To His Mistress going to Bed by John Donne: Summary and Analysis

To His Mistress going to Bed by John Donne is considered as the greatest verbal striptease in English literature. Originally this poem is spelled as To His mistris going to Bed. In this dramatic situation, there is a male speaker in the poem who seduces his mistress to open her clothes so as to have physical intimacy.

John Donne (1572-1631)

The poem slowly processes forward as the unclothing processes from top to toe and from the belly to vulva. Throughout the poem the speaker praises the beauty of a naked woman and says that the clothing is just the external adornment.

The poem is a seduction poem full of the speaker’s carnal desire. He reveals each and every step of her unlacing her dresses and he exclaims with happiness and admiration, “full nakedness!” Even in the height of extreme sexual urge, the speaker uses ‘labour’ and ‘standing’ as a pun. He compares the situation to going to bed with the situation of a soldier waiting for the war. The word ‘standing’ puns with both to the standing soldier and to the erection of the speaker. He compares her naked body with the newly found land, America and expresses his unbound joy of watching it.

This poem celebrates several poetic conventions such as conceit, neo-platonism, and allusion.  His powerful metaphysical conceit appears at line 27-30: "O my America! my new-found-land/My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d/My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie/How blest am I in this discovering thee!" Here, the poet forcefully compares his naked beloved with the New Found Land, America. If she has been a kingdom, he is then the king, the ruler.  He feels immense pleasure having her in front of him as a mistress whom he is going to have a sexual pleasure. The erotic imagery in the poem busk in line 11 is metaphorically a phallus. Some critics point out that Donne’s conceits experiments with the gender power dynamics of the early modern England. In the case of being the mistress, his kingdom and empire, he is her emperor and a king. This advocates the superiority of male over female, and she silently appreciates his governance. Equally important is the fact that without the mistress, the speaker could not be a king. Both are complementary to each other, their need to each other is vice versa.

Donne overturns the idea of Neo-Platonism in this poem. He states that all the poets praising the beauty of a woman, finally wants to have physical contact with her. As-per Neo-Platonism one must leave the body and its pleasures so as to love the soul. But, here Donne rejects this philosophy and moves ahead. He overturns the idea and says: Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be.

As the soul removes itself from the body for the pure love, the body also has to remove itself from the clothes. The clothes for him is just the fabrication to the natural beauty of the body of women. In the same manner, for him going to bed to have sex is not a sin but an act of innocence. By the imagery of childbirth, he tries to prove that to have sex is natural and even a pious act as it continues the human race. If the act of sex is stopped, then there would not be human kind in the earth. So, he wholeheartedly praises this physical union of male and female with many wits and metaphors.

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Shrestha, Roma. "To His Mistress going to Bed by John Donne: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 18 Mar. 2018,