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Delight in Disorder
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Summary
Theme
Tone
End Rhyme
Meter
Text of the Poem and Notes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Herrick's Biography
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Revised in 2011...©
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."Delight in Disorder" is a fourteen-line lyric poem. John Williams and F. Eglesfield published the poem in London in 1648 as part of Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq, a collection of Herrick's poems.

Theme

.......In this poem, Herrick presents the theme that beauty is at its most alluring when it is in disarray, like flaming October leaves along a footpath or a "winning wave (deserving note) / In the tempestuous petticoat" (lines 9 and 10). This is a popular theme in literature, as the following quotations—all similar in meaning to Herrick's observation—testify:

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.—Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). 
Give me a look, give me a face / That makes simplicity a grace; / Robes loosely flowing, hair as free.—Ben Jonson (1572-1637).
The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.—Havelock Ellis (1859-1939).
In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful.—Alice Walker (1944- ).
.......Another way of stating the theme is that imperfections and inconsistencies can enhance the appeal of a person, a place, a thing, an action, or an idea. For example, an imperfection—a crack—helps make the Liberty Bell one of Philadelphia's most popular tourist attractions. Likewise, a very noticeable imperfection helps make the Leaning Tower of Pisa one of Italy's foremost tourist draws. A single mole on the cheek of a beautiful woman tends to increase rather than diminish her beauty. And graying temples can turn a middle-aged man into a distinguished gentleman. In art, outstanding paintings often position the focal point away from "perfect center." Examples are Claude Monet's Impression, soleil levant, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Honoré Daumier's Der Maler. In modern fashion, only faded jeans—or jeans with holes in the knees—will do. Young men must display a slightly whiskered face—young women, tousled hair.
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Text of the Poem

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn1 about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:2
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons 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.

Notes

1...lawn: Sheer cotton or linen fabric used in clothing.
2...stomacher (STUM uh ker): Stiff cloth, often adorned with jewels or embroidery, that covers the chest and abdomen of women or men.
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Tone

.......The tone is light and playful. 
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Technique as Reflection of Content
.......Robert Herrick formatted Delight in Disorder” to reflect its content—that is, he deliberately inserted technical imperfections in order to create “sweet disorder” (line 1). Notice, for example, that the end rhyme is inconsistent. Lines 1 and 2 end with corresponding sounds, as do lines 9 and 10 and lines 13 and 14. But the other pairs of lines contain only approximate rhymes that require the reader to alter the traditional pronunciation to maintain the rhyme scheme. (See End Rhyme, below, for further information.) Notice also that the metric pattern varies in lines 2 and 8. (See Meter, below.)

End Rhyme

.......The poem consists of seven couplets. (A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines.) However, the rhyme scheme requires the reader to alter the pronunciation of the final syllable of some words. Here is the poem with the rhyming syllables highlighted.

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:............................................. (Pronounce the o in distraction long, as in lone, to rhyme with the o in thrown)
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:.............................. (Pronounce the er in stomacher like the er in there)
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:...................................... (Pronounce the y in confusedly like the y in thereby)
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:................................................... (Pronounce the y in civility like the ie in tie)
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
Internal Rhyme

.......Herrick also uses internal rhyme in the poem. In the following lines, the rhyming vowels are highlighted.

Kindles in clothes a wantonness (line 2)
Enthrals the crimson stomacher: (line 6)
Ribbons to flow confusedly: (line 8)
In the tempestuous petticoat: (line 10)
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie (line 11)
I see a wild civility (line 12)
Meter

.......Herrick wrote the poem mainly in iambic tetrameter. A line of iambic tetrameter has eight syllables, or four feet. An iambic foot, or iamb, consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The first line of the poem demonstrates the pattern. 

......1...............2.............3...............4......
A SWEET..|..dis OR..|.. der IN..|..the DRESS
.......However, although lines 2 and 8 follow the tetrameter pattern, they veer from the iambic pattern. Here is why: Each of these lines opens with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. (A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable constitutes a trochee.)
...................1...................2.................3..............4
Line 2: ...KIN dles..|..in CLOTHES..|..a WAN,..|..ton ESS..
...................1..................2..............3.............4
Line 8:...RIB bons..|..to FLOW..|..con FU..|..sed LY
Note that the first foot of line 1 (a SWEET) is an iamb. On the other hand, the first foot of line 2 (KIN dles) is a trochee, as is the first foot (RIB bons) of line 8. For a complete explanation of metric formats, click here.

Structural Balance

.......Herrick achieves a pleasing structural balance in the poem by doing the following:

  • Presenting the lines in seven couplets, for a total of fourteen lines.
  • Giving each line eight syllables. (See Technique, above, for slight inconsistencies in this format.)
  • Using parallel structure at the beginning of lines 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. Each of these lines begins with a definite article followed by a noun or an adjective-noun combination: a lawn, an erring lace, a cuff neglectful, a winning wave, and a careless shoestring.
  • Writing opening and closing couplets with exactly rhyming final syllables: -ess (lines 1 and 2) and art and -art (lines 13 and 14).
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

disorder in the dress (line 1)
Kindles in clothes (line 2)
crimson stomacher (line 6)
winning wave (line 9)
Do more bewitch me (line 13)
precise in every part (line 14)
Metaphor
tempestuous petticoat (line 10)
Comparison of the petticoat to a storm (tempest), perhaps because it blows in the wind
Paradox
wild civility (line 12)
Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Do you like the poem? Explain why or why not. 

2. Herrick uses inversion in three lines to impart a pleasing poetic ring to the poem. Line 3, for example, says, A lawn about the shoulders thrown (instead of A lawn thrown about the shoulders). Line 7 begins with A cuff neglectful (instead of A neglectful cuff). What is the other line containing inversion?
3. Herrick begins the poem with a sentence (lines 1 and 2) that establishes the theme. He then presents details to support the theme. Write a poem of your own that imitates this format.
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