Compass, Circles, and Love — Looking at it from a Different Angle


“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, From ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’

When it comes to poetry, people have gone from beneath the seas to above the mountains to try and bring down on paper what exactly love is. Some, like Petrarch (an Italian Renaissance sonneteer), choose to compare love to a hunting chase, where the beloved must be pursued and courted like a hunter chases a fawn. Others, such as Shelley, use the moon to represent the beloved, in this case, the unattainable beloved. This aside, yet others still use roses and stars, birds and leaves, autumn and spring, death and life, all in an attempt to symbolize love.

But hold that thought for a moment. Ever wondered how you could see love symbolized through a pair of compasses? John Donne’s answer is affirmative.

An English poet who wrote during the Renaissance, John Donne’s techniques were quite startling when it came to philosophy and poetry. He liked to venture into the unknown and the uncommon, in tandem with the spirit of the Renaissance. Most notably however, Donne was soon seen as one of the few poets of his time who chose to make their poetry their way, dubbed by Dr. Johnson as a ‘metaphysical poet’. So, what is metaphysical poetry, and how did Donne become its greatest pioneer?

Metaphysical poetry refers to a kind of poetry which employs unusual verse forms, uncommon metaphors and unexpected chains of argumentation to expound on fairly usual themes. Donne’s poetry reflected all these characteristics through bizarre metaphors and oblique reasoning, thus imbibing the traits of the metaphysical with more authenticity than any other poet. Specifically, it draws metaphor from distinct, tangible objects, and contemporary forms of knowledge like cartography, even as the subject remains conventional. One of the greatest instances of these bizarre metaphors, also known as metaphysical conceits, is in the poet’s use of this idea of the compass to expound on a facet of love.

The basic argumentation he must use in this poem is simple: the lover wants to console his beloved from grieving over their temporary parting because he is presumably going away somewhere. Nothing a poet has not done before. But Donne has to do it his own way.

The compass marks itself as the singularly strongest instrument (pun intended) in driving his point home. He invokes this metaphor on several grounds- firstly, on the idea that the two foots of the compass are enjoined and cannot function without each other, much like the two lovers. Thus, even if the lover goes away, they are still enjoined just like the two foots of a compass. Further, the woman becomes the ‘fix’d foot’, symbolizing a source of constancy and strength that the lover, that the moving foot, needs to be successful in his endeavours.

The metaphor does not stop here. Donne gives it a layer of complexity by emphasizing that while one foot seems to remain fixed, often it ‘leans’ towards the moving foot, which suggests the presence of a strong affective bond between the lover, wherein the beloved emotionally inclines towards her lover. Any person who has used a compass can vouch for the intricate detail that the poet uses to his advantage. Lastly, Donne brings forth the idea of the moving foot drawing a circle. It is the presence of the fixity of the beloved that enables the travelling lover to draw a circle that is ‘just’ ultimately bringing him back where he started-home. The image of the circle here, become very significant because it evokes the common idea of perfection and wholeness of their love.

Admitted, to many this association of linking a mathematical tool to love would be just plain weird. However, if you think about it, the idea of using something this odd to symbolize love carries heavy philosophical weight. After all, if love is boundless, free of any form, animating and encompassing the mortal and the immortal spheres of being, then what better way to prove that love can be seen anywhere, provided you look at it from the apt angle.


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