By far John Donne’s most erotic poem, To His Mistress Going to Bed (1669) , also known as Elegy 19, is composed of 48 lines of rhyming couplets with a meter of iambic pentameter. Not an elegy at all in the traditional sense of a poem written to commemorate a death, it instead celebrates the end of a woman’s resistance to the speaker’s sexual advances. Most critics believe Donne composed it before marriage, during a rather energetic youth. The poem in part parodies the 14th-century Petrarchan emotional romance tradition that objectified women, cataloging their body parts, advancing that tradition by adding explicit references. He follows the lead of popular Continental writers who improved the Petrarchan technique by imbuing it with an intellectual aspect. The tone remains that of a male wooing a female in order to seduce her. The poem involves little romanticism, other than in its figurative language. Donne offers an admirable balance in the poem, evidenced by individually balanced terminology and phrasing, as well as by the fact that the speaker does not request that his lover do anything that he is not also willing to do. By the final couplet the reader learns the speaker has already disrobed in anticipation of his lover’s doing the same, after his very convincing argument.
The speaker begins, “Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy, / Until I labor, I in labor lie.” The second line offers an example of balance in language, as well as a clever play on words. The first use of the term labor indicates man’s physical work, while the second connotes the type of labor women undergo during birth, connoting both physical and emotional work or anguish. The term of address Donne adopts, Madam, indicates the speaker does not deal with an inexperienced maiden, countering the traditional seduction poem, which generally focused on a virgin. He continues with balance in mind, writing in the third line, “The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight, / Is tired with standing though he never fight.” The fourth line appears to offer a paradox, as when one encounters a “foe,” it is generally in anticipation of a battle. However, the “fight” the speaker faces is one of logic. He must convince his lover to ignore conventional social rules regarding gender behavior, as those rules represent the true “foe.”
The speaker then begins ordering the removal of clothing, beginning with “that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,” where the zone referenced is the zodiac, or all the stars in heaven. However, his lover’s girdle is “a far fairer world encompassing.” Donne engages in the hyperbole, or exaggeration, characteristic of metaphysical poets and poetry. The speaker also requests she remove her “spangle breastplate,” which he understands she wears in order to stop “th’ eyes of busy fools,” suggesting that she “unlace herself” as the clock’s “harmonious chime” alerts him to “bed-time.” Next she may remove her “happy busk,” or bodice, which he envies “That still can be and still can stand so nigh.” He compares what he views when she removes her gown to the “fl owery meads” revealed when the shadow moves from a hill. Next she must remove “that wiry coronet and show/ The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.” Next he requests removal of her shoes so that she may “safely tread / In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.” He compares her white robe to that of the angels, then notes that she bears with her “A heaven like Mahomet’s paradise,” referring to the reward of beautiful maidens promised to attend dedicated Muslims after death. Donne becomes playful and constructs a passage assuring the lover that their white robes differ from those worn by ghosts, as the nearness of an “evil sprite” sets their hairs “uprite,” but those by worn by angels do the same to their flesh. He refers to the effect of fear in hair-raising moments, and to the effect of an event of awe in causing the reaction commonly referred to as “goose bumps” on one’s flesh. However, psychoanalytic critics might view the reference to rising flesh as a blatant sexual suggestion.
By line 25 the speaker asks his lover, “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below,” then incorporates an allusion to land waiting to be conquered by exclaiming, “O my America!, my new-found-land.” He extends this CONCEIT, referring to himself as an emperor, where she remains his kingdom and a “mine of precious stones,” all of which are “safeliest when with one man manned.” Donne inserts another bit of wordplay but also suggests monogamy. He suggests another paradox by noting, “To enter in these bonds is to be free; / There where my hand is set, my seal shall be.” With strongly erotic suggestion Donne also reflects on the idea of civic law, often made official by a seal.
Donne rarely wrote without reflecting on the human soul. His speaker next exclaims as if singing a hymn, “Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee. / As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be, / To taste whole joys.” He profanely compares the release at death of the soul to sexual freedom allowed by the release of clothing. Donne includes a reference to the mythological figure of Atalanta, a woman racer who remained undefeated until challenged to a race by Hippomenes, who was in love with her. During the race he threw down some golden balls to distract her, causing her to lose the race. However, Donne reverses the story, declaring that women distract men by their arraignment, “Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings.” He extends the book metaphor when his speaker compares women to “mystic books” that must be revealed. The speaker concludes his seduction by stating that he would like to know his lover just as a “midwife” might, requiring her to “cast all, yea, this white linen hence, / There is no penance due to innocence.” He assures her she need make no penance, or atonement, due to innocence; in other words she is not an innocent maid. His final statement shows his sense of equality as he explains, “To teach thee, I am naked first; why then / What need’st thou have more covering than a man?”
As the Donne expert Helen Gardner has thoroughly discussed, Donne’s love poetry greatly exceeds his religious poetry in style and presentation. While the religious poetry grew from self-conflict, the love poetry does not focus on whether the speaker is right to feel what he does; it focuses on the process of feeling. He seeks to explore a full range of emotions free of the judgment of Christianity or any religious creed. Gardner writes, “As a love poet he seems to owe nothing to what any other man in love had ever felt or said before him; his language is all his own.” Unlike religious truths, the truths Donne uncovers in his love poetry belong to him alone.
Edwards, David L. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.