Love “Elemented” in John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.” By: Laird, Edgar S. ANQ: 0895769X, July 1991,Vol. 4 Issue 3.
In his essay “Love ‘Elemented’ in John Donne’s ‘Valediction: Forbidden Mourning,’” Edgar Laird focuses on Donne’s use of the word “elemented” in reference to the “sublunary lovers” in his poem. He delves into the deeper meanings and implications of the word and investigates how Donne’s word choice impacts the intention of the poem by giving it a greater historical context. Laird ultimately concludes that Donne clearly knew what he was talking about and was very in-touch with the ideas his poetry conveys, and thus, his selection of the word “elemented” was a conscious and informed choice.
To begin his essay, Laird argues that Donne’s use of the word “elemented” is unidiomatic, meaning it does not have a distinct style or character. He reveals the dictionary definition of the term “elemented” to mean “composed” and that many authors of Donne’s time use the word in this context. However, Laird sees the necessity to refer to the Latin root of the term “elementata” to gain a better understanding of the medieval context of the word. Laird cites several researchers on the uses of the term and the relevant contexts to Donne’s poem under consideration. In 1130, William of Conche attempts to define the four elements as earth, water, air, and fire. By combining ideas of cosmology and physiology, he puts these four elements into one perspective with bodily parts such as “humors, bones, hands, and feet.” William says that these body parts “are not elements, but things elemented…for the true elements in their purity are not available to the senses, but must be known to the intellect.” Therefore, in the context of Donne’s poem, the “sublunary lovers” would have nothing accessible to them but things “elemented” and not pure.
Laird next explores later 1130’s definitions of “elementa“ contrasted with “elementata” where these terms reflect that “the whole process of coming-to-be and passing-away…is a strictly sub lunar phenomenon controlled by the stars in a Ptolemaic universe.” In other words, the sub lunar world is made up of both elements and things elemented, elements being that which mortals are not capable of knowing logically and things elemented being those characteristics easily beheld, such as color and taste.
Other contexts of the term “elemented” bring to light theories from Dominicus Gundissalinus in 1150 where he furthers the distinction between elements and things elemented by adding the third element of incorporeal substances. In this interpretation, elemented things are corporeal and accessible to human comprehension, elements are sub lunar substances superior to elemented things, but super-lunar substances are inaccessible to sensory impression but available to intellectual comprehension and are superior over all other things. In reference to Donne’s poem, the superior lovers he mentions represent a love so refined that it defies that which is elemented and becomes the purest of all substances, the incorporeal.
Laird sums up his essay with an assessment of Donne’s “sublunary lovers” in respect to the aforementioned definitions of the term “elemented.” He believes that these contexts contribute to the lovers’ positioning at a low level on the “scale of being” and further separates that love from the love Donne praises and celebrates in the poem. Laird concludes that his analysis of the word “elemented” adds to the poem’s complexity and consequently proves that Donne understands and utilizes the contextual meanings of the words in his poetry to create a rich, multifaceted work of art.
This article sets out to use the contextualization and historical definitions of the word “elemented” to prove that Donne had certain connotations in mind when selecting this term for “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.” In this respect, Laird succeeds in providing the reader with a variety of possible definitions of “elemented” to deepen the meaning of the poem as a whole. However, there is not enough evidence to prove that Donne actually had these ideas in mind when writing his poem. Laird insists at the end of his essay that Donne must have been aware of the full weight of the ideas in his poetry, but he also admits that there is no way of knowing how Donne learned the word “elemented” and in what context he uses it. Therefore, it is a possibility that Donne actually uses the word in its more common context, meaning “composed.” Either way, the poem makes sense, but Laird does not provide enough evidence that Donne indeed intended to convey the previously delineated meanings in this poem.
While Laird’s assumptions may be uninformed, his contextual definitions of “elemented” do bear some relevance to the movement of the earth, and the significance the soul and a deeper kind of connection- central themes of “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.” One point Laird attempts to make is that, after learning William of Conche’s contrasting definitions of “elementa” and “elementata,” it becomes evident that Donne’s “sublunary lovers‘” relationship is so shallow and incomplete that the only things accessible to them are those corporeal, bodily things. These “things elemented” exclude the intellectual connection a superior relationship exhibits, and therefore the “sublunary lovers” are incapable to experiencing “elementa,“ the elements. While Laird briefly touches on this connection, he could have developed his point further for better understanding, as this is a central concept in his argument.
It is interesting to consider the implications of this kind of superior love that Donne describes and celebrates in “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.” Is anyone truly capable of having a relationship that transcends corporeal aspects and is able to be enlightened to the higher intellectual and spiritual connection that transcends those concepts and ideals capable of comprehension? I think Donne may be a little extreme in his description of this kind of relationship, but how can anyone really know?