How many of us have already fallen short of our own expectations for the new year?
*raises hand sheepishly*
I don’t have resolutions this year, but I did set intentions for the general direction I want my life to go this year—and I’m already not living up to those intentions very well.
It shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I’m not perfect; no one is. I’m not going to become the person I want to be overnight. No matter how much progress I make, my life is never going to be perfect. There will always be something a little out of place, some aspect of my life that doesn’t quite line up with how I wanted things to be.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe there’s something good about imperfection. At least, that’s what Robert Herrick suggests in his poem “Delight in Disorder.” Herrick is talking about clothes in this poem, but I think his message applies to so much more than fashion.
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dressRobert Herrick, 1591-1674
Kindles in clothes a wantonness.
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
(If you’d like to hear the poem read aloud by Alan Rickman, click here.)
In a previous post, I outlined how I usually study poems. Today, I’m doing an abbreviated version of that process. I’m looking at
- the words
- the structure
- why it matters
Step 1: The words
There are a lot of archaic words in this poem, so let’s get those out of the way first:
when someone isn’t concerned about the negative consequences of their behavior (Cambridge Dictionary)
Wantonness is usually associated with immorality or intentional bad behavior. Since this poet describes the “disorder in the dress” as “sweet,” though, he obviously doesn’t mean to condemn this behavior.
I think when the poet says “wantonness,” he means “not overthinking it.” When someone’s outfit isn’t perfect, it shows you that they’re not putting too much thought into their appearance—it’s not the most important thing on their mind.
“a kind of fine linen, resembling cambric” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary)
I’m picturing a light shawl made of delicate fabric. Instead of arranging this shawl carefully, the woman just throws it around her shoulders—and then, she moves on with her life.
Picture the bib of an apron. Now picture it covered in jewels and decorative embroidery tied to the front of a lady’s dress with lace. If you need an image, here’s the Wikipedia page. In the poem, the lace holding the stomacher to the gown isn’t tied down perfectly. Maybe some of the lace has come loose, or it’s not symmetrical.
We still have cuffs on the sleeves of dress shirts or jackets, and we still have ribbons. In Herrick’s day, ladies’ cuffs might be tied in place with ribbons. These lines create an image in my mind of a lady who didn’t spend much time fussing over her sleeves. Some of the ribbons have come loose because she has more important things on her mind than her sleeves.
Usually, the petticoat would be tucked neatly underneath the lady’s skirt. Ladies were expected to be calm and sedate; instead, this poem describes the lady’s petticoat as “tempestuous,” meaning “like a storm.” She’s not perfect, and her wardrobe is not completely under control.
Step 2: The structure
When I read this poem, I see 3 sections:
- The first 2 lines: The author introduces his subject: he likes it when ladies’ outfits aren’t perfectly in order because it shows that they’re not overly concerned with their appearance.
- The middle (lines 3-12): The author gives images of the kind of “disorder in the dress” he’s thinking of. The images portray imperfection in fashion as appealing and attractive.
- The last 2 lines: The author summarizes his message: imperfection is more attractive than when every aspect of a lady’s presentation of herself is “precise” and controlled.
When we get to the last two lines, we understand why the poet has taken the time to talk about ladies’ fashion at all. On one level, Herrick seems to be making a point about femininity, about how having a perfect appearance doesn’t necessarily make us more attractive.
On another level, he’s talking about art in general. You could call our appearance—the way we present ourselves to the world—a form of art. We choose colors and styles that, whether we think about it or not, say something about who we are. And according to Herrick, just as imperfection is a desirable trait when it comes to clothing, it’s desirable in other art forms as well.
But beyond clothes and art and the things the poem mentions specifically, Herrick’s “delight in disorder” extends to the rest of life as well.
Step 3: Why it matters
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Why does this poem matter? Why is it important to think of a certain amount of disorder as desirable?
Because we often set standards for ourselves that aren’t attainable—and when we don’t measure up, we feel like failures.
Because we crave control, and when we feel threatened by our own lack of perfection, we tend to try to structure our lives too rigidly.
Because imperfection is inevitable, and by expecting otherwise, we judge ourselves against an impossible expectation.
Even in nature, imperfection is often the way things work. Pebbles aren’t perfectly round. Raindrops trail down windows in crooked trails, not arrow-straight lines. Leaves fall haphazardly to the ground, not in symmetrical piles.
And when we take the time to stop and look at it, at the world we don’t control, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, and somehow the lack of perfection makes it more lovely, more real. Yet in our own lives, we think we need to have every detail sorted, every moment under control, every ribbon in place and every shoelace tied—
—and then we reproach ourselves when we fail, but the only failure is our own inability to see how unnecessary all our micromanaging really is, how lovely life can be if we embrace imperfection instead of holding ourselves to a standard we were never meant to meet in the first place.
So this year, when your resolutions don’t pan out the way you intended, embrace imperfection. When your plans fall apart and come together again haphazardly, embrace imperfection. When you can’t control where you are or how you look or what’s going on around you, embrace imperfection.
This year, be willing to delight in disorder, to not succeed perfectly. Accept that progress is messy, and beyond that, that the imperfect progress we make in real life results in something so much more beautiful than our carefully controlled vision of our future allows.
It is the imperfections of our lives, after all, that make them unique. It is the unexpected, the moments that are out of my control, that distinguish my life from the Pinterest-worthy version I once envisioned. It is the haphazardness that makes my life a life rather than a carefully curated museum exhibit.
And—to loosely paraphrase John Steinbeck—now that I don’t have to perfect, I am free to be me.
Have you had to learn to embrace imperfection in your own life? Is there an area of your life where you need to learn to let go? Tell me about it in the comments below!