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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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),...

(The entire section is 565 words.)