Sir Walter Ralegh – Nature, that Washed her Hands in Milk

Assuming the narrative of a kind of creation myth of femininity, this poem has a clear undertone of reproach to a cold mistress in the ‘carpe diem’ vein. Qualities if ‘wantonness and wit’ are celebrated, with the carefree and capricious ‘Nature’ held up as a feminine ideal. Also stressed is the proximity of death and the inevitability of ageing, which conventionally encourage the mistress to seize the moment and the suitor. At the same time the poem almost undermines itself by so powerfully glorifying chaste purity; as so often in ‘carpe diem’ poetry we strike upon a complex layered masochism in the suitor who on one levels enjoys his suffering for an unreachable mistress. The speaker seems aware of this paradox, reflecting that Time ‘gives her love the lie’. Finally the poem appears to recognise idealised love as a self-deception yet still wills the subject to participate in the delusion.

Nature is the creator goddess and the model for femininity in stanza 1. By making the role of God a maternal one, the poet begins the two activities that remain in conflict throughout: deification and seduction of the woman. For a while Nature is the deity here, she also embodies the characteristics of playful carelessness that the suitor is encouraging in his mistress. Nature’s forgetfulness tempers her divine power with an endearing fallibility, it suggests hasty eagerness. The alternating trimeter in the top quatrain is found only here in the poem, it makes the tone chirpy and the tempo fast. Words chosen suggest diversion and decadence rather than seriousness, ‘compose’ bring music to mind for the modern reader but in its more general Elizabethan sense of ‘bring together’ it has a more physical, sensual feel than ‘create’. Word choices therefore promote intimacy and physical union as positive ideas. Nature’s resentment of Time in stanza 4 brings to mind the bickering Gods of the Classical pantheon, and gives the impression of a fickle but intensely passionate character.

Clearly the poet wants us to see Nature’s characteristics reflected in her creation – the mention of milk in the first line implies a mother-daughter relationship. Hence the force of the poem on one level encourages us to see the mistress’ ‘heart of stone’ as monstrously unnatural. Yet equally such a result can be anticipated, first in the mythical distance of ‘Nature’ as the mistress’ mother figure – it is only natural that some divine isolation and aloofness should rub off. In the materials by which she is ‘composed’ as well, she is marked off and separated. Different from the suitor not just in degree but in kind, the mistress is of higher status not just superficially but to the core. The white purity of ‘milk’ and ‘silk’ clearly connote chastity and innocence, and the coldness of ‘snow’ preempt the mistress’ ‘heart of stone’. Emphasizing these characteristics ascribes value to them, yet to idolize chastity in this way surely runs counter to the professed desire of the speaker to seduce. It gives an insight into the complex state of mind that both desires but recognises that such an idealised notion of femininity can only be held at a distance.

The physical touch of hands offers a unifying image for the poem. If Nature’s ability to ‘compose’ celebrates sexual intimacy by association, then we might ask what the figure comes to mean in the hands of Time, ‘made of steel and rust’. Her the physical touch destroys rather than conceiving – Time as a mythical figure is portrayed as Nature’s opposite. This comparison is built on the Elizabethan pun that links ‘death’ with sexual ecstasy: the enticing, idealized touch of Nature cedes upon consummation to the grim reality of death even at the moment of climax. As if the poet is for a moment seeing through the ‘carpe diem’ myth, where love is urged through fear of time, here it is in the achieved moment of physical intimacy that the fear of ageing and death becomes most real. The fifth stanza enacts this process, where the fragmented body parts, the accumulating effect of the list suggests climax, only to be dissipated by the negating ‘d’ words that seem to match the preceding line one by one, systematically tearing down the myth of divine femininity,

On one level a simple plea by a suitor to his mistress, this poem also reflects on the essential ephemerality of the ideal it appeals to. Were the suitor to succeed, the myth upon which the complaint is founded would collapse, and the brutal reality would be made starkly apparent. Thus begins this delicate dance of entering into the myth at the same time as recognising the delusion of it – pleading in earnest for the maiden’s favour while dreading the ‘death’ that her acquiescence would entail.


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