Much poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries incorporates the idea of a “slight disorder in the dress” as well as in the hair of its female subjects. Ben Jonson notes that there is something suspicious about a woman who is always neatly dressed: What is she hiding? He calls for the “sweet neglect” of “robes loosely flowing, hair as free” in the woman who would capture his heart. Similarly, Richard Lovelace bids Amarantha to “dishevel Her Hair,” letting it fly “as unconfined/ As its calm ravisher, the wind,” that she might “shake [her] head and scatter day.” Probably the best known of all poems with this bent is Robert Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder.”
Herrick first praises a wantonness, or playfulness, which he discovers in clothes arrayed in “sweet disorder.” He proceeds to describe that disorder, beginning with a scarf thrown about the shoulders. It is a scarf of “lawn,” a linen cloth woven so fine that it has a diaphanous quality. (Herrick found this quality engaging in one of his many Julia poems, “To Julia in Lawn at Dawn.”) Herrick then takes note of the lace embroidery that decorates the lady’s stomacher, a garment worn beneath the bodice. It is not the quality or the design of the lace that he notes, or how well it complements the garment to which it is sewn, but simply the fact that it is not quite perfect in its placement; it is indeed an “erring lace.” The next element of the lady’s dress that catches Herrick’s eye is a cuff decorated with ribbons. He tells nothing of the design of the blouse or the color of the ribbons. All that catches his wayward eye is the suggestion of neglect in the cuff, and that the ribbons are not fixed carefully in place, but rather “flow confusedly.” He then proceeds to the petticoat, noting that its smooth spread is broken by a wave. In Herrick’s susceptible perception, this is no calm wave quietly wending its way to shore, but a veritable whitecap in a tempest. Finally, Herrick ends his catalog by arriving at the shoestring. Even in this trivial item of dress his responsive heart finds a “wild civility.”
The denouement of all this is simple: Herrick finds such disorder far more bewitching than when “art/ Is too precise in every part.” His taste runs to the free and unconfined rather than to the carefully tailored garment. However uncomfortable it might make his ladyfriend, Herrick would object not in the slightest should a strong wind move each bit of clothing into a wonder of disarray; he would rejoice in the dishevelment.
This poem is little more than a long synecdoche or metonymy. While describing the clothes, Herrick is really hoping for some “sweet disorder” or even a touch of wantonness in the lady associated with them. An “erring lace” is a much-desired corrective to a straight-laced woman, and a neglectful cuff might indicate a touch of neglect in adhering to the strict moral precepts inculcated by cautious elders. A mind that sometimes thinks confusedly and a heart with a touch of the tempestuous are certainly elements to be desired. Even so, all caution is not to be thrown to the winds—a touch of civility remains amid the wildness, though it is certainly not the major attribute: It is confined to the shoestring—hardly a major restraint.
The civility of the poem is also retained in its carefully constructed series of couplets in iambic tetrameter (“distraction” was a four-syllable word in the seventeenth century). The only breaks in...
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the sweet falling of the iambs are in the second line, which begins with the trochaic “Kindles,” emphasizing the wilder rhythm of fire, and the eighth line, which begins with “Ribbons,” also a trochee, endowing the streamers with a strong, independent flow. “Into,” beginning the fourth line, could also be read as a trochee, and in each case the strong opening beat of the word is made more emphatic because it follows an enjambment.
Much of the power of this poem comes in the connotative suggestions of the words. “Kindles” suggests the beginning of an inner fire, and “wantonness,” though its primary meaning in the seventeenth century was merely playfulness, did also have its modern suggestion of lighthearted sexual play. “Distraction” suggests that one’s mind can wander from the mundane to the exciting, and, as was mentioned earlier, an “erring” lace hints that the lady herself might be willing to wander. The word “enthralls” instead of the more straightforward “encircles” suggests that it is more than the lady’s waist that is captured by the lace embroidery. A “winning” wave in the petticoat surely gathers a prize of hearts, a “careless” shoestring indicates one who does not care overmuch for restrictions, and a “wild” civility connotes freedom from the restrictions of a watchful society. Since love is a witch, it is not absolutely clear that “bewitch” is not strictly denotative in its effect on the poem. The oxymorons “sweet disorder” and “wild civility” (and perhaps “fine distraction”) serve to create a tension that keeps the reader aware that the poet is speaking of a woman as well as the clothes she is wearing.
The syntax of the poem also increases its tension. After the declarative statement of the first couplet, the poem continues in one long sentence with six extensively developed subjects (lawn, lace, cuff, ribbons, wave, and shoestring) all holding the verb in abeyance, endowing the poem with the power of suspense.