. They only sense the animal aspect of the love, the physical and bodily, and so cannot let one-another go.

This is one half of the argument -- the dull hold on, the wise let go.

And so the speaker tells his (presuming it's a man) mistress -- he and the lady ought to be like the dying man, trusting that a parting is only temporary, and moreover that in the wisdom of parting, there is not parting at all! They are like "gold to airy thinness beat," and that of a compass whose two legs journey far apart yet are not, not once separate; in truth they dance around one-another.

And the genius of this image is that the circling compass itself evokes the image of the stars that came before it, the heavens circling above us, the trace of the planets in those heavens, and so brings to their separation a greater truth. The lovers live with the same truth that turns the heavens, the one that holds man steady in death -- that of a near universal perspective.

The poem's final word, "erect" of course has sexual connotations, but I think it's more potent understood as dignity. It connotes no stretching grasper of a person, but one with dignity who experiences instead of "a breach ... an expansion."

I hope very much you all enjoy.