Delight in Disorder
by Robert Herrick
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.
Poet Robert Herrick’s disheveled object of desire is my sartorial soulmate. I’ve always thought a woman as loosely dressed as she is, with shoelaces flapping, ribbons untied, and underwear bunching out of a skirt—was more attractive than the starched and pressed variety. Unfortunately, my own disorder in the dress is somewhat less bewitching than Herrick’s gal, and runs more along the lines of panty lines and perspiration stains. Herrick would have a time of it if he had to write a sonnet about my grooming habits. Woman, get a hold of thyself! he might begin.
To picture the dishabille of Herrick’s lady, a short tutorial on women’s fashions of the day might be helpful. In the early 17th century, women’s clothing relaxed. Stiff lace collars and heavy fabrics softened. Wrists were visible through sleeves, and skirts were lifted, tied up with ribbons to show petticoats. The stomacher was a panel in the center of a dress, from neckline to waist, holding the two sides of the dress together. It was either sewn in or tied with criss-crossing ribbons. The lawn was a fine linen put over the shoulders and tucked into a bodice to cover up décolletage to the degree a lady wished.
Although he’s too much a gentleman to come out and say it, here’s what Herrick is hoping for: with the lace of her stomacher out of place and the lawn so carelessly thrown, he’ll get a good gander at her lady lumps. Of course he says that much more elegantly. In any age, even ours, wantonness sounds better than horny.
What’s interesting is that wantonness is kindled not in the poet or in the wearer of the clothing, but in the clothes themselves:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness
It’s as if the clothes act independently to seduce Herrick. The lace enthralls, the cuff distracts, the ribbons are confused, the petticoat tempestuous. Such a conceit avoids impugning the virtue of the lady and forms a defense as old as mankind: Her clothes made me do it!
Most times when I poem-elf I have particular reason for matching poem to place. Other times there’s no discernable connection: the choice is instinctual, whimsical, hurried. This posting fits into the second category. I left “Delight in Disorder” on the fence post of an urban garden in Detroit’s midtown, a few blocks from the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s 2011 and Detroit is facing bankruptcy. Why leave there a poem about 17th century ladies’ fashion written at the time Woodward Avenue was still an Indian trail and French explorers were giving Detroit its name?
The truth: I was rushing out the door and grabbed the poem from a pile (yes, I have piles of poems) for no reason other than it pleased me. It’s a joyful expression of lust and beauty and art. It’s lively and lovely. It sparkles. It’s a poem about imperfection that’s perfect in every way.
Lovely and sparkle and perfect aren’t words most folks associate with Detroit. More likely, decay and blight. Detroit is, after all, number one on CNBC’s List of 20 Cities You Don’t Want to Live In. It’s a place to film post-apocalyptic movies. Some see it as a modern-day ruin. Photographers have flocked here to capture the city’s decline in surrealistic images.
But Detroit was once called “The Paris of the Midwest,” silly as that seems now. And loveliness is still here, in parts, if you look for it. For every ruin in Detroit, there’s an anti-ruin. Midtown, for instance. The DIA. The Opera House, Fisher Theater and dozens of other architectural jewels. Tree-lined neighborhoods. Restaurants new and trendy and restaurants ancient. Ordinary people and glitzy ones, artists, dreamers, and good, kind people who won’t give up on the city they love.
Maybe if we borrowed a few terms from Herrick we could see Detroit in a different light. Instead of urban decay, think wild civility. Replace post-industrial ruins with a sweet disorder in the dress. The suburbs, in comparison, seem too precise in every part, predictable and decidedly non-bewitching.
Not to get too precious about it. People have to live here and no one wants to live in ruins. Disorder is none too sweet when trash pick-up is unreliable and the building next door is abandoned and crumbling. And the future surely does look bleak. Without massive budget cuts and layoffs, Detroit will be out of money by April. Some of those laid off will be firefighters and police, and some of the cuts will be to the DIA and other cultural institutions. State intervention seems likely.
Still, it never hurts to point out the lovely when you see it. This hopeful little garden, unruly but productive, is a corner of the city worth appreciating. Leaving the poem here was like reminding a blotchy-faced teen of the loveliness within, a loveliness that someday soon will show on the outside .
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was born in London, the seventh child of a goldsmith. When Herrick was still a baby, his father jumped out a window and died. (Early death of a parent is beginning to seem a pre-requisite for the poetic life.) Herrick was apprenticed to a goldsmith but quit after six years. He finished his education at Cambridge and took holy orders. At late age of 39 he was assigned to a rural parish, and worked the rest of his life as a country parson. I can’t find a good picture of him, but picture Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back Kotter in breeches.
Herrick addressed 148 poems to various mistresses, but the consensus is that these women were fictional. He never married and died unknown as a poet. His poetry was resurrected in 19th century, over one hundred years after his death, and today he’s widely read and anthologized.
Let’s hope Detroit’s resurrection happens a lot quicker.