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John Donne (like all metaphysical poets) was a big fan of wild comparisons. His difficult metaphors have taunted (and haunted) students for hundreds of years. In one poem, he uses the death of a flea as a pick-up line. I mean, we at Shmoop have used arachnids, bedbugs, wood ticks, even a big, fuzzy caterpillar once to try to get to know someone—but fleas? Now that's just silly.
"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is one of Donne's most famously metaphorical poems. Donne wrote the poem in 1611, just before he left for a long trip from his home in England to France and Germany. His wife Ann was going to be stuck at home, and that was probably going to be pretty tough. See, she bore him twelve kids—an even dozen. So, he wrote her a gorgeously romantic poem to try to say: "Look, we have to be apart, but that doesn't mean we have to fall apart."
The poem is an argument. Donne had the education of a lawyer and was also a famous preacher so most things he wrote had a pretty strong logical, oratorical bent. His argument unfolds as a catalogue of bizarre comparisons. He compares their love to dying old men, earthquakes, stars, gold, and a mathematical compass. It's tricky to follow, but comes together to form a perfect picture of love, love that isn't tied to a person's physical presence, but a spiritual love that can endure even the toughest situations.
Long distance relationships are a drag and saying goodbye is the worst. You're standing there at the airport and you wish you could be cool like in an old movie and just kiss, wave and then hold your hand on your heart as one beautiful tear rolls slowly down your cheek. Instead, you end up sobbing uncontrollably with snot and mascara all over you until security escorts you to the door because you're frightening children.
Actually, that's what this poem is about. You know how some couples (especially brand new couples) are all over each other all the time? It's nine o'clock in the morning and they are getting after it like two hyperactive chipmunks in the middle of C-hall. Their 'love' is shallow, skin deep. But in this poem, John Donne says that the love he and his wife share is bigger than that, deeper than that. So when they part, they should skip the drama.
When those two lovebirds making out in C-hall have to detach and get to class, they feel like the world is ending and everything is crashing down around them. But Donne knows that even when he and his wife have to be apart, they are still connected. Real love is stronger than distance, gang. (But we still sob and snot.)
Poetry Foundation Bio
All you need to know about the life and times of our man Donne.
The American Academy of Poets hosts a concise introduction to John Donne, many of his important poems, and a bibliography of his work.
John Donne: The Lover as Logician
Here's a helpful (if a tad intellectual) introduction to John Donne and Metaphysical poetry.
Um, we're not really sure how the film relates to the poem (it seems sad?), but we enjoy the production values all the same.
Kid in Jean Shorts Burns Poem to Impress a Girl
We think Donne would have actually approved of this. But only if he got the girl. Thank you, Internet.
Featuring Sparky the Pug and Random Cat
Wow. Sparky's name seems a bit ironic, based on this video.
Actress Claire Lautier reads "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
This is part of Poets & Writers' salute to National Poetry Month.
Deep, Rich Reading
This guy's got the proper pipes for poetry.
T.S. Eliot on the Metaphysical Poets
T.S. Eliot saved the Metaphysical poets from irrelevance with this important essay.
Herbert Sucks. Donne is a Pimp.
The title tells you all you need to know. Well, maybe not. Written by a high school teacher, the article discusses how students react to Donne's work.
John Donne's Poetry
The Norton Critical Edition contains the most accurate text, excellent footnotes, and critical essays about Donne.
John Donne: The Reformed Soul
John Stubbs's authoritative biography analyzes Donne's complex religious and romantic inclinations.
Award-winning Play and Movie about Donne's Poetry
The lead character of Wit is a terminal cancer patient studying John Donne's work. Though not directly related to this poem, it's a great film.
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