Notes on “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.

My father liked Herrick, and this little poem delighted me in my early teenage years, especially, I think, the last two lines. The mere idea of nakedness was exciting then and there was added spice in the way Herrick combined a feeling of forthrightness (“each way free”) with teasing abstraction (“that brave vibration”, “that glittering”). Somehow the nakedness was the more intensely felt for being not quite solidly there.

For me, that kind of charge has completely evaporated from the poem. What should be the punchline now feels pretty anticlimactic.

I still get pleasure from the crystalline symmetries of the poem’s ordering, from the way that, as in the movements of a formal dance, the second stanza reverses the movement of the first and in so doing consummates it, and from the way the water metaphors of the first stanza seem to expand into a sunlit lake or sea in the second.

However, my pleasure now is mainly in the first stanza itself, as I think it was for my father. It’s partly that wonderful word “liquefaction”, so startling and yet so snugly right. It fits metrically, of course, in terms of the simple alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. Beyond that, the sensitivity of Herrick’s art appears in the skill with which he orchestrates the poem’s movement around varying degrees of stress in the stressed syllables, creating the sense of an utterance that’s both restrained and passionate, with the passion almost breaking through the restraint, and we see it in the difference of weight of the two stresses in “liquefaction”. There’s a more paradoxical kind of fittingness about the way “liquefaction” stands out in its length and oddity. This is partly dramatic. The speaker seems to pause to find a word that will adequately express his astonished delight at the play of the clothes. When he finds the word, there’s a gathering and release of muscular tension in its very articulation. And finally it both holds the attention of the reader and rewards it by the overtones of suggestion it brings – the wonder and delight of the physical perception as dry silk seems to liquefy, the sense of the clothes dissolving on or into the body they conceal and express, the hint that the flowing clothes make the wearer liquid too, like a water nymph seen in a river… So it’s right that “liquefaction” should stand out, but it does so with no more violence than a fish or otter breaking the surface of the river it belongs to. It belongs in sound (most obviously in the way it picks up the sounds of “silks” and “flows”), in meaning (“flows” again) and more subtly in the way the feeling of something liquid is woven into the phonology of the poem and even Julia’s name.

 

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