‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by John Donne was published after the poet’s death in 1654. The actual date of composition is unknown, although it likely that it was written fairly early on in his career. Donne constructed this piece in one long stanza, stretching to forty-eight lines. The lines are composed in rhyming couplets, which means that they are separated into rhyming pairs. In regards to meter, Donne stuck to the very popular iambic pentameter. Each line is made up of five sets of two lines. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
Today, Donne is known as the greatest of the metaphysical poets. He lived from 1572 to 1631 and is known for poetry that speaks on love, sex, and included elements of satire. One of the most important features of his writing is the use of the metaphysical conceit. This is a comparison between two very unlike and unlikely things. For example, in ‘To His `Mistress Going to Bed’, the speaker compares a woman’s clothes to the sky that covers a beautiful landscape.
Summary of To His Mistress Going to Bed
The poem begins with the speaker undressing his lover, one piece of clothing at a time. He urges her on, telling her there’s nothing for her to be ashamed of. The speaker wants to sleep with her, but more importantly, he wants to lay claim to her body. He sees it as a new land, like the “new-found-land” of America, and intends to be her king.
The poem concludes with the speaker becoming more desperate to be with his lover and finally trying to reason her into his bed. He tries to convince her with a number of arguments, the final being that he is a man and he’s undressed. There’s no reason for her, a woman, to remain dressed.
Analysis of 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.
In the first lines of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, the speaker makes a request to his lover. He asks that she come to him because he is “in labour.” The speaker is calling her to bed, hoping that she’ll come and relieve the sexual tension he is experiencing. He is fighting against his own desire for her (his foe), wanting to indulge it and at the same time, labouring under it. Although they have not slept together yet, he is tired with anticipation.
The next lines give an example of Donne at his finest, employing a metaphysical conceit. This is a type of metaphor that compares two very unlike things. Often the similarity is less important than the impact of the lines themselves. The speaker asks his lover to take off “that girdle” she is wearing on her lower body. He states that the undergarment is like the sky and what is covers is a beautiful “world.” There is a whole “Zone glistering” he wants to uncover.
He continues to ask her to take her clothes off, this time he mentions her “spangled breastplate.” This is a reference to a kind of armour worn in battle. This time though it is used to describe a piece of clothing that keeps “busy fools” from seeing what her body looks like. He does not count himself among these fools.
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:
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ continues on with the more sexual tinged language. He tells his listener that it is time for them to get into bed together, there is no more time to waste. The speaker returns to the clothing in the next line, telling her to take off the “happy busk,” a part of a corset that supports the breasts. He immediately adds that he is envious of this garment as it gets to be so close to her. It is able to stand against her body without the struggles he faces.
It appears in the next lines that the listener is complying with his requests. He asks that she take off her gown, and now it is “going off.” When it is gone, he is shown a “beauteous state.” He compares the sight to the sun shining over a field of flowers. A reader should also take note of the reference to “hills.” This is likely connected with the shape of her body.
In the last lines of this section, he asks that her “wiry Coronet,” or small crown, is taken off. The next lines are obviously sexual, he refers to the female genitalia when he speaks of the “hairy diadems” that “grow” on her body.
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.
The next lines of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ are simpler. He has, at least mentally, taken off all of her clothes. What’s left are her “shoes.” Then all she has to do is walk across the floor to “love’s hallow’d temple” or more clearly, the bed. When she reclines there she will be covered in “white robes” just like “heaven’s Angels.” She always seems like an angel to him, but now that she’s in bed, she’ll physically look like one. Her body will be draped in white and she’ll bring “Mahomet’s Paradise” to their bed. This is a reference to the prophet Muhammad of Islam.
Continuing the talk of angels, he makes sure his listener knows that she is not sinning by sleeping with him. She will exist in the form of a good angel, not one of those which is close to an “evil sprite.” The bad one’s set his “hair” upright and the good his “flesh.” This is a clear reference back to the first stanza in which his passion is controlling his body.
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.
The speaker continues on to ask for “licence” to let his hands “rov[e]” around her body. This is one of the best-known lines within Donne’s poetry. Through this phrase, the speaker is seeking freedom to travel in all directions, just as the “discoverers” of America took advantage of the new world. Her body will be to him a “new-found-land” and he will play the role of king. His rule will extend over her entirely. The conceit comparing the woman body to America relates directly to the common naming of America as “virgin land.” He is going claim her before anyone else can.
Not only will he use her as he pleases, but he will also have sole control of her. Continuing the comparison to the new land, he tells her he feels “blest” in his discovery of her. He plans to mark her body with his hand like a seal and she will be under his control.
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 Atalanta’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;
In the next set of lines of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, the speaker exclaims over the “Full nakedness” of his lover. Finally, it seems she has shed all her clothes and her body is in his sight. He is overwhelmed, almost comically so, by what he sees, telling her that “All joys are due” to her presence. In customary fashion, Donne places great importance on physicality. His speaker states that until the clothes are taken off one is unable to connect with the soul of another. They act as a kind of prison for one’s true self.
The next lines are vaguer. He refers to “Atalanta” a huntress in Greek mythology. The story goes that she told her father she’d only marry if a man could beat her in a foot race. She won every race until one man, Hippomenes threw golden apples for her to catch. This allowed him to win and marry her. The speaker states that women use their “gems,” or physical attributes, just like golden apples.
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.
He also compares women to books, particularly mysterious ones. This is something the speaker doesn’t believe in. He is a man of learning and thinks that he and all other men should have access to women without restriction.
In the next lines, he asks that his lover show her self as selflessly to him as she would to a “Midwife.” Just as she would submit herself to the woman’s ministrations so too should she allow the speaker’s hands to touch her body.
The poem concludes with the speaker telling his lover that she should not be ashamed of what he wants to do. Her innocence does not work as an active penance. It does not absolve her of any sins.
He also tells her that he is naked now in order to teach her there is nothing shameful or difficult about it. This line, in combination with the final line, tries to force her to submit with reason. He tells her that she is not better than him. He is a man and he is naked, why should she, a woman, be clothed?