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. The notes are my own.

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 defilement, blasphemy
    To tell the layetie° our love. people who are not clergy
Moving of th’earth brings harmes and feares,
    Men reckon° what it did and meant, [10] try to understand
But trepidation° of the spheares,° movement — heavenly spheres
    Though greater farre, is innocent.
Dull sublunary° lovers love earthly
    (Whose soule is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove [15]
    Those things which elemented° it. created
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, breaking
    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. indirectly
Thy firmnes makes my circle just,° [35] exact, correct
    And makes me end, where I begunne.


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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).