Printer Friendly

Isaiah 40 and Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning": a case for possible influence.

Abstract: An examination of Isaiah 40 as possible intertext to John Donnes "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" illuminates the consolatio motifs of the poem. Isaiah 40's imagery may have influenced Donne's metaphysical conceits of compass, circle, and "gold to airy thinness beat," underlining the spiritual link between the holy lovers. In addition, the binary discursive mode that expresses the thematics of Isaiah 40 invites further exploration of the influence of Old Testament poetry, in general, upon the metaphysical conceit as literary praxis.


John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" has been the subject of endless critical speculation regarding the sources and inspiration for its famed metaphysical conceits, symbolizing the intratextual lovers and the spiritual perfection of their love. Scholars have traced the origins of the compass and the circle that it limns to sources as varied as both the draftsman's and navigator's compass; the imagery in an Italian madrigal by Battista Guarini that Donne may have known; emblem books, such as that of George Withers, in which God appears as the Great Geometer--derived, most likely, from Proverbs 8:27, with its reference to God delineating the parameters of the universe with a compass; and even to Dante's Commedia, where Love appears at the center of a circle. As for the text's conceit of "gold to airy thinness beat" (1. 24), this has been ascribed to the seventeenth-century interest in alchemy. (1)

I would like to suggest yet another possible influence on the compass, circle, and beaten gold imagery of Donne's "A Valediction," namely Isaiah 40, an Old Testament consolatio whose imagery thematizes the circumscription and connection of geographical distances in language that provides an intriguing intertext to Donnes poem. This is not to claim that Donne consciously modeled the imagery of his "Valediction" on that of Isaiah 40, but rather that this intertext indicates the possibility of some subliminal influence that is expressed in a series of thought-provoking parallels, underlining the strong imprint of Biblical poetry on Donnes artistic imagination. Viewed in conjunction with Isaiah 40 as intertext, Donnes "Valediction" can be seen to transcend its usual categorization as a farewell that is possibly related to the medieval tradition of the conge d'amour, (2) and, in addition, it can be viewed as a consolatio, a genre which is generally structured by a reference to death, followed by the acknowledgment that all men will die, and then by comfort in the face of devastating loss. As will be explored in greater detail below, the key imagery used in Isaiah 40 to reify the promise of consolation and salvation--namely, the dissolution of topographical barriers and God sitting on "the circle of the earth" as a signifier of control over such geographical constraints (verse 22)--may have had some influence on Donne's central conceits, which promise a continued connection between the two intratextual lovers despite the nearly insuperable distance that would seem to separate them. In addition, as we shall see, the binary discursive mode that expresses the thematics of Isaiah 40 invites further exploration of the influence of Old Testament poetry, in general, upon the metaphysical conceit as literary praxis.

Isaiah 40 is perhaps the most famous of all Old Testament consolatios, referring to the devastation, despair, and exile experienced by the Jewish people upon the destruction of their Holy Temple. This historical memory, however, is accompanied by the prophet's assertion that because God is all-powerful, He can reverse the destruction and redirect the destiny of His chosen people. From a Christian typological perspective, the chapter reflects the suffering of all men--suffering that will be followed by hope, redemption, and salvation through Christ. (3)

Isaiah's overt consolation for death and exile--and its concomitant promise of redemption--is expressed through a valorization of God's power. This power is troped not only as the ability to measure and contain the endless expanse of the heavens and earth--to control spatial constraints--but as the ability to transform topographical elements into their binary opposites, and hence, on a symbolic level, to reverse tragedy, shifting it into its diametric opposite. Isaiah 40 thus provides a relevant intertext for exploring the metaphoric resonances of Donnes "Valediction" by providing a paradigm for the consolation that the poem offers through metaphysical conceits that represent the dissolution of geographical impedziments that, under normal circumstances and as a natural consequence of events, would seemingly separate the lovers in his poem. As possible intertext to Donnes "Valediction," the sacred discourse of Isaiah 40 adumbrates the consolatio elements of the poem, which affirm comfort in the face of feared loss, as well as the promise that the couple's love will survive separation. To put it differently, the "Valediction" can be seen as a consolatio for events that have yet to transpire, asserting solace in the face of imminent loss and the attendant assurance that the lovers' spiritual connection and passion will endure.

Donne's deep and abiding familiarity with the Old Testament--a critical commonplace that needs no exhaustive documentation here--makes it unsurprising that the metaphysical conceits of the compass, circle, and "gold to airy thinness beat" may be, at least in part, Biblically influenced. Moreover, as will be detailed below, an examination of some of the key lexical elements of the original Hebrew text--which Donne may have known--reinforces the central thesis of this essay, further clarifying the possible connection between Donne's poem and Isaiah 40. (4) It is worth noting here that scholars are in agreement that Donne had more than a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew and could read the Old Testament in its original form with some degree of facility. Alison Shell and Arnold Hunt, for instance, write that Donne "had an excellent knowledge of Hebrew, and was able to cite Talmudic commentaries on the Old Testament" (66), while George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson refer to Donne as "a Hebrew scholar" (365). Certainly John Udall's Key of the Holy Tongue, published in 1593, would have been available to him as an aid in understanding the original Hebrew text. The Key was a Hebrew grammar book and dictionary that included practical exercises on two psalms, translated from the Latin version published by Peter Ramus' student, the Frenchman Pierre Martinez, in 1588.

The connections between Isaiah 40 and Donne's "Valediction" include the scenario of consolation, the imagery through which the consolation is both offered and validated for the intratextual auditors, and the discursive means by which this is achieved--namely through a series of comparisons of innately binary opposites. Again, this is not to say that Isaiah 40 had a direct or conscious influence on Donne's poem, but rather that it provides an intriguing intertext that illuminates Donne's fundamental indebtedness to the Bible and his engagement with sacred texts.

Isaiah 40 begins with an exhortation to the Children of Israel to cease mourning and be comforted, because they have already been severely punished for their transgressions, as seen in verses 1-2. This is followed by his declaration that a direct conduit to God will be prepared, without physical barriers, through the erasure of topographical constraints: valleys will be raised, mountains and hills will be leveled, crooked pathways will be straightened out, and rough surfaces will be made smooth (verse 4). Thus the Children of Israel will encounter no geographical impediments separating them from a return to God.

The ensuing section then makes clear the differences between God--Who is eternal--and His people, who are as transient as the grass, as ephemeral as the flowers (verses 6-8). But despite this disparity between God and man, God will redeem His people because He controls all agency in the world (verses 10-11). More specifically, Isaiahs consolatio is based on comparisons of inherently opposite things--man, transitory as the grass, the feeble creator of false gods and idols (verse 19), in contrast to God as the Creator of the universe, who controls nature and the destiny of mankind. God's might is represented by Isaiah as the ability to quantify and contain the natural elements of the universe: "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?" (verse 12). And in contrast, as part of the oppositional constructs of the chapter, "the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance," and islands--as geographical units echoing the mountains and hills in verse 12--are insignificant (verse 15). Thus measurement and containment--which are God's acts of creation--become metaphors for mastery over the objects that are quantified, reifying God's power over space, topography, and the forces of nature that cause death and decay (verses 3-8). In light of God's power and agency, "All nations before him are as nothing" (verse 17), and any comparison of God to mankind is futile (verses 15-20).

To emphasize his message, Isaiah then describes God as: "he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in" (verse 22). The language of measurement is used to emphasize the smallness of man--likened to a grasshopper--and the greatness of God, Who can circumscribe all elements in the universe. Moreover, Isaiah continues, because God controls the world, He will bring strength to the weary and redeem mankind.

The connections between Isaiah 40 and the "Valediction" now become clear. First, with respect to the general consolatio motifs of Donne's poem--in the context of Izaak Walton's discussion of the background to the poem in his biography of Donne (257)--the poet's farewell to his wife begins with the standard topos of a reference to death, in this case representing the agony of the lovers' parting: "As virtuous men pass mildly away ..." (ll. 1 ff.). And like a consolatio, it concludes with solace, hope and reaffirmation of the perfection of their love, symbolized by the circle drawn by the compass, recalling how God's agency and redemptive power are troped in Isaiah 40. The "Valediction" thus becomes a sacred text of comfort preached by Donne to his wife.

More specifically, the imagery of measurement and the blurring of spatial constraints that offer consolation in Isaiah 40 provide a possible model for the consolatio elements of Donne's poem, where the geographical impediments that would separate the speaker from his beloved are clearly at stake. Isaiah 40's imagery of measurement insists that God is all-powerful--that He devised the topographical structure of the world--and His unique ability to measure and span the infinite reaches of the universe becomes a metaphor for agency and omnipotence. Thus He can reverse the natural elements of His created universe at will, changing them to their binary opposites and, by extension, He can turn destruction into salvation for mankind. Like the Children of Israel, who will not be permanently exiled because God has the power to dissolve earthly barriers and will restore them to their former state, Donne's lovers should cease mourning because they are still linked, metaphorically, across geographical distance and hence will not really be parted. The Biblical intertext, thematizing transcendence over spatial constraints as a signifier of power and control, thus confers a vatic dimension upon the "Valediction," which accords with Donne's emphasis on the holy nature of his love, which transcends the "dull, sublunary" love of ordinary individuals (l. 13). Just as Isaiah asserts that those who have faith will be strengthened and not fall (verse 31), Donne affirms the continued spiritual link between the lovers, if they only believe in the power of their love. Thus the imagery of measurement and the negation of spatial constraints which express the consolatio theme of Isaiah 40 provide an intriguing intertext to the key consolatio elements of Donne's text.

Second, Donnes "stiff twin compasses" and "gold to airy thinness beat" are also colored by the image of God sitting on the circle of the earth and stretching the heavens like a tent to encompass His creations. This metaphor for agency provides an illuminating intertext to Donnes circle as discursive representation of the spiritual perfection of the bond between the holy lovers and the concomitant promise that the speaker will return to his beloved. Awareness of the possible influence of Isaiah 40 adds resonance to the twin compasses and stretched gold as signifiers of mastery over spatial constraints and the ability to shift events into their binary opposites--that is, as signifiers of potential loss transmuted into a happy end, or redemptive closure.

Of related significance, a look at the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 40 reveals that the word used for "circle" is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], whose root is closely related to the Hebrew word for "compass," namely [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Udall's Key, for instance, which Donne may have been consulted, lists both words as part of the same entry on page 42 of the Dictionary, which is titled, "A brief Abridgment of the Hebrue Diet." (5) In addition, with respect to the possible derivation of the compass via Withers' emblem books, the original Hebrew text of Proverbs 8:27 uses the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to denote a compass, rather than the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; that is, it uses the same lexical form that appears in Isaiah 40 to denote the "circle of the earth." The original Hebrew verse in Proverbs, "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" is translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth," and in the Geneva Bible as "When he prepared the heavens, I was there, when hee set the compasse upon the deepe." Thus it seems possible that Donne could have known that the reference to a compass in the Hebrew text of Proverbs is identical to the Hebrew word used to denote Isaiahs "circle." (6)

As a third point of interest, on a lexical level Isaiah 40 is structured by the parallelism, contrast, and balance that distinguish Old Testament poetic discourse (7)--a form of doubling or binary perspective in nearly every verse, beginning with Isaiah's assertion that Israel "hath received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins" (verse 2). This linguistic doubling or continuous comparative mode, which is intrinsic to the binary thematic perspective of Isaiah 40, is made explicit when the prophet quotes God as saying: "to whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal?" in verse 2, a verse which emphasizes God's mastery over the universe as key to the fulfillment of prophecy and salvation, in contrast to man's powerlessness and transience. This binary perspective, I suggest, invites examination of the influence of Old Testament poetry and its linguistic modalities on the metaphysical conceit itself as a discursive strategy that embeds and inscribes oppositional constructs. The metaphysical conceit as literary praxis gains new perspective when viewed in conjunction with the Old Testament linguistic and rhetorical strategy at the simplest sentence level, though close examination of the issue is clearly beyond the scope of this essay and will be left for future study.

To conclude, the richly allusive layer of meaning that can be extrapolated from the possible influence of Isaiah 40 on Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" makes it clear that the poem is not merely a farewell, but also appears to incorporate elements of the consolatio genre. Whether we read Isaiah 40 as a reference to the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the power and validity of God's promise to restore His people--or whether we see it within a Christian typological framework as a prophecy of mankind's ultimate redemption from suffering through Christ--the fear and sadness of the interlocutor of the "Valediction" take on added resonance. The Biblical intertext serves to underscore Donne's characteristic merging of the sacred and the profane in his poetry, elevating the couple's love to an even higher plane of spiritual perfection. Moreover, the consolatio paradigm and its imagistic signifiers enable Donne to empower himself and his beloved--at least within the text itself--in an attempt to control circumstances and effect a happy ending. The metaphysical conceit of the compass and its related circle of perfection thus represent an attempt to assert agency, echoing God's dominion over the vast expanse of the universe, inscribed in the prophetic text as the ability to change topographical elements into their binary opposites--and to contain them within the heavens, which are stretched out as a tent that encompasses all. Encircling and circumscribing become metaphors for mastery and empowerment, pointing to the poet's artistic appropriation, as it were, of the role of the Creator and His ability to provide comfort and consolation. To put it differently, Donne, in effect, constitutes himself as a creator with the power to control his personal history--to bring about a circular journey that will return him to his wife.

As a final thought, the oppositional discursive mode of the Old Testament source--whose thematic binary elements work in tandem with the rhetorical parallelism and balance that characterize the structure of its verses at the sentence level--provides a possible paradigm for the oppositional constructs inherent in the metaphysical conceits of the "Valediction," namely "the most heterogeneous ideas ... yoked by violence together," as Samuel Johnson termed it, or the "language of paradox," as Cleanth Brooks has defined it (Clements 107 and 177). Like Isaiah 40, whose discursive and thematic hallmarks inhere in repetition through parallelism and balance and the confluence of binary constructs, Donne's text subtly conflates the holy and profane--or sacred and secular themes--that typify his discursive mode. It is this merging of oppositional elements that echoes the fusion of such binary constructs at the fundamental rhetorical level of Old Testament poetry in general, of which Isaiah 40 is a good exemplar, inviting further exploration of the influence of Old Testament poetic discourse on the development of the metaphysical conceit as linguistic strategy in Donnes canon as a whole.

Ariel University

Ariel, Israel


Allen, D. C. "Donne's Compass Figure." Modern Language Notes 68.4 (1953): 238-39.

Belden, H. M. "Donnes Compasses and Withers' Compass." Modern Language Notes 19.3-4 (1904): 76-78.

Brooks, Cleanth. "The Language of Paradox." In Clements, A. L. Ed. John Donne's Poetry. Authoritative Texts and Criticism. 177-86.

Clements, A. L. Ed. John Donnes Poetry. Authoritative Texts and Criticism. New York: Norton, 1966.

Cunner, Eugene R. "Donne's 'Valediction: Forbidding Mourning' and the Golden Compasses of Alchemical Creation." Literature and the Occult: Essays in Comparative Literature. Ed. Luanne Frank. Arlington: U of Texas P, 1977. 72-110.

Divine, Jay D. "The Compass-Circle Imagery in Literature and Donne." Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973): 78-80.

Fleissner, Robert F. "Donne and Dante: the Compass Figure Reinterpreted." Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1961): 315-20.

Freccero, John. "Donne's 'Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.'" English Literary History 30.4 (1963): 335-76.

Gorton, Lisa. "John Donne's Use of Space." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (1998): 1-12.

Jahn, J. D. "The Eschatological Scene of Donne's 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.'" College Literature 5.1 (1978): 34-47.

Johnson, Rick. "Modern Old Testament Interpretation." Biblical Hermeneutics. Ed. Bruce Corley et al. 2nd edition. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2002. 131-46.

Johnson, Samuel. "The Metaphysical Poets." In Clements, A. L. Ed. John Donnes Poetry. Authoritative Texts and Criticism. 106-09.

Lederer, Josef. "John Donne and the Emblematic Practice." Review of English Studies 22.87(1946): 182-200.

Linden, Stanton J. "Compasses and Cartography: John Donne's 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.'" John Donne Journal 3.1 (1984): 23-34.

Powers, Doris C. "Donne's Compass." Review of English Studies 9.34 (1958): 173-75.

Reeves, Eileen, "John Donne and the Oblique Course." Renaissance Studies 7.2 (1993): 168-73.

Shami, Jeanne. "John Donne." The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature. Ed. Rebecca Lemon et al. Oxford and West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 239-53.

Shell, Alison and Arnold Hunt. "Donne's Religious World." The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 65-82.

Simpson, Evelyn M. and George R. Potter. Ed. and introd. The Sermons of John Donne. Vol. 10. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Takiguchi, Haruo. "Donne's Compass Imagery and the Related Traditions." http://

Udall, John. Key of the Holy Tongue. Original copy from the Rare Books Collection of the National Library of Israel, Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Walton, Izaak. "Life of Dr. John Donne." Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry. Ed. Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke. 2nd edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963. 250-71.

Wilken, Robert Louis et al. Ed. Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.


(1) A complete catalogue of the scholarship dealing with the imagery in Donnes "Valediction" is beyond the scope of this essay, but the following essays are both representative and of interest. See, for example: John Freccero, "Donnes 'Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," English Literary History 30.4 (1963), 335-76 regarding the twelfth chapter of Dantes Vita nuova, lines 21-23, and Lisa Gorton, "John Donne's Use of Space," Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (1998), 1-12 regarding Donne's inscription of circles as a reflection of personal and social relationships. Regarding the compass as drafting tool and navigator's chart, see Eileen Reeves, "John Donne and the Oblique Course," Renaissance Studies 7.2 (1993), 168-73. Regarding Guarini's "Riposta dell'Amante," Venice 1598, a madrigal in which a lover compares himself and his beloved to the fixed and moving feet of a compass, see Josef Lederer, "John Donne and the Emblematic Practice," Review of English Studies 22 (1946), 182-200. Lederer says that Guarini took this idea from the sixteenth-century Belgian printer Christophe Platin. D. C. Allen, in "Donne's Compass Figure," Modern Language Notes 71 (1956), 256-7, also mentions Guarini, as does Doris C. Powers, "Donne's Compass," Review of English Studies 9.34 (1958), 173-5. See Robert F. Fleissner, "Donne and Dante: the Compass Figure Reinterpreted," Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1961), 315-20 for a comprehensive review of the "medieval tradition which Donne inherited," including Omar Khayyam; Guarini; the Belgian printer, Christopher Platin; and an anonymous author of another compass poem in a seventeenth-century commonplace book. Fleissner also notes that Dante believed that the circle symbolized love and perdition, citing the episode of Paolo and Francesca, the circles of the Inferno, and God as an infinite circle. Also see Jay D. Divine, "The Compass-Circle Imagery in Literature and Donne," Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973), 78-80, regarding the concept of alpha and omega in relationship to gender. For a good comprehensive summary of literary sources for the compass and circle, including a bibliography of existing scholarship, see Haruo Takiguchi's "Donnes Compass Imagery and the Related Traditions," in particular the section on "The Compass-Circle Imagery in Literature and Donne," published online in The survey notes the reference to compasses in the work of Omar Khayyam the astronomer--though it is unclear whether Donne was familiar with it--as well as the reference in Prov. 8:27. The essay also notes Dantes description of creation and Miltons Paradise Lost VII, 224-31, though the latter, with its representation of God using golden compasses to circumscribe the universe, clearly postdates Donnes "Valediction." There is also mention of Withers' A Collection of Emblemes (1635), which has an engraving of God as the Great Geometer. Withers used engravings by Gabriel Rollenhagen, adding couplets in English. Rollenhagen had published two emblem books, Nucleus emblematum selectissim orum in 1613 in Arnheim, and Emblematum centuria secunda, in 1613. The connection to Withers was first noted by H. M. Belden, in "Donne's Compasses and Withers' Compass," Modern Language Notes 19.3-4 (1904), 76-78. See also Stanton J. Linden, "Compasses and Cartography: John Donne's A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,"' John Donne Journal 3.1 (1984), 23-34. For the reference to alchemy, see, for example, E. R. Cunner's "Donne's 'Valediction: Forbidding Mourning' and the Golden Compasses of Alchemical Creation," Literature and the Occult: Essays in Comparative Literature, ed. Luanne Frank (Arlington, Texas: U of Texas P, 1977), 72-110.

(2) See J. D. Jahn, "The Eschatological Scene of Donne's 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,"' College Literature 5.1 (1978), 34-47, regarding the relationship of Donne's text to the medieval genre of the conge d'amour, a type of lyric poem whose major theme is a farewell. This possibility is also noted by Freccero, 353.

(3) For a good example of Christian typological interpretations of Isaiah, see Robert Louis Wilken et al, Isaiah: interpreted by early Christian and medieval commentators (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

(4) As Jeanne Shami has noted, "Donne consulted all known versions of the bible, including Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic Bibles, the Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament.... However, Donne preferred the Latin Vulgate (the bible of his Catholic upbringing), other Latin translations, and available English translations. Of these latter, Donne refers most often to the Geneva and Authorized [King James] versions" (240). All citations from the King James Version of the Bible are from

(5) The words are translated respectively as "He hath bounded"--i.e., [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which appears as "circle" in both the King James Version and Geneva translation of the Bible--and "copasse" [sic]--i.e., [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in modern English. I wish to thank Aviad Stollman, Curator of the Judaica Collection of the National Library of Israel, for assistance in locating an original copy of the Key in the Rare Books Collection of the library.

(6) For a facsimile reproduction of this passage from the Geneva Bible, see Isaiah.

(7) See, for example, Rick Johnson, "Modern Old Testament Interpretation," in Bruce Corley et al, ed. Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd edition (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2002), regarding parallelism as "the distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry. ... The basic structure contains one line that makes a statement followed by another line making a balancing statement either similar to the first, contrasting with the first, or carrying the idea forward in some fashion. These three possibilities are labeled synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism, and synthetic parallelism" (240).
COPYRIGHT 2014 Conference on Christianity and Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hochberg, Shifra
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Composition in Yellow.
Next Article:Bethlehem Haiku.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters