A summary of Donne’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ has been called the greatest verbal striptease in English verse. In this poem, John Donne (1572-1631) encourages his lover to undress for him, in one of the most deeply erotic love poems (‘lust poems’?) in the English language. How Donne captures his mounting excitement in ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ deserves careful analysis. We include the poem below.
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 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.
Perhaps the best way to proceed towards an analysis of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ is not by summarising the content but by paraphrasing it. So: ‘Come, madam: all my powers defy the urge to rest, and I want to get down to it. Until we get busy together, I lie here in agony, like a woman in childbirth. When an enemy has his enemy in sight, he gets tired of standing around and yearns to engage in combat. Take that girdle off from round your waist; it’s like the bright heavens encircling the world – except that the “world” that is your body is a far more beautiful one for it to encircle. Take that glittering breastplate off too, so that nosy oglers can have their eyes feast upon what’s underneath. Remove your lace, so that I may know it’s time for us to go to bed. Take off that busk [a sort of corset], which I envy for being able to be so close to you and yet not going weak. Removing your gown is like the shadow of the hill fading from the flowery meadows to reveal their beauty. Remove your hat, to reveal the natural crown of your hair beneath. Off with those shoes, as you would when entering a sacred temple – which, in a sense, you are when you enter the “temple of love” that is a bed. Heavenly angels used to greet men wearing such white robes, and you are an angel bringing me a paradise like the one Mohammed promises. I know that evil spirits can also dress themselves in white, but we can easily tell the difference: evil spirits make the hairs stand on end, but heavenly beings like yourself make men’s … flesh [or a certain part of the flesh, wink wink] stand upright.’
In the next verse paragraph, the striptease continues: ‘All my wandering hands to touch you everywhere. You are like my America, a newly-discovered land! Safest when “manned” by one person. You are a mine of precious gems, and I am blessed for having discovered you. To allow yourself to be bonded with me is [paradoxically] to be free, so where I now place my hand, I “seal” the deal between us.’
The third verse paragraph begins ‘Full nakedness!’ Donne addresses his mistress: ‘All joys are thanks to you. For souls to float free of their bodies, those bodies must be unclothed, if we are to taste joys fully. Gems you women use are like the golden apples that distracted Atalanta [from Greek mythology] during her race against a suitor, Hippomenes. Like Hippomenes trying to throw Atalanta off course, you throw your gems in our way, so that men chase after your wealth rather than your beauty. All women are decorated like this: like pictures, or the attractive covers put on books for laymen. But women are mystic books themselves, and so we must look beyond their gaudy covers and see what lies beneath. So, because I must see you properly, reveal yourself as freely as a woman in labour would show herself to the midwife. Take off the white linen still covering your body. You won’t need to feel guilty for doing something that is, after all, so innocent.’
Donne concludes ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by leading by example: ‘Look, to show you how it’s done, I’ll take off my clothes first. See? And why would you need to have more covering than a man?’
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, as our detailed paraphrase above has tried to capture, is a great poem of seduction. But it is more than this, and Donne weaves in a number of complex ideas into that poem that, on the face of it, simply appears to be arguing for a woman to get her kit off.
For one, Donne’s poem undoes, or at the very least develops, the usual idea of courtly love by confronting the fact that the courtly love poet, in praising the beautiful woman, ultimately wants to go to bed with her (though often he can’t and never will get the chance). Donne’s poem argues that the unattainable woman shouldn’t be unattainable: all that flattery of her looks and beauty is because the poet really wants to sleep with her. So, Donne concludes, why don’t we just do it? He also briefly introduces, and overturns, the idea of Neoplatonism (also seen elsewhere in his poetry): namely, that the body must be left behind in order to love the soul:
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be.
Just as the soul must, according to Neoplatonism, remove itself from the body, so the body should, Donne urges, remove itself from clothes. Similarly, Donne presents the idea of going to bed with him, not as a sin (the woman is his ‘mistress’, after all, and so they are not married) but as ‘innocence’.
Similarly, Donne’s use of imagery drawn from childbirth seeks to make sex seem natural and even virtuous, because after all, if nobody had sex, there would be no childbirth and the human race would come to an end. But, Donne being Donne, he wittily plays on the multiple meanings of labour: ‘Unless I labour, I in labour be’ is a deft play on the word’s double meaning, i.e. both work (seen as virtuous) and childbearing (also virtuous). And using such a metaphor about himself, the man, only heightens the effect. And, of course, he returns to the labour/childbirth image when he likens his mistress’ stripping for his enjoyment to a pregnant woman taking her clothes off for the midwife.
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ is one of Donne’s most sensual and erotic poems, and repays close analysis because of the clever use of imagery and the masterly way that Donne rhetorically overturns received attitudes to love and desire.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.