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Check it Out: Donne Ecstasy?

Carolyn Sullivan | Interrobang | Lifestyles | February 13th, 2012



With love in the air during Valentine's season, it's time to shack up with your sweetheart and soft-cover poetry. And what better way to open her up to some romancing than to open up 17th century poetry?

Geez, that sounds corny. Totally serious here though — some 17th century writers wrote stuff hot enough to melt your panties off. If you've ever watched Dead Poet's Society, you've already heard one of these: "Gather ye roses while ye may," anyone?

This verse actually hails from a poem by Robert Herrick entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, which might not be a bad pick-up line. After a court minstrel put a tune to it, it became a 'catch' — a dirty drinking song squirmy with innuendos. Rosebuds are such delicate bits, after all. "And this same flower that smiles today/tomorrow shall be dying?" Heh. Dying means orgasm. Yeah, Herrick was that good.

But if you're not 'dying' to deflower someone this year, Herrick also offers fashion tips for sexy attire in A Delight in Disorder. Granted, I'm pretty sure he was eying over a conquest rather than aiming for Cosmo, but I feel his advice has its merits. Look like you just crawled out of bed? Apparently "a sweet disorder in the dress in the dress/kindles in clothes a wantonness." Post-coital dishevelment is sexy. Don't tell me you weren't checking out the Robert Downey Jr. and his five o'clock shadow during the latest Sherlock Holmes film. Helloooo, handsome.

Maybe it's a bit much though, since the "erring lace, which here and there/enthralls the crimson stomacher" enthralled Herrick. A stomacher, girls, was basically mother to the bustier. Hey, buddy, my eyes are up here! "The winning wave, deserving note/in the tempestuous petticoat" also suggests Herrick's eye for beauty was upskirts of simple appreciation.

Herrick's sensual aesthetics do have a sound basis for them, though. The subtle flaws in appearance can be more bewitching "than when art/is too precise in every part." Nina Garcia, former director of Elle and Marie Claire, notes in her Little Black Book of Fashion that it's the off-beat girl, the one who takes the dress code and twists it into her signature style, that holds her attention. Though the painter Albrecht Dürer championed classical facial symmetry, a truly symmetrical visage is less attractive than one that is not. Why are moles called beauty marks? Perhaps it's because some people become their imperfections so perfectly, we can find no fault in them.

Back to giving you the full-on Monty for British verse, though, we have to talk about Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Think Herrick was hard up for some loving in To the Virgins? Marvell's frustrated enough to use wordplay as foreplay. "Had we but world enough, and time," he'd apparently take "a hundred years to praise" her eyes, and "two hundred to adore each breast." Typical man — but he's willing to cover up his eagerness (if not other things) by explaining that after ogling this chick for an eternity, "the last age should show her heart." However, after this pretty paean, he explains that we're all going to die, and somehow turns it into a pretty compelling proposition.

Damn, don't I wish I had him for my wingman.

So, since "then worms shall try/thy long preserved virginity" (and that totally doesn't sound like a threat), he urges her to get on with it. Quickly. "Like amorous birds of prey," in fact. If you know anything about birds of prey, you should know that they only mate in the air, and intercourse itself takes a fraction of a section. Instant custard, no thank you. And he wants to "tear our pleasures with rough strife"? On second thought, I can go without a wingman. That last one gives me strangest feeling that he'd set me up in a basement dungeon.

Find Marvell a tad too skeevy? Want something more soulful? Try John Donne's The Ecstasy. Donne, though he later became an Anglican priest, was a renowned lover in his youth. His poetry draws upon religious and philosophical elements and focuses on love as an act having multiple significances for body, mind and soul — much like the title word. Though ecstasy is known now as an illicit aphrodisiac, from the Greek it literally means a displacement from the self, and was used in medieval tradition to describe sensate visions of God, as seen with Bernini's erotic sculpture of The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.

Simply put, then, sex is good for the soul. Where the Catholic tradition tends to oppose spiritual and carnal desires, Donne sees the body as the medium for the soul. "Love's mysteries in souls do grow,/but yet the body is his book."

So bring that 'book' home and get ready to take your reading to the next level.
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