The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 481 words.)