A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Donne, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, 
   The breath goes now, and some say, no: 

So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move, 
'Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love. 

Moving of th'earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant.
But trepidation of the spheres. 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 

Dull sublunary lovers' love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it. 

But we by a love, so much refin'd, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 

Our two souls, therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat, 

If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two, 
Thy soul the fix'd foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if th'other do. 

And though it in the center sit, 
   Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans, and harkens after it, 
   And grows erect, as that comes home. 

Such wilt though be to me, who must
   Like th'other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness draws my circle jsut, 
   And makes me end, where I begun. 
-- John Donne

If you first read this poem, as I did, in some English lit survey or introduction to poetry course, you probably learned that Donne is one of the 17th-century "metaphysical poets" and that the metaphor of the twin-souled lovers as a compass is a "metaphysical conceit." (That's a drafting compass like the one you used in geometry class to draw a circle, not the navigational one that points north. On second thought, maybe they don't use compasses in schools anymore. Maybe they use computers. Even in my day compasses were thought of as potentially deadly weapons, with their little pointy foot. I don't expect they'd get through the metal detectors at some schools today.) 

Where was I? Oh, yeah: metaphysical poets and metaphysical conceits. Nobody but academics inclined to label and categorize cared about that back then, and I hope even they've outgrown it by now. The things that have enabled this poem to endure are the universality of its feeling (the emotional tie between lovers that physical separation can't remove) and the beautiful surprises of its imagery ("like gold to airy thinness beat"). And of course, as there often is with Donne's poems, there's a hint of naughtiness: I don't think he used those words "stiff" and "grows erect" casually. But he's also a good Christian who became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, so that the poem is also about the immortality of the soul and the reunion of "soul-mates" in the afterlife. The poem begins with a man dying, though it also seems to be about a lover going on a terrestrial journey that will temporarily separate him from his mistress or wife. As Samuel Johnson said when he applied that "metaphysical" label, in Donne “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." And I say thank goodness for it. 


Power Elitism

The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior," he writes. "You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination."

Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people - they tend to also have lots of money - are also the most isolated. They live in gated communities with private drivers. They eat at different restaurants and stay at different resorts. They wear different clothes and skip the security lines at airports, before sitting at the front of the plane. We shouldn't be surprised that they're also assholes.