Tuesday Poem – “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, by John Donne

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.

Movement of th’ 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
That 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 aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ 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 th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

– John Donne
(1572 – 1631)

This was a gateway poem for me – the poem (along with Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”) that brought me back to poetry. I had a brilliant English teacher for the last three years of High School (take a bow, Grant Andrews), who loved poetry, and passed that flame to us. And John Donne is heady stuff for a group of intelligent, articulate, sexually-frustrated teenagers! So we lapped up poems like “The Flea”, and “The Canonization”, and “The Sunne, Rising”. But it was this one that stayed with me. This is the one that I memorized, almost without meaning to. This is the first poem I gave to my college boyfriend to see what sort of mind he had. And many years later, it was this poem that we incorporated into our wedding vows. (So yes, he did understand the poem!)

Most of the imagery is pretty clear, but there’s a nice little twist that is lost on most modern audiences. The central image of the true-lovers as a circle is fairly easy to follow. As is the idea of gold – the incorruptible metal – as an emblem of fidelity and perfection. It’s why a circle of gold for a wedding ring is very apt. But it’s even more so than we realise: the alchemist’s symbol for gold was … a circle.

I’m currently playing with a modernisation of this poem – partly as a fun exercise, and partly because I think the sentiment – and the intelligence behind the sentiment – translates very well into the modern world. (Yep, that’s me: a shameless metaphysical romantic …)

Read other Tuesday Poems here!

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4 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem – “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, by John Donne

  1. A great poem, I agree, and one that’s lasted through fifty-odd years for me. I hope you’ll share your modernisation if you get it to your satisfaction.
    Belinda

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