Friday, April 16, 2010

A Valediction forbidding mourning.

John Donne (1572 - 1631)

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
    And whisper to their soules, to goe,
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 teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
T’were prophanation of our joyes
    To tell the layetie our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harmes and feares,
    Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the speares,
    Though greater farre, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
    (Whose soule is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin’d,
    That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care lesse, eyes, lips, and hands to misse.

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
    Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

If they be two, they are two so
    As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th’ other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
    And growes erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
    Like th’ other foot, obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes drawes my circle just,
    And makes me end, where I begunne.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Written late in 1611, this is a companion piece to the second Song I posted on Wednesday, also written for his wife before he left on the two-month-long journey. The calm rhythm and regular rhymes give it a relatively firm structure that reinforces its message of assurance.

In The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis provides very useful information that helped me understand some of the imagery – particularly that passage about “dull sublunary lovers” in stanza four. The whole explanation would be too long, so to be brief, Donne is saying that the love between him and his wife is not just physical, “eyes, lips, and hands,” but transcends the realm of the senses into the spiritual, so physical separation can’t really separate them.

Then in stanza six he uses gold, which symbolizes perfection, as a picture of their relationship. The footnote in my Everyman edition of John Donne: The Complete Poems in English, helpfully informs me that the medieval symbol for gold was a circle with a dot in the middle. Then in the very next stanza, Donne compares their love to the two legs of a compass – the kind you draw a circle with. Anne is the “fixt foot” which doesn’t go anywhere, and he is the pencil, which, because of her fixedness, draws a perfect circle around her – their love is like gold.

After his release from prison, John and Anne Donne lived with a cousin of hers until the cousin’s death in 1606. They rented a house for a few years and then another friend, Sir Robert Drewry, asked them to move into his large house in London. They were terribly grateful for his help because they still had very little to live on, and their family was increasing – a new baby nearly every year.

Then in 1611, Sir Robert decided to go to Paris with the Ambassador to France, and wanted Donne to accompany him. Anne was expecting their eighth baby at the time, and though they’d been separated before, this time she felt very uneasy about it, “saying, ‘Her divining soul boded her some ill in his absence;’ and therefore desired him not to leave her.” Donne would have stayed with her, but Sir Robert pressed him, and Donne told his wife that he felt he owed everything to Sir Robert on account of his charity to them. She finally did, “with an unwilling-willingness, give a faint consent to the journey.”

The trip to Paris took twelve days, and two days later, while he was alone one afternoon, Donne had a vision of Anne – she was walking up and down the room with her hair streaming, carrying a dead child in her arms. Twice he saw her this way, and he was so visibly upset when Sir Robert returned that he had to give an explanation. After hearing the story, Sir Robert said that he must have dozed off and dreamed it, but Donne was unconvinced. The next morning, he was still so bothered by the vision that Sir Robert sent a servant back home to get news. Twelve days later, the servant returned to say that Mrs Donne had had a long and difficult labor and that her child was delivered stillborn.

It had happened on the day, and about the same hour, that Donne had had the vision of her and the child.

Walton compares John and Anne Donne to two lute strings, tuned to the same note. Even though they are separated, when one is struck, the other will resonate.

This is part five in a series begun last Monday. Be sure to read it all, and when thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

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