Robert Graves’s poem ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ distinguishes love from lust in a simple and straightforward manner. The speaker’s tone is vindictive, and the language of the poem is strong. In this piece, Graves addresses an immoral person as a “wanton” in an authoritative manner.
The first few lines of the poem are filled with sexual inuendos to the male genitalia. The poet writes, “Down, wanton down!” likely alluding to a man’s errection that, unbiden, rises and when someone experiences lust. This is furthered through lines like “you raise / Your angry head and stand at gaze?” He rebukes the urge to have unrestrained sexual activity very harshly.
In order to value the priceless “love” and “beauty,” one needs to dominate this part of the mind. Otherwise, it would direct humanity towards moral destruction. It is the crux of Graves’s epigrammatic poem.
Explore Down, Wanton, Down!
In ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’, Robert Graves addresses and rebukes the “wanton,” which refers to a sexually immoral person.
Graves informs the “wanton” about the difference between lust and love. He compares the person with a captain of a warship that heads towards failure. The speaker says that “Love” may be blind and know no limits, but at least it knows the difference between a man and a beast. In the final lines, the speaker says that an immoral person would never have “Beauty” or “Love” by their side. He feels strongly about this, as indicated in the language, tone, and mood of the poem.
You can read the full poem here.
Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame
Your angry head and stand at gaze?
In the first verse of ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’, Graves’s poetic persona directly addresses the “wanton” – someone who is crude and indulges in unrestrained sexual affairs. The speaker believes that this person gets infuriated by the mere mention of “Love’s name” and “Beauty’s presto.” According to the speaker, lust or sexual desire devoid of emotional love stands the opposite of love and beauty. He says that the “wanton” is angry at Beauty and Love because of their purity and disconnection from carnal emotions. That’s why he restrains wanton in the very first line. Besides, in this stanza, Graves personifies wantonness, love, and beauty.
The first lines of this poem are also filled with sexual innuendoes, connecting the rising “wanton” to the male genitalia that rises without one’s permission when that person is aroused. This is an image that returns in the last lines of the poem.
Poor Bombard-captain, sworn to reach
So be that in the breach you die!
In the first line of this section, Graves uses a metaphor to compare the wanton to a “Poor Bombard-captain.” If one’s mind is guided by this poor helmsman, his conscience heads towards destruction. On top of that, the captain himself has sworn to reach wreckage and disaster.
Through this stanza, the speaker expresses how sexual desire can be difficult to control. Decisions based on this impulse are like riding a ship that is destined to sink. In this stanza, the poet uses metaphorical terms like “ravelin,” “breach,” and “storm” in order to explain his thoughts regarding the “wanton.”
Love may be blind, but Love at least
More delicacy from her squires.
This verse highlights the overall theme of the poem – lust versus beauty & love. In the poet’s opinion, even though Love may be blind and Beauty may go haywire, they are inherently delicate emotions that guide a human mind in the right direction. In the second line, the poet distinguishes between love and lust by placing the former in the domain of human emotion, and the latter is synonymous with beastly emotions. Through the last line, the speaker describes beauty as something delicate, whereas lust is described as rash and unrestrained.
Tell me, my witless, whose one boast
To think fine and profess the arts?
In the fourth verse of ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’, the poet addresses the wanton as “my witless” (my fool). By using figurative language, he says that none praised the person for his “staunchness” (commitment and loyalty) at the post. Furthermore, he professes that this desire never produced a reasonable human being – one who can think righteously and respect art. The overall stanza is proposed as a rhetorical question to the “wanton.” It shows the speaker’s disdain towards the person or carnal desire.
Will many-gifted Beauty come
Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!
In the last verse, the poet asks if beauty or love would ever bow down to lust. He compares Beauty to a gifted emotion that never bows down to bodily emotions. It never respects wanton’s rash rule of the thumb. Besides, Love never swears allegiance to wanton’s crown. Therefore, it is better for him to leave or know its place. Throughout the poem, Graves points out comparisons between love and lust, and in the end, he leaves the question open-ended. It is up to the readers how they answer the question.
Throughout the poem, Graves’s speaker draws upon the contrasts between love and lust – how love can be blind, but at least it can draw a line between humane and beastly desires. The poet’s idea of beauty is intricately bound to love, as if the two come together and form the complete opposite of lust/wantonness. In this piece, the speaker rebukes a “wanton” – a sexually immoral person or the desire to have sexual intimacy without emotional love. He compares this personified urge to a warship controlled by carnal desire that is bound to end in the wreckage.
The overall tone of the poem is strong and opinionated. Graves uses powerful language and right-on punctuation to convey the message of the poem to the readers.
The poem ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ is written in the conventional quatrain form. There are five verses in this poem with four rhyming lines each. The rhyme scheme of each quatrain is AABB. It means each two lines of a quatrain form a rhyming couplet. For example, the first two lines end with a similar rhyme, “shame” and “name.”
Regarding the meter, each line consists of four iambs, a metrical foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Hence, the overall poem is composed of iambic tetrameter. Graves writes this piece from the first-person point of view and addresses a “wanton.” In totality, the structure of the poem is symmetrical and has a lyrical ring to it.
Graves uses a number of literary devices to express the message of the poem. The devices used in the poem are:
- Personification: In the lines, “Love may be blind, but Love at least/ Knows what is man and what mere beast,” “Love” is personified. Graves invests “Beauty” with human features in the lines, “Will many-gifted Beauty come/ Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,/ Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?”
- Apostrophe: It occurs in the lines, “Tell me, my witless, whose one boast”, “When were you made a man of parts/ To think fine and profess the arts?” etc. In these lines, the speaker addresses an emotion as if it is a human being.
- Consonance: It occurs in the lines, “Love may be blind, but Love at least,” “Knows what is man and what mere beast,” etc.
- Assonance: The “au” sound is repeated in “Down, wanton, down!”; the “ae” sound in the lines, “Knows what is man and what mere beast.”
- Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in neighboring words can be found in “Down, wanton, down!”, “that in the,” “be blind, but,” “me, my witless,” etc.
- Rhetorical Question: The poet asks a number of rhetorical questions throughout the poem; for example, “Or Beauty’s, presto! up you raise/ Your angry head and stand at gaze?”, “When were you made a man of parts/ To think fine and profess the arts?” etc.
Robert von Ranke Graves, popularly known as Robert Graves, is an English poet and classicist. He published his first book of poetry, Over the Brazier, in 1916. Initially, he was best-known for his war poems. He is one of the earliest poets to write realistic poems about the horrors of war, alongside Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Robert Graves’s poem ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ presents a contrast between love and lust. This poem is addressed to the personified wantonness. It seems the poet rebukes his sexual urges or someone who shows this quality. Overall, this poem can be regarded as a moral treatise on the purity of love, the value of beauty, and the haughtiness of wantonness. Explore more Robert Graves poems.
Robert Graves’s poem ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ is about the difference between love and lust. Throughout the poem, the poet talks to the wanton (an allegorical representation of wantonness) and expresses his distaste for the strong urge of sexual intimacy without emotional love.
The poet refers to the “wanton” as an immoral and lustful person throughout the poem. He personifies wantonness and compares it to a helmsman leading one to moral destruction.
This poem is written in a conventional form. It contains five quatrains, each having two rhyming couplets. The overall rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB, and the poem is composed of iambic tetrameter.
The tone of this poem is revulsive and instructive. It reflects a speaker’s disgust for the “wanton.” Throughout the poem, the speaker shows how love and beauty are more valuable than wantonness.
The central theme of the poem is lust versus love. Graves suggests that love is a delicate emotion that carries beauty alongside it, whereas lust is a beastly emotion. This beastly urge of unrestrained sexuality controls the “wanton”.
The following list contains a number of poems that tap on similar themes present in Robert Graves’s poem ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’.
- ‘Sonnet 96’ by William Shakespeare — This sonnet addresses the Fair Youth’s faults and describes the young man’s ability to cloak them in goodness.
- ‘Sweet Rose of Virtue’ by William Dunbar — This poem describes the changed feelings of a speaker who no longer understands his beloved.
- ‘Delight in Disorder’ by Robert Herrick — In this poem, Herrick describes how he enjoys the finer details of human life and the beauty he sees in disorder.
- ‘Big Poppy’ by Ted Hughes — This piece deals with monetary attraction and pleasure that leads a poppy to its impending destruction.
You can also explore these inspirational poems about love and beauty.