In the poem, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed,’ John Donne, in the form of first person dialogue, uses various themes and extended metaphors to illustrate the seductive, witty events occurring between the speaker and his mistress. The metaphysical nature of the themes and imagery introduces a lot of complex ideas, parallelism, and concentrated language within the poem. Such themes are revolved around the events of the poem. The mistress is ‘willingly’ stripping nude for the speaker and is doing so in a submissive yet seductive manner, which is powered by a single force of sexual desire. The structure follows a chronological set of events. Each of these events holds a unique image which is linked with the other poem’s images through some fundamental themes. Such themes include eroticism, excitement, adventure and pureness, which is illustrated through the many kinds of images used.
The poem begins with a seemingly rather colloquial and arrogant tone from the speaker, saying to the woman, “Come, all rest my powers defy; until I labour, I in labour lie.” Firstly the exclamation to the woman creates more demand for attention which compels the reader to continue. For the lines, they not only suggest that the woman is a prostitute with authoritative and colloquial language but it introduces the speaker’s impatient sexual desires, comparing his impatience to a woman in labour. The idea of sexual impatience is developed further in the militaristic imagery introduced in the following lines: “The foe… is tired with standing, though he never fight.”
This of course is an erotic reference to the sexual organs that is ‘tired’ of standing though it is not fighting or rather being ‘used,’ in its sexual sense. Militaristic imagery continues when describing her “spangled breast plate… that th’eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.” Her breast plate refers to her armor which supposedly protects her breasts and so, stops the eyes of other men any further than that. However, of course, it is being referred to as that after he instructs her to ‘unpin’ it for him. The speaker then sets himself about all other men, with this exclusive access. The militaristic imagery is a metaphor for the rough nature of some sexual acts but also adds to the eroticism of the poem entirely. This is because in induces the idea of excitement and adrenaline. The idea of battles is also very provocative which can be ill-intended but also provocative in a sexual manner.
The poem then continues in a tone which has much more rhythmic flow. The continual teasing is described to be in a “harmonious chime… now it is bed-time.” Not only does the diction ‘harmony’ and ‘bed’ indicate fluidity, but the rhyming couplet adds to the sensory of the harmony. This challenges the initial impressions of the relationship of the speaker and woman. This introduces the thought that the woman has an equal amount of sexual desire as the man. The imagery takes a fluid transition into nature imagery when it begins to talk about “beauty” and “flowery meads.” This continues the flowing, harmonious mood, even though the poem is centered around impatient sexual yearnings. The progression of the removal of clothes continues in a systematic manner with “off with you wiry coronet… off with your hose and shoes.” The use of “off with” has the connotation of being rather authoritative yet its fourth repetition makes it flow with the language more, and thus, flow with the relationship that is between the man and the woman. This is also supported by the iambic pentameter utilized by Donne. Moreover with structure, the poem’s flow isn’t fragmented because the entire 48 line poem is a single stanza.
The language and imagery transitions into religious imagery. The ‘bed’ is compared to their love’s “hallow’d temple” whilst she one of “heaven’s angels” in “white robes.” The introduction of religious and heavenly imagery suggests that the events occurring is a real-time fantasy, however, it also introduces the idea of purity; purity in the soul which is correlated to the purity of the body, nakedness. In developing this image, the “heaven” is compared with “Mahomet’s paradise” which is the religious idea that reaching heaven offer 72 virgins. Although, this is all seemingly charming and appropriate, it is definitely blasphemous because Donne is using comparing religious imagery to eroticism. Furthermore, he refers to “Mahomet’s paradise” which is a non-Christian belief. The poem develops deeper into the poem’s sexual events. The speaker requests “license for [his] roving hands… before, behind, between, above, below.” This use of language is ingenious in the sense that it is very suggestive without referring to anything physical. The alliteration with the b’s emphasizes the supposed movement of the speaker’s hands, intentionally being suggestive in a very humorous way.
The speaker expresses a great exclamation: “O, my America, my Newfoundland” comparing the arrival of newfound America to the sexual experience with the woman. This comparison implies that the feelings of the discovery of America is similar to the ‘discovery’ of the physical qualities of the woman. This feelings include the idea of adventure, opportunity and personal success. He develops this idea further calling it “[his] empery.” The idea of personal success is further accentuated with the constant use of ‘my,’ ‘mine’ and even the diction of ‘man mann’d.’ These words are associated with ‘my’ in the perspective of the speaker, thus imply personal success. The speaker then goes on into making a paradoxical statement in “to enter in these bonds, is to be free.” It is paradoxical in the sense that entering bonds is supposed to restrict freedom. However, the bonds can be interpreted as the sexual connection between the two individuals, and the freedom could either be freedom from sexual desire or freedom to heavenly pleasures.
The theme of purism is discussed at a more fundamental level. Donne introduces the logic that since the purist form is an “unbodied soul,” then a body’s purist form is an “unclothed” body and only then can they “taste whole joys.” This is again a drawn out parallel idea and demonstrates Donne’s humorous logic. Donne’s complex logic continues until the end of the poem. An allusion is then made to Greek mythology of Atlanta, the goddess of love. This is a development of the previously discussed conceit of the fools, whom get distracted easily, by Atlanta’s balls. This idea is further expanded in saying that the fools are “laymen” and that they only observe the books from the “books’ gay coverings.”
He elevates himself above other men in recognizing this and is able to satisfy his libido. He similarly elevates the figure of the woman stating that they are “mystic books” but since his almost God-given “imputed grace” is dignified, he is given the ability to see her “reveal’d.” Due to this complex sequence of logic, there is nothing sinful about the act so “there is no penance due to innocence.” The last two lines is in contrast a significantly, simpler conceit in the idea of reciprocity: “To teach thee, I am naked first” and then asks “what needst thou have move covering than a man?” The use of ‘teach’ induces the idea of an erotic teacher-student relationship that revolves around authoritativeness and submissiveness which is a common theme in the poem. Due to the structure and language throughout the poem, the strange logic seems to make sense. The ending with a rhetorical question also suggests that the answer is obvious which is that the woman should have less covering than the man.
Donne is able convey the themes of this poem through many various forms of imagery, and even allows himself to express his conceits in a complex, yet logical manner which remains humorous for the reader. The progression of the removal of her clothes corresponds directly with the developing imageries of the poem. Donne delivers an ingenious elegy which really highlights the true qualities of metaphysical poetry.