‘Absent from thee’ by John Wilmot is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent rhyme scheme. It conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit.
In regards to meter, the poem is almost entirely written in iambic tetrameter. This means that almost every line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these being unstressed and the second stressed. There are a few moments in which the pattern changes and the stressed syllable comes first. The most obvious is in line one of stanza two with the exclamation “Dear!”
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is separated from the one he loves, the intended listener of the poem. While they are apart he is miserable. He languishes about, unsure what to do with himself. But, that’s not quite true. It is revealed that its the speaker’s own fault they are separate. He tells the listener not to ask him when he’s going to come back as he doesn’t know. The speaker is unable to resist the sexual urges plaguing his every waking moment.
In the next quatrain, he asks the listener that she let him “fly” and explore these urges, which he refers to as “torments.” He thinks that seeking them out will take some of the pressure off his heart. These lines are comical in that it’s clear the speaker has indulged more than once.
He goes on to describe the listener’s arms as the only place he finds real peace. But again, this doesn’t stop him from ruining himself on the streets amongst those with “unblest” hearts. The poem concludes with the speaker admitting that he’s likely never going to change.
Before beginning this piece it is important to take note of the social changes occurring in England when Wilmot wrote ‘Absent from thee.’ The poem came about in the mid to late 1600s after Charles II became king. The repression that repressed English society started to change and a new freedom was felt by the public. This was seen physically through the opening of theatres and changes in popular literary genres. Charles II was no stranger to this new way of life. His days were marked by a liveliness unseen in previous reigns.
The same can be said for Wilmot. He is well-known today for his chaotic lifestyle, drunkenness, fights, and exploits with women. The speaker of the poem is often thought to be Wilmot himself, struggling with his own choices and trying to come to terms with his path.
Analysis of Absent from thee
Absent from thee I languish still;
Then ask me not, when I return?
The straying fool ’twill plainly kill
To wish all day, all night to mourn.
The speaker begins ‘Absent from thee’ by stating that the root of all his problems is his separation from the listener. The inversion of clauses in this section places the emphasis on this distance. It is not clear at this point whether it is his fault or hers, or neither. This is the part of the situation he finds most important though as it is the root of all his problems. Or so he says at this point.
He is languishing, or suffering, alone. These lines, as well as those which are to follow, are intentionally dramatic. Wilmot’s description of someone falling emotionally ill adds to the satirical nature of the text. He tells the listener not to “ask” him when he’s going to return, as he will not have an answer for her.
This line introduces the contradictions inherent in the speaker’s situation. He is miserable but unable to change his ways. This is emphasized in the next line when he refers to himself as “The straying fool.”
He has been unfaithful to the speaker and mourns that fact. The final lines reference death for the first, but not the last, time. It is clear the speaker knows he is on a destructive path. The conflict between love, sex, and religion is going to be the death of him.
Dear! from thine arms then let me fly,
That my fantastic mind may prove
The torments it deserves to try
That tears my fixed heart from my love.
In the second stanza, the speaker implores his lover to let him “fly.” These lines turn traditional love poetry on its head. He is seeking freedom from that which he professes to care so deeply about. It would allow him to test the “torments” which haunt him. He wants to give in to his “fantastic mind” and experiment with all fantasies he’s harboured.
These lines are somewhat superfluous, as the speaker has already declared his inability to stay faithful. The reader, the listener, and the speaker himself, are all aware that nothing is going to keep him from indulging in pleasure. At the same time, he refers to the pleasures as “torments.”
As mentioned above, Wilmot lived a shocking life, and ‘Absent from thee’ is a perfect example of his radical writing style. In particular, it is the mixing of religious imagery, such as the torments of hell with erotic pleasure, that surprised, but also interested the public. These lines address the general mindset of the time as the public entered into a new age of social and personal freedom. The tenants of Christianity merge into his own sexual desire.
When, wearied with a world of woe,
To thy safe bosom I retire
where love and peace and truth does flow,
May I contented there expire,
The third stanza begins with an alliterative line containing four “w” words. This has the effect of slowing down a reader’s progress. The technique supports the context as the line discusses the speaker’s weariness over the state of his life. The world is filled with ”woe” and it is only in the listener’s “safe bosom” that he wants to retire. She is the only place where he’s able to find “truth” as well as “love and peace.”
The stanza ends with another reference to death. He hopes that sometime in the future his life will settle down and he’ll be able to “expire,” or die, in his lover’s arms. In the next stanza, he relates the peace found with his lover to the Christian heaven.
Lest, once more wandering from that heaven,
I fall on some base heart unblest,
Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven,
And lose my everlasting rest.
These lines of ‘Absent from thee’ begin with the speaker once more showing his inability to accept his happy situation. He knows that it is very possible, and likely, that at some point he’s going to find himself “once more wandering” away from the listener.
On one of these explorations into his torments, he’s going to “fall” onto the bosom of a woman whose heart is “base” and “unblest.” This person is the exact opposite of the listener, perhaps a prostitute or simply another lover who is less pure.
The third line makes use of alliteration once more. The speaker’s tone is clear at this point. He’s angry at himself for the choices he makes and the words “Faithless,” “false” and ‘unforgiven” fly out at the reader. In the final line the speaker seems to give in to his future. He knows he’s going to lose his “everlasting rest” or place in heaven. It is interesting to once more connect these lines back to Wilmot’s own life. This poem very likely came from a place of truth.