Randomly thought of this little gem today– Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes.”
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!
This poem has always seemed current to me, perhaps because of its brevity and aesthetic sensuality. The speaker stands transfixed by the dress’s “liquefaction” and “brave vibration,” the movement and flow of silks. Or, rather, he is held captive by what animates that cloth – the sexualized feminine body underneath.
This poem exhibits what we now call the “male gaze,” the implied subject position of male looker. I have always been interested in the complex power dynamics of this positioning, of the extent that the gaze represents male domination (through its creation of the objectified female form) or the possibility of female agency (by perhaps purposefully drawing the gaze). Here, Julia comes across as a party to, perhaps even inviting, the watcher’s admiration. Is she aware of the effect her clothes/body have on the male watcher? Is she, like the fabric’s movement, “brave” and “free,” these signifiers of agency and sensuality? It’s hard to tell since we only see her through the speaker’s eyes, but I’ve always felt inclined to identify with her, to want to be her.
Herrick, a seventeenth-century gentleman and Cavalier poet (1591-1674), had a penchant for writing titillating poems focused on particular objects and pieces of women’s clothing, a point his poem “Delight in Disorder” further illustrates. Herrick’s “delight,” however, as in “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” relates to the female form beneath, and its implied sexual delight:
Delight in Disorder
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
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands 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.
This seems like a seventeenth-century “Hey, girl” poem, if there ever was one. I can just hear the guy saying, “Hey girl, don’t put on that fancy dress. You’re more beautiful in your pajama pants and a tank top.” Why? Because this second outfit is one step closer to naked. That’s right, this poem acts as an intricate pickup line. Although the speaker denounces too much “art” (the pains of trying to put together a becoming and alluring outfit), his preference for “disorder” does not suggest natural dress, per se, but that which hints at the possibility of undress and behavioral unrestraint.
Finally, lest we forget that Herrick and our ancestors had their minds thoroughly in the gutter, I leave you with “The Vine,” which for obvious reasons brings to mind SNL’s skit “Dick in a Box.” Enjoy!
I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.