What Does the Fourth Stanza in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" Mean?

In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” 17th century English poet John Donne reveals a profound spiritual kinship between two souls that spans time and space and knows no mourning. He wrote the poem to his wife Anne before he was to leave on a trip and the purpose of the poem is to emphasize that his absence will be no impediment to their deep, spiritual love. He uses the fourth stanza of the poem as a point of contrast to describe a more limited type of love: a sensual love that binds lovers to the material world and thus to loss and grief.

The Danger of Earthly Love

In the fourth stanza of the poem, Donne characterizes this more limited type of love as earthly and impermanent: “Dull sublunary lovers’ love / (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit / Absence.” The adjective “sublunary” means beneath the moon, of the Earth and its transitory states of existence. This “dull” love lacks brilliance because it is based on the senses. It is a physical, sexual love that cannot tolerate bodily separation: “because it doth remove / Those things which elemented it.” Because the love is solely comprised of physicality, it cannot survive when that physicality disappears. In this fashion, the fourth stanza stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the poem, which celebrates a deeper and more sustainable, spiritual love, such as that between the poet and his lover.

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