To His Mistress Going to Bed

by John Donne

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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 bed with his mistress, he is like a soldier waiting for battle: "standing" refers both to the soldier and to his own erection.

Further complexities involve the mistress herself. We are given no sense of her character or inner life; she is the body from which a series of clothes are alluringly cast away. Yet her high social status is clear. Her clothes are rich ("spangled breast-plate," "coronet"), and Donne's mood, though taut with desire, is not merely lust-fuelled. With palpable wonder, he compares her "gown going off" with the beauty of "when from flow'ry meads th'hills shadow steals," and the girl herself to "heaven's Angels."

The joy he experiences is in discovering her body, and Donne conveys this through a characteristically witty, and utterly contemporary, metaphor. Like sixteenth-century explorers, he finds her body to be "my America! my new-found-land," and in his discovery he establishes a "kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann'd." Donne was an ambitious man in the world's terms, and for him to see his lovemaking in terms of conquest is at once apt and ingenious.

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