Skip to content

Upon Julias Clothes Poem Analysis Essay

Line 1

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

  • The poem opens with the speaker about to describe what happens when ("whenas") Julia wears silk. Good things, we hope.
  • To go in silks means to wear silks, or to pass by wearing silks.
  • We don't know who Julia is, but we know she's got fancy taste in clothes. After all, silk doesn't come cheap. 
  • Let's read on to get the scoop on this well-dressed lady.
  • Can you guys spot any meter here? Whenas in silks my Julia goes. We've got an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, and that pattern repeats four times. That's a little thing we here at Shmoop like to call iambic tetrameter. Keep your eye out for more tetrameter, and be sure to check out our "Form and Meter" section for the lowdown on what it's doing here.

Lines 2-3

Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

  • Methinks just means it seems to me. Use it when you're feelin' fancy. (Methinks I'll imbibe a spot of tea!)
  • Liquefaction means becoming liquid. Sounds sciencey, right?
  • So apparently this Julia's clothes are liquefying before our speaker's very eyes?
  • We're thinking this is not literal. Although it would be awesome if Julia had some Alex Mack superpowers. 
  • Nah, we bet that the speaker is just saying that it seems to him like Julia's clothes flow like some kind of liquid when she passes by. It's a metaphor, folks.
  • Note the rhyme, Shmoopers. We've got goes, flows, and clothes. So far, that means our rhyme scheme is the ever-complex AAA. 

This pretty six-line poem is not nearly as naive as it first appears. But it's a poem to savor and one that has richly earned its place in the anthologies.  It's often, mistakenly in my opinion, listed among the best "love poems" in the English language.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows

The liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see

That brave vibration each way free

O how that glittering taketh me.

The story, the "plot," is simplicity itself: a poet becomes infatuated with "Julia's" garments.

"Upon Julia's Clothes" may be a poem about "love," but it seems severely truncated, because every reader anticipates that, even though the poet is attracted to his lady's adornments, he'll soon confess that he truly desires Julia herself -- her hair, her eyes, and if he takes the well-trodden path, her virtue, which he intends to overcome. But not this poet, not this poem. "Upon Julia's Clothes" is exactly what it announces itself to be; a sestet upon Julia's clothes.  Readers learn nothing of Julia, and to tell truth, almost nothing of her costume. The poet lays claim to no interest or expertise in fashion. Instead, he offers a series of images of a silk dress in coruscating, shimmering motion: its flow, its "liquefaction", its "vibration," its "glittering."

It's in this lovely, odd, and surprising sequence of nouns that the poem's intrigue lies. The word "glittering" is troublesome. A ardent wooer would be unlikely to claim that he was attracted to his beloved's "glitter.'' To do so would be an admission of both his and her superficiality. Plus it's a matter of record that all that glisters is not gold. The word "vibration" is an equally curious choice. "Vibration" was brand-new to the language when this poem was written and the Latin word from which it had recently been annexed meant "shaking" -- as a spear or a sword is shaken in defiance of the enemy. "Vibration" was more aggressive than it was loverly.  "Liquefaction" -- the most startling noun, was confined to an alchemical context. Taken together, the series of dispassionate nouns dilutes any expectation that the poem is an invitation to romance. The poet may have been "taken" by the "glittering" -- but he's not all that pleased to have been so. 

The contrary or anti-romantic tendency in the poem is realized in a subversive metaphor so ingenious and subtle that it registers only subliminally. "Upon Julia's Clothes" is, figuratively speaking, about the sport of fishing. The most overt hint is the employment of the phrase "when I cast mine eyes" which replaces the more ordinary "when I look." Once a reader notices that piscatorial "cast," the secondary meanings of other words become immediately clear -- especially when we recall that in those days, fishing line and fishing ties were made of silk.  The watery metaphors in "flows" and "liquefaction" provide the stream, the "brave (extravagant) vibration" is an oscillating lure, and "how that glittering taketh me" refers to the deluded poet, who has snapped at a shiner and is now hooked.  As soon as the metaphor bobs to the surface, "how that glittering taketh me," which at first glance meant only "how that dress enchants me," acquires a second meaning -- "how that lure hooks me."  Julia's clothes, of course, have been transformed into the dangerous lure.

The sestet is therefore not so much about love-longing as it is about confusion and ambivalence toward women, toward sex and toward sexuality. Julia's clothes captivate the poet, yes, but he's a poor fish, unwillingly enthralled.

And so the reader now understands why nothing much is made of Julia, the supposed inhabitant of these silken, seductive clothes. It's because there is no Julia -- that is, no specific warm-blooded woman worth the wedding, the wooing, or even the sport. In her place, there is only a archetypical Dangerous Female and a culturally-loaded intrapsychic battle between reluctant desire and the deeply puritanical fear of desire.

Would it be possible to guess, strictly on the basis of this poem, that the author of "Upon Julia's Clothes" (Robert Herrick [1591-1674]), was a clergyman and a lifelong bachelor?