The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On His Mistress” (sometimes called simply Elegy 18) is an elegy of fifty-six lines in twenty-eight rhyming couplets. The poem’s title discloses its contemplative nature, a characteristic mandated by the elegiac form. The poem is written in the first person; this highlights the personal nature of the poem, conceived by a man before he departs on a long journey to the European continent. He seems to lament leaving his love behind as he meditates on their relationship, yet the poem’s intent is ultimately ambiguous.

“On His Mistress” takes as its point of departure a stressing of the seeming futility of the lovers’ efforts to stay together. The narrator discloses his love’s intended scheme—she would like to dress like a man and accompany him on his journey to the Continent. Surprisingly, given the poem’s elegiac form and its elevated rhetoric, the narrator chides this notion; she would be easily identified because “Richly clothed apes, are called apes” (line 31). This does not seem to be the tone a lover normally adopts when writing about and to his beloved. When the narrator adds to this notion by turning to the vulgarities of the peoples of other nations, the poem shifts in tone. Gone is the elevated rhetoric of lovers; instead, the narrator and the poem adopt an aura of superiority and absurdity: The men of France are diseased, the Italians are bisexual, and the Dutch are slovenly drunks. These clichés are meant to rationalize the...

(The entire section is 532 words.)