My tears before thy face, whilst I stay hereWhilst I stay here This poem is a valediction, meaning that it is an act of saying goodbye to someone. Donne wrote other poems with “Valediction” in the title, including “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “A Valediction of My Name,” and “Valediction to his Book.” ,
For thy face coinscoins Makes, as a mint foundry stamps/makes coins. Compare this line with “As Kings do coynes, to which their stamps impart” from Donne’s poem, “Image of her whom I love, more then she.” them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
PregnantPregnant Also meaning: filled with emotion or significance, rich in meaning or implication 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 diverse shorediverse shore On different lands.
On a round ballround ball That is, the Earth
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, AfricAfric Archaic reference to Africa, used here as two syllables to fit the fixed meter of the line, and an AsiaAsia Pronounced ‘Ay-zee-ay’, rhyming with “lay”,
And quickly make that, which was nothingnothing Both the “round ball” and later “each tear” are likened to a zero (“0”), all;
So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mix'd with mine do overflow
This world; by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbearforbear When used as a verb, to avoid or refrain from doing something
To teach the sea what it may do too soon;
Let not the wind
To do me more harm than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Whoe'er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other's deathWhoe’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death Compare to the lines “When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind, / But sigh’st my soul away” from Donne’s poem, “Song: Sweetest love, I do not go” (lines 25-26).
Try “translating” Donne’s poem into contemporary English. Think about maintaining the emotional pitch of the poem, but feel free to draw on vocabulary, syntax, and images that Donne wouldn’t have known.
Donne’s speaker is performing a valediction—he’s saying goodbye. Try writing your own goodbye poem. Use images and wordplay, like Donne does, to prolong the moment of parting.
Each stanza of Donne’s poem is a sentence. Try rewriting the stanzas without line breaks. How do they work as sentences? Try writing your own long sentences, trying to imitate Donne’s embedded clauses and hypotactic sentence structure. Then, attempt to break your sentences, as Donne’s are, into lines that make units of sense. What is different about writing a poem this way than writing in lines?
Donne is often described as Metaphysical poet and his work is known for its involved conceits. Isolate as many of Donne’s conceits as you can in the poem by boxing them off. In the margins, note what is being compared to what, as well as what mood or emotion is being cued. What is the effect of Donne’s conceit making? Do you feel, as the glossary’s definition suggests, that the “surprise and unlikeness” of his metaphors hold your attention? If not, why not?
What is the effect of the shape Donne’s poem takes? He alternates four-beat lines with more regular (for the time) iambic pentameter. What do the metrical and rhyme schemes, as well as the layout of the poem on the page, suggest or evoke for you? Why write this poem in this way?
As Joel Brouwer notes in his poem guide, Donne wrote for a small circle of friends, “never for fame and seldom for publication.” Does knowing that this poem wasn’t intended for mass audiences affect how we might read it today? What meaning do Donne’s seemingly difficult word or syntactical choices take on when you think about the intended audience of this poem?
If Donne’s poem proves difficult for your students, try discussing why. What in the poem invites them in and what keeps them outside? Develop strategies for reading that have to do both with making sense of the poem and leaving sense aside. For example: to understand the poem’s gist, students might attempt to summarize or paraphrase the poem as a series of Tweets. Have them Tweet each stanza and then the poem as a whole. You could even develop a class Twitter feed for the purpose. Once students have parsed Donne’s poem as a Tweet, ask them to consider it as un-Tweetable: what did they have to leave out of their 140-character summaries, both in terms of content and form? Begin a list of the elements they felt they couldn’t address in their Tweets. Then have them go back through the poem and read exclusively for those. What felt different? Lead a discussion about different modes of reading. Encourage students to discuss their feelings of reading, and how those feelings change: when is the poem difficult, pleasurable, or frustrating to read?
Donne wrote for a coterie. As Joel Brouwer notes in his poem guide, Donne circulated his poems among a close group of friends who would have understood his difficult conceits and written similar poems. Have your students research the term “coterie” and assign them different examples of coterie poets. One group might focus on the Metaphysical poets, another on the New York School. Have students prepare a short description or presentation on who the members of the coterie were, what distinguished the coterie’s type of poem from other poems, and how their work circulated. Then have the groups develop their own coterie. Ask them to develop examples of what their own coterie poems look like (have them write poems back and forth to one another), and have them discuss or put in place their own method of circulation (have them think about how the “back and forth” of their group works—email, social media, zines, letters, etc.).
John Donne’s standing as a great English poet, and one of the greatest writers of English prose, is now assured. However, it has been confirmed only in the early 20th century. The history of Donne’s reputation is the most remarkable of any major writer in...