Donne’s “Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed” as a Metaphorical Poem

John Donne’s “Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed” uses different metaphorical elements to valorize a woman body to involve in sexual intercourse. As in most of his poems, he uses the theme of the body in this poem. He creates many syntactic triggers in his lines to show conceptual equivalences in his ideas of valorizing the woman’s body.

Donne’s “Elegy XIX. To his Mistress Going to Bed” as a Metaphorical Poem


Source: The Poetry Foundation

According to Working with Texts: A Core Introduction to Language Analysis, “The existence of metaphor allows for further expansion of meaning. By linking words and concepts that don’t generally have a semantic link, a new meaning can be expressed” (73). As this concept, Donne depicts his mistress as less than equal to the human character through the use of metaphorical equating such as metaphysical conceits and allusion to land and places. This paper illustrates Donne’s lingual tactics in this poem to make his mistress ready for sexual intercourse.

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Language is a mean for communication and uses words only for their actual and basic meanings. Figurative language is the device commonly used for literary works and important to deliver understandable and expressive meaning. Though it seems to be telling a lie on the surface, it expresses truth beneath the surface. Nancy R. Comley opines, “Language is used to help us perceive relations that connect disparate things or to help us make discriminations that separate similar things” (538). Figures of speech play important role in equating and contrasting two dissimilar ideas or words in a ground. These make readers mind to understand the author’s intention.

The most commonly used figurative language in poetry is metaphorical, which clarifies ideas by establishing meaningful comparisons and adds color, flavor, and vividness in writing. Writers use simile, metaphor, conceit, symbol, pun, to create such a metaphorical element in their writings. Through interpreting such elements readers can uncover the ideology which writer trying to express through their writings as Lesley Jeffries opines;

“In fact, it may be that the cognitive strategies we use to interpret metaphors in everyday life are the same as those used to interpret textually constructed equivalence since the same processes (of finding similarities) are required” (54).

Lesley suggests analyzing the range of syntactic triggers to consider such kind of interpretations. John Donne highly uses such metaphorical elements throughout his poems which are considered as “unconventional metaphors” (585 Comley). In this poem, “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed”, Donne uses these metaphors to valorize the woman’s body as the mean of the sexual commodity.

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In the very first stanza of this poem, the poet has commoditized women as a sexual object through the use of metaphorical language. He uses various metaphorical elements and compares the women as only the tool of sexual fulfillment of males and they do have to serve the male to give them sensual pleasure. In the opening two lines: “Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,/ Until I labor, I in labor lie.”, he invites a lady to fulfill his sexual desire. In the commanding voice, he calls her for his desire as a commodity which he buys and can use whenever and whatever he likes. Here, “labor” metaphorically denotes sexual intercourse. Likewise, in “girdle, like heaven’s zone” (5), he compares the female’s sensual zone with the “heaven’s zone”. He considers females as the means of giving satisfaction like people’s dreams to achieve in heaven. In the same manner, he implicitly refers it is now time for sex with “now it is bedtime” (10). He connects geographical zone with the female body in “such beauteous state reveals”. He considers a woman’s body is the place to reveal as the explorer explores the new territory. He uses different elements to compare like: “In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed” (18). Here he compares the holy place “temple” with the “soft bed” erotic love.

In this stanza, he brings religious and holy places to connect with the sensual love which is depicted in “A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise” (21) to connect heavenly like pleasure in sensual pleasure which can derive through the female body. He uses various elements like geographical area, holy shrines, labor to compare and evoke the erotic desires and intercourse which can derive from the female body.

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In the second stanza, he uses the figure of speech to reveal the female is the place to explore. The poet compares the women is the place that needs to explore and this has to do with males. And to bring in light such things a male-only has the license to do. Poet demolishes the female position by using a figure of speech to identify them as only the sexual object. In the line: “O my America! My new-found-land,” (27), he considers him as an explorer Christopher Columbus. The females’ body is compared with the geographical territory which explorer used to go to new places to explore.

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The females remain an inanimate object which males mobilize, uses to fulfill their needs. In this line too, the poet compares females with “My new- found – land”. The word “My” shows the possessive nature of male towards the female. The female even does not have the right to control over their body. He presents the possessive nature by using the figure of speech, metaphor to compare female as his place where he ruled over by depicting as “My kingdom” (28). In the preceding line, he elaborates that a man gets freedom and enjoy while indulging in the sensual activities: “To enter in these bonds is to be free;” (31) and this can gain through by using the females. So, in this stanza poet equivalence, the female as the new territory and this is explored and enjoyed by males.

In the third stanza of this poem, the poet compares female with different inanimate things. Through the use of metaphorical language, the poet depicts the women in the lower status. By bringing the allusion, the poet clarifies women are always inferior to male and they are the property of males. Poet depicts the male attitude towards the female in the lines as: “Gems which you women use/ Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,” (35-36).  Women are like the ornament which people can achieve as they desire. Women are compared with things like “pictures”, “books” and it is further compared by using conceit as “mystic books”. Women are presented as pictures; books and mystic books in which one can get know and get pleasure as he engages to unveil the things. This also further suggests that women positioned in the place of things that one can buy in the markets and have access to it. Females become making the subject of commoditization in the male-oriented society. Males use them as commodities and after its use, they dispose or throw to them. Hence, through the use of metaphorical devices females are placed in a lower position.

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To conclude, the poet uses the devices of figurative language in order to depict the female as only the means of sexual satisfaction. Donne’s language in this poem is so much similar to Lesley’s classification of semantic equivalence trigger as metaphorical equivalence. It is a little bit tough to uncover the Donne’s ideology in the poem on the surface but it can be sorted out through conceptual coherence to the whole. He compares his mistress’ body using metaphorical equating such as metaphysical conceits and allusion to land and places. Donne uses such a language to depict the woman as the object of commodity and object of exploration. This poem reflects the so-called superior male psyche to judge a female body as a sex object.

Works Cited

Carter, Ronald, et al. Working with Texts: A Core Introduction to Language Analysis. London: Rutledge, 2001.

Comley, Nancy R. “Poetry”. The element of Literature. eds. Carl H. Klaus, et al. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Donne, John. “Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed”. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Margaret Ferguson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Jeffris, Lesely. Critical Stylistics: The Power of English. New York: Macmillan, 2010.


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