Poem Guide

John Donne: “A Valediction: of Weeping”

Reality and representation mix in this classic poem.

John Donne probably wrote “A Valediction: of Weeping” after he met his future wife, Ann More, and before he took holy orders and turned most of his authorial energies to sermons and spiritual meditations. We can’t be sure about the timing, though; while we have Donne’s biography and his poems, aligning the two is tricky. We know that Donne wrote poems only for himself and a close circle of friends and patrons, never for fame and seldom for publication. It would seem reasonable to guess that “A Valediction: of Weeping”—which, like a number of Donne’s love poems, dramatizes a scene of lovers parting—might have been written during the early years of his marriage, when Donne was often obliged to be away from home, leaving his young wife and children alone. But we can’t be sure that the poem isn’t wholly an act of imagination with no connection to Donne’s personal experience.

This uncertainty has permitted some of Donne’s readers to regard his poems not as acts of self-expression, but as the abstracted, cerebral constructions of a fierce wit. Yes, the poems may be autobiographical, but Donne’s predilection for intricate rhetorical figures, paradoxes, surprising swerves in tone, associative leaps, and ingenious conceits can make them feel artificial, or made of artifice. Donne’s reputation as merely a wit made his work deeply unpopular for many years after his death. Probably the most famous condemnation came from Samuel Johnson, who labeled Donne’s style “metaphysical”—he didn’t intend the term as a compliment.

In the early 20th century, incipient Modernists, most notably T.S. Eliot, found new layers of value in Donne. His perceived cool intellectualism seemed fresh and vigorous to poets grown weary of Romanticism’s emotionalism and emphasis on the self. Donne soon became a favorite of the New Critics as well. That school’s emphasis on reading poems as autonomous systems—discounting extra-textual considerations such as the author’s intentions and historical situation—was well suited to Donne’s poetry; his intentions are difficult or impossible to determine, and each poem he wrote seemed designed to function as, to use a phrase from one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, “a little world made cunningly.”

Donne’s poems in general, and “A Valediction: of Weeping” in particular, are certainly cunning. But it would be a mistake to think of them as nothing more than exercises in cleverness. We’ll find in this poem, as in many others by Donne, that his wit often serves as a means to a larger end rather than as an end in itself. The poem may be a highly organized “little world,” but it consistently gestures toward a larger world: the actual, chaotic, emotional one in which we live.

“A Valediction: of Weeping” begins with a scene of two lovers parting:

Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth

The poet is asking for his lover’s indulgence. If he cries now, while he’s still with her, her “face” will be reflected in his tears, transforming them from ordinary waste into objects of value—“coins.” The poet isn’t asking for a physical connection here; he doesn’t say “embrace me before I go.” Instead he seeks to reflect and be reflected by the beloved, at once emphasizing their connection and the fact that they are already—even now before his departure—undeniably separate. This dynamic might be similar to the one we enter into while reading Donne’s poem. On the one hand, the clever figures and rhyme scheme remind us that the poem is an artificial construct of symbols and sounds. But at the same time, the poem’s dramatic situation encourages us to identify with the speaker’s authentic human grief. Let’s look at the entire first stanza:

       Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
      For thus they be
      Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

The financial metaphor of lines 3 and 4 suggests that there’s a transaction involved here, and we see already an example of the kind of hall-of-mirrors paradox Donne so relished, and will soon use again, in this very poem. Perhaps the speaker is departing to earn actual coins to support the beloved. If so, that would be a gesture of unification and shared purpose, but at the same time one ironically requiring separation. In order to be with you, Donne seems to imply, I must leave you.

In line 7 Donne suggests that his tears are both “fruits” of his present grief at parting and “emblems” of his future grief, when he will be away. (Of course, this “grief” might also be understood not as the grief of parting from the beloved, but as the grief of having to undertake the journey in the first place.) So the tears are literal and metaphorical, physical and symbolic, at the same time. Similarly, the poem as a whole can be seen both as a sincere expression of grief and as an “emblem”—a representation, that is—of grief.

The next two lines feature a tricky metaphor for the speaker’s future sorrow:

When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

As his own tear falls, his beloved’s reflection falls with it. He and she both become “nothing”; her reflection falls and thus vanishes, and he, like his tear, departs. If he is departing on a sea voyage—as “divers shore” might suggest—then we may add another dimension to this already crowded conceit. Both tears and the sea are salty water, and here tears figuratively signify the impending separation, just as the sea will literally enforce it. Keeping in mind that a “fall” in a relationship can refer to unfaithfulness, this line could even be read as a premonition of adultery: the tears provoked by my sorrow at leaving you fall, just as you will fall into unfaithfulness when I’m gone. Following this line of thinking, “So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore” turns to pure bitterness: when we’re apart, we’re nothing to each other.

So while we could read this first stanza as the heartfelt cry of a lover in anguish, devastated to be separated from his beloved, it’s also possible to take these lines as the cynical complaint of a husband who feels persecuted in his role as breadwinner and, even worse, unsure of his wife’s fidelity. Which of these is the correct reading? It’s a natural question to ask, but also a misleading one, because the great pleasure in reading Donne lies in just this kind of ambiguity. His poems are incredibly detailed, specific, and intricate, but at the same time mysterious, vague, and elusive. Here again, we’re led to consider the ways in which the poem both invites us to identify with the speaker’s emotions, and reminds us that what we’re looking at here is not a person but a poem. We’ll see this dynamic continue throughout the rest of the poem, as Donne oscillates between the tangible and the conceptual, the literal and the metaphorical. By the time we get to the final lines, it may even seem that the poem is more concerned with the gap between reality and imagination than it is with its ostensible subject of two lovers parting.

The next stanza introduces a new metaphor that is related—appropriately, given the occasion of the poem—to the idea of travel.

      On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afric, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, all,
     So doth each tear,
     Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.

This stanza’s transformation of a “nothing” into an “all” is similar to an idea expressed near the end of another Donne poem, “The Canonization.” Both poems use the figure of a world contained in a reflection, and in each case great stress is put on the metaphysical nature of that containment: the physical object is captured in a reflection, but so is the object’s essence. In “The Canonization” it isn’t just the “world” that is contained in the “glasses of your eyes,” but the “whole world’s soul.” The distinction is important. Donne is alluding to the Christian theory of transubstantiation, where the base physical representations of bread and wine are transformed, by the intercession of the Holy Ghost, into holy reality: the body and blood of Christ. Analogous processes occur in “A Valediction: of Weeping.” Much as the tears in line 7 were shown to be both physical “fruits” and metaphysical “emblems,” here Donne conflates reality (the “world” in which we actually live) and representation (the “globe” we use as an icon of that world). A blank ball is nothing until it’s overlaid with maps to become an “all.” A tear is nothing until it reflects the face of the beloved and becomes an “all.” And perhaps the poem itself is both a nothing—a mere collection of sounds and symbols—and yet also an “all,” a container for the poet’s genuine emotions.

The final lines of the second stanza may contain the most knotty ideas in a very knotty poem:

Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.

How are we to understand the phrase “This world” here? There are several possible readings, and as elsewhere in the poem, they range from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract. “This world” could be the real world the lovers see around them: If we both cry, our eyes will fill with tears, and we literally won’t be able to see each other anymore. But of course the figure also works as a metaphor for the characters’ emotional states: Our mutual sorrow at parting destroys the heaven-on-earth we make when we’re together. Finally, keep in mind the maps Donne showed us earlier in the stanza. The speaker’s tears might also be obscuring his vision of that globe, a “little world made cunningly” that in turn represents the literal earth. Again Donne succeeds in “mixing” the real and the figurative.

“Mixed” might not refer to a literal mixing of the two lovers’ tears, but instead to the process of reproduction—the oscillation of reality and representation—that is gradually manifesting itself as the poem’s central concern. The two lines might suggest that watery reflections of the lovers are being created and destroyed endlessly: in reflecting, or mixing with, each other’s tears, the lovers “overflow” and destroy those reflections, the faces-within-tears from the first stanza. We see the lovers’ (real) tears as images within images, endlessly generative and endlessly in decay.

Immediately following his sequence of globe and water imagery, Donne compares his beloved to the moon, the sphere that controls the flow of tides.

O more than moon,

Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;
      Let not the wind
      Example find,
To do me more harm, than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Whoe’er sighs most, is cruelest, and hastes the other’s death.

The beloved is “more than” the moon: not only can she can draw tears from herself, but she can pull those tears all the way up into her own “sphere,” or presence, where the poet is as well. Donne exhorts her not to use her power to “draw … up seas,” that is, to weep, because it could “drown” him in at least three ways. His reflection would be drowned when caught in her tears; seeing her cry would figuratively drown him in sorrow; and if her tears inadvertently “teach the sea” and give an “example” to the wind, he might literally be drowned when he sets sail on his voyage.

The poem’s closing “breath” metaphor, which appropriately follows the “wind” image, once again asserts the union of the lovers: Because we breathe as one when we’re together, our sighs of sorrow use up each other’s breath, and so hasten each other’s death. As we might have expected, Donne ends the poem with a paradox. We tend to associate breath with life, but here an excess of breath leads to death. This metaphor, like the earlier tear/reflection conceit, warns the beloved that her physical expressions of grief—crying, sighing—cause emotional harm. When she cries she drowns his reflection in her tears; when she sighs she steals his life-breath. Once again, the metaphorical and the real appear to be so closely aligned as to become indistinguishable.

This breath figure also has an echo in “The Canonization,” where we find similar images of the lovers as a single being:

       Call her one, me another fly,
We are tapers too, and at our own cost die,
      And we in us find the eagle and the dove…

In these lines, as in “A Valediction: of Weeping,” the poet and his beloved form one being. That’s not an original idea, but it becomes original when we note that in each case this union is destructive as well as creative. In “The Canonization” the lovers are both flies and the candles that burn the flies, so they “at [their] own cost die”: the fact of their union is also the cause of their destruction. “The eagle and the dove” is a similarly murderous figure, since eagles kill doves. So too in “A Valediction: of Weeping” the lovers are united—in teary reflections and in breath—but those very unions threaten the lovers with ruin. As in the lines about mixed tears overflowing “this world,” the poem’s closing lines suggest the idea of love as a self-perpetuating cycle of creation and destruction. The great achievement of “A Valediction: of Weeping” is its powerful evocation of this very paradox—not only in terms of the lovers, who appear to be simultaneously united and divided, but in terms of the poem itself, which persistently demands that we read it as both artificial and earnest, self-contained and suggestive, a “nothing” and an “all.”

Originally Published: February 15th, 2013

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...

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