To His Mistress Going to Bed

The retired England footballer Michael Owen recently sullied (albeit slightly) his squeaky clean image with a rather tasteless tweet directed at his wife, and shared, as is the modern morè, with the whole world via Twitter. The tweet consisted of a picture of one of his dogs lying adjacent to and staring longingly at his other dog’s testicles with the caption ‘I wonder if Mrs Owen will be so obliging tonight’. England baulked, and Mrs Owen, if the follow up tweet is anything to go by, obliged him not, skulking on her sofa flicking him the v’s (v for eff off, that is, not v for victory). Better luck next time, Michael.

The erstwhile England wonder kid can at least take solace in being part of a long English tradition of publishing one’s personal entreaties for, er, intimacy to one’s lover. John Donne’s To His Mistress Going To Bed is one of the best, and one of the bluntest.

To His Mistress Going to Bed
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou Angel bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.

To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need’st thou have more covering than a man.

Donne is called a Metaphysical poet sometimes, but this is not because he is interested in metaphysical enquiry and not in the physical life of the body; this poem is very physical indeed – Mary Whitehouse might have called it filth had she been around at the turn of the 17th Century. Rather, it is a term coined by Samuel Johnson to describe, disapprovingly, poets of that era who used clever conceits and bizarre metaphors, rather than more natural means, to win the hearts (or beds) of their sweethearts. Poetics aside, however, this poem shows by the end that Donne can use very, er, natural methods to forward his amours.

Donne starts by begging his mistress’s sympathy for a situation just too hard to bear. For most of the rest of the poem, he begs her remove her clothes, item by item, before finally extolling the virtues of complete nakedness. You might think of that outrageously decadent perfume commercial from a Christmas or two ago, where a leggy actress strides through a mansion flinging off her clothes until she’s wearing nothing but perfume; alternatively, think of a romantic scene in a period drama where a couple must tackle the complex rigours of the woman’s apparel before getting down to action – or not, as the case may be. In humour, the poem sits somewhere between these two scenes, though more of the second: it has a little of the erotic charge of the first, and all the lusty comedy of the second. Incidentally, it provides a quite detailed list of the forbidding clothing of sixteenth and seventeenth century lady that might for a while fend off a woman’s interested suitor, or husband even: girdle, breast-plate, busk, gown, white undershirt, coronet, gems…

The flattery is over the top, and for a man who was an ordained clergyman, and went on to write some of the most famous devotional poetry in the English language, Donne is remarkably playful with religious imagery. I wonder how well some of Donne’s Godlier readers would have taken the joke. And how effective was it, I wonder, as seduction? His lady’s girdle, he says, is like the heavens, but encompassing a fairer world: one can imagine this line inspiring groans in his beloved, though not of the kind he is after.

There are many dirty jokes in the poem, though. Donne makes a play on the whiteness of the lady’s under garment commenting that evil spirits as well as angels dress like this, but there is an easy way to tell them apart:

By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

Down wanton down! There is another intriguing pun at the end of the next stanza. Donne imagines he is entering into a contract with his lover. The line ‘where my hand is set my seal shall be’ is one borrowed from a contract, especially a last will and testament – so in one sense, Donne imagines the consummation of their love to be the kind of legal bond, akin to signing and sealing a contract. Well that is all of a part with good, healthy Christian (if not puritan) sexual relations. But he may also be making a very physical pun:’hand’ could well mean just that, his hand, which, since he has dispensed with her underclothes, is busy fondling his lover – roving ‘Behind, before, above, between, below’ as he has put it; the ‘seal’ could be a play on semen – that is both in the sense that its ejaculation confirms the act of sex, and its physical sense as a hot liquid.

Sorry! Sorry – that’s a bit much, isn’t it, for a Sunday afternoon read? You come here for edifying poetry, not this smutty filth… apologies all round. It’s just a theory really, perhaps one I could have kept to myself – though I’m not the first reader to find traces of semen in Donne’s poetry. But since we’re on the subject of smut, is there a more outrageous, queasier ‘come hither’ in English poetry than this:

Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show

Don’t answer that question. I could go on and on taking lines in this poem, analysing them, affecting mock-outrage, and making wisecracks, but – as Donne shows us in the poem – things have to end somewhere. I noticed reading around about this poem, that an awful lot of commentary on it comes from a feminist and post-colonialist angle, inspired especially by that joke about America, and the regular references to Donne’s manhood. The critique goes something like this ‘Donne is an evil dead white male who sought to dominate his lover, just as those infamous evil dead white men, European colonists, sought to dominate new territory and its peoples’ (I paraphrase slightly). I don’t think so. This is not about domination, it is a witty and intimate invitation, and the phallic references are not so much egotistical as desperate – Michael Owen would understand



Filed under Literature, Poetry

3 responses to “To His Mistress Going to Bed

  1. No matter how one “reads into” this beautiful poem, it still doesn’t yield to classification as smut in my book. For pure wit and entertainment I think I can come up with even more naughty allusions than you have here. But the beauty of this poem may stem from the fact that Donne was of a mind and time when body and soul had a more felicitous connection—maybe he did not see his “higher self” as being at war with “brother pass” so much as some of us do now.
    A lot of lit crit gets him wrong, I think. I myself was a feminist (who wasn’t?) in the 1970’s but had to quit that crowd when I realized I was a fraud. For instance, I loved things like this poem by Donne. Now I’m past it–old and at home alone on a Sunday afternoon, and it still turns me on..

  2. Auto correct changed “brother ass” to “brother pass”… I think my auto correct is a Victorian…..

  3. Your auto correct is ridiculously prudish – doesn’t it know that ‘ass’ can also mean a horse-donkey crossbreed? I think you’ve explained the mystery of Donne well, that is there’s no mystery because Donne and his peers saw no conflict – or little – between the physical and spiritual. No doubt he was a very entertaining vicar for those in his congregation who were listening carefully!

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