John Donne “The Apparition”, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

“The Apparition” is a tongue-in-cheek hyperbolical poem, threatening the woman who scorns the speaker that her scorn is going to kill him and he is going to come and haunt her after his death. If he sees her in the arms of a lesser man than he, then her candle will start to flicker. She is going to be scared and try to wake up her bedmate, but he, being tired and thinking she is importuning him for more sex, will pretend to be asleep and shrink from her (“shrinking” may indicate both the whole man and his tired penis). She is then going to lie there awake, drenched “in a cold quicksilver sweat”. (Mercury, as the footnote usefully reminds us, was used for treating venereal diseases). She is going to be then much more like a ghost than the ghost of her lover himself. He won’t tell her now what he is going to tell her then, because if he did, she could repent now and ask him to forgive her. But he is now out of love with her and only the wish for revenge remains, so he doesn’t want to give her that chance.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mournng” is one more poem I have discussed so many times I almost know it by heart. The parting of the pair of lovers is going to be as quiet as death of virtuous men, almost unnoticeable. But it doesn’t mean their love is so small: on the contrary, it is much bigger than the ordinary loves, just like the trepidation of the spheres (a concept from Ptolemaic vision of the universe) is much bigger than the earthquake, even though we can’t notice it. The love of the speaker is so refined that it does not require the physical presence of the beloved and even when their bodies are far apart, their souls are the one, connected by a very thin golden wire. (Gold, being very ductile, can be stretched into far thinner and longer wires than less precious metals.) And finally comes the most famous conceit of the poem: the lovers are like a pair of twin compasses, the woman is the base and the man is the foot drawing the circle, always returning to the base, and always moving at the same time as the other arm.


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