«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Donne In "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," Donne's speaker affirms his dialogic relationship with his listener by recasting absence as presence, persuading the listener not to mourn by appealing to her—and the reader's—value of connection. The title of the poem declares it a response to loss in that a valediction is "a departure speech or discourse, a bidding of farewell" (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 275). In this sense, the poem functions as a kind of epideictic rhetoric since the occasion of departure or separation serves as its exigence. Like epideictic rhetoric, the poem is addressed to an audience whom the speaker directly addresses and, thus, with whom he converses. While a departure may rightly seem less extreme and therefore less of a loss than the death of a loved one, this exigence is nonetheless similar to the elegiac exigence of death since both involve physical separation. Such separation is also the exigence for rhetorical identification, as Kenneth Burke explains in A Rhetoric of Motives. In a sense, Donne's poem presents itself as a solution or cure for mourning and grief. The speaker urges "let us melt and make no noise,/No tear-floods, nor sigh tempests move," explicitly prohibiting conventional expressions of grief (Donne 5-6).
The speaker recasts their separation as connection, claiming that, unlike "sublunary lovers," who "cannot admit/Absence," he and his listener share "a love so much refined" that it is itself partially elusive and absent because they themselves "know not what it is" (Donne 13-15). This love makes the speaker and his listener "Interassurèd of the mind" (Donne 19). The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the prefix inter signifies "between, among, amid, in between, in the midst'," words that all connote connection between individual parties ("Inter"). The speaker's connection with the listener is "assured" or secure in and/or because of "the mind," because of nonphysical—emotional, psychological, intellectual—connections that seem almost to require physical separation (Donne 19). This phrase connotes dialogue, which is a significant way in which individual people, necessarily separated by their physical bodies, are connected. Dialogue, whether written or spoken, is also a primary means by which we cultivate emotional, psychological, and intellectual connections with others.
According to Matthias Bauer's reading of this line, "The assurance of a common language, which may even be unconscious to the lovers themselves ('our selves know not what it is,' 18), warrants their hope of a final reunion" (108). Dialogue and language preserve the possibility for the lovers' future reunion.
The speaker's "mind" also allows him to craft poetic metaphors that continue his poetic dialogue with his listener and that re-cast their physical separation as an emotional and/or spiritual connection (Donne 19). He emphasizes their connection, claiming that his and his listener's souls are in fact "one" (Donne 21). He explicitly re-names the "breach" of their physical separation "an expansion," renaming the absence/loss of connection as presence (Donne 23-24). The famous image of the "twin compasses" likewise emphasizes the lovers' connection; even if they are "two" separated entities, they "move" together and are thereby connected (Donne 26-27). Their ability to move together, however, depends on their "separation;" as Anne Barbeau Gardiner points out, "The temporal separation at the lower compass feet is even necessary to make the artistic or mathematical design" that simultaneously reflects the compasses' connection (120).
Donne's trope of using motion as a ground for identifying the speaker and the listener seems to coincide closely with Burke's emphasis on attitudes and actions as grounds of identifying two people. Actions, as a kind of motion, and the attitudes that give rise to them are abstract, non-physical means of connecting, and, as such, are quite similar to dialogue. Donne's closing lines, "Thy firmness makes my circle just/And makes me end where I begun," equate the beginning of the speaker's journey with its end, suggesting that the journey results in no actual separation or loss (35-36).
The term "just" not only connotes a perfect circle, for which the beginning cannot be distinguished from the end, but also connotes an ethical or moral connection emphasizing that the lovers should be so connected to each other (Donne 35). In this respect, the image of the "twin compasses" seems to coincide with Levinas's sense of the ethical subject as one who is inseparable from the other, to and for whom she is responsible. Indeed, the compasses seem to respond to each other as "the fixed foot...
move[s]... if th' other do" and "leans and hearkens after" its "roam[ing]" companion, drawing the wanderer "home" (Donne 27-32). While Donne uses the term "hearkens" metaphorically when applying it to the compasses, this term's denotative meaning of listening implies a dialogic situation, lending Donne's metaphor a dialogic emphasis (Donne 31). The dialogic connections shared by the compasses parallel the dialogic connection that the poem enables between the speaker and his listener. Such connections, however, turn on the absence of complete physical connection. Donne's speaker persuades his listener to view physical separation not as a loss or absence, but rather as the presence of dialogic connection. This abstract, dialogic connection may coincide with Bauer's treatment of "the spiritualization of love" in Donne's poem (104).
Donne invites his reader to sympathize and/or identify with the speaker's and listener's desires to be remain connected to each other despite physical separation.
Whether or not the reader cares much about being connected to this particular speaker or listener, the reader may enjoy or take comfort in Donne's assurance that enduring, dialogic connections do exist—and that the reader may potentially participate in them.
By directing the reader's attention to connections across time and space, Donne selfreflexively reminds his reader that, in reading the poem itself, she participates in such an enduring, dialogic connection with the poet. The poem invokes or performs the kind of dialogic relationship that it describes. The poem not only affirms the speaker-listener connection by describing it, but also allows the listener/reader to re-invoke or perform that relationship through the act of reading the poem. The acts of reading and writing the poem—and the effect of participating in a dialogic, non-physical relationship—may have been especially consoling to Donne himself, who about the time he wrote this poem was far from his struggling family coping with his child's death (RM 38).
While the listener may be especially consoled by the poem that allows her to reconnect with the speaker, Donne's reader may enjoy or be consoled by poetry's power to have such a dialogic effect. This consolation, however, does not turn on poetic substitution for the distant speaker or separated relationship, but rather arises from the listener's ability to continue participating in the very relationship that she would mourn if it were lost. The poem also does not function as a substitute for a mournful reader;
rather, it encourages Donne's reader to change her attitudes about relationships in her own life by suggesting that relationships may endure separation via poetry, dialogue, and language in general. If we see the poem's value of dialogic relationships coinciding with Levinasian responsibility, then we may find that the poem's pleasing and consoling effects are enhanced by the reader's actualization of this Levinasian capacity in reading the poem. This pleasure does not seem to preclude the possibility of mourning altogether; the listener and reader might still mourn the distant speaker—and separated relationships in general—although their grief might be attenuated by the hope that such separation and loss may be overcome with responsible dialogue and poetry.
This meta-poetic appeal to dialogic connections is reinforced by Donne's use of paronomasia celata, which Bauer delineates in his characterization of Donne's poem as a tour-de-force in crafting connections. The concept of paronomasia celata denotes indirect connections by linking synonyms between different languages (in Donne's case, Latin and English) via similar sounds, such as the connotations that emerge between Donne's use of "breath" and its various Latin translations: spiritus, anima, and aura (Bauer 100, 104; Donne 4). For example, paronomasia celata emphasizes on a formal level Donne's thematic portrayal of one breath an ambiguous marker between life and death (Bauer 104). Donne describes "friends['] contrasting conclusions about whether their dying companion has actually passed away: some claim "Now" their dying companion's "breath goes," while other friends "say, 'No'" (3-4). The ambiguity of "breath" is enhanced on a formal level through paronomasia celata. Breath connotes "soul," morning, mourning, life and death when we interpret the word in terms of its Latin translations (Bauer 104). The word "breath" could be translated into Latin as "spiritus," which is a synonym of "anima," meaning "soul"—a term which, especially for a Christian audience, connotes a connection between life and death (Bauer 104).
Breath could also be translated as "aura," which sounds similar to "aurora... a metonym (and Latin synonym) of morning" (Bauer 104). This implication of "morning" connotes renewal, vitality, and life. Morning is also a homophone of "mourning," which connotes loss and death, reiterating the theme of death in Donne's first stanza and the elegiac implications of the title. Bauer explains how these English-Latin connections relate the first stanza to the poem's title: "The breath or spirit of the dying man is thus...
connected with the 'forbidding mo[u]rning'' (104). The homophonic play on morning/mourning illustrates how "morning" forbids "mourning." According to Bauer, "the light of morning, traditionally regarded as a sign of resurrection and the coming of Christ, is what truly forbids mourning" (104). The poem's aim to forbid mourning is thus articulated in the connotations of "breath" illuminated through its translation into Latin.
Bauer adds that because "aurora" is the bride in the Song of Songs, this term also enhances the theme of "the spiritualization of love" (104).14 When we attend to the implications of translating the English term "breath" into Latin, we may uncover a host of connotations that emphasize the poem's attempt to forbid mourning by emphasizing the endurance of spiritual love. Because paronomasia celata turns on connections between separate languages, this trope embodies the kind of
14. Bauer goes on to associate "aurora" with "aura," meaning gold in Latin, a connotation that he ties to Donne's line "like gold to aery thinness beat" (24).
connection across distance that Donne's speaker explicitly emphasizes. Bauer finds Donne invoking "a linguistic bridge between the different fields of imagery which follow upon each other in the poem," even while they may initially appear quite "incoherent" (103). Bauer argues that "the language of the poem... reflects and realizes its theme of unity-in-separation" (97). This theme is emphasized through paronomasia celata, which connects English and Latin and thereby formally parallels Donne's speaker's attempts to create spiritual connections with his listener despite their physical separation. Donne's use of paronomasia celata invites readers to recognize connections between Latin and English—and then to identify those connections with the ones that Donne's speaker tries to invoke. Donne invites his readers to perform the same process of connecting as his speaker, prompting his readers to identify with his speaker and connect more closely to the poem. For the implied listener with whom the speaker supposedly wants to connect, paronomasia celata becomes one more way of identifying with—and connecting to—her lover.
Bauer's emphasis on appeals to connection in "Forbidding Mourning" contrasts sharply with Avi Erlich's psychoanalytic reading of the speaker's ambivalence towards the listener. For example, Erlich suggests that "the speaker forbids mourning" not to protect his listener from painful loss, as our previous reading implies, but rather "because he wants to protect his noble love from cheap self-advertisements and because he is actually glad to go" (363). Erlich invites us to reconsider conventional assumptions about Donne's motives in writing "Forbidding Mourning." As Herz observes, "all readings of the poem have to position themselves in relation to [the] narrative" promoted by Izaak Walton that Donne wrote the poem for his wife when he traveled to the Continent in 1611 (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 275). Erlich's suggestion that the Donne's speaker is happy to leave the listener urges us to consider that Donne may have been relieved to escape the pressures of a rapidly growing family burdened by poverty.
To consider how Erlich's critique of the speaker may illuminate Donne's motives for writing affirms how enigmatic authors' motives remain to readers and even to themselves, especially since motives for writing can be as ambiguous and conflicted as the ambivalent motives that Elrich recognizes in Donne's speaker. Erlich's reading still reflects the poem's orientation toward loss and absence, albeit Erlich suggests that, for the speaker, the absence of connection with the listener is, in fact, desirable. Perhaps the speaker himself does truly want to leave the listener, as if he desires her absence. The explicit argument, in the poem, however, emphasizes the speaker's aim to console the listener, to prevent her from mourning.
Perhaps such contrasting motives may coexist in Donne's poem, coinciding with Spargo's anti-elegiac convention of "the ambivalent wish for reciprocity" as well as the "ambivalence" that, for Freud, constitutes the subject as mournful (Spargo, Ethics 129;