Elegie XVI: On his Mistris


Man with his pageDonne wrote some twenty elegies in his youth. To find out more about elegies, see the Context section of the notes on Elegie XIX: Going to Bed. This one deals humorously with the theme of separation. While we cannot be certain if it is a real situation for Donne, or whether he is imagining a possible scenario and re-enacting it, it is true is that the Earl of Essex was reputed to have taken his mistress, Elizabeth Southwell, on his expedition to Cadiz, disguised as a page. As Donne went on this expedition and as this is the scenario imagined, this is the most likely origin of the poem.

Absence is best

The poem has an extremely long first sentence (ll.1-12), imitating the form of an oath ‘By...by...by...'. The joke is that he writes ‘I calmly beg', when the accumulation of six ‘by's' suggests anything but calmness. He is begging his mistress not to try anything as foolhardy as coming with him. The reasons he goes on to give get more and more humorous.

The first section (ll.1-26) suggests that absence is in this case better than presence. Although the thought ‘That absent Lovers one in another be' is a ‘flattery', it is better than the damage real storms will do. It is even more of a ‘flattery' that her beauty will remove the rage from the sea, one of many such Elizabethan fictions.

What if his mistress came with him?

In the second section (ll.27-43), he imagines what else might happen if she were to come. The disguise won't work for a minute, any more than if she were an ape. We then have a series of national jokes: the French will know her at once as they are all good play-actors. The Italians won't mind if she is a boy. The reference to ‘Lots faire guests' is to the homosexual attack recorded in Genesis 19:1-11.

Dream me some happiness

The last section (ll.44-56) suggests she will do better back in England. She can ‘dreame me some happinesse'. He cautions her, though, to still have a disguise: but of her feelings towards him. She must not, for example, wake up from some bad dream calling to her nurse ‘O my love is slaine ...'The female voice he adopts here is quite hilarious, and the reference to the nurse suggests she may still be quite young (Juliet also had a nurse to watch over her in Romeo and Juliet). Best to leave it to ‘dread Jove' and ‘Our greatest King', that is, God, to hold the future. The last line is a little fatalistic: if he were to die, she is to think God has given him enough in his life by having loved her. Quite a range of emotions!

How serious is Donne?

We can take the poem in a number of ways. It can be seen merely as a joke about an imaginary situation. Or there could be an underlying seriousness: he does have to go away on a dangerous mission, but he is making light of it. Or maybe he is just playing around with the language of separation and the exaggerated consolations that poetry sometimes offers.

Investigating On His Mistris
  • What in Elegie XVI might suggest that it is about a real situation?
    • How does Donne convey the idea of reality?
  • What other things did you find to be funny besides those mentioned?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.