Why Compasses are Romantic

Thank you, John Donne, for making my standards for metaphysical poetry so incredibly high.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne was the first metaphysical poem I ever read, and it blew my mind due to a beautiful thing called metaphysical conceit.

Now, the poet’s not being pompous (or, at least I don’t think he is…). He (or she) is using a super-long metaphor to explain an abstract idea with an obscure object.

And what’s more obscure and unromantic than a compass?

Isn't it romantic?Through clever comparisons, Donne uses the mechanics of a compass explain the mechanics of his relationship with his wife when they are apart. Their souls are the two legs of the compass, and therefore make a whole, as a compass cannot function with only one leg. When the two feet are pulled away from each other, the legs lean towards each other, as if in yearning, and the yearning/leaning ends when the feet are brought back together.

And while this seems to be the opposite of what the title suggests, that is, to forbid mourning, Donne insists that it is her support, not her tears, that he needs to carry on. The legs of a compass must be stiff for it to create a perfect circle, as so he asks for her support so he may leave and return safely. One foot cannot move without the other moving as well, and so he cannot do whatever is to be done without her aid.

I really like the idea of a compass because it gives the sense of equality and unity. You can’t work alone, you must work together, and both parts are equally important. They move together, they bend together, they create a perfect circle, a symbol of infinity. The key isn’t missing the other half when they are gone, it is to support them when they leave, so they can return to you. It’s a good message for all relationships.

See what I mean about mind-blowing metaphor? It’s the best thing about metaphysical poetry. Another good example of this is The Flea also by John Donne, which is a little cruder, but includes an anecdote that is best saved for another time.

“Thy firmness makes my circle just,/ And makes me end where I begun.” – John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning


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