Literary Devices in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Donne was a master of the conceit, an extended metaphor that uses complex logic to shape a poetic passage or entire poem. Conceits often juxtapose or yoke together two images or ideas that are not apparently analogous. This forces the reader to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the object in comparison. The conceit was a popular tool of the metaphysical poets, a group of poets who used conceits to explore philosophy and the human condition. Their colloquial diction, irony, metrical flexibility, and wild conceits create vivid imagery. In this poem, Donne uses conceits that compare his love to astronomy and elemental forces of nature. By connecting the speaker’s love to the grand metaphysical language of the universe, the speaker emphasizes the immutable nature of his love. Furthermore, planetary references separate the speaker’s love from his human body and suggest that his love resides in a higher, spiritual realm.

Literary Devices Examples in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning:

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning 5
"wilt thou be to me,..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

In this metaphor, the speaker compares his lover to the fixed foot of the compass and himself to the free foot of the compass, suggesting that though he is away physically, he is still tethered to her. Like the compass, she will be his guide leaning after him and keeping him on track as he roams.

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

Donne uses this simile to compare the lovers’ souls to the two legs of a compass. He is not talking about a traditional navigation tool here but rather a mathematical compass used to draw circles. The two feet of this compass are attached at the top, meaning even if they are apart, they are still connected and work as one unit.

"admit Absence..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

The “sublunary lovers” cannot “admit” (permit or accept) “absence” (distance from one another) because their love depends on their ability to touch. The speaker uses this description to qualify his characterization of the lovers’ love as dull, since their love cannot survive if their bodies are not close to each other. By outlining this impure love, the speaker implicitly makes his own love seem more pure.

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

By melt Donne means to disintegrate or liquefy. This metaphor is another reference to Carpe Diem poetry as the speaker here suggests that the two lovers become one. However, “melt” at this time also meant to disperse into particles, to vanish or disappear. Thus, the line proposes that the lovers simultaneously become one and move away from each other. This dual meaning foreshadows the conclusion Donne will draw at the end of the poem.

"virtuous men pass mildly away,..."   (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

Donne begins by describing a group of people crowded around a virtuous man on his deathbed debating whether or not the breath they witness is his last. This situates the reader in an earthly world in which all participants are extremely concerned with the body.