This is a personal poem showing the pure love and devotion of the poet to his beloved. Some persons feel that the poem is addressed to his wife Anne More.The poet is about to leave in the end of 1611 for a short visit to France but this absence of a few weeks may not be taken as an occasion of separation and lamentation. The poet’s wife was in a bad state of health. The poet shows the uniqueness of true love and that it can stand separation on account of mutual confidence and affection. This separation may be deemed like death, but as good men are not afraid of death, true lovers are not afraid of separation. This is not a farewell to love, but an exposition of true and devoted love which can stand the shock of temporary separation, because it is not based on sex or physical attraction.
The critics differ about the quality and type of argument used by Donne to console his partner. Helen Gardner thinks that this is ‘not an argument to use to a wife who has no need to hide her grief at her husband’s absence’, and therefore the poem may be regarded as an address of a lover to his lady friend. Coleridge, however, remarked: “It is an admirable poem which none but Donne could have written. Nothing was ever more admirably made than the figure of the compass” Dr. Johnson disliked the image of the compass and observed: “To the comparsion of a man that travels and his wife stays at home with a pair of compasses, it may be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has the better claim”. Grierson, however, admired it as ‘the tenderest of Donne’s love poems’. In spite of the differences of opinion there is no doubt that the love mentioned in the poem is pure and realistic.
DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
The poet addresses his beloved to offer her consolation for his short absence. Just as virtuous men are not afraid of death, in the same way true lovers are not afraid of separation. Separation only tests their loyalty and devotion. Ordinary lovers who are addicted to sex may not be able to stand separation. Therefore, his beloved should neither shed tears nor heave sighs. This absence is a sort of touch-stone to test their mutual love.
Men are afraid of earthquakes and the damage caused by them. However, the movement of the heavenly bodies, though much greater and more violent, is quiet and harmless. Similarly, ordinary lovers may lament a separation but their love is so holy and pure that in spite of separation, they have no feeling of loneliness. Their love is so chaste and refined that physical absence does not matter to them at all. Their love is not based on physical enjoyment.
The lovers cannot define the nature and essence of their pure love. It is a refined love of the mind and has nothing to do with the joys of sex. Their souls are one. Temporary separation cannot cause a breach of love. Absence extends the domain and expanse of love. Just as gold is beaten to thinness and its purity is in no way affected, in the same way their pure love will expand and in no way lose its essence. The lovers are like a lump of gold and the quality of their love cannot change. The frontiers of their love will extend and their mutual confidence and loyalty will in no way be affected.
A pair of compasses
Donne employs the conceit of ‘twin compasses’. Their souls may be two but they are united at a centre like the two sides of a compass. The soul of the beloved is like the fixed foot of the compass as she stays at home. The poet’s soul is like the other foot of the compass which moves, so to say in a circle. The fixed foot leans towards the moving foot, and afterwards, the moving foot rejoins the fixed foot. The rejoining of the encircling foot suggests the return of the poet to his beloved and their union—in spite of their separate identities—is the very consummation and joy of love. The poet proves that in spite of separation, the lovers are united in mutual affection and loyalty. James Reeves writes in this connection: “We are like the two legs of a pair of compasses, you are the fixed one in the centre. Further my soul goes from yours, the more yours leans towards mine; and as mine comes home, so yours revives. Your soul is the centre of my being, and keeps mine constant as it circles round you.”
The poem consists of nine quartrains and is quite smooth in its rhythm. However, its images and conceits enrich its significance. The comparison of separation to death is obvious. Just as good people face death patiently and quietly, in the same way, true lovers face separation willingly. Ordinary lovers may view separation as an earthquake because their love is based on the physical relationship. True lovers are like the heavenly bodies, the movement of which is greater and violent but causes no injury or harm. Holy love is not affected by movement or change of environment. There is another conceit of the gold beaten to thinness. The quality of the gold remains unaffected though its area and its dimensions increase. In the same way, the quality of love remains constant in spite of the extension of the gambit of love. The best conceit of the stiff twin compasses is extremely appropriate and fits the theme like a glove. The individuality of the lover is maintained while their basic unity, is symbolised by the screw which fixes the two sides of the compass. This fixed foot rotates while the moving foot revolves in a circle and then gets rejoined to the fixed foot. While moving foot circumscribes, the fixed foot leaves it, showing the mutuality and interdependence of the two. In this connection A. J. Smith writes:
“The subject of this poem is a metaphysical problem; that of the union of the lovers even when they are separated...It is in the very respect in which they are separated, that he wishes to show his lovers are united. The souls are one substance, which has the invisibility of air, but also the obvious unity of a lump of gold. It is to stress this last point that the compasses are brought in. For gold, though originally solid enough, falls under suspicion of being likely to vanish away, once it has been compared to air. Compasses do not vanish; they have not the remotest connection either with physical or metaphysical subtlety. Hence, once the needful subtlety has been expanded, they close the poem and symbolize it—not, however, by their oddity.”
The strength of the poem lies in its argument and the use of appropriate conceits and images. Sometimes hyperbole is used to emphasise a point that “tears” are floods and ‘sighs’ are tempests. The poet has been able to prove his point that his absence is no cause for mourning for his beloved because their love is pure and constant.