The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

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“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 narrator’s reasons for dissuading his love from joining him, yet they are also serious insults aimed at those from the Continent.

By the poem’s conclusion, the narrator has shifted back to the sentimental mode more typical of the elegiac genre. He instructs his beloved to remember him during his absence, but this conventional plea is then usurped by the poem’s strange final lines. The narrator asks his mistress to dream happiness for him (nowhere is it mentioned that she should dream happily of the two as a couple). This demonstrates the connection between lovers even while they are separated by hundreds of miles, yet it also shows the self-centered nature of the narrator. Perhaps this could be justified by the notion that their love has been a covert affair, an idea forwarded by his hope that she will tell nobody of their feelings; however, this does not excuse the apparent one-sidedness of his plea.

The poem concludes with further irony: The narrator pleads that his mistress not have any nightmares or fear for his safety. While it is human nature to comfort one’s love before departing on a long journey, the “comforting” done here is presented with an odd twist. The very mention of the possibility that he may be slain, presented in the graphic terms of line 54 (“Assailed, fight, taken, stabbed, bleed, fall, and die”), can only reinforce the fears of his lover. This expression of peril is compounded in its written form, for speech may be forgotten, while written words may be forever preserved. Thus, the attempt to calm and reassure has become, instead, a seed of doubt, a worry that could grow every day while he is gone.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

“On His Mistress” is an elegy, a poem which sets forth the poet’s contemplations. Elegies are usually about death, but they may be concerned with another solemn or elevated theme, such as love. The elegy form, dating back to classical literature, originally signified almost any type of serious meditation by the narrator and his concerns with love, death, hostilities, or even the presentation of information. In the Renaissance, Elizabethans such as John Donne used the form for love poems; they often were composed as complaints. While the classical authors composed their works in a distinct pattern called the “elegiac stanza,” the Elizabethans strayed from this rigid technique.

Donne also varies from the traditional Elizabethan structure and subject matter in his “On His Mistress”; the elegy begins typically as the narrator laments impending departure, yet this lamentation comes in ironic terms: The lovers’ meeting was a “strange and fatal interview.” This introduces the first idea that this will be a non-standard love poem, a point stressed by the narrator’s description of the covert nature of the lovers’ affair. These lovers have obviously run the gamut of emotions during their relationship in their attempts to keep their affair secret. Yet the narrator relies upon his “masculine pervasive force” (line 4) to take the matter of their departure into account. Therefore, it is not surprising that he “calmly begs” (line 7), since the manly aspect of the elegy has already been established.

Donne also relies upon the use of anaphora to distinguish the three distinct stages of Elegy 18. The repetition of “by” in the first part of the poem serves as a precursor to the inevitable departure of the two lovers, as it hints at the lovers saying good-bye. The narrator explains or rationalizes the lovers’ stormy history: They met, desired, hoped, and regretted their love. This caused the pain from which the narrator is now purposefully departing. The tone then changes as the poem shifts from a revelation of their love to the external problems of their affair. Her father certainly would not approve of their relationship, so they must keep it secret. Now they must part; only they know the truth of their affair. The language in this section is powerful and elevated; their covert affair was obviously a strain on both of them. His departure will both add to this problem and reduce it; the two will not have to worry about being detected while he is away.

The second section of the poem moves to the narrator’s rationale for leaving her behind—because of the vulgarities that she would face—and examines the impractical notion that she dress as a man and accompany him on the trip. The nationalistic digression disrupts the tone of the first section and lowers it; the poem’s final section will again move to a loftier level.

In the final section, Donne returns to anaphora to push a point forward. The repetition of “nor” overburdens the love images suggested by the conclusion with a negative tone. By suggesting that she should dream about him (not “us”) and his happiness, he has broken the union they had created. He then asks her not to worry that he be cursed and not to have a nightmare that he has been injured or killed; all this does is plant images in her mind which will cause worry after he is gone.