Historical Context in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Donne’s poetic shift between death and life is reminiscent of Carpe Diem poetry. Carpe Diem poetry often used the permanence of death to emphasize the importance of embracing the beauty and ephemerality of the moment at hand. Donne embraces this tradition by using death to urge his lover to appreciate the true beauty of their love. In addition, Donne pushes back against traditional Petrarchan sonnets that praise the physical beauty of their lover. The speaker of Donne’s poem forgoes ruminations on physicality to situate his love within the mind and spirit.

Historical Context Examples in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning:

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning 3

"eyes, lips and hands..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

In the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, the speaker would often break his love object into her distinct parts in order to describe each one as perfect and beautiful. He would focus on her physical parts and compare them to greater concepts, such as her lips red as a rose. Here Donne uses a catalogue of human parts as an anti-blazon that pushes back against the Petrarchan tradition in order to declare that their love does not care about these physical markers (or this poetic representation of perfect love).

"trepidation of the spheres,..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

A dominant theory of astronomy from the 9th to 16th century stated that there were 9 hollow globes that moved around the Earth in elliptical circles. Trepidation was the oscillation, that is a change or variation in a sphere’s predictable movement. The speaker compares the movements of the earth, as in earthquakes, tidal waves, etc, to the movement of the “spheres” to show that while the movement of the spheres is colossally larger in scale, it causes less harm than movement on the Earth.

"So..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

The speaker turns abruptly away from this scene to speak to his lover about their love. This movement of focus from death to life is reminiscent of Carpe Diem poetry in which the speaker reminds his love object and addressee of the immanence of death in an attempt to get her to appreciate the beauty and importance of their love.