Commentary on Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Woman in mourningA Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is persuasive as Donne asks his wife not to grieve at his going, but to remain calm. Such calmness is much more likely to be a support to him than any show of distress, however natural. The gentle persuasion is done through a series of conceits, and so this is a good poem to study as an example of Donne's method of arguing by analogy through such images. It is useful also to consider it alongside other examples of Donne's use of conceits.

The first conceit

The first conceit, or image of leave-taking, is that of dying men. It was generally accepted in Donne's day that good men make good deaths, and the mark of a good death is just slipping away quietly from life. It was reckoned evil men would be so troubled by their sins and the prospect of going to hell that they would fight to stay alive, and be very distressed.

The second conceit

This runs easily into the second conceit in stanza two. Donne says: our love is a sacred love, having its own mysteries. If we weep at parting, then people will see it and we shall thus profane our love (to profane is to treat something sacred with disrespect or contempt, or to downgrade something special and exclusive by making it accessible to everyone).

The third conceit

The third conceit, in stanza three, is a combined geographical/astronomical one. Earthquakes cause damage and attract a great deal of attention but ‘trepidation of the spheres' (movement of the planets), though involving greater forces, are imperceptible and harmless.

Investigating the first three conceits in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
  • Can you complete the conceits mentioned so far:
    • If good men die like this, then ...?
    • If the movement of the planets is silent, then ...?

The fourth conceit

In stanza four a them/us scenario is introduced, though you could say it has been implicit all along. The ‘them' are the ‘Dull sublunary lovers'.

More on sublunary: The belief in Donne's day was that change, or ‘mutability' only occurred in that which existed beneath the moon. The picture is the medieval one of the earth being the centre of the universe, and the moon, sun and planets going round the earth in circles. The moon is the first circle out from the earth, so all change takes place in that space. Beyond the moon, the other spheres are ‘immutable'. Change was seen as a sign of imperfection.

The theological argument ran: God created the universe perfect, hence the circular nature of it - as circles were the perfect shape. Though the earth had been affected by the Fall of humankind, God had limited the effects to the earth and to the space between it and the moon. In Donne's day, this was being discredited, as the planets' orbits were known to be elliptical and not circular. Galileo first published his findings on a sun-centred universe in 1610. But in terms of the popular imagination, the picture was firmly rooted. A slightly later poet, John Milton, when describing the creation of the universe, uses both the old medieval system and Galileo's new system.

Ordinary lovers cannot manage absence, since they depend on physical presence, as physical attraction holds them. Donne wrestles with absence elsewhere, especially in A Nocturnall upon St.Lucies day. Here he is certain they are ‘so much refin'd' they can face it, through the unity of their love.

The fifth conceit

In stanza six, Donne introduces his next conceit, drawn from metallurgy. Gold has the property of being ductile (it can be drawn out almost indefinitely) and malleable (it can be beaten until it is very thin, as in gold leaf). So there is no real separation.

The sixth conceit

The final conceit, taking up the last three stanzas (a very long analogy for Donne) is that of geometrical compasses. The word itself is plural, interestingly enough, though it is basically a single instrument, which remains united even when the two parts are carrying out different functions. The analogy is not perfect but it is powerful. The fixed foot (the woman) remains at the centre while the other (the man) moves away to create a circle, yet it also leans outwards following its mate. In time, the second foot, the circle (and its roaming) complete, returns to the centre. The idea of the circle provides a neat little ending to the poem: he'll come home again soon.

Investigating the last three conceits in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
  • Look at each of the conceits in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
    • Do they follow logically from one another
    • Or is each one a separate analogy?
      • If so, how do we get a sense of progress in the poem?
  • Could the conceits have been re-arranged?
  • Do you think that the final conceit is perhaps too neat? What is its logic?
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