A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning

John Donne

Edited by Jack Lynch

“A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning” is one of Donne’s most famous poems, and contains what is probably the best-known Metaphysical conceit, of two separated lovers as the legs of a compass. We don’t know exactly when it was written: Izaak Walton says Donne wrote this to his wife in 1612, as he was about to travel to France. It was first published in 1633.

The copy-text is that first edition, Poems, by J.D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death (London, 1633). Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization all follow the original.

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
    And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
    The breath goes now, and some say, no.

So let us melt, and make no noise, [5]
    No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
T’were prophanation of our joyes
    To tell the layetie our love.

Moving of th’earth brings harmes and feares,
    Men reckon what it did and meant, [10]
But trepidation of the spheares,
    Though greater farre, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
    (Whose soule is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove [15]
    Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin’d,
    That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care lesse, eyes, lips, hands to misse. [20]

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
    Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

If they be two, they are two so [25]
    As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if the’other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth rome, [30]
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
    And growes erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
    Like th’other foot, obliquely runne.
Thy firmnes makes my circle just, [35]
    And makes me end, where I begunne.

Notes

prophanation
“The action or an act of profaning; desecration or violation of that which is held to be sacred; defilement” (OED).
layetie
That is, laity, “The body of the people not in orders as opposed to the clergy; laymen collectively” (OED).
Moving of th’ earth
That is, an earthquake, which Donne contrasts with “trepidation of the spheares,” a shaking of the celestial spheres which, according to the old cosmology, constituted the outer boundary of the physical universe.
innocent
The OED has a definition that seems to fit — “Of things: Doing no harm; producing no ill effect or result; not injurious; harmless, innocuous” — though their first citation is from 1662, after this poem was written. Perhaps this is an antedating.
sublunary
Literally “under the moon”; by extension, “Of, in, or belonging to this world; earthly, terrestrial” (OED).
elemented
The rare and now-obsolete verb element literally means “To compound of elements”; the OED gives Donne as the first to use this word in a figurative sense.
Inter-assured
The OED cites this as the only example of this compound. Inter- means “Between or among themselves or one another; with each other; mutually, reciprocally.”
compasses
Not “An instrument for determining the magnetic meridian . . . consisting of a magnetized needle turning freely on a pivot,” but “An instrument for taking measurements and describing circles, consisting (in its simplest form) of two straight and equal legs connected at one end by a movable joint” (OED).