Friday, October 14, 2011

The meaning of the circle

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The meaning of the circle and the sphere in John Donne’s


A Valediction Forbidding mourning


At the beginning of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, one of the most beautiful love poems that the poet John Donne wrote in 1611, the poet wants to show readers the connection between a positive way to meet death and a positive way to separate from the persons that we love the most. When a virtuous man dies, he tells his soul to go, while others wait for his departure. The separation of the body and soul are not an ending but the beginning of a new cycle. The poem ends with the mentioning of the circle instead of the sphere, because the first one represents the perfection in Donne’s universe. This perfection is achieved, according to him, by the parting at the beginning of the circle and reuniting at the point where the curves connect again. This poem proceeds in a form of monologue in which narrator tries to convince a lover to remain faithful during his absence. What makes this monologue unique is the fact, that it is so dramatic in the sense, because the lover that is left behind is the listener and Donne uses a lot of metaphysical comparisons to show the union of the lovers, after their long period of separation. It is probable that this poem is devoted to Donne’s wife, he gave it to her just before he went abroad in 1611 (Parker 56).


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Donne’s poem, that was written in nine quatrains of iambic parameter, starts with image of good people that have to accept death “Virtuous man pass mildly away” (Donne 5). Further he makes a metaphysical comparison between dying virtuous man that are whispering to their souls to leave their bodies because the time has come, and two lovers saying goodbye before a long journey. The poet states this with the following lines “So let us melt and make no noise,


No tear floods, nor sigh tempest-move


T’were profanation of our joys


To let the laity our love”(Donne 5).


He wants to tell us with this verse that if a man lived a good and virtuous life, he doesn’t have to be afraid of the death, because our time on the Earth is up, and we should move to another spheres. The word “melt” refers to the physical state of our bodies, the flesh will gradually disappear, the body will “melt” in the Earth, but not the soul. The soul of a dying man that invisibly separates from the body symbolizes the bond between the lovers that will dissolve quietly during a period of time. “Noise” is connected and refers to “tear floods” and “sigh tempests”. Speaker wants to refer to the virtuous life and the beautiful moments the lovers shared together and they shouldn’t spoil that with crying and moaning, but look forward to the reunion that eventually will come and d not be sad. Donne continues this poem with the comparison of the natural phenomena with the love relationship, he mentions “sigh tempests” that refer to the element of air, and the “tear floods” that refer to the element of water. The poet uses this hyperbole to demand from the lover to remain strong and not show any sign of sadness upon parting of a lover.


In the third verse of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” the third natural element, earth is introduced. Earthquakes are perceived by everyone and 400 years ago they were interpreted as omens of misfortune. It is understandable that an earthquake is looked upon with fear, because of its potential to ravage land and harm people. However, “A trepidation affecting a celestial sphere would be viewed in a different light, especially one that is imperceptible and has no apparent meaning for the average person (Kermode 444). In order to understand the meaning of the third verse in this poem, it is necessary to consider the Ptolemaic Universe and the symbolism of the sphere. During such time period as the Middle Ages, the circle and sphere were representing the perfect shapes in our universe. The main source behind that thinking is probably the Greek philosopher Aristotle who was the opinion that “The motion of the celestial bodies is not straight and finite, but circular, invariable and eternal. So they themselves must be eternal, unalterable and divine” (Pannekoek 115). John Donne, that was born in 157 and died in 161, was certainly well educated and studied famous Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato and Ptolemy, and their similar views of Universe. In the 15th and 16th century many people including him accepted the Ptolemais theory of the universe, which basically claimed that the spherical planets are orbited around the earth in concentric circles called deferents. Later studies by Copernicus and Kepler proved this theory to be wrong. Copernicus made a hypothesis that a sun centered the universe in 151, but his theory didn’t receive immediate acceptance. Kepler hypothesized elliptical orbits of planets, and he published his theories in 160. However, writing this poem in 1611, Donne was already convinced that the earth and not the sun is the center of our solar system, so he made a choice to use the sphere and the circle as a symbol of representation of a perfect relationship that is based on harmony, love and reason. He compares in the third quatrain the earthquake with the relationship of the lovers. They can not accept the separation, they fear it, just as people are afraid of the earthquakes. “When an earthquake occurs, causing only small cracks in the ground, everyone is disturbed and regards the event as ominous, but when planets move apart, though the distances are great, no harm results”(Magill 7). The narrator presents the comparison between the earthquake and trepidation of the sphere to suggest that death like the earthquake is a matter that is beyond one’s control, and therefore should be approached rationally, without fear, because we can not change it.


In the forth and fifth verse of the Donne’s poem, speaker tells his love to remain stoic and not to make any changes in their relationship as imperceptible to others as the trepidation of the spheres. He uses metaphysic comparisons, hyperbolas and terms from astronomy to make his point. the word sublunary refers to the surface below the moon, he uses it because he is certain, that below the moons surface everything is dead.. According to the Greek astronomers, this sublunar area, composed of the four elements was imperfect. The sphere’s surface, composed of quinta essenta, the perfect part, radiates light and heat (Pannekoek 115).This geological-astronomical imagery promises reunion of the lovers.” Sublunary lovers fear parting, because they can never be certain that they will see each other again. Just as the cleavages caused by the earthquakes do not necessarily repair themselves, these terrestrial, hence inferior, lovers may not reunite


(Magill 8). The “dull sublunary lovers” are imperfect human beings which don’t practice mature love. Their love is sensual, so they need physical contact to maintain their relationship, and if their love totally depends only on the physical part of it, then their love can’t and will not survive. With the last two lines, Donne suggests that the lovers with fully developed souls can continue their love without any sensory experience “Inter-assured of the mind,


Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss”


(Donne 54).


We see in these two verses that Donne “rejects the duality of body and soul Love for him is not one or the other, but both-a single, indivisible entity (Magill ).


In quatrain six, the reader gets presented the picture of the traditional marriage ceremony in which two souls of the lovers are finally unified in the sacred and unbreakable bond of a holy institution, in which two souls become one according to Donne “Our two souls therefore, which are one”. He tells the reader that separation can be like a stretching exercise in which the unified soul of the lovers is beat “like gold to airy thinness” (Donne 54). I think that he is trying to explain that when gold is beat to a certain thinness, it is quickly blown away or it comes to nothing. The airy thinness of the gold makes the emphasis on the stretching of the lovers resources. Their love continues to exist, even then when one of the lovers is passed away, but the strength of their love is weakened through these circumstances, their love is getting fragile.


The speaker begins after the sixth verse his closing argument in which he changes the image of perfection from sphere to circle. He uses these two symbols, because in the theory of the Ptolemaic universe that consisted of the perfect spheres and perfect circular orbits, these two shapes both represent perfection and harmony with the universe. Poets and song writers in the Middle Ages have often used sphere and circle symbolism. Like Dante Alighieri, Donne uses both circle and sphere as the symbol for perfection. In the seventh verse he uses metaphysical comparison again, to compare the lovers sense of union during the absence with the two twin legs of compass. Dante writes in his book “I am as the center of the circle, to which all parts of the circumference stand in equal relation.(The New Life 1). According to Magill, this passage probably gave Donne an idea for his comparison with the twin compasses, because “it certainly expresses the same vision of love’s unifying and godlike power, of love as the still center around which the world revolves and to which all the things return to find that rest that they can experience nowhere else.” (Magill ).


Further, the poet tries to prove his point with drawing a circle with the compass. The narrator, the speaker of the monologue is the leg of a drawing instrument and the lover who stays behind and alone on the Earth is the fixed point. But without the firmness of the fixed point, the virtuous dying man wouldn’t be able to complete his journey to the higher spheres without the firmness and the fixedness of the other leg. the circle can not be complete, perfect and precise as it should be. According to Freccero, the word obliquely refers to the spiral motion, a movement of a soul.(86-87). The motion of the instrument drawing a circle can be interpreted as the moving of the soul to the higher spheres and this journey is complete, when the circle is drawn.


In John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” the human souls are engaged in parting and reuniting, described in the context of a circular motion. The circle in this poem represents the strengthening and the stoicism of the souls that grow through the trial of separation knowing that eventually they will combine again in the perfect reunion, the firmness of the circle represents the steadiness of the love and the determination of the lovers to be together again. With his final line “And makes me end, where I begun” Donne is trying to tell us that this is an ongoing process, and he has moved from death and separation to life and reunion.


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