To His Mistress Going to Bed by John Donne

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Synopsis

Donne's Elegy 19, "To His Mistress Going to Bed," was most likely written in the late-sixteenth century but, like most of his poetry, not published until after his death in 1631. It was considered indecent enough not to be included in the first published edition of his work in 1633.

In the poem, Donne revels in the experience of undressing his mistress in stages, his excitement and desire for her increasing until he exclaims, in an ecstasy of admiration, "full nakedness!" He urges her on with a series of imperatives ("off with that happy busk"; "off with those shoes"), but by the final section, as she sits on the bed wrapped in only a sheet, he seeks to "teach" her what she must do: "bodies uncloth'd must be, / To taste whole joys."

So far, the poem is very straightforward: it is about undressing, and it is undeniably suffused with desire. A closer reading, however, reveals tantalising complexities. Even in a state of heightened desire, Donne's speaker reveals his capacity for wit: he refers to his excited state using puns on "labour" and "standing." As he anticipates going to...

(The entire section is 365 words.)