Word of the Day: Valediction

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, thanks to WordGenius.com, is valediction, a noun that means “The action of saying farewell,” or “The word or phrase used to close out a letter before the signature,” according to the website. The definitions at www.dictionary.com are slightly different: “an act of bidding farewell or taking leave” and “an utterance, oration, or the like, given in bidding farewell or taking leave; valedictory.” A valedictory is a farewell address; hence, the person who delivers the valedictory or farewell address is the valedictorian. That person could be (and traditionally is) the student with the highest grade point average, but that is not required for the person chosen; a valedictorian could be chosen for any number of reasons.

According to www.etymonline.com, the word enters English in the “1610s, from past participle stem of Latin valedicere ‘bid farewell, take leave,’ from vale ‘farewell!,’ second person singular imperative of valere ‘be well, be strong’ (from PIE root *wal- ‘to be strong’) + dicere ‘to say’ (from PIE root *deik- ‘to show,’ also ‘pronounce solemnly’).” I find it particularly interesting that if one were to transliterate the word from the Latin, it would mean something like “to tell someone to be strong.” In fact, that sentiment leads me to today’s content, which is a poem by John Donne entitled “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 is now considered to be one of the (the best of the) Metaphysical Poets. Samuel Johnson coined the term in the 18th century. He wasn’t particularly fond of the Metaphysicals. He said, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_poets#Criticism).

In the poem above, Donne compares the love he and his wife share with gold, beaten to airy thinness, and to a compass—remember the metal thing you used to draw circles with back in middle school? Such comparisons may not seem romantic, and they may seem like “heterogeneous ideas … yoked by violence together.” But when you understand what Donne is saying to his wife, as he is getting ready to leave her for a trip across the Channel, you understand that he is saying, “Be strong,” the very meaning of valediction.

Personally, I think it is as beautiful an expression of married love as ever was written.

The picture is a portrait of Anne Donne, the beloved wife of the poet and divine John Donne, courtesy of the Cowper and Newton Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. She died in childbirth, and Donne never married again and never wrote love poetry again.

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