Jack’s Naughty Bits: John Donne, Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Let us praise Eve. Without her impertinent nibble, we’d never have had the joy of undressing, or of being undressed. Nudity is nice — I am wont to walk the beach un-thonged, slide between the sheets pajama-less, and once I attended a party where the requisite costume was none — but naked skin requires a having-been-clothed-ness to actualize its full appeal. A world without clothes would display its nudity like scenes from National Geographic, or, worse still, like the aging hippy leftovers in the nudist colonies of Goa on the western coast of India. And nude beach paddle ball is not a pretty sight.


The oft-sublime French literary critic Roland Barthes makes a big deal of disclosure in the context of concealment, of the need for covering to make exposure. He’s right, of course. Have you ever met someone who says they have no secrets? When they tell you something personal, it’s like it doesn’t matter. Lovers, like literature, are best when they’re a dance of a thousand veils, ever concealing, ever revealing, keeping you guessing, keeping you piqued.


Early Western literature, despite its infrequent use of narrative suspense, tended to take a staggered approach to the unconcealing of the body. The Song of Solomon made famous the literary device the blazon, where each component of the body was described singly, and in turn: your hair is like such and such, your eyes like, your cheeks like, your neck like, your breasts . . . This is, in effect, a kind of narrative strip tease, presenting to the reader’s eye one morsel at a time, allowing each to be visualized and processed before moving on to the next. In the Song, the descriptions are outlandish, and only occasionally sexy; subsequent literature would raise the ante, culminating in the seventeenth century with John Donne’s justly famous “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” Here Donne describes both raiment and remainder, what he wants her to take off and what he knows lies beneath. No poet ever crafted images as opalescent as Donne’s, and no subject, to my eye, is as worthy as the human body. Here is the highest beauty given its deserved due.

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Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed by John Donne

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,

Until I labor, I in labor lie.

The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,

Is tired with standing though he never fight.

Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,

But a far fairer world encompassing.

Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,

That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.

Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime

Tells me from you that now it is bed time.

Off with that happy busk, which I envy,

That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.

Your gown, going off, such beauteous state reveals,

As when from flowry meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.

Off with that wiry coronet and show

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.

In such white robes, heaven’s angels used to be

Received by men; thou, Angel, bring’st with thee

A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though

Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know

By this these angels from an evil sprite:

Those set our hairs on end, but these our flesh upright.


License 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 manned,

My mine of precious stones, my empery,

How blest am I in this discovering thee!

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 unclothed must be

To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use

Are like Atalanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,

That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,

His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.

Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made

For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed;

Themselves are mystic books, which only we

(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)

Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,

As liberally as to a midwife, show

Thyself: 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?

© John Donne