John Donne Seminar

We’re having a seminar on John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. I think I understand most of what’s going on, but I have one question, which if you could help me understand, I would be very grateful.  Is this a poem about death, i.e. is the speaker dying?  Why does Donne mention virtuous men passing away?  What is the purpose of all of the alchemical references and circular imagery?

Okay so that wasn’t one question…

Here’s the best copy of the poem. It’s a few poems down.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
4 Responses
  1. Pig says:

    No Peter I do not believe that this poem is about death. The speaker is not dying but going on a trip, apparently a distant one. The subject of the poem is the quality of the speaker and his lady’s love in the face of the absence occasioned by this journey.

    He mentions virtuous men dying as a simile for how he wants his parting to occur; i.e. without wailing and crying and other bullshit.

    Donne loves using alchemical imagery but I don’t feel like I could do it any justice in a short post. The image of the circle and the compass, which “grows erect” ha ha, at the end is the key to the understanding the poem and the exact nature of the speaker’s love.

  2. AJJP says:

    I thought it was about love. The compass is supposed to have something to do with love remaining constant despite the distance between the lovers. I think I remember my 3rd grade teacher telling us that Donne used to travel a lot and he wrote that for his wife…

    Wait a minute… that’s exactly what Pig said…

  3. Lord Bloch says:

    Our Faculty Seminar went pretty well. We jumped around the poem more than I would have liked to. I think it’s good, in order to get a good sense of the movement of the poem, to go slowly through it and try to understand exactly what’s going on.

    We came to the conclusion that there is some sort of discrepency between what the speaker says and the imagery he uses. The metaphors start to fall apart. The speaker compares his love to this heavenly thing; he claims that “dull sublunary lovers love” with the senses (the body) only, but our love “so refined,” is above theirs. He uses the image of the stiff twin compasses, but cannot, despite his eloquence and rhetorical flourishes divorce the body from the soul, and the sexual imagery and punnery creeps in.

    The faculty tried to make sense of this, and we decided that Donne the poet is trying to show us something about the nature of true love and the relationship between body and soul through the speaker. The speaker doesn’t necessarily represent Donne’s point of view. I seem to think that the speaker himself is unaware of the ironies in his seemingly airtight valediction. He would have us believe that absence isn’t so bad when the minds are “inter-assured,” but we all know that to be false when the rubber meets the road. The speaker uses a great deal of alchemical imagery, which we know the end of alchemy is to create gold ex nihilo, which is pretty difficult, nigh impossible. I contend that the speaker’s use of alchemical references ironically point out the nature of his speech: it’s as if he’s trying to create this pure love, just like an alchemist creates gold.

    In the end I got a much better understanding of the poem, and I think that I’m starting to get a better feel for Donne’s idea of love and the body/soul relationship.

    If you haven’t already, check out my paper on Donne’s “The Exstasie.”

  4. Peter Louis Kane says:

    Contra Swine-ium:

    There is no clear referent to distinguish long trip from death, but in light of the rather Platonic distinctions between material and spiritual reality, it matters little. In the virtuous soul (according to this poem, one who is not sense-based) material, death or simple departure have little difference, as to regard the matter of their person (hands, skin, lips, etc) profanes the noblest love. More simply, if I shouldn’t give two shits about your lips, I don’t really care whether you leave or die, as veritable love is untouched either way. Alchemical imagery seems to be equated in some capacity to that baser sensuous (made of elements) love, as even gold is lesser than an airy form.

    Another subject altogether–it just occured that the speaker may be “obliquely” running away from the lover, using a rhetoric of stoicism to avoid any difficulty in going on that “long trip” that Pig was speaking of. Sort of like the opposite of Coy Mistress.
    PS: this was not really contra anyone, I just was feeling the pendantriactivity.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>