John Donne's Metaphysical Love Poetry

The Unity of Souls as Self-Deception or Superiority in Donne’s Poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

Term Paper, 2018
12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Metaphysical Poetry: A definition

3. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” as a Representative Example of Donne's Metaphysical Love Poetry
3.1.The Description of “Earthly Subordinated Love”
3.2.Confident Alliance of Lovers or Hidden Mourning on Valediction?

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Most people would think of Shakespeare if they were asked for the most famous poet of the Elizabethan era. He invented the “Shakespearean Sonnet” after all, which is probably the only type of Renaissance poem German students have to read during their school career. However, Shakespeare was not the only author of sonnets during this time. Someone who deserves just as much acknowledgement in this area is John Donne, who had an especially meteoric comeback in 1921 due to the publication of T.S Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets.” Roland Greene, an editor for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, shows in the encyclopedia that many scholars actually consider Donne to be one of the greatest poets in the English language (418). His work focused on themes of love and devotion, both the physical and spiritual kinds. The latter can be also found in his poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” In this poem, Donne describes a situation every person who has fallen in love can relate to: the lovers face an upcoming farewell. Although the poem was written around 400 years ago, it still addresses issues that can be found in several poems, songs or other stories of our time. Maybe it would be too easy to compare Donne’s metaphysical love poetry to a current pop song since he elaborates this valediction with something resembling a catchy refrain: a series of four metaphysical conceits where he “unleashes all his rhetorical cleverness” as Greene calls it (418). What the title suggests and what also emerges upon a first reading is that the speaker wishes to forbid any mourning about the parting of the two lovers. They appear strong and well prepared since their love outshines the love of “[d]ull sublunary lover’s” (13). But after further reflection, and rereading the poem, the reader can deduce that the speaker is trying to cover up his worries and fears over the parting. Baumlin raises the question of whether the last three stanzas in Donne’s poem serve as a doubting promise that the speaker will return, and a plea for the woman’s continued faith (201). Having said that, I will show that although Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” first follows the theme of the title and gives arguments for the uselessness of mourning, he also creates a sorrowful atmosphere where the two lovers have to face the consequences of being absent from a beloved one. Stampfer describes this emergent meaning strikingly: “[f]or all his careful dignity, we feel a heart is breaking here” (163). While Donne’s poem is ostensibly about a composed and foreseen parting of ways, further analysis reveals a deeper theme of true loss and heartbreak.

2. Metaphysical Poetry: A definition

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, John Donne is seen as “the chief of the Metaphysicals” (2014), although he and other representatives of this group of poets weren’t necessarily aware of this categorisation. This classification happened in retrospect upon examining some poets of the 17th century, among them Andrew Marvell, George Herbert or Richard Crashaw, who shared similar “Metaphysical” characteristics in their writings. As Abrams and Harpham explain, the overall common feature was their philosophical worldview, which they expressed through their various poetic styles using distinct figurative language. The other common feature that binds these poets together was how they organized the meditative process or the poetic argument (216). The term “metaphysical poet” was first created as critique by Samuel Johnson in 1779 in his piece of work “Life of Cowley.” In contrast to the central tradition of Elizabethan poetry wherein the view of human nature and sexual love is idealized (Abrams and Harpham 216), the metaphysical “wit” is regarded as unnatural and grotesque, as it combines heterogeneous concepts and ideas and suggests similarities where there are none (Berensmeyer and Seeber 108). Nevertheless, this “Metaphysical” view on Donne’s writings developed, and after the publication of T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets” in 1912, the metaphysical style had become “the ideal poetry of irony, paradox and ‘unified sensibility’” (Abrams and Harpham 217). In addition, Greene points out that this type of poetry can be characterized by “metaphysical ingenuity, argumentative intellectuality, and stylistic obscurity” (870). It is furthermore constituted by “the elaboration . . . of a figure of speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it” (Eliot 1099). The demonstration of these three features can be seen in the use of elaborate, complex, highly inventive and unusual or far-fetched images that are applied by wit, “comparing two apparently dissimilar objects or emotions, often with an effect of shock or surprise” (Birch). This “fusion of two quite separate semantic fields into one complex image” (Nowak 87) is called a metaphysical conceit. In contrast to the Petrarchan conceit, in which the “figure consists of detailed, ingenious, and often exaggerated comparisons applied to the disdainful mistress” (Abrams and Harpham 60), the metaphysical conceit uses knowledge from various areas of expertise such as astronomy, theology, alchemy or metaphysics as an expression of newness and intellectuality (Hühn 101). Furthermore, the difference between these conceits is magnified when looking at how the metaphysical conceit portrays individual experiences: love and its depiction are not subordinated to the hierarchic structures of the English court but merge into a special, dynamic and intense private bond (Hühn 103). As an outstanding example, Donne shows us with his poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” how the combination and connection of abstract and physical images can produce an illustration of deep and longing love.

3. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” as a Representative Example of Donne's Metaphysical Love Poetry

John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” was published in 1633 in the first edition of his collected poems “Songs and Sonnets,” which is enqueued in a longer list of valedictory poems. As Targoff points out, Donne stresses “all of the anxieties that surround the task of bidding farewell” (50), which then leads to the title of the poem itself; he describes the condition of being apart from a beloved partner and insists that he and the loved not mourn about it. Nevertheless, throughout the nine four-line stanzas called quatrains which encompass the poem, he describes the upcoming separation as an urgent problem. These quatrains follow an alternating ABAB rhyme scheme with an iambic tetrameter. From quatrain to quatrain he lists several arguments against sorrowing over the goodbye. Donne uses numerous analogies and similes to emphasize the unity of the lovers despite their physical separation. This unity marks a contrast to, and in fact implies, an inferior way of loving which the characters in his poem have reached beyond. The most striking metaphysical conceit can be found in the last three stanzas where he compares the souls of the lovers with the two legs of a compass (Müller 361).

3.1. The Description of “Earthly Subordinated Love”

The title, as well as the beginning of the poem, play with the motif of death. Donne compares the goodbye of the lovers with the death of virtuous men (1-2). The first stanza serves as an introduction to the situation the two lovers have to face. The word “so” in line 5, then, is the beginning of the analogy. As peaceful the dying of the virtuous men has been, so peaceful and unnoticeable the parting of the lovers should be (Targoff 72). Ironically Donne uses the intense word “mourning” instead of “crying” or “grieving,” which implies the unusually strong connection between the two lovers. His choice of words therefore leads to the assumption that their parting will be more challenging than it may look like at first. Nevertheless, he stresses that it is not necessary to mourn about the separation nor about the death of the men because it only describes a harmonious division of body and soul. Donne even goes further and transfers the immortality of the human soul to their love relationship and therefore manifests the unity of their souls. This can be seen in line 21: “Our two souls therefore, which are one.” That is why “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” (6) are useless. The preceding line “So let us melt, and make no noise” (5) also hints at the division of body and soul, although it carries different approaches of interpretation by various researchers. As Carey argues, it can simply mean to “disappear from the scene,” (qtd. in Targoff 72) but according to Freccero, the image of melting connects to the science of alchemy (372). As pointed out in the previous chapter, Donne, as well as other metaphysical poets worked with elements from this field of interest regularly. Freccero describes how the reference can be seen as an extraction of spirit from body: “When once the melting of the gold begins, its ‘spirit’ is driven away uniformly and quietly precisely because it is so perfectly wedded to the body” (367). Pinka takes a step further and addresses not only the spiritual element in Donne’s poem but also the subtle sexual connotations in his verses by saying “. . . the man describes the couple’s disintegration at parting with the word ‘melt’, a common term for ‘to experience orgasm’” and concludes that “[t]his undercurrent confirms the man’s physical yearning for his lady at the very moment when he intellectually minimizes it, thus helping to establish the dramatic situation of the poem” (141). Furthermore, Donne even uses the religious language of Petrarchan poetry, bringing it to new and provoking heights, “as he describes the ennobling power of erotic love” (Guibbory 143) by saying “Twere profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love” (7-8).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


John Donne's Metaphysical Love Poetry
The Unity of Souls as Self-Deception or Superiority in Donne’s Poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Johne Donne, Renaissance Poetry, A Valediction, Forbidden Mourning, Metaphysical, Love Poetry
Quote paper
Sabine Strebel (Author), 2018, John Donne's Metaphysical Love Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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