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Donne and Metaphor in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

In his poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning (Valediction), John Donne relates, in verse, his insights on the human condition of love and its relationship to the soul through the conceit of drawing compasses.

Donne brings the reader a separation of body and soul in his first stanza:

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;

This seems to say that the soul is not a part of the body, and it is only combined with the body until death, when it "goes". The use of the word "whisper" suggests that the soul and body can communicate with one another as separate entities. Furthermore, the word "virtuous" implies that "un-virtuous" men may not be able to whisper to their souls. Fortunately for the speaker, he seems to be a virtuous man, so this certainly applies. The separation of body and soul is an essential concept to the poem as it progresses, and it must be accepted for his entire argument to work. Donne explicates this in later stanzas. The fact that the "friends" disagree on this separation of body and soul requires more explanation, but perhaps Donne is acknowledging that people do not generally agree with his assumptions.

Donne describes the two souls of the lovers being intermixed, and the bodies as separate. Starting at line 21, this becomes a motif that continues throughout the poem: "Our two souls therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion . . ." Even death cannot separate Donneís lovers because the soul, separate from the body (as alluded to in the opening stanza) is the receptacle of love, and it does not die. Instead of complete separation, the speaker describes what happens as he "goes" as an "expansion". The expansion is explained by his analogy of compasses, but the mixing is made by his comparisons to liquid beginning at line 5. Donne makes use of the metaphor here to simplify his vision of "the soul" as something that can be melted, melted from what, he does not say, nevertheless, the reader can visualize a liquid, and he makes use of this. His use of the word silent suggests that unlike liquids, which make sound when moved, the soul makes no noise, and is something more like direct sublimation into vapor. The liquid metaphor yields images of flow and mixing; one might perceive a solution of two different substances, oil and water for instance; although they have not become one at the most elemental levels, they can be held in the same container and would be very difficult to separate completely. Furthermore, the silence indicates that the souls do not use speech, like "sigh-tempests", line 6, to make their love known. This apparently conflicts with the opening stanza where the soul can communicate with speech, but Donne infers that while the body may speak to the soul, two souls do not need speech to demonstrate magnificent love.

The metaphors of earthquakes, line 9, and celestial spheres, line 11, add to the readerís understanding of the loversí relationship by adding specific details about the magnitude of the love. The "moving of thí Earth" and "trepidation of the spheres" show great dimension and force of an extraordinary nature, almost beyond the human understanding. Donne uses these to explain how two different and gigantic events can either bring "harms and fears", or "innocence", which add to the theme of silent mixing. If celestial spheres (the largest structures imaginable) can shake with "innocence", then the souls may likewise share their love in silence, without the tumultuous rumblings of earthquakes, which "men" try to interpret. The contrast between the magnitude of earthquakes and celestial trepidation is likened to the love between two bodies and two souls. The souls, of course, are "greater far" in their capacity to love silently than the bodies.

While the early language of the poem relates loverís souls as one, the possibility of separated bodies, yet a single mixed soul, is described:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed root, makes no show
To move, but doth, if thí 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.

The conclusion of the poem is that the soul, or "fixed root" can never be separated like the bodies. Furthermore, while the loverís bodies are separated by great distance, they will be like the compass in that the points are wide, but the handle joins them. By using the bodies as the tenor, and a compass as the vehicle for his conceit, Donne argues that the loversí bodies are physically separated, but the two are joined by the soul, or "fixed root". The distance, therefore, is insignificant since they are only spread out and not broken offóthere is still a firm connection between them.

Donne uses the entire length of Valediction to make his point, which is carefully constructed like a geometric proof. He first asserts that when men pass away, the soul separates. Once the assumption is made that the soul is separate from the body, he tells us that the soul is mixed like a silent liquid, but that the silence does not make it any less magnificent. Finally, having made these assertions, the compass is used to illustrate the concept. The summation of the argument is that, having accepted the previous statements, his love should not worry about his impending journey:

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

The speaker states that he is like the "other foot" and must go away, but his strong love will only cause the soul, or fixed root, to lean a bit, like the handle of a compass when drawing large circles. It is precisely the strength, or "firmness" of her love that makes the comparison perfect, so that he comes full circle to return like the other leg of a stiff compass.

Two definitions of metaphor:

1. Metaphor (From Greek, "to carry across"): A comparison that likens two different things by identifying one as the other.

In mathematical symbols, a metaphor would require an equal sign, asserting that A=B, as in "That strange flower, the sun," a line from Wallace Stevensí "Gubbinal" that equates the sun with a "strange flower." Unlike a simile, metaphor does not use linking words ("like," "as," "such as") to indicate similarity between two otherwise different things.

Metaphor, however, is also the general term for any comparison, including simile, metaphor, conceit, and analogy. In his column in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould writes:

One day, as I sat at an alfresco lunch spot enjoying a view of the Acropolis, a small truck pulled up to the curb and blocked the Parthenon. I was annoyed at first, but later wonderfully amused as I watched the moving men deliver some furniture to the neighboring house. Their van said Metaphora. Of course, I realized. Phor is the verb for "carrying." And Meta is a prefix meaning "change of place, order, condition, or nature." A moving truck helps you change the order of something by carrying it from one spot to anotheróand is surely a metaphor. . . . A metaphor carries you from one object (which may be difficult to understand) to another (which may be more accessible and therefore helpful, by analogy, in grasping the original concern).

Metaphors, as Gould asserts, are "carriers" which help readers make "imaginative leaps." But it is the poet who must be the moving man, covering that distance, transporting the goods.

I.A. Richards invented the terms tenor and vehicle to denote the two parts of a metaphor. The tenor is the literal subject; the vehicle is the figurative connection, the likeness, the thing that is compared to the subject or the carrierólike the moving van Steven Jay Gould saw in Greece. For example, the first stanza of Robert Lowellís "For the Union Dead," contains a metaphor "a Sahara of snow"; the tenor is snow, while the vehicle is the Sahara desert. The terms can apply to similes as well. In Robert Burnsí line, "O my luveís like a red red rose," the tenor is "my love" and the vehicle is "a red red rose."

When a metaphor is extended and elaborated (like the image of "twin compasses" John Donne presents through twelve lines of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"), it is a conceit. (Drury, 158-159)

2. Metaphor (Greek "transference"): . . . is a trope, or figurative expression, in which a word or phrase is shifted from its normal uses to a context where it evokes new meanings. When the ordinary meaning of a word is at odds with the context, we tend to seek relevant features of the word and the situation that will reveal the intended meaning. If there is a conceptual or material connection between the word and what it denotesóe.g. using cause for effect ("I read Shakespeare," meaning his works) or part for whole ("give me a hand," meaning physical help)óthe figure usually has another name (in these examples, metonymy and synedoche respectively). To understand manuscripts, one must find meanings nor predetermined by language, logic, or experience. In the terminology of traditional rhetoric, these figures are "tropes of a word," appearing in a literal context; in "tropes of a sentence," the entire context is figurative, as in allegory, fable, and (according to some) irony. (Preminger, 760)

Works Cited

Donne, John. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. M. H. Abrams Gen. ed. New York, London: Norton. 2 vols. 1993.

Drury, John. The Poetry Dictionary. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. New York: MJF Books-Princeton UP, 1993

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. New York: MJF Books-Princeton UP, 1993

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. New York: MJF Books-Princeton UP, 1993

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