A reading of a classic poem
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was an English Cavalier poet, whose 1648 collection Hesperides contains much of his great poetry. Algernon Charles Swinburne called Herrick the ‘greatest songwriter ever born of English race’. ‘Delight in Disorder’ is one of his most famous poems.
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.
In summary, ‘Delight in Disorder’ is, as its title makes clear, a poem in praise of disorderliness. The poet states that clothes worn in a state of dishevelment have a certain charm – indeed, more so than when they are simply worn in a state of perfect precision. So a ‘lawn’ (i.e. a piece of linen or cambric) ‘thrown’ about the shoulders in a rather nonchalant manner, a piece of lace only lightly (‘here and there’) keeping the ‘stomacher’ in check (a stomacher was a triangular piece of cloth worn over the chest and stomach): these are the things which generate a sense of ‘wantonness’ in the clothes. Similarly, a cuff worn round the wrist that lets ribbons flow out from it in confusion, and a stray ‘wave’ or ripple in a petticoat, and a shoelace that is tied in a haphazard fashion: these all ‘bewitch’ the poet, or pique his attention, more powerfully than clothes worn in a more straight-laced and conventional manner.
Herrick makes his point through a series of oxymorons, starting with that title, ‘Delight in Disorder’. We are used to viewing disorder as an inconvenience or annoyance rather than a delight. Herrick compounds this surprise by referring to ‘sweet disorder’, then ‘fine distraction’, ‘wild civility’. The attributes given to the clothes themselves are also surprising, since they personify the clothes as if the garments were themselves responsible for their dishevelled state: ‘erring lace’, ‘cuff neglectful’, ‘tempestuous petticoat’, ‘careless shoe-string’.
Talking of pairings, note that the rhymes in this poem of rhyming couplets are disorderly, with what is normally a monosyllable rhymed with a polysyllabic word which is often no better than an eye-rhyme: dress/wantonness, thrown/distraction, there/stomacher, thereby/confusedly, note/petticoat, tie/civility. It’s only when we come to the final couplet – and Herrick’s argument about precision – that we get a full rhyme, art/part.
‘Delight in Disorder’, like many of Robert Herrick’s poems, was written against the backdrop of a turbulent time in English history: the English Civil War of the 1640s. As a Cavalier – that is, a supporter of King Charles I – Herrick may well have championed freedom and leisure, and the pursuit of pleasure, because his enemies the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, detested such things. We might see ‘Delight in Disorder’ as being more than just a nice poem about clothes: it can be analysed in terms of its context, too. Herrick calls for a freedom and a disorder which the Puritan mindset would find it harder to embrace. Such a (tentative) contextual analysis is not necessary to enjoy the poem, of course: it can also be interpreted as an elegant poem in praise of spontaneity and difference over slavish obedience to convention.
And the fact that it is possible to detect a sexual frisson to Herrick’s poem should not surprise us when we reflect that he was the poet who also wrote ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.
Image: Robert Herrick (artist unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.