Skip to main content

Pleasure’s Bargain

After Donne’s ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’

True, madam, true: only a fool would try
to imitate John Donne in poetry.
And I’m that fool. The lapse of centuries
has not reduced the power of strip-tease
to hold a lady’s visitor in thrall.
Too slowly, yet too fast, your garments fall;
you toy with my desires, you draw my eyes
‘above, below’; my rising fancy tries
to peep through those adornments which remain
and, in my mock frustration, I complain
I don’t know if my libido’s compelled
the more by what’s displayed or what withheld.

The sequence of disrobing Donne sets down
— the girdle first, the breast-plate, busk, the gown,
the coronet, hose, shoes — differs not much
from what my mistress knows I like to watch.
For ‘busk’ read ‘basque’; for ‘breast-plate’, ‘bra’; I know
that girdles now come later in the show.
The gowns you wear (petite) enlarge my lust
and, what is more, they won’t drag in the dust.
I am of Cromwell’s party, don’t forget;
your queenly beauty needs no coronet.
Some difference there is, your lover thinks,
between the great and minor poets’ kinks.
For me, no carnal pleasure can compare
with that supplied by flimsy underwear.
Donne reaches climax through full nudity:
‘Off,’ ‘Off,’ ‘Make shift to shift that shift,’ cries he.
Your latter-day but no less ardent John
prefers you with your shoes and stockings on.

‘America! my new-found-land’, ‘My Mine’:
he, libertine (but soon-to-be divine),
saw sex in terms of England v. the Rest;
he plundered her as soon as she undressed.
We know where such equivalences led:
the rape of nations, and the millions dead;
the victor’s excess of testosterone —
‘I come, I see, I ravish, and I own.’
(Or should ‘I come’, instead of first, come third?)
Madam, you ravish me by deed and word.

Forgive that sudden change of tone of voice;
sometimes a poem’s not a poet’s choice.
Now you are nearly naked, but not quite,
undress your man, and take your own delight.
Don’t be ‘My Mine’, be mine; this bargain’s made
between two friendly countries, as fair trade.
These couplets ended, you and I are free
to couple for our pleasure, equally.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author

To His Mistress Going to Bed — John Donne

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d 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 flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
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 hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst 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, but these our flesh upright.
    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,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
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 uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’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 array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we   
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
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.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by Peter Hetherington