Synopsis of Going to Bed

Donne wrote some twenty elegies, nearly all, if not all, in his youth. An elegy is commonly defined as a poem that deals either with a general sadness, or mourning the loss of someone specific. Thus John Milton's poem Lycidas is about the death of a former fellow-student. Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a more general meditation on death and fame (or lack of it).

Light-hearted love poems

Propertius and Cynthia at TivoliHowever, Donne's elegies are totally different. Originally, the elegy was a poem written in ancient Greek times in a certain poetic form, the elegiac metre. This form, like another, the Ode, came to be associated with mournful subjects, but not exclusively so. The Roman poet Sextus Propertius, for example, wrote books of elegies, nearly all of which were fairly light-hearted love poems, with dramatised scenarios of lovers. It is this model that Donne is following in his elegies. Book 1.2 of Propertius' Elegies has one entitled Love Goes Naked.

Some examples

On this website, there is a brief analysis of Donne's elegy On his Mistris: a love scenario depicting his girlfriend's desire to accompany him on a dangerous voyage disguised as his page boy, and the reasons why he does not think this a good idea. Another elegy, not analysed, is His Picture, which imagines his return from such a voyage, weather-beaten and having lost his good looks. At least the picture of himself that he gave his girlfriend will remind her with what she originally fell in love. Most of the poems are very funny, Donne's wit making the various scenarios absurd, or just very clever with his conceits and arguments.

Donne's wit and humour in issuing an invitation to sex prevent his poems becoming pornographic. There is far too much intellectual play to arouse lustful images.

A celebration of nakedness

Even in this poem, where nakedness is celebrated, the theological and geographical conceits take the focus off the purely sensual, and the male fantasy of seeing a woman naked is transformed into a delicate artistic balance of self-mocking humour and desire.

A note on numbering

You need to be aware the numbering of the elegies differs slightly according to which edition you are using. This one is usually numbered XIX, but in some editions may be numbered XX.

Investigating Going to Bed
  • What do you think the difference is between the erotic, the pornographic and the sexual joke?
    • Do you find Going to Bed funny?
      • Where would you say the humour lies?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.