It is widely considered that Donne gave this poem to his wife before traveling Europe in 1611. It is also considered to be one of his quintessential metaphorical poems.
The title itself suggests a farewell, yet not allowing any sadness in this departure. The Speaker explains that he is forced to spend time apart from his lover but tells her that their parting should not be sorrowful before he leaves. The Speaker does not want to experience the normal conventions of grief, or how Donne puts it, he doesn’t want “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”. The Speaker uses hyperbole to make his point, which subtly lightens the tone of the stanza, by exaggerating.
A gentle tone is created by the long vowel sounds of the first line: “As virtuous men pass mildly away”, it is as though it’s mimicking breathing and thus adopting tranquillity and peacefulness.
A snippet of dialogue is used in the first stanza to punctuate Donne’s feelings about death: “Their breath goes now”, and some day, “No…”
In the second stanza, he uses a nature metaphor to tell how they should part: “So let us melt, and make no noise”. The Speaker wants his departure to be completely natural, like the changing of the seasons. He wants their farewell to be voluntary, even though it is ultimately inevitable.
For them to put their love on display would “profanation” – he wants their love to remain with dignity and beauty. He implies that their love is sacred, and it would be blasphemous to cry over it.
He explains that a predominantly physical love cannot survive a physical separation, and their love is spiritual, so thus physical separation cannot harm them. They aren’t “dull sublunary lovers”, like the common “laity”.
The “moving of th’ earth” metaphor in the third stanza isn’t intended to refer to earthquakes, but to the theory of Donne’s time about the movement of the earth. This is supported by the use of the phrase, “trepidation of the spheres”, which is an obsolete astronomical theory used in the Ptolemaic system. As we know, earthquakes were little understood by Englishmen of the 17th century as they were exotic. It is based on the idea of vibrations of stars and planets creating music that controlled our fates. During Donne’s time, scientists were beginning to look beyond that theory, as well as the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. Despite this, these ideas were popular amongst artists, and Donne included. These intellectual arguments to explain emotional matters is typical of a metaphysical poem.
The Speaker uses “gold” to compare the love the between him and his lover in stanza six. The gold (like their love) is being stretched out and distributed throughout the air, which now covers the room and has widened the distance between the couple, instead of being destroyed. This means that their love is now part of the atmosphere itself. Donne gives a vague allusion to alchemy (the ancient theory that turned metal into gold. This turned out to be impossible and the people who claimed to be alchemists were fakes).
The created a compass analogy to convey their love. They need each other to function, so whereas one travels the globe, the other stays in one place, supporting the other. “The fixed foot, makes no show/To move, but doth, if the other do.” Having her makes the speaker a complete and perfect circle, and gives him a point and direction to his journey. The compass is a metaphysical conceit that’s used by the Speaker to fully convey the extent of their love.
The poem has a simple ABAB structure:
- As virtuous men pass mildly away,
(B) And whisper to their souls to go,
(A) Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The
(B) breath goes now, and some say, No:
The tone is melancholic without being melodramatic. The poem is serious, and yet wholly optimistic. This conveys that, although the Speaker must part from his lover, they will still be together because of the strength of their love.