Donne’s: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

As often in Donne’s poems, the chasm between those within the web of love and those without is apparent in “A valediction: Forbidding mourning“.  Why would one wish to forbid that which comes most naturally at the instant of separation?  The act of mourning is not solely directed towards the outside, it consoles the self, by following what has been proscribed we attempt to bring back to our lives a semblance of the order that existed before the loss.  To mourn is to withdraw from the world, and the inventory one takes of what has remained after the shock of amputation is not unlike the withdrawal of the snail into its shell when confronted with a sudden movement, a displacement.  Yet Donne is hardly given to valourizing what comes naturally.  It is difficult to speak of a word that Donne may not have used for this poem. “Mourn” does not occur in the poem itself, and the title may not be Donne’s.

To speak of the division between the lovers and those removed is easier. The fact that I use the word division is perhaps potent.  Donne is apparently speaking of a separation of bodies, an insertion of space between the lovers.  This geographical distance must be expressed with geo-navigational metaphors, so Donne speaks of the compass and the spheres.  The poem then becomes a map for true lovers to set down the “correct” mode of parting as it were.  Does Donne’s poem become a navigational aid?

It must fail if it presumes to become the manual for the moment of departure, not only because it may not be possible to adapt it to the last touch before the lover boards the airplane, but due to its reliance on the language of faith.  If we are to absorb the truth of faith, “prophanation” and “layetie”, we must be convinced of the uniqueness of one’s relationship with the divine.  Faith when adapted for mass consumption must necessarily be reduced to religion.  This argument rebounds upon itself when we realize that Donne is prescribing exactly this.  In a world that values the vulgar display of emotion, that has and always will require the black vestment of the mourner, Donne suggests, demands almost that we restrict ourselves to quiet understatement.  This is an extension after all, of the the secret language of the lover that none other can understand.  Donne is creating once again a boundary beyond which to restrict those outside, confound them as it were by producing the antithesis of what is expected.  If we are to believe this then the poem fails on another level, in attempting to escape the censure of the world’s infinite eyes, the lover Donne must resort to a mode of thought that is intrinsically linked to what occurs “outside”.  This in itself is a forced acknowledgement of the existence of the universe.  The lover has failed to escape into a shell, a room which will not allow the world to enter, precisely because the desire to escape acknowledges the existence of the world.

This opposition, this diametric dialectic, is apparent in the poem itself.  Donne speaks of “teare-floods” and “sigh-tempests”, the absurdity becomes at once clearer and immaterial.  Yet this lack of materialism is a thread that runs through Donne’s work, the escape from the body, the “care lesse” caress-less existence that stares at us in the eye is mocked by the claim that the lover transcends the material, even the real; the claim that the lover acquires the ability to create his/her own reality.  The claim that such a possibility exists in itself undermines everything, it involves a sea-change in our perception of what lies beyond the consciousness.  At once we are given to understand what lies beyond our comprehension and then have it taken away from us. We know of the relevance of every motion of the earth, and that “men reckon what it did and meant”.  We can also remark on the far greater effects of any “trepidation of the spheares”.  Yet they are not innocent, the astrologers remain employed auguring the relevance of every shooting star.  Yet the argument, and the poem is a debate, is centered around the perspective and we have no answer to the Donnian “view”.

Perception is central to the poem, the perception of the outsider, its irrelevance, and the centrality of the common point of reference that the lovers share.  The oneness that is underlined by the image of the lovers melting noiselessly into one another, mingling, absorbing without a clue dispelled to the outside.  Every sensation is jealously guarded, nothing is allowed to escape, not even the effect their union has on the air around them.  The object of every action is the other, the world ceases to exist.  The lovers exist for each other, and refuse to breathe, to speak for any other.  This is the “dependance” Barthes speaks of, the irresistible urge to elevate all action to the status that is gained by that which is directed towards the other.

This thirst for a center, a focus, forces one to strive for the purity that is “so much refin’d,/That our selves know not what it is”.   Yet this purity reduces the love to one dimension, it destroys the kaleidoscope that is integral to the loss of control.  When one accepts the lover, it necessitates a departure from the centrality of the self, and requires a frenzied intake of breath that is forms the essence of the lover.  At this point the lover is the outside, the momentous moment of drinking in the other is also an intake of the alien.  The self is less “refined”, one becomes multi-faceted.  By reflecting the bright light of the unapproachable enigma that is the sun, “I” is guilty of tainting myself.

“We” are conscious of all contradiction, all duplicity and mock it with one stroke.  “If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two.”  And before the reader has a chance to question, Donne questions all himself, he says “And though it in the centre sit”.  The very relevance, the sanctity of the metaphor that is the center is in question, for the centrality is compromised, the center leans over, transgresses its bounds.  Love becomes less than perfect, it is capable of elasticity.  Yet in this never-ending circle of point and counter-point, the center in leaning strengthens the love since it is sacrificing its place on the stage to yearn for the lover.  And what they describe on the outside, for to absorb the relevance we must remain on the outside, is the perfect circle.

This “makes me end, where I begunne”, and the poet waits for the song to begin again so he can indulge in his lament.  Without descending into the Fruedian/Oedipal realm we can only remark that in leaving us this text evokes the eventual return.  The rejoining that shall absolve all.