Features of Metaphysical Poetry in Forbidding Mourning

John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a prime example of metaphysical poetry, a poetic style that emerged in the 17th century. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by its intellectual and philosophical exploration, unconventional use of imagery, and intricate metaphysical conceits. Here are some features of metaphysical poetry exemplified in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:


Metaphysical poetry often employs metaphysical conceits, which are elaborate and extended comparisons or metaphors. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne uses the conceit of a compass to express the nature of a deep, spiritual bond between two lovers. The compass represents the unity and harmony in their relationship, with one leg fixed while the other roams.

Intellectual Exploration:

Metaphysical poets delve into intellectual and philosophical themes, often combining the physical and the spiritual, the abstract and the concrete. In this poem, Donne explores the nature of love, arguing that true love transcends physical distance and remains unshaken even in the face of separation. He engages in a metaphysical discussion on the nature of souls and the interconnectedness of spiritual beings.

Paradoxes and Parallels:

Metaphysical poets frequently employ paradoxes, contradictions, and unexpected parallels in their poetry. Donne uses paradoxical statements throughout the poem, such as “So let us melt, and make no noise,” creating tension and stimulating the reader’s intellectual engagement. These paradoxes heighten the complexity and thought-provoking nature of the poem.

Wit and Wordplay:

Metaphysical poetry often showcases wit, wordplay, and clever use of language. Donne employs puns, metaphors, and wordplay to convey his ideas. For example, he puns on the word “dies” to mean both death and the dies (metal discs) used in making coins, emphasizing the enduring nature of their love.

Blending of the Spiritual and the Physical:

Metaphysical poets explore the relationship between the spiritual and the physical realms. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne intertwines the physical separation of the lovers with their spiritual connection, suggesting that their love is not dependent on physical proximity but exists on a higher plane.

Complex and Dense Imagery:

Metaphysical poetry often employs complex and dense imagery, requiring careful analysis and interpretation. Donne’s use of imagery in the poem, such as the compass, the gold thread, and the heavenly bodies, contributes to the rich layers of meaning and symbolism within the work.

Metaphysical Reasoning:

Metaphysical poetry often employs logical and philosophical reasoning to explore complex concepts. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne presents a logical argument to convince his beloved that their love can withstand physical separation. He draws upon scientific and cosmological references, using the movement of heavenly bodies and the stability of gold to illustrate the constancy and endurance of their love.

Juxtaposition of Opposing Elements:

Metaphysical poetry frequently juxtaposes contrasting elements to create tension and explore profound ideas. Donne juxtaposes the physical act of parting and the emotional bond between the lovers, emphasizing the immaterial and enduring nature of their connection. He juxtaposes earthly elements like gold and compasses with celestial imagery, highlighting the divine aspects of their love.

Introspection and Self-Reflection:

Metaphysical poets often engage in introspection and self-reflection, exploring their own thoughts and emotions. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne reflects on the nature of love, acknowledging his own vulnerability and emotions. This introspective approach invites readers to contemplate their own experiences and emotions, making the poem relatable on a personal level.

Non-linear Structure:

Metaphysical poetry often deviates from traditional poetic structures and employs irregular patterns and syntax. Donne’s poem follows a non-linear structure, combining rhymed and unrhymed lines, irregular line lengths, and a varied meter. This unconventional structure reflects the complexity of the poet’s thoughts and adds to the intellectual and imaginative appeal of the poem.

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“Metaphysical” is an adjective that describes something that transcends the physical world. Metaphysical poets often use complex and concrete metaphors to explore complicated metaphysical ideas such as death, the subject of Donne’s poem.

Readers and critics characterize metaphysical poetry as explorations of complex, highly intellectual thought. The transition and relationship between life and death is certainly complex, perhaps our most complex subject matter as humans. How does Donne resolve the complexity of dealing with death? For one, Donne offers multiple ways of thinking about death. Perhaps it is a great conjunction, all things living and dying becoming one, as our souls “endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat.” Or, if we remain as individual units when we die, our relationship to the living is a parallel one, “such as stiff twin compasses are two.” To offer competing descriptions of what death may be like does not undermine any one idea but conveys the many nuances of death, the many possibilities as to what it is and how it relates to life.

Aside from its intellectual complexity, this poem encapsulates metaphysical poetry in other ways. For instance, metaphysical poets often use wit or humor.

While a metaphysical poem may address such lofty subjects as love, life, and death, its authors frequently reach for levity to ground their poems. One feature in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” that reflects what we, today, label metaphysical poetry is stretched metaphors or conceits. Four of the stretched metaphors, with explanations, follow:

  1. Separation of death compared with separation when one lover leaves another (stanzas one & two). Let we two lovers not cry or sigh, but keep our separation to ourselves. The idea is that to speak loosely about their feelings is to lose them.
  2. Movement of the earth draws attention to itself, yet movement among the stars, which is movement of far more importance, goes unnoticed (stanzas three-five). Their love is like the movement of the stars. It doesn’t need to draw attention to itself to be monumental. They don’t need to cry or make a show of their separation.
  3. Their love does not suffer a breach, or break, but experiences an expansion: like gold that is beaten to airy thinness (stanza six).
  4. Their love is like two legs of a compass. One leg travels around, but is always connected to and anchored by the other. Two legs of a compass cannot be fully separated, just as the two lovers can never really be separated.

The most famous of the conceits is the final one. The metaphor is stretched in the sense that two things not usually thought to have any thing in common are compared the legs of a compass are compared to two lovers. The metaphor is highly artificial and witty, artsy, if you will. This is one of the marks of metaphysical poetry.

In summary, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” embodies the distinct features of metaphysical poetry through its metaphysical conceits, intellectual exploration, paradoxes, wit, blending of the physical and spiritual, complex imagery, metaphysical reasoning, juxtaposition of opposing elements, introspection, and non-linear structure. These features collectively contribute to the depth, complexity, and philosophical nature of the poem, illustrating the essence of metaphysical poetry as a whole.



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