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Donne's "Language of Love" in Elegy Xix: "To His Mistress Going to Bed"

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English 178 - poetry | Donne’s “Language of Love” in Elegy XIX: “To His Mistress Going To Bed”. | Poetry Semester Essay | | Telan Hamer | 18184626Tutor : Tamsyn Allies |

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The poetic works of John Donne has been afforded high acclaim when it comes to his use of language in the dominion of love. In his elegy “To His Mistress Going To Bed”, he beckons for his lover to be bedded with him, describing her beauty as he tries to influence her to disrobe. Donne, in this poem, makes visible the way in which love and desire can be expressed in language attiring his poems with extended metaphor, metaphysical conceit and masterful wit, to the extent to which one may re-read the poem simply to savour the way in which Donne has sculpted his imagery. “To His Mistress Going To Bed” is seen to fall under the poetic genre known as ‘the blazon’, a genre of poetry that glorifies a woman by focusing on certain desirable body parts whilst using appropriate metaphor. Hence, the main focus of this essay will be to provide a commentary on the use of “the language of love” with reference to Donne’s blazon, by highlighting a series of appropriate examples that will provide a platform to analyse what it is that Donne is trying to convey in his poem, and how he accomplishes its conveyance. The examples will be analysed with reference to how the poet incorporates certain aspects of language such as diction, form, style, tone, rhetoric, and his use of figures of speech.
The opening lines of the poem invite us into the speakers mind as he gazes upon his Mistress: Come, Madame, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The speaker appears to be speaking to himself, beckoning to his Mistress to come to bed. The line suggests internal monologue with its lack of quotation and creates a sense that we are being told about something, rather than bearing witness to it. The tone in this line is relatively commanding, yet at the same time it creates a sense of suggestion and desire by the way in which the sentence is structured. The commas allow for fluidity, subtle rhetoric and further explanation as to why his mistress should come to bed, creating the softer, suggestive tone, as opposed to a more abrupt and authoritative tone. The tone is important in hinting at desire and longing for the woman to be his bedfellow and highlights the atmosphere of “love’ in the poem. Donne sets out to reinforce this sense of desire when the speaker explains how much he would rather stay awake with his mistress than go to sleep. “[A]ll rest my powers defy” highlights just how awake and in lust the speaker is, as even if he mustered all his “power” and focused it, he would still not find rest due to his intense desire to bed his mistress. This intensity is elucidated in the speaker commenting that “[u]ntil [he] labour[s]”, “labour” being a reference to engaging in sexual intercourse, he will “in labour lie”, suggesting that he will suffer intensely if he does not copulate with her.
Donne continues to describe the woman’s beauty in metaphor as the speaker begins to undress his mistress, incorporating the blazon style of focusing on particular body parts, in this case the vagina: Off with that girdle, (like heaven’s Zone) glistering, But a far fairer world encompassing.
The speaker asks his mistress to remove her girdle, a scanty belt-like cloth that is worn to cover the genitalia in order to expose her vagina and submit herself to him. Donne’s use of the word girdle alludes to chastity, as often in literature the girdle is seen as magical and as a sign of virginity, an object that is regarded as possessing protective powers. His request for her to remove it suggests that he wishes to deflower and hints at the fact that she wishes to be deflowered by comparing her pubic area to the night sky in simile, “like heaven’s Zone”, that is “glistening” from lust, indicating that his mistress clearly desires him as much as he desires her. This is where we can see the expression of each characters love, lust and desire in the poem, through the parallel feelings expressed by the speaker and his mistress.
The speaker then disrobes her further to expose his mistress’s beauty and his need to bed her: Off with that wiry Coronet and shew The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow: Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
He request for her to remove her “coronet”, an object with resemblance to a tiara, and expose her beautiful hair, which he describes as a Diadem, an intricate type of crown worn by royalty. After asking her to remove her shoes, Donne likens the bed in metaphor to a “hallow’d temple of love”, emphasizing the sanctity of what they are about to engage in, honouring it as holy and referring to sexual intercourse as divine– a sacred act of love.
Donne incorporates many religious references in his poem, seen above and in the next excerpt, as a means to justify their somewhat “immoral” act: …Thou Angel bringst with thee A heaven like Mahomets paradise…
The speaker refers to his mistress as an “[a]ngel”, an agent of heaven, magnifying the beauty which she encompasses to the point where the speaker sees it as angelic. By doing this he epitomizes her to one of the highest religious ideals, drawing readers away from the “immoral” undertone that is underlies the poem. Donne reinforces this idea once more in simile by the speaker claiming that his mistress “[brings] with [her] [a] heaven like Mahomets paradise”. Mahomet’s, or Muhammad’s, paradise refers to a place of reward for Allah’s loyal followers, a home of eternal peace and bliss where martyrs receive virgins as rewards for their good deeds. Donne is conveying that the love she brings to the speaker is comparable to this pastiche of paradise, emphasizing that her virginity is seen as being a reward for his “labour”. Her rewarding him her virginity is displayed as an act of true love.
Donne continues by allowing the speaker a chance to submit himself to his mistress: Licence my roving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America! My new-found-land, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d.
By Donne’s use of the word “licence”, he suggests that the speaker is asking permission to caress and discover his mistress. Virginity is again emphasized in metaphor when he compares her to America, which was an uncharted land at the time, suggesting that she herself is undiscovered and untouched. The use of this metaphor describes the speaker’s mistress as one who is desirable to discover, and once conquered, becomes one man’s “kingdom” – in the sense that she becomes his charge. By describing her in this manner, Donne displays the extent of the speakers love for this woman, “kingdom” being the main reference to the extent of the speakers love and devotion. If one is to rule a “kingdom”, one must be loyal and rule well. Donne reinforces this idea by the speaker remarking that his mistress is “safeliest with one man mann’d”.
The speakers love for his mistress reaches its climax in the following lines: To enter in these bonds, is to be free; Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be, To taste whole joys.
By stating that “[entering] [into] these bonds, is to be free”, Donne shows that the speaker is willing to commit to this woman, setting his “seal”. This could also be inferred as a sexual reference to his eventual climax, however, for the purpose of this essay it can be regarded as a reference to proposal and unhindered love. The speaker reaches climax at “[f]ull nakedness[!]” and praises his mistress for his naked form, suggesting that true beauty lies in her stark appearance as “bodies uncloth’d must be, to taste whole joys”, his joy being a manifestation of his love and desire of her body and form.
The final lines of the poem highlights the poems theme that sexual desire is an act of love in the eyes of the perpetrators, and should not be regarded as an act of sin: Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence, There is no penance due to innocence. To teach thee, I am naked first; why then What needst thou have more covering than a man.
The speaker asks his mistress to “cast all, yea, this white linen hence”, telling her to shed all guilt surrounding their love for each other. Donne remarks that “[t]hat there is no penance in innocence”, suggesting that their love and manifestations thereof should not be viewed as sinful and wrong, and should receive no objection and scorn. Donne continues to label the speaker as a teacher, as one who imparts knowledge, and suggests that he is honest and trustworthy for he is naked and exposes himself first – “[t]o teach thee, I am naked first” – gaining trust through vulnerability, reinforcing the message of the poem, explained above. Finally, Donne makes a statement that women need not much except for the love, or “covering”, of a man, concluding that women should not be afraid to relinquish their love and desire, but rather accept as natural, as the speaker expects of his mistress.
In conclusion, “To His Mistress Going To Bed” is a poem that flows with the “language of love” and how it may be interpreted. Donne uses a lot of sexual innuendo to describe the sanctity of love and the manifestations thereof. By remarking on a woman’s beauty in what was seen as a highly immoral context, he opens the path for acceptance as to the different understandings of love and the means we use to express it. Donne regards sex as a highly sanctified act that epitomizes the love between a man and a woman, littering his poem with raunchy sexual innuendo that highlights the beauty in the act of sex, and the love contained therein. This poem could thus be said to be one of the most readable poems when it comes to the poets use of language in the field of love.

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