Delight in Disorder

One of my favorite poems by Robert Herrick  is  “Delight in Disorder”.

In the poem, the poet defines his own aesthetic view of ‘wild civility’. The speaker of the poem ‘finds informality of dress fetching and sexy and indicative of sensuality and availability’ (Bain et al., 767).  The poem is full of strong and clear connotations that suggest sensuality – ‘wantonness’, ‘distraction’, erring’, ‘tempestuous’ and ‘wild’.

Literally, the poem says that when a woman’s attire is in a bit of disarray, it displays a naughty and playful disposition that may stimulate a man to think of sensuous thoughts.  In the earlier part of the poem, the speaker establishes the subject of woman’s attire by describing a sequence of vivid, mental images.   The speaker of the poem finds disorder in the dress ‘sweet’.  Lastly, he finds a woman who carries her dress in casual, carefree way more enticing than a woman who dresses too neatly and orderly.  It’s like the fastidious grooming for women covers serious flaws and he prefers a woman who is confident to wear dresses in frivolous way.

In deeper analysis, the ‘disorder’ in the dress may also connote the literary art in general.  Robert Herrick prefers an art that is not too clinical and too rigidly formal.  This observation is exemplified in the last two lines of the poem, when he says that he wasn’t at all ‘bewitch’ when ‘art is too precise’. Although Robert Herrick, as well as the other Cavalier poets, derives the same basic structure of their poems as that of Jonson and Donne, his poems are still charmingly fanciful and wittier than that of the latter (Brooks, 1967).  That is why I like his poems. Smile.


Bain, Carl et al. The Norton Introduction to Literature, 6th ed. New York: WW Norton and Company, 1995.

Brooks, Cleanth.  Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967.


2 thoughts on “Delight in Disorder

  1. The poem is reflecting on the visage of a woman in a dishevelled state. Comprised of 14 lines, the first eleven are spent describing the state of the image being beheld. This description is heavily laden with imagery of confusion and disorder: “An erring lace” (line 5), “A cuff neglectful” (line 7) and “…the tempestuous petticoat” (line 10) are a few examples. The first eleven lines also detail the effects that this disorder is having upon the poet (though this is focused on to a lesser extent than the descriptions of disorder itself). “…A fine distraction” (line 4) and “A winning wave deserving note” (line 9) are the two main examples here.

    The final three lines tie the description of the first eleven lines together. To paraphrase the work as a whole: ‘your disorder and dishevelled state bewitches me more than precision ever will.” To do this he contrasts her with a piece of art that “is too precise in every part” (line 14). The dishevelled nature comes out the victor of this comparison – he is saying that in her wanton state, she is more bewitching than if she had been precisely dressed

    This twist is interesting. From it, we can infer that he considers this wantonness to be a step closer to perfection than precision is. Here then it seems that we have arrived at somewhat of a contradiction. In theory, precision and perfection are symbiotic – for example, a house built with imprecise plans will be far from perfect, it is liable to collapse and crush its occupants, and a motor with imprecise construction runs a good chance of exploding. ‘Delight in Disorder’ seems to run against this grain. So what is he inferring? That we are not bound by logic? Obviously this is false: even if we deny and ignore it, we still face the logical consequences of doing so. He seems to be inferring that (with regards to humans) perfection is not found in precision; rather that perfection is instead found in a state of wantonness that brings her down to his level, to a level where he can access her. He seems to fear perfection for he fears that he cannot reach it, so delights instead in having it brought down to him.

    I have no doubt that no questions of logic or symbiosis entered his mind when he was writing this poem. However, when people write or act, they often reveal more than they ever knew was subconsciously running through their mind. In saying what he has, that perfection and precision are separate, he has let on that he would rather destroy something that is (logically speaking,) perfect, rather than standing zenith.

    • “However, when people write or act, they often reveal more than they ever knew was subconsciously running through their mind.”

      I love that statement. It reminded me of Ronald Blythe’s words when he said, “How [words] stream past too quick for pen or tape” and William James’ “stream of thought, of subjective life.”

      Anyway, thank you for your comment. Poems are indeed worthy of discovery in terms of plumbing the depths of their meanings, – what the poets originally intended them in terms of “effect”. 🙂

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