The first four lines of “To His Mistress Going to Bed” establish the poem's subject matter and hint at its themes. The speaker directly addresses a woman, whom he calls “Madam.” This is the “mistress” of the poem’s title. When Donne wrote the poem in the 1590s, the word “mistress” didn’t mean what it means now. For Donne, “mistress” was just another word for “woman”—he didn’t mean to suggest the speaker was having an extra-marital affair with this woman. However, it quickly becomes clear that the speaker does have an intimate relationship with his “mistress”—and that the poem itself is an elaborate attempt to seduce her.
The speaker begins with a complaint—he can’t fall asleep. And in line 2, he explains why: he won’t be able to fall asleep until his mistress has sex with him. This is a bit shocking, especially for a Renaissance love poem. Donne’s peers probably had the same thing in mind when they sat down to write their love poems: they too wanted to seduce. But they tended to favor somewhat less explicit come-ons. They disguised their sexual desire with elaborate euphemisms and courtly compliments. Not Donne: from the poem’s second line, the speaker is frank and direct about what he wants.
So, from the start, the reader has a good sense that this poem is not going to follow the rules and standards that all those other elegant Renaissance love poems follow. Which is not to say that “To His Mistress Going to Bed” is inelegant. The first line of the poem, for instance, is carefully divided by caesuras. And the second line—though explicit in its content—is rich with poetic devices. The line hinges on antanaclasis, in which the word “labour” is repeated but with different meanings. “Labour” usually means work or toil, especially physical work. It’s energetic, demanding—like sex. Thus, when the speaker first uses the word “labour”—“Until I labour”—he’s using it as a metaphor for sex. But he uses the word in a totally different sense in the second half of the line, “I in labour lie.” Here he’s drawing on the difficulty associated with “labour.” His mind his working like crazy, his body can’t relax. The uses of the word “labour” mean different things. The repetition of the word brings out that difference.
In lines 3-4 the speaker employs another metaphor, this one designed to get his mistress to hurry up. He compares the two of them to soldiers on opposing armies—and notes that soldiers often end up exhausted from watching and waiting, without ever fighting. In other words, he might get tired waiting for her and lose interest in having sex. The speaker’s metaphor makes sex into a form of combat between opposing parties—a battle that the speaker wants to win. The metaphor suggests that for the speaker sex involves dominance, even violence. These suggestions will reappear, forcefully, later in the poem.
The poem is written in heroic couplets—rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. This is a surprising choice. This is a light-hearted poem of seduction. Heroic couplets are traditionally used for the most serious subjects: to discuss war, politics, or philosophical disputes. Using this form, Donne creates a tension between his profane, bawdy poem and the traditions associated with its form.
The speaker is in many ways forceful and confident: the strong end-stops in lines 1 and 2 certainly don’t leave any room for argument. But the poem’s form is often a bit off: the poem is full of metrical variations and questionable rhymes. (Indeed, the meter in Donne's poems is famously irregular.) For instance, the first line of the poem contains an extra stress—and ends up being eleven syllables long, creating a hiccup in the poem's rhythm. Perhaps the speaker’s sexual desire is so powerful that he can’t quite control his poem—or, for that matter, himself.