It’s been extremely cold here, too cold to take my morning walks, and I am tired of writing about ugliness and greed and cruelty and ignorance and treason. So today, I’m standing on my tip-toes, reaching high above the poetical bar, and taking something special down from the top shelf.
In December of 1601, John Donne, the chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, one Sir Thomas Egerton, married the love of his life, Anne More. The wedding was held in secret, because More was Egerton’s niece, and neither the boss nor Anne’s father approved. When the secret marriage was found out, Donne was sacked—and, to make sure he got the point, thrown in prison, along with his brother, who served as proxy to Anne’s father at the wedding, and the priest who performed the ceremony. It was quite the scandal. Although Donne was only in the hoosegow for a few days, his political career was ruined, and he spent the entirety of his marriage in financial distress.
Eleven years later, he left Anne and their children to accompany his patron, Sir Robert Drury, on a diplomatic mission in France. In the early 17th century, the simple act of returning from such a trip was not guaranteed, and so it was with heavy heart that husband and wife parted. To mark the occasion, Donne wrote “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, romantic pieces of writing ever put to paper.
I can’t read it without crying. Literally, I can’t. During my short-lived career as an adjunct professor of creative writing, I had one of my students—who did not have a particularly good voice—read it out loud. The class was stunned to behold their professor in tears, weeping at words put on a page 400 (!) years ago.
Donne begins by telling Anne, and himself, that although they must temporarily part, they are not dead, or the victims of some natural disaster, and they should behave accordingly. This is no time for getting carried away:
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;
’Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Then he explains that, unlike the rest of the bozos in their orbit, who are just in it for the nookie, their love is true enough to withstand the long physical hiatus:
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-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
He compares their union to gold. One of the metallurgical qualities peculiar to that precious metal is that it can be smoothed into a super-thin layer without breaking apart:
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.
But the poem hinges on Donne’s use of the compass as metaphor. “Stiff twin compasses” means the two legs of a single compass: one has the sharp point that does not move; the other has the pencil attached and draws the (perfect) circle. The twelve lines that end the poem are what really slay me:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the 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 thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
When I taught this poem to my class, I took out an actual compass and demonstrated what Donne was describing—and watched, delighted, as my students had a collective “a-ha” moment. It was the single best moment in my short teaching career.
John Donne did indeed return from France. Their love was as true as ever, and the happy couple remained happily married until Anne’s death in 1617, five days after she gave birth to their twelfth child. It may not feel like it now, but despite all the ugliness and greed and cruelty and ignorance and treason, we are lucky to be alive at this moment in history.
Photo credit: Stephen C. Dixon. John Donne by Nigel Boonham, 2012, St Paul's Cathedral Garden.
Thank you, Greg. ❤️
...we are lucky to be alive at this moment in history... my new mantra...