Real Love Is Like A Compass: Day 4

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
John Donne

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.*

If you are fit as a fiddle and life is a bowl of cherries, you’re going to love today’s post.  Great literature is filled with metaphor, and John Donne was the master. He used a literary device called a metaphysical conceit (not to be confused with the sappy Petrarchan variety, mind you).

Confused?  Hang in there because there’s rich discovery if you’re willing to think.  Let’s dig in with our Professor…

In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me Karen Swallow Prior writes:

John Donne is nothing if not an unusual poet. The small group of seventeenth century English poets with whom he is associated is called the Metaphysical Poets. They were named such because they wedded matters of eternal and spiritual transcendence to the earthly and temporal. In contrast to the Romantics, who preferred the ideal over the real and the spiritual over the physical, the metaphysical school of poets—among whom John Donne was foremost—recognized these realms as distinct but inseparable. Since such a view is more nuanced than the more black-and-white thinking of romanticism, metaphysical poetry is, not surprisingly, rich and complex—and full of wit.

No wonder that the signature literary device of these poets is called a conceit. The conceit is an elaborate metaphor that compares two very unlike things (like love and a compass or, as in another of Donne’s poems, sex and a flea bite) in order to draw out an unseen truth by drawing a surprising similarity. The metaphysical conceit does even more than that; its unlikely metaphors link the physical and temporal realm with the spiritual and eternal realm. Thus the metaphysical conceit embodies the notion of the inseparability of the seemingly antithetical realms of the earthly and the transcendent.

How does the author distinguish between romantic love and transcendent love?

Is there an overlap between the two?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.



D I G  D E E P E R

John Donne


John Donne

(1571/2–1631), *Metaphysical poet and Dean of *St Paul’s. He was a member of a RC family, his mother being the sister of the *Jesuit missionary priest Jasper Heywood, and a granddaughter of a sister of Sir Thomas *More. He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and possibly studied after this at Cambridge, or perhaps abroad. He entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and transferred to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. During this period he was much exercised over the problem of his religious allegiance and for a time, according to I. *Walton, ‘betrothed himself to no Religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian’. By 1598 he had certainly conformed to the Church of England. In 1596 he accompanied Essex and Raleigh to Cadiz and in 1597 to the Azores; and in 1598 became private secretary to the Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, a post from which he was dismissed four years later owing to his secret marriage to Ann More, his master’s wife’s niece, in 1601. During the next years he and his growing family lived in poverty and dependence on the charity of friends. Around this period he composed but did not publish Biathanatos, a casuistic discussion and defence of suicide. He found employment in controversial writing and in 1610 wrote the Pseudo-Martyr to persuade Catholics that they might take the Oath of Allegiance. In the next year he wrote a witty satire on the Jesuits, Ignatius his Conclave. After repeated failures to find secular employment he at last complied with the wish of the King and was ordained in 1615. The reason he himself gave for delay was scruple at accepting orders as a means of making a living. In 1621 he became Dean of St Paul’s, where he preached on all great festivals. He was also a regular preacher at court and a favourite with both James and Charles. During a serious illness in 1623 he wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and the famous ‘Hymn to God the Father’. He died in 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His monument, showing him standing in his shroud, survived the Great Fire. In the American BCP (1979), and CW, feast day, 31 Mar.

Donne’s secular poetry was mainly written in his youth: satires, love-elegies, and lyrics, though the date of these last is questionable. His religious poetry belongs mostly to his troubled and unhappy middle years of poverty and discouragement. After his ordination his genius found expression in preaching. His fame as a poet suffered eclipse after the Restoration but had a striking revival in the 20th century. His vigorous, dramatic style, his capacity for introspection, and the subtle blend of argument and passion in his love poems and religious poems attracted poets in revolt against the Romantic tradition, most notably T. S. *Eliot. His sermons are masterpieces of the old formal style of preaching, packed with patristic learning and adorned with brilliant images and striking rhetorical effects, but his great strength is as a moral theologian, preaching as a sinner who has found mercy to other sinners. Although the contrast between Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr John Donne, the divine, has been overdrawn, there is no doubt that he was haunted by an intense consciousness of the gravity of sin as he was by the thought of physical death. His great theme as a love-poet was the bliss of union; his great theme as a preacher was God’s mercy. Both themes are given singular force coming from one who wrote so often of a love that was ‘rage’ and not ‘peace’; and knew in experience the meaning of working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 503–504.

*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 refined,
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 fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

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

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.


Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.