Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds For this week, we’ve been looking at bereavement and how poetry and literature can help people come to terms with loss. So we’ve talked about the opening scene of ‘Hamlet’ and that sense in ‘Hamlet’ when his stepfather and his mother, they’re telling him to move on. And this thing about moving on, that it’s not appropriate to grieve for too long and the sort of sense of frustration. Because everybody’s got their own timeline for grief. And grief can suddenly come back and hit you. And one of our other texts is ‘Surprised by Joy’ where Wordsworth feels guilty because he suddenly feels happy again. He feels bad about feeling happy because he’s grieving for the loss of a child.
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds So can you just talk a little bit about your own experience of bereavement and how poetry helped or didn’t help? Sure. Yeah. So I was bereaved as a child. I was 13. But I actually thought I was quite grown up, as you do when you’re 13. And so I only recently realised I was a bereaved child. And so I suppose the timeline can be a lot faster. Things move quickly. But as, when you’re only 13, and in some ways you’re thinking about the loss of your father, and in some ways, you’re thinking about the disco in two weeks’ time. But, it hit me very, very hard. He’d been ill for 10 years.
Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds And poetry came into the equation because I was in English class. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to cure cancer. And that was what I was going to do. Because Dad had died of cancer. I thought, right, I’ll sort it out. Sort it out. Save the world. But meanwhile, I had to do the GCSC. So I was sitting there, and we had this anthology. And we were looking… the poem we were told to look at that day was called ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne. And my ears pricked up. I thought, OK, this is a poem about mourning. Maybe it will help. Because I had this strange complex of feelings.
Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds So you’re talking about Hamlet, there’s sort of, there’s no timeline. And there’s also no sense of how one should behave. And I was very confused by my feelings of feeling very angry, very, very sad, very alone. And like I needed to be grown up and being told I had to be grown up. So I looked at this poem called ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ and we read it. And I found it extraordinarily helpful. Shall I read it? Or should we talk about it? Please. Could you read it for us? We’d love to have you read it. Because it’s a strange poem because, it’s called ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ but it’s actually a love poem. So.
Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds ‘As virtuous men pass mildly away, and whisper to their souls to go, whist some of their sad friends do say the breath goes now, and some say no. So let us melt, and make no noise, no tear floods, nor sigh-tempests move. ‘Twere a profanation of our joys to tell the laity of our love. Moving of the earth brings harms and fears. Men reckon what it did and meant. But trepidation of the spheres, though greater far, is innocent. Dull, sublunary lovers’ love (whose soul is sense) cannot admit of absence cause it doth remove the thing which elemented it.
Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds But we, by a love so much refined, that ourselves know not what it is, inter-assured of the mind, care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss. Our two souls, therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach, but an expansion like gold to airy thinness speak. If they be two, they’re two so, as stiff twin compasses are two. Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show to move. But doth if the other do. And though it in the centre sit, yet when the other far doth roam, it leans, and hearkens after it, and grows erect as that comes home. Such wilt thou be to me who must, like the other foot, obliquely run.
Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds Thy firmness makes my circle just, and makes me end where I begun’.
Skip to 4 minutes and 41 seconds And I just loved it. I just loved it. And I think I got, when I read it - I must have been 13 and a half or so - I think I got that it was about we’re apart, but we’re together. I got that. I got that, and that helped. Cause I missed my dad so awfully.
Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds But, it’s actually… it’s a poem about a bloke going on a jolly, really. He’s like, OK. Like, so I’m off around the world. And don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m still with you. And so I also got this is very clever. So he’s saying… and he makes all these comparisons. Because he’s talking about sort of, I’m going away. And it’s like gold. We’re together like the way gold is stretched and beaten out. We’re together like twin compasses. Compasses. I love that image. And that’s quite saucy, twins, stiff compasses. We’re together like that or we’re together like a breach or we’re together like a man leaving his friends ‘As virtuous men pass mildly away’.
Skip to 5 minutes and 45 seconds Or we’re together like a man leaving his soul. And so, it was all these… and I think one of the things I found helpful, apart from the message, which is you can be together and apart, was the idea that, it was the puzzling. It was a puzzling out. It was like an algebraic equation or a crossword puzzle. I’m a child of the ’70s. Like a Rubik’s Cube. You had to figure it. And in the puzzling, I found that very…
Skip to 6 minutes and 11 seconds it offered me some sort of composure or something to work on or work with. To have to be patient with myself and with the poem. Did you first read… did you read it aloud? Did your teacher go through it with you? What was it… do you remember? We must have read it aloud. And she must have gone through it with me. Because I was looking it again last night before I came to talk to you. Oh, I thought, this is a tricky poem. I’m still puzzling it out. But I think you’re quite right about we can go over-intellectualise. And I think the thing that first got me about this poem was probably they way it sounded.
Skip to 6 minutes and 40 seconds And it’s this very, very calm. ‘As virtuous men pass mildly…’ It’s very measured, isn’t it? It’s very measured. And maybe… That was comforting, surely. That was comforting, that rhythm. That rhythm. And it’s probably, it’s one of the few poems I really do know it all by heart. Because that sense of holding it with me, and the rhythm holds… as it’s holding itself together, perhaps it was a way of holding me together a bit. It’s a love poem you’ve chosen. And I love the fact that you’ve chosen a love poem. Cause when I first heard you talking about it, I thought, ‘oh that’s an odd choice for bereavement’. But it’s not an odd choice for bereavement. Because it’s about love. Yeah.
Skip to 7 minutes and 17 seconds Thank you for… yes actually you rationalised I thought, ‘This is a very odd poem to have…’ because it changed everything for me, this poem, in the sense that I thought, well, that made me feel that much better that perhaps I won’t go and try and find the cure for cancer and stand in the biology lab. Perhaps I’ll just carry on reading poems, and now I teach literature. But it is, and it is. It’s about, it’s about loss, but this poem is about the separation of deep love and passion and being heartbroken, yes, so you’re absolutely right in that. So over the years, you read it when you were 13, and it helped you and it was a form of therapy.
Skip to 7 minutes and 53 seconds How has that changed or developed or stayed the same over the years? I think one of the ways, maybe the only way one can go on after a terrible, terrible loss is to find some way of - well, I’ll speak for me - find some way of keeping that person with you. Finding some way of thinking I haven’t lost my father entirely. And one of the ways this poem spoke to that is actually through John Donne. I mean, you can hear his voice through this. And you have to work. But you have to work a bit to hear it. But if you listen, you can see that he’s quite saucy. He’s quite funny. You do.
Skip to 8 minutes and 32 seconds You’re a bit suspicious about, why did she have to stay home while he’s off there. If we think about this poem being we’re apart but together. We’re still together with John Donne. And I think that sense that a voice from so long ago could feel so close to me was helpful. And that’s what still stays with me when I read poetry.
Skip to 8 minutes and 53 seconds I think it was Freud who said that writing is the voice of an absent person. And we always miss people, but you… when you read back, you can hear… they come back to you. They come back to you. And so that’s the sense of what this poem does for me, is the sense of we don’t ever entirely lose people.
Discussing Donne and bereavement with Sophie Ratcliffe
In this video, we hear from Sophie Ratcliffe, a lecturer in English, about her own experience of bereavement, and about how one poem in particular offered some consolation in her grief. The poem was John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, which you can read below.
Whereas Lucy found some solace in a text that reflected her own feelings of loss, Sophie was comforted by the reassuring sentiment of Donne’s poem. Donne’s ‘Valediction’ suggests that people who love each other can remain together even when they are apart. Indeed, through the poem’s distinctively witty tone, it is as though the 17th century poet John Donne is still with us when we read this poem today, and for a teenager coming to terms with loss, this notion was a comforting one.
A Valediction Forbidding Mourning
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
John Donne (1572–1631)
© University of Warwick