10 September 2014

John Donne and To his mistress going to bed

Reading John Donne is always a pleasure. I like most of his poems,especially those in which he develops his rhetorical technique to describe sex and sensual pleasure. Perhaps my favourite one is To his Mistress going to Bed. In this poem, he expresses freely his own sexual desire as he observes his lover undressed for bed.
His vivid description of a woman´s naked body points at Donne as someone who is crazy about women and the sexual desire he can obtain from them. He seems to crave for every single centimeter of his lover´s body. In this respect, the naked female body becomes his "America, [his] new found land", "[a] kingdom" that has to be discovered, investigated, searched in detail.

John DonneDonne, perhaps the most popular of the so-called metaphysical poets, was an expert at making metaphysical conceits, comparisons, unusual similes or metaphores which are more ingenious that either true or appropriate. The images of a naked female body and the discovery of a new continent are strong enough to stay in the minds of Donne´s readers. 

He seems to have lived his sexuality to the full. Just read the poem and enjoy it. After the poem, you will see quite a few comments related to Donne´s poem. I hope they are enlightening.


Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,1
Until I labour, I in labour lie.2
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,3
Is tired with standing though he never fight.4
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,5
But a far fairer world encompassing.6
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,7
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.8
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime9
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.10
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,11
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.12
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,13
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.14
Off with your wiry coronet and show15
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:16
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread17
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.18
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be19
Received by men; thou, Angel, bring’st with thee20
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though 21
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know 22
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:23
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.24
 License my roving hands, and let them go 25
Before, behind, between, above, below.26
O my America! my new-found-land,27
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,28
My mine of precious stones, my empery,29
How blest am I in this discovering thee!30
To enter in these bonds is to be free;31
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 32
 Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,33
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,34
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use 35
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,36
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,37
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them:38
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made 39
For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed.40
Themselves are mystic books, which only we 41
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)42
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,43
As liberally as to a midwife, show 44
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence, 45
There is no penance due to innocence: 46
To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,47
What need’st thou have more covering than a man? 48
 
 
(1) “my powers” points at his sexual desire or energy. He is ready to go to bed and does not think of resting.

(2) “I labour, I in labour lie”. He waits impatiently for his lover to go to bed with him, just as a woman in labour awaits the delivery of a baby.

(3) “the foe…the foe”. A beautiful image of male and female organs, together as if the were enemies in a battle.

(4) “standing”. Standing just like the male organ “stands” ready and erect.

(5) “heaven’s zone”. Once the “girdle” has been taken off, the “heavens´s zone” is the one part he can see from her.

(7). “spangled breastplate”. It is the front piece of a dress and it covers the breast and the pit of the belly.

(9) “harmonious chime”. The watch says that it is time for bed.

(11). “Off with that happy busk, which I envy”. Donne envies her corset, so close to her skin. He´d like to be the corset.

(13) “such beauteous state reveals”. Without clothes, his lover´s body is pure beauty.

(15) “wiry coronet”. He wants to observe her even without the “coronet”,  or metal band around her forehead.

(17) “off with those shoes” The shoes must be also taken off.
       
      (18-19) “this soft bed /…white robes heaven’s angels used to be”. His encounters with her require a soft  bed and clean white heavenly clothes.

      (21) “Mahomet’s Paradise”. Being with her is like being in heaven, in paradise.
  
     (23-24) “these Angels /…our flesh upright”. Donne here uses a great rhetorical device to explain that women, or “angels” make men have the “flesh upright”, or erections.
     (26) Before, behind, between, above, below”. Donne enjoys touching all over his lover´s naked body. Nothing must remained untouched.
 (27-29). “my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom…/….My mine. Her body becomes Donne´s America. A new discovery, his own “kingdom”, his property, temporarily perhaps. For Donne, it is better when she belonges only to “one man”, (28), that is to say, to him.

(30) “How blest am I”. His happiness is indescribable.

(31-32). “bonds / seal” reminds the reader of a contract between the two of them., a contract of love.  

(34-35). 2 bodies unclothed must be/ To taste whole joys” expresses Donne´s ideas about how to enjoy sex to the full. Nakedness is vital.

(36). “Atlanta’s balls” refers to Ovid´s Atalanta. The story says that she would only marry the man who could beat her in a race. Hippomenes distracted her by throwing some balls in fron of her, and so he won the race. 

(37-41). “when a fool’s eye / may covet theirs / like books’ gay coverings made / mystic books” may refer to the impossibility of some men to see the true value of a woman, as they only pay attention to their appearance.Using a book, Donne indicates that some men look at the cover, but never inside it. 

(42) “imputed grace” may refer to Calvin´s idea by which men are unable to win salvation by personal merits. It is only because of God´s infinite love that people can be saved. Likewise, Donne aspires to have the “imputed grace” of his lover in an attempt to be with her.

(45-46) “cast …this white linen / There is no penance”.The white colour signifies virginity, cleanness and penitence, but there is no reason why she should be related to that colour because she is not a virgin.  

(47) “I am naked first”. He takes the iniciative and invites her to do the same.
                        Hippomenes distracts Atalanta with golden balls
 
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