Poet's Pick April 19
Robert Herrick: "Delight in Disorder"
Selected by Major Jackson
National Poetry Month 2017

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Major Jackson's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2017

"Delight in Disorder"
by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.


* Major Jackson Comments:
Were 17th-century poet Robert Herrick alive he would most likely be among the world’s trend-setting fashion designers. In my reading, no other poet pays more attention to the female wardrobe than he. If not populating the catwalks of Paris, Milan, London, and New York with models, surely he would today host his own version of "Queer Eye for the Poetic Guy" or something to that effect.

Julia was to Herrick what Laura was to Petrarch. Julia, who scholars agree is no more real than the other women who people his poems, is mentioned over fifty times in Herrick's corpus. "Upon Julia's Clothes" is one of his most famous lyrics and the counterpart for the poem I have chosen today. In that poem, he wittily describes Julia's body donned in silk like liquid when she moves. If we turn a blind eye on Herrick's gaze, which is admittedly and disturbingly in the spirit of the day, ubiquitous and laser-like in its caress of its subject, we would discover a poet for whom texture, glittering surfaces, the flash and interplay of the facets of words merely hint and insinuate a greater loveliness and sensuousness to our commonplace lives.

The theme of "Delight in Disorder" is the illusion of spontaneity. The poem rhetorically and metrically enacts its chief argument. It is a sonnet, however it departs, as would befit its theme, from the traditional sonnet. For one, it does not employ the pentametrical frame, and instead, contracts and alternates between a trimeter and tetrameter line. Further, unlike many sonnets during Herrick's day, the poem principally makes use of couplets, and as in lines 3 and 4, breaking away even from this impulse. Also distinct from the conventional sonnet whose rhetorical structure stages a problem or argument in the octave which is then resolved in the sestet, Herrick's sonnet chooses to make an argument in the opening two lines by way of direct statement, then accumulate in force through examples that mimic the human eye as it travels downward. It is this formal recklessness that makes the poem feel artless and spur-of the-moment in its unfolding. However, those who compose poems know that as a constructed item Herrick probably put in much thought and time into his final version, probably as much time as a teenage boy or girl attempting in front of the mirror to get their hair to fall just so. "Delight in Disorder" is user-friendly and easy-to-read yet sophisticated and not dominated by the prescribed and decorous conventions of the sonnet.

Where there is art, there is life. The key words in this poem are "kindles" and "bewitch." Precision in life does bewitch some, especially those who suffer from OCD; however, in the twenty-first century most find the orderly yet casual most enchanting. In the world of haute couture, Herrick's spring prêt-à-portez collection would likely feature loose-fitting clothes with soft lines, maybe favoring a hippy chic vintage feel. The poem echoes Wallace Steven's "rage for order" and Robert Lowell’s "'savage servility." Like his poetry, tautness in style would give way to a principled messiness that was ethical and minimal, yet revealing of a fine, stylish, and brash sensibility.

Major Jackson:
Major Jackson is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Roll Deep (Norton: 2015). He is the Richard A. Dennis Green and Gold Professor of English at University of Vermont.

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