Films + Audio Reads

So Donne, Unpacking Metaphysical Love

I think the abstraction of his work is the best part of it all due to it being so open to different interpretations. How one person defines his work could very well be influenced by their own experiences and upbringing.

I’m here to share my all time favorite poem, John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning! I’m so excited, whenever I read this poem, my heart feels elated. Imagine someone writing to you about their love for you in a metaphysical sense? Anyway, let’s begin with the poem itself…

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;
‘T’were profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the 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
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assuréd 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 airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixéd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt though be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.


Wow, just wow. When I first read this poem around 2015-2016, I was in a Writing Intensive class and just returned from studying abroad. I was feeling very romantic about life, living in a world of sunshine and roses. This is probably the reason I love this poem so much – it had depth, I could easily grasp it, and while it was metaphysical, it made the idea of a love like this so tangible, attainable.

But, what does metaphysics mean?
Metaphysics is “The branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”

John Donne championed metaphysical poetry, he was the best of his time. I think the abstraction of his work is the best part of it all due to it being so open to different interpretations. How one person defines his work could very well be influenced by their own experiences and upbringing. That makes it a hundred times more fun to analyze and unpack the beauty of it!

For instance, after I shared this poem with a co-worker, we immediately began analyzing what “mourning” meant on the title. While I interpreted it as traveling a large distance, my coworker interpreted it as someone passing away. The thing is, it could very well mean both of those things because metaphysics aims to remove objectivity anyway. Additionally, it’s often difficult to define old English since words carry different meanings then than it does now. The good thing about this? There’s no right and wrong answer.

I adore this poem so much that I tend to find a way to share it with people because I want to expose them to this idea of love, a love that I feel as a society, we strayed away from. With the growing popularity of online dating and hook-up culture, being reminded that sublunary, fleeting and worldly love isn’t the only option can feel refreshing. It just fuels the hopeless romantic part of me 🙂 I often think about how difficult it is nowadays to find substance in relationships and have told myself that I cannot afford to be cynical because I don’t want to attract subpar relationships. I still believe in the essence of love, the kind that breaches time, space, and reality.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assuréd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

John Donne talked about a love that was so refined that he is assuring his lover, it’s not just physical. It’s so pure that defining it would be a disservice.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

And even when one of the two leaves or passes away, the distance would not cause a break to their love. In fact, Donne is saying it’s an opportunity for their love to expand akin to gold being beat to it’s thinnest form. The metaphor of gold represents the strength of their love, despite being beaten, it’s still valuable.

In the last three stanzas, he compares their love to a compass. While I was in class I was imagining a compass used for navigation, but it actually refers to the compass we use to draw circles. Anyway, using this metaphor, he was able to express a form of love that was not codependent but rather one that was engaged and active. The reason I took “mourning” as travel was due to the ending of this poem, I feel like the line: “Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun.” indicated the travel involved and him coming home. Again, it could still be interpreted as passing away since “home” could be referring to heaven. This could be a possibility since John Donne also became a well-known preacher.

Before I end this post, I did want to mention a play related to John Donne’s metaphysical poetry. Wit by Margaret Edson is such a powerful play – I read it in one of my anthology books, but also watched the film with Emma Thompson. Without giving away too much, the story centers around an English professor, Vivian Bearing, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The theme of her class is John Donne’s metaphysical poems and through flashbacks of her life as a student, a professor, and going back to the present – having a former student take care of her, Vivian and the movie’s viewers learn some of life’s realities and truths. I can’t talk about this play without my heart softening because it really is one of the best I encountered that could grasp the concept of the human experience. Part of it I think is the irony of the life Vivian lived and the life she has left to live, it’s just emotional. I recommend watching the movie: 10/10.

Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings about John Donne, metaphysical poetry, and Wit! I hope you found something you enjoyed in this post and I would love to hear your own interpretations of this poem 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, please follow my website: https://jessicamcomm.wordpress.com/ or email me at JessicaM.Comm@gmail.com to get in touch. I am also on Instagram and Twitter!

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