Gentle Death: the Concept of Loss in Donne’s Poetry

September 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ opens with an acknowledgement of ‘virtuous men’ passing away. The concept of death, as grounded in the first line, is an extremely striking way to begin a poem. This striking opening is a typical feature of metaphysical poetry. Usually this directness to the subject of death would seem startling, however, by using gentle lexis such as ‘mildly,’ ‘whisper,’ and ‘breath,’ the reader is immediately put at ease. The word ‘breath’, in particular suggests a peaceful passing due to the subtle ‘th’ phonology which creates a soothing and reassuring effect.

The poetic voice does not want to disrespect or ruin the love that exists between himself and his lover, so states that ‘noise’ and ‘tear-floods’ are not allowed. The refusal to show emotion may be suggestive of his confidence in their love as he believes that it will be painless for them to part. However, it could also suggest the poetic voice is in denial about parting from his lover and is trying to convince himself that it will have no effect on either of them. The third stanza effectively displays the strength that exists between the two lovers, using imagery of ‘Moving of th’earth’ and ‘trepidation of the spheres.’ As an opening focus of stanza 3, the image of ‘moving of th’earth’ suggests a superhuman power, which gives the lovers a superiority over the rest of the world. The impossibility of the image could also suggest that they would go to extreme lengths in order to be together. This is a comforting concept as it shows that they will both make an effort to make their relationship work. Even the ‘spheres’ constant movements do not have an effect on the ‘innocent’ lovers, whose love remains despite being separated.

Neither of the lovers ‘know not what it is,’ that makes their love work. This ‘unknown’, presents their love as a natural instinct, rather than a feeling that needs to be explained. This gives the impression that they are meant to be. The phrase ‘inter-assured’ also implies that they are connected. The word itself is reminiscent of being inter-linked and the word ‘assured,’ also creates a form of comfort from the perspective of a reader. This connection develops further in the following stanza where the poetic voice states that ‘Our two souls therefore, which are one.’ This is a paradoxical idea which works as it exaggerates the connection and join between the two lovers, who in reality, are separate people. The ‘two souls’ belonging together may also reflect on the romantic idea of being soulmates. This romantic idea suggests that the two lovers are destined to be, and belong together.

Donne uses the conceit of ‘twin compasses’ to express the stability of their relationship. This image is effective as the ‘fixed foot,’ also helps to exaggerate the image of stability as the word ‘fixed’ suggests a solidarity and something that is permanent. Using compasses as his geographical conceit helps to draw attention to the idea of being directed along the right path, which works effectively with the concept of the soulmates, as suggested previously. The symbiotic sentence- ‘If they be two, they are two so,’ may also be suggestive of the equality and stability that exists within the relationship.

The ending of the poem is particularly reassuring as the subject matter revolves around the two lovers returning to each other. The penultimate stanza’s end focus is on the phrase ‘comes home,’ which foregrounds the final stanza. In the final stanza, the word ‘circle,’ informs the reader with a cyclical image and as this is followed by ‘And makes me end where I begun,’ this creates a sense of certainty that they will be returning. Due to this, the poem ends on a positive note and leaves the reader hopeful for a happy ending. In ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,’ the majority of reassurance within the poem comes from displays and confident descriptions of the poetic voice’s love for his lover, as well as the positive outlook of returning to each other that is heavily focused upon-particularly at the end.

Readers can also find consoling elements in Donne’s poem ‘A Valediction of Weeping,’ which discusses the poetic voice’s departure from his lover. It focuses on the extreme misery that the parting will cause for both partners, yet, at the same time he is also attempting to console her. The opening line ‘Let me pour fourth,’ allows the poetic voice to state that he wants to relieve himself by getting things off his chest. The phrase ‘Let me,’ allows Donne to stress that he needs to outpour his emotions. The water references; ‘pour,’ ‘tears,’ ‘waters,’ ‘seas,’ that exist throughout the poem help to exaggerate this outpouring of emotions that is foreshadowed in the first stanza. From a reader’s perspective, the suggestion of weeping may appear to be consoling, because expressing your emotions openly is part of the healing process.

Donne uses interesting conceits in the opening of the poem, one of which seems reassuring. The comparison of a coin to his lover’s tears, ‘thy stamp they bear,’ shows that she will always be imprinted on him. Using currency also creates a sense of her value and preciousness. Coins are also often seen as aged and long lasting objects. This may suggest that there is no end to their love because it is so resilient, which in itself is a reassuring idea. The stanza ends on the phrase ‘diverse shore,’ suggesting a vast distance and emptiness and it explains that they are ‘nothing,’ when apart. This is exaggerated by the placement of the word ‘shore,’ which is isolated and placed on a line by itself. In contrast to the exaggerated distance and loneliness, the phonology of ‘shore,’ creates a soothing and comforting effect, especially as this is onomatopoeic of the ocean.

Similarly to Donne’s other poem, ‘A Valediction of Forbidden Mourning,’ there is a motif of circles and roundness in the poem which help to create a sense of a return to each other. The words ’round ball,’ ‘globe,’ and ‘world,’ all help to demonstrate the journey that the poetic voice is going on. ‘Pregnant’ is also a word used that creates an image of roundness. In addition to this, it gives a hint of their future, suggesting that they may eventually have a family of their own. Power is given to the subject of the poem, whose tears ‘mixed’ with his own ‘overflow This world.’ This hyperbole creates an image that presents the two lovers together as very powerful, especially when they are upset as their tears are said to have a great effect on the world. The comparison of his lover as ‘O more than Moon,’ is also a powerful image due to its suggestion of her being ‘more’ than something so essential and important. The effect that his lover can have over him is shown through her ability to draw ‘up seas to drown me.’ Not only does this suggest a life or death control over the poetic voice, shown through the lexis of ‘drown’ and ‘dead’ in the following line, but it also helps to support Donne’s concept of going on a voyage over seas.

The ending of the poem, despite revolving around death, may be seen as a form of comfort as it is stated that ‘thou and I sigh one another’s breath.’ This is shown through the ‘thou and I,’ which suggests the two being unified, whilst the soft ‘th’ phonology from the words ‘thou,’ ‘another,’ and ‘breath,’ all help to end the poem in a soft and gentle way.

To conclude, it is clear that Donne explores the theme of death in a very significant way in both of these poems. He is gracious, and ensures that the poems carry a calming tone whilst he explores the feeling loss in ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,’ and the experience of being apart from his partner in ‘A Valediction of Weeping.’ In particular, there is a lot of reassurance towards his lover in both of the poems, which helps to focus the reader on the stable and strong love that exists between the poetic voice and his lover.

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