Imagery and symbolism in Going to Bed

The two main focuses of imagery in Going to Bed are the religious and the geographical. As in Aire and Angels, the woman in her underclothes is likened to an angel (1.19), who brings the joys of Paradise described in Muslim tradition. He also plays with the idea of ghosts (‘Ill spirits walk in white'), by saying that we can distinguish one from the other by which part of our anatomy goes ‘upright', a frankly erotic play on words.

Love's temple

The bed becomes ‘loves hallow'd temple'. Donne has used the temple image in The Flea, for a more bathetic effect. The woman's nakedness is likened to ‘souls unbodied'. This idea is explored in The Anniversarie also: the bliss of the soul is finally to escape the body at death. Here the bliss of the body is to escape clothes (ll.33-34). The language is religious: the Bible talks of death in terms of bodies being clothed, in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 and in 2 Corinthians 5:2-4, where nakedness is also mentioned.

A mystery

Then in the religious imagery we have references to ‘Themselves are mystick books'. Many men have this sense that women are mysterious beings. A similar image to bodies as books comes in The Extasie. In any religion where a sacred book is central, book imagery frequently takes on religious overtones. A mystery, in religious terms, is something hidden which cannot be completely grasped through human reason. Instead, understanding needs to come through revelation, and the revelation is given by ‘imputed grace' (l.42). Men cannot earn a revelation of women, whether the revelation be simply of her nakedness or of her ‘mystery'. The woman has to ‘impute' it.

More on imputed?


The last religious image in this dense theological dialectic concerns the idea of ‘covering' (l.48). To ‘cover' can mean to clothe the body or to put or lay something over an object to protect or hide it. It is also used of horses when a stallion ‘covers' (mates with) a mare. Donne takes these meanings and produces a complex image which works at three levels:

  • The literal: clothes as covering

  • The sexual innuendo: that a man ‘covers' a woman in intercourse

  • Donne may also be referring to the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:6 that a woman should cover her head as a sign of submission to her husband's authority and protection. Here, however, the poet is asking the woman to remove her clothing, saying he will be her ‘covering' instead.

Investigating Going to Bed

Compare the imagery of Going to Bed with that in Aire and Angels

  • Do you pick up any other similarities of religious imagery with any other Donne poem?
  • How it is that religious imagery seems so easy to use for such erotic subject matter?
    • Why is the term ‘mysteries' used for both love and religion?
  • Explain ‘There is no penance due to innocence' (l.46)
  • Look at the images to do with women's ‘covering' (ll.35-40)
    • What effect do clothes have in lovemaking?
  • What are the characteristics of ‘lay-men' (l.40) compared to the poet?


John CabotThe geographical images are perhaps more straightforward. Donne needs a licence to explore, as all Elizabethan explorers would have done. His ‘roving hands' can then explore her body, ‘my new-found-land'. The reference is precise. Newfoundland was discovered by an English explorer, John Cabot, sailing from Bristol. ‘My Myne of precious stones' refers to what most explorers hoped to find. On the whole, acquisition of land was only a secondary aim: it was mainly to capture gems and gold, and then to trade. There is an even greater use of geographical imagery for exploring the body in the previous elegy, Loves Progress.

  • Look at the imagery of exploration in Going to Bed

    • Have you ever felt ‘blest' in ‘discovering' someone?

    • What does the idea of possession say about a relationship?

    • Explain the paradox ‘To enter in these bonds is to be free' (l.31)

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