Let me start this blog off by proclaiming how much I love John Donne’s poetry.
Beyond the beauty of his verse, his poems are just brilliantly intricate. He is able to take love poetry and turn it into an intellectual exercise. This quality of Donne’s poetry, his ability to explore an idea through multiple similes, has been referred to as his wit. One of the best examples of his wit comes through in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
The situation framing the poem is the speaker needing to depart from his beloved for a long period of time. The poem opens with a tableaux of a death bed, and the speaker pointing out how softly death comes:
As softly as breathe leaves the dying body, the speaker tells his beloved so they must part. The speaker admonishes that if they were to grieve at their parting, they would then show their love to be of a lesser type, one that is carnal or predicated on their bodies:
The reference to “dull sublunary lovers’ love” whose soul is all sense are those lovers who are preoccupied with each other’s physical presence. (“Sublunary” here means those existing beneath the moon or earthly.) The type of love that the speaker and his beloved possess exists within their souls. Even going further, the speaker claims he and his beloved share the same soul. Donne’s concept of love here is grounded in the Neoplatonic theory of love. Neoplatonists saw there being a hierarchy of love, with the love divorced from the body and existing in the mind as being highest form of love we could attain.
Then in the seventh stanza, the lovers become a compass.
Each lover acts as a leg, with one circling the other, forming this image.
The genius of this poem lies in how Donne connects all of the different conceits for the lovers. First, the lovers become the heavenly spheres encircling the earth. (Donne ascribed to a Ptolemaic, or Geocentric, cosmology.)
Then the lovers are transformed into a compass, the one traveling around the other, creating the image above. But what about the image of the lovers as gold beaten into an airy thinness? Well, Donne does connect this metaphor of the lovers to the other two metaphors. Here’s the symbol of gold in alchemy:
The important takeaway here regarding Donne’s poetry is that love is an intellectual experience, not one defined by the body.