The last line of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” riddles, urging us to return to the start of the poem, as if it were itself a perfect circle, traced by a set of compasses: “And makes me end, where I begun.” The end and start seem, though, to provide no such circular closure: “As virtuous men pass mildly away” does not seem to speak to the figure of the circle. Until, of course, one realizes that the virtue of a circle is its perfect balance, that this is a poem that aspires to itself exemplify an ideal of equanimity foundational to the virtues, and that the image of the compass serves Donne’s mind as the compass would the hand that aspires to draw what would wobble without their aid: the image of the compass allows Donne to find the equanimity; imagining the circle the lovers trace, longing with sexual desire (“stiff” and “erect”) and platonic partnership, Donne is afforded the image that itself allows the poem to return full circle to the thought of virtuous men whose souls (here the Platonism is given first and final word) pass away. The compasses are stiff not only because of the sexual thought but because their rigidity is exactly the stabilizing prop that Donne requires.
The discourse of virtues and moral feelings, as well as their cousin, the honor code, provide an easy way into Donne’s poetry, but a rewarding one for all of that, since the inheritance of virtues and sins that he receives is subject to renovation, especially in reference to pride, which he registers with deep ambivalence. Pride is both the stamp of self-affirmation and the root of vulnerability; it is inseparable from the code of honor, but also from Donne’s refusal to think himself beholden to a code of honor. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” pride is tempered by chastity; but at the same time, the enforced chastity of Donne’s separation from his beloved, is endurable by the pride that seizes upon a succession of images until the compasses bear him to the end, and back to the start—or nearly to the start. Donne nowhere boasts of his virtue; it is instead his pride that affords him the graceful fortitude that he seeks, and that the virtuous men whose souls pass away possess in common with him.
Donne’s greatest poem, “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day,” occasions the pride that allows Donne to raise himself up from the humiliation he has suffered. It is felt as a hard-won virtue rather than a vice because Donne registers the circumstances of suffering. The poem composes a self-composed self from loss, rejection, and absence, without denying loss, rejection, and absence their force; it anticipates Milton’s Satan but does not look towards dire revenge; the end instead is a note of unsettling and unsettled resolution, reconciling itself to the moment, without losing hope of a different future: “This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this | Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.” “This” and “is” settle into the present, accepting its state and his; “year” and then “day” and then “midnight” give way to the “is”: existence having the last word, but also the present tense. Here pride tempers despair, after despair has chastened pride (the Satanic furor of “oft did we grow | To be two chaoses” is in the past, with an enjambment that enacts the hubris that was).
What is perhaps most surprising about Donne is that, for all of his cavalier lust for living, he belittles the honor code in favor of something else; where he seeks revenge it is not because of honor, but because of an affront. He knows genuine, cold, burning wrath at the prospect of betrayal; it is honesty, even integrity, that he prizes, however cynical he can be in attributing them to others. One reason that “The Flea” is more than a plea for sex is that it enjoins against a code of arbitrary honor in terms of the capacity to feel pleasure—a pleasure in life that Donne elsewhere, and in general, seems to align to his honesty and magnanimity. “Just so much honor, when thou yields’t to me | Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” The ambiguity resolves in a belittling of honor as a notion: either there is little dishonor in sex, and honor shouldn’t be minded, or else all honor will be lost by engaging in sex but it doesn’t matter because honor is a paltry thing.
Perhaps Donne’s skeptical—not cynical—relation to honor is what makes his epistolary verse strained and clotted; he cannot get what he needs from the occasion. The Satires, on the other hand, sparkle on account of Donne’s having occasion to rear his back against the crowded scramble towards honors and status. Hence Satire 4:
At home in wholesome solitariness
My precious soul began, the wretchedness
Of suitors at Court to mourn, and a trance
Like his, who dreamed he saw hell, did advance
Itself on me, such men as he saw there,
I saw at Court, and worse, and more; low fear
Becomes the guilty, not the accuser; then,
Shall I, none’s slave, of high-born, or raised men
Fear frowns? And, my mistress Truth, betray thee
To th’huffing braggart, puffed nobility?
No, no, thou which since yesterday hast been
Almost about the whole world, hast though seen,
O sun, in all thy journey, vanity,
Such as swell the bladder of our Court? I
Think he made your waxen garden, and
Transported it from Italy to stand
With us, at London, flouts our Presence, for
Just such gay painted things are, which no sap, nor
Taste have in them, ours are; and natural
Some of their stocks are, their fruits, bastard all.
The form doesn’t just chaff; it is chaffed; it is the form of chaffing itself, and yet the verse also accommodates itself to the rhyme, somehow; it attempts to please by its displeasure, a studied and learned rejection of the courtly forms to which it must, being dependent on them, like Jacques, cling; Donne perhaps is too proud to reject outright and instead will show what music can be made from the willed artlessness and pained virtuosity of lines that barrel through “and/stand” “for/nor” and “natural/all.” He does not honor courtly honor, but honors what he can make of it.