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William Empson Essay, Research Paper

William Empson begins his critical essay on John Donne s “A Valediction: of Weeping” with this statement. Empson here plays the provocateur for the critic who wishes to disagree with the notion that Donne s intentions were perhaps less base than the sincere valediction of a weeping man. Indeed, “A Valediction” concerns a parting; Donne is going to sea and is leaving his nameless, loved other in England, and the “Valediction” is his emotive poesy describing the moment.

There is little argument as to what Donne is feeling at surface level: he is sorrowful and grieving because he must be apart from his loved one, who has become his world (a metaphor which is carried out in the second stanza). Empson is indeed correct when he says that the poem is not unambiguous. There is a large range of interpretations that can be made based upon the language in the poem, and these are focused around the source of Donne s grief.

It is easy for one to picture a grieving sailor leaving his lover, but what makes this man grieve? It is the innate love between two people who are intensely focused upon each other which must be put on hold? Is it some additive emotion that consists of two people who are about to suffer separation and loss of a lover? Or is it, as Empson proposes, the subliminal desire within man to possess a woman both physically and emotionally (i.e. fear that she will be unfaithful), and he will lose something more than a lover? In this scenario, Empson s Donne weeps not for his lover, but for the loss of manhood that comes about from being cheated on. It is rational reductionism, then, to say that Donne weeps for his inability to possess the woman, while still feeling possessed by her, so then he is almost put into a servile and “effeminate” position himself. Crying, which is also considered an effeminate affair, undermines Donne s ability to be a man, so there is an undermining bitterness present when one approaches the poem with the proposed unambiguous jealousy. Empson does not hesitate to point out that he does not believe the poem to be absolutely “sincere” in its grief.

An alternate reading of “A Valediction: of Weeping” might offer a more modern approach to the poem. In the first stanza, Donne begins with asking his lover to “Let me pour forth/My tears before thy face.” He continues by using a metaphor wherein his lover is a stamping mill, which churns out coins (his tears) which bear her face. His lover has caused his grief and each tear he cries is marked by her influence, but at the same time they are coins, which carry a value to them beyond their own intrinsic values. Donne also says of the coins: “For thus they be/Pregnant of thee.” This is a fascinating description of his tears, because Donne reverses gender roles in order to describe something which is emanating from him as “pregnant.” “Pregnant” is usually reserved for descriptions of femininity, and certainly if a poet were somewhat bitter about his belief that his female lover would cheat on him, he would certainly manifest it through tinges of misogyny (which is not uncommon in Donne). Pregnant also can lead the reader to see that Donne s lover has done more than physically love him and support him emotionally; she has set inside of him a seed that is now showing itself through his outward display of grief. The pregnancy that has affected Donne has given birth to his tears, and hence has also “fathered” has love. (Ironically, it is she who has done the fathering, completing the role reversal). Donne chooses to end the poem with a puzzling line: “So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.” At first glance, Donne would appear to be saying that once parted, their love is nothing. Empson suggest that these lines mean that Donne believes she will cheat on him when he leaves, or that there love will be over and gone, just as the reflections of her on his teardrops are. However, Donne s statement could also mean that once separated, the sense of individuality they felt before and during their relationship is somehow absent, and therefore they are nothing.

In the second stanza, Donne uses the metaphor of a mapmaker or “workman” completing a globe in order to describe the world that his lover made for him. From “nothing”, she has created worlds for him that he never knew existed. Of the second half of this stanza, Empson writes: “The waters are falling that were above the firmament; the heaven and crystalline spheres, which were she, are broken; she is no longer the person he made her, and will soon be made into a different person by another lover.” Confusion over who plays the role of the “workman” in the poem may lead one to such a statement, but simultaneously one must address the possibility that she plays that role in this poem of role-reversals. Then an interpretation of the second half might be that their collective tears are so plentiful that they have come to a crescendo, where they “overflow” and sadness demolishes (the tears “dissolve”) the hypothetical world that she has built for him.

To begin the third stanza, Donne compares his lover to a celestial body, and calls her “more than moon.” While it is true that the moon can be seen as cold and distant, this metaphor is apt because he has seen a globe created about him, and she exceeds the paired celestial body of the Earth the Moon. The Moon can be seen as a figure of constancy that is with us in our darkest hours, both literally and figuratively. In extending the moon metaphor, Donne begs her not to use her power to make him drown in tides (that is, she should not see him as dead and lost, and thus drowned by tears in their world). Donne also fears the misfortune that might come in the auguring of a death at sea, which is what her tears mean to him. He seems to be proposing that they should not fear more than what is coming, because the sea may take his life, as might the wind, but she should not fear him lost while he is still with her. This seems to be insinuating that the only way she may lose him is death, and that she should not weep for that just yet. In a way, he is reaffirming that this “Valediction” is not a farewell to a relationship forever, but a parting of the physical proximity that has existed for so long.

To Donne, the use of celestial bodies in itself represents some sort of constancy which Empson seeming overlooks, and that is crucial in a reading of the poem. This adds an almost optimistic view to stanza II, where Donne begs for no more tears because they will wash his heaven away, but he does not agree that there will be nothing left, as he does in the last line of stanza I. Donne s heaven is gone by the start of stanza III, but he may still aspire to be back in that heaven during and after his voyage, and she, Moon, will guide him on his way.

The very last two lines of the poem are somewhat ambiguous in their meaning. Empson s interpretation goes as follows: ” our sympathy is so perfect that any expression of sorrow will give more pain to the other party than relief to its owner, so we ought to be trying to cheer each other up. ” These lines seem once again to validate the continuing relationship between Donne and his lover. While they are apart, they are still one in grieving, so if one gives way to sorrow and extends beyond the normal process of human grieving, then they are cruel for inducing the kind of self-pity and emotional strain which might end the world which has been created. Their relationship relies on the stability of the two while they are apart, and if there should be an imbalance, it would “[haste] the other s death.”

Obviously, a poem such as “A Valediction: of Weeping” has a great deal of interpretive meanings, and to say one is the definitive truth would be farcical. However, it does not appear that Donne wrote this poem for the reasons that Empson describes. Donne appears to be making an effort to place both man and woman on some sort of equal plane, which is a rarity in his poems. Each is involved in the poem actively, and through a series of gender role-reversals and symbolic references, Donne and his lover/other struggle with their sadness just before separation. Donne realizes that this may be a futile goal, but he also sees the importance of composure if their relationship his “world” that he credits to her is going succeed. Donne seems to have no dearth of sincerity in this poem. He is also purposeful in writing it; Donne himself was a man of great passion, and who had to go out to sea. “A Valediction: of Weeping” seems not to be the valediction of a jealous lover, but of a conscientious other making a concerted effort not to let jealousy and self-pity control his farewell to a lover.


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