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Elegy XIX To His Mistress Going to Bed

 'To His Mistress Going to Bed' (1654) is a seduction poem by metaphysical poet, John Donne. For its time and place, it was considered a little earthy and was only published after his death.

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Elegy XIX To His Mistress Going to Bed

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'To His Mistress Going to Bed' (1654) is a seduction poem by metaphysical poet, John Donne. For its time and place, it was considered a little earthy and was only published after his death.

Content Warning: Contains sexual themes

'Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed': John Donne

John Donne was born in London in 1572. His family were Roman Catholic during a time when the King outlawed the religion. His great uncle, Thomas More, was hanged in 1574 for being a Catholic priest. Donne's father, John, died when he was four but left the family with enough funds to have John well-educated in the classics.

His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, remarried a wealthy physician, John Syminge, within a few months of his father’s death. Syminge’s business interests allowed Donne to attend Oxford. Despite studying for the usual three years, he was unable to earn a degree as he was Catholic at the time. Although members of his close family were imprisoned, exiled and hanged for their beliefs, Donne initially became secular and then converted to Anglicanism.

After blowing much of his inheritance on travelling Continental Europe and womanising, Donne began working for a society of barristers in London. A quick learner, he was soon appointed secretary to Lord Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England. His political career was ended by his secret marriage to Anne More, the 17-year-old daughter of Egerton’s brother-in-law. He was dismissed from his job and temporarily thrown into jail.

Donne did not hold down another regular job until King James I forcefully ordained him about 12 years later. During this era of poverty, he continued to write poetry that his friends shared and copied among themselves.

Donne took his holy orders in 1615. His wife, Anne, died in childbirth in 1617. He was grief-stricken and never remarried. His focus became his religious career. By 1621, he had been elected Dean of St Paul’s. Donne then became the most renowned cleric of his age.

Having been an appreciated but ribald poet, Donne then became famous for his religious oratory and prose. He died of stomach cancer in 1631, leaving behind a legacy of over 160 sermons and a wide range of paradoxical poems, from the sacrilegious to the romantic.

'To His Mistress Going to Bed': summary

John Donne's 'To His Mistress Going to Bed' is considered a classic of the Western canon. Let's take a look at a quick overview.

John Donne: 'To His Mistress Going to Bed'
Written inUnknown
Published inThe Harmony of the Muses (1654)
Written byJohn Donne
GenreMetaphysical blason
MeterIambic pentameter
Rhyme schemeRhyming couplets
Literary devicesConceit, word play
ThemesBattle of the sexes, sex, metaphysics
Tone Humorous, light
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 tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate 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 it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst 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,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest 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 uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like 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 lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.'

In the 17th century, the word 'mistress' usually meant a woman of higher social status. It is considered the root of the later abbreviations 'Mrs' and 'Miss'. In 1626, at the time that the role of Master of the King’s Music was initiated, the words 'master' and 'mistress' were social equivalents.

In recent times, the word has taken on a different meaning in some contexts. Often it refers to a kept-woman, who is having an affair with a married man. This is not the case if you are referring to the current Queen's Music Mistress, of course.

'To His Mistress Going to Bed': meaning

'To His Mistress Going to Bed' is a pretty detailed verbal striptease delivered in the form of a metaphysical poem. The speaker addresses a new lover whom he wants to undress for him if she would like to. A useful way to summarise the meaning of this poem is by paraphrasing it in more concise and modern English.

The speaker compares himself to a woman in labour who needs release from labour by 'labouring', and invites his new lover to help him with this. He also likens his frustrating situation to a soldier growing tired of waiting for a battle with a foe.

Having set the scene, he suggests how she might remove her girdle, 'breastplate' and unlace herself. He makes a favourable comparison between the fairness of her body, and the earth, and goes on to suggest that she also remove her busk and dress.

The speaker continues his list of items that he would like her to take off, including a diadem, a coronet, and finally, her shoes. His mistress is then compared to an angel of Mohammed’s paradise and a good rather than an evil angel in white. This distinction is apparently easily determined by his physical reaction to her.

He asks for her permission for his hands to explore her as if she were a new continent. Two paradoxes are introduced with the ideas that their bond sets him free and that his freely roaming hands would create a seal between them.

A metaphysical poet is considered part of the metaphysical movement of the 17th century. They are characterised by their use of wordplay, conceits, wit and philosophical approach. The term was coined by the critic Samuel Johnson and their work was revitalised by T.S. Eliot in the 1900s.

A blason is a poem that is focussed on a woman's physical attributes. The form is usually based on a Petrarchan sonnet.

A paradox is an apparent logical contradiction that ultimately makes sense if looked at in more detail.

The benefits of nakedness are enthusiastically highlighted. He tweaks the legend of the goddess Atalanta’s golden apples to infer that women use external decoration as red herrings for foolish men. He suggests that women are mystic books hiding behind their decorative covers.

He asks that she be as at ease with him as she would be with a midwife if she were in labour. The last persuasion is a question that addresses equality. Getting naked first, he cheekily suggests that if he doesn’t need clothes, why does she?

A diadem was a type of tiara, a half crown. It also has biblical connotations as it was typically worn by royalty or priests.

A coronet is a small crown, different to a tiara or diadem in that it fully encircles the head. Usually this type of crown was worn by the general aristocracy.

It is not possible to wear a diadem and a coronet at the same time. What do you think these two items of status, worn on the head symbolise?

'To His Mistress Going to Bed': themes

Several layers of themes are in this poem. We can take a look at a key theme that is also a conceit.

A conceit is an extended metaphor that runs throughout the poem and is critical to its meaning.

A metaphor, in contrast to a simile, is an indirect comparison between two separate things. A simile will tend to use the word 'like' to compare, whereas a metaphor will not.

Theme: the battle of the sexes

Donne never addresses this directly, but his use of battle and foe metaphors and references to his mistress’ 'breastplate', which is traditionally a type of armour, all allude to this power dynamic. Initially, the speaker fairly directly refers to the battle of foes and likens his state to one of a warrior tired of waiting for the fight that he can’t yet engage in. This directly compares sexual tension to that of the tension before the battle.

The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,

Is tir’d with standing though he never fight. (lines 3–4)

What is alluded to with this metaphor is the battle of the sexes, where women and men are pitted against each other as foes in the battle for dominance.

Women of the 17th century who wore dresses did not wear armoured 'breastplates' that needed to be 'unlaced'. This would more likely have been a stay, the precursor to the corset. In the era in which Donne lived, women of the class who wore coronets did not have much say in whom they married or slept with. They were usually wed for their family’s political or economic gain. Similarly to women of all classes, they were often married before they were 18 and were likely to die young during one of a long series of births. They had very little agency.

Donne cedes all women and therefore his mistress power by inferring that it is their choice to reveal themselves rather than something that is dictated.

(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)

Must see reveal’d.' (lines 41–42)

Finally, he, whilst pretty naked, asks why a woman would need clothes when he does not. This is a physical inversion of the abstract power balance of the times. It results in a convincing and humorous argument that also highlights his acute awareness of the power imbalances of his time.

To teach thee, I am naked first; why then

What needst thou have more covering than a man. (lines 47–48)

'To His Mistress Going to Bed': literary devices

Conceit is often the main literary device used by Donne. Donne uses several layers of conceits in 'To His Mistress Going to Bed'.

Conceit: his human lover compared to both heavenly and earthly treasures

Donne compares his lover to the sky, an angel of paradise, a mystic book, an Empire, precious stones and a newly discovered continent. This combination of the human body, the earth, the spiritual and the cosmic is characteristic of Neoplatonism, where the human microcosm is viewed as a replica of the universal macrocosm.

Conceit: labour

This is a pretty layered and elaborate conceit. Donne initially likens his sexual tension to the experience of labour, not a very traditionally masculine thing to do. He asks his mistress to help him out with the 'labour' needed to release his 'labour'. He then inverts this conceit and suggests that his mistress is like a woman in labour, and he should be viewed as the midwife.

Wordplay

Donne is witty and his words are frequently multi-layered. Within the labour as an extended metaphor for sexual tension, he links sex to virtue in a few ways. Firstly, he does this by connecting sex to the labour of childbirth, which was a much-valued phenomenon at the time. It was also considered a virtue by the Church.

Secondly, his wordplay links a woman’s labour (childbirth) to a man’s labour (work). Both were considered virtues. He also twice implies that sex would be mutual labour that would ease their individual labours.

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie. (lines 1–2)

Then since that I may know; As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew Thy self. (lines 44–45)

Another example of wordplay is second half of the line:

Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, (line 33)

This line can be read in two ways. All his joys are due to her, and she is due all the joy, presumably courtesy of him.

Read Andrew Marvel's 'To His Coy Mistress' (1681) and compare the approaches to seduction of the two metaphysical poets. Can you spot some key differences? What are the similarities?

Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed - Key takeaways

  • John Donne was a metaphysical poet and Anglican Dean who also wrote prose, essays and sermons.
  • He was originally Roman Catholic, then became secular and finally an Anglican Dean. This background shows through in the poem's use of religious virtues such as 'labour'.
  • The poem 'To His Mistress Going To Bed' is characterised by conceits, wit, and word play.
  • Donne’s regular themes included in the poem are lust, love, metaphysics and religion.
  • 'Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed' is a metaphysical seduction poem published after Donne's death.

Frequently Asked Questions about Elegy XIX To His Mistress Going to Bed

Yes, this a metaphysical poem by John Donne.

Power dynamics, the battle of the sexes, sex.

It is a metaphysical blason.

The term was coined by the critic Samuel Johnson. It refers to the characteristic of combining the earthly with the abstract or metaphysical in their poetry.

Famous metaphysical poets include John Donne and Andrew Marvel.

Samuel Johnson.

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