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A Valediction Forbidding Mourning
How can we be forbidden to mourn? The notion seems shocking, yet it is espoused in John Donne’s great poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” It might take some acquaintance with Christian theology, the science of alchemy, Donne’s penetrating use of conceits and metaphors, and much else besides to explain this mystery, but one is disinclined to engage in literary criticism when one is grieving. And it is with sorrow that we’ve learned of the death of Poetry contributor Wilmer Mills, who passed away on July 25, 2011, surrounded by his family. In a touching online journal kept by family members for those of us who loved and admired him, Wil was felt to have reached a new place toward the end of his struggle with liver cancer. Wil and his family sang hymns together near the very end, and read from the Bible: Revelation 21, and Psalm 139. When he left us, his wife Kathryn posted the text of Donne’s immortal poem.
Wil was many things: a carpenter, songwriter, husband and father, poet. He made things with his hands, and he made a life with his spirit. I met him because he made poems, and when I saw him last year in Tennessee I took it for granted that I would see him again, and hear his beautiful voice again (click here for a sample) – and that there would be more poems. We published several, which you can read here – and in retrospect, one of them goes incredibly well with the Donne. “An Equation for My Children” is hard to read without tearing up just now, but the poem has, in a way, its own strictures against crying:
It may be esoteric and perverseThat I consult Pythagoras to hearA music tuning in the universe.My interest in his math of star and sphereHas triggered theorems too far-fetched to solve.They don’t add up. But if I rack and toilMore in ether than a mortal coil,It is to comprehend how you revolve,By formulas of orbit, ellipse, and ring.
Dear son and daughter, if I seem to rangeIt is to chart the numbers spiralingBetween my life and yours until the strangeAnd seamless beauty of equations clickSolutions for the heart’s arithmetic.
Roux can burn if flourSticks in skillet butter.I’ve been cooking up a storm myself,My Daddy’s filé gumbo recipe.He used to be a chef on oil rigsUntil the hurricane. I heard the wavesThat killed him, and I hear them every year.It’s emptiness that fills me. That’s my skill.I hear the vacant rain before it falls.It’s like the murmur of a spiraled shell.
She minces squid and a marinated scallion,Mixes rice with shrimp and olive paste. . . .Hope for the English meal, though half ItalianWith her jet black hair and her elastic waist.
Unlike the other television cooks,She brings to life a lobster that was deadWith common spices, her exotic looks,And recipes she dreamed about in bed.
Donne’s poem, written for his wife Ann More, before travel separated them, begins with a couplet that describes how “virtuous men pass mildly away, / And whisper to their souls to go.”
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.
When people are separated on earth from each other, as all eventually will be, we are actually given expansion, and are refined, because our souls remain in some way freely conjoined. This is what love does, and poetry, too. I’m grateful to have learned these things from John Donne – and from Wil, as well.
Addendum: Click here to see a fascinating tribute to Wil from a friend of his, Jeff Hardin, whose crush on Nigella Lawson, it turns out, inspired the poem mentioned above. “I have to ask this question: have you ever been prayed for by a dying man? Have you ever heard someone, aware of his own dying, ask God to help you accept His providence?”