Gender Matters: The Women in Donne’s Poems

For Donne as for us, gender matters, deeply, passionately, disturbingly. Donne is constantly writing about women and gender roles, both explicitly and indirectly through analogy and metaphor. Yet unlike his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, Donne rarely lingers over the woman’s physical appearance. For this and other more theoretical or ideological reasons, twentieth-century critics generally assume that the woman in Donne’s poems is a shadowy figure, the object or reflection of male desire, a pretext for self-fashioning, a metaphor for the poet’s professional aspirations, a sex object to be circulated for the titillation and amusement of Donne’s male coterie. In the last two decades, as feminist critics have re-examined Donne’s attitudes towards women, it has become clear that it was not Donne but the critics who disembodied and disregarded the women in Donne’s poems.

Donne has been termed many things: a misogynist who loathed women’s bodies and scorned their minds; a metaphysician less interested in emotion than intellection; an egotist and careerist who used women for his own advantage; a wit willing to say anything for the sake of the poem or a rhetorician undone by his own verbal power; and a poet/lover who was supremely attentive to the woman’s point of view.1 Donne’s poetry and prose contain such a wide variety of genres, viewpoints, and personae, his language is so enigmatic and metaphorical, his attitudes towards women shift so quickly, sometimes within a single poem or line, that it is difficult to say exactly what Donne himself thought, all but impossible to identify an abiding or systematic view of women or gender.

Donne’s poetry is obsessed with women. It both echoes and challenges the gender stereotypes of his day. Some of the Elegies and Songs and Sonnets mock or disparage women as deceitful, inconstant, ugly, or irrational: ‘‘Hope not for minde in women’’ (Loves Alchymie, 23). Other poems delight in women for their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual vitality: ‘‘all my soules bee, / Emparadis’d in you, (in whom alone / I understand, and grow and see)’’ (‘‘A Valediction: of my name, in the window,’’ 25–27). Donne wooed a number of women in poetry, first as sexual partners and later as patrons, but he loved one woman, Anne More, abidingly and overwhelmingly. By eloping with her, Donne may also have hoped to improve his social, professional, and economic situation. Unfortunately, the marriage infuriated her father, Sir George More, alienated her uncle and Donne’s boss, Sir Thomas Egerton, and ruined Donne’s career as a lawyer and civil servant.

Some critics argue that because Renaissance love poetry is monologic, because the male poet/lover formulates and speaks the words, he inevitably subordinates the woman to his ‘‘masculine persuasive force.’’2 Stanley Fish has argued that Donne was his own most important and discriminating reader, and indeed Donne often seems to be thinking to himself, moving from one dazzling, dissolving formulation to another: ‘‘Our two soules, therefore, which are one . . . If they be two, they are two so’’ (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, 21–25). Yet even when Donne seems to be exploring his own thoughts as a poem unfolds, he is usually engaged in a dialogue with the person whom the poem addresses: a male friend, a female patron, a lover, God, posterity.3 In the Latin epitaph written upon his wife’s death, Donne describes her as the most important subject and reader of his poems, and it is my belief that many of his love poems were written to and for her.4

Most of Donne’s poems circulated in manuscript, remaining within Donne’s private circle for years after they were written and not appearing in print until after Donne’s death. Reading the poems today in an anthology or a collection of Donne’s poetry, we may forget that we are eavesdropping on one side of a conversation that was both deeply private and culturally situated, both permeated with personal allusions and imbued with society’s norms and expectations.

Donne’s attitude toward women and gender roles varies considerably, depending on the audience the poem envisions and the situation it inherits, comprises, or seeks to bring about. Some of Donne’s poems are verse letters sent to a friend or patron knowledgeable and astute enough to understand Donne’s difficult language and veiled meaning: ‘‘darke texts need notes.’’ In praising the Countess of Bedford for her ‘‘Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune,’’ Donne invites her judgment and support of his poetry: These are Petitions, and not Hymnes, (‘‘MADAME, You have refin’d mee,’’ 11, 2, 33).

Some of the elegies and lyrics are also epistolary, but most are dramatic, colloquial, conversational; they sound as if they were written to be recited or read aloud by Donne himself, and most likely they were. A few, addressed to a male peer, answer objections – ‘‘For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love’’ (‘‘The Canonization,’’ 1) – or invite a knowing chuckle: ‘‘Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee . . . No where / Lives a woman true, and faire’’ (‘‘Song: Goe, and catche a falling starre,’’ 14, 17–18). But most seek to entertain, converse with, and yes, even seduce, a mistress: ‘‘Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best, / Not to dreame all my dreame, let’s act the rest’’ (‘‘The Dreame,’’ 9–10). Some of Donne’s most intriguing and challenging poems support multiple, contradictory interpretations, meaning one thing to his mistress, something quite different to ‘‘prophane men . . . Which will no faith on this bestow, / Or, if they doe, deride’’ (The Undertaking, 22–24).5

Most of Donne’s poems are not only designed for a particular occasion and audience or audiences but also for a specific genre which had its own set of rules known both to the poet and his readers. The epigrams, among Donne’s earliest poems, provide a useful introduction to gender matters because, according to literary convention, the epigrammatic poet speaks in his own voice, addressing the world he both critiques and inhabits.6
A Selfe Accuser, a pithy hexameter couplet, describes a mistress who chides her lover for following whores:

Your mistris, that you follow whores, still taxeth you:
’Tis strange that she should thus confesse it, though’it be true.

Donne satirizes the man for failing to confront the infidelity they both pretend to conceal. He also implies that the woman’s relentless nagging is driving her husband or lover to visit whores. The final epigrammatic twist further hints that she may herself be a floozy and a hypocrite. ‘‘Klockius’’ makes a similar point:

Klockius so deeply hath sworne, ne’er more to come
In bawdie house, that hee dares not goe home.

Klockius has sworn off whores only to discover – as we ourselves discover in the witty epigrammatic turn – that his own home is little better than a bawdy house.
Donne’s epigrams play with words, but in a poem as in life, play can have serious consequences:

Thy sinnes and haires may no man equall call,
For, as thy sinnes increase, thy haires doe fall.
(A Licentious Person)

The absurd mathematical ratio, combined with the wordplay on hair, heirs, and (less exactly) whores, exposes the miscalculations that give the licentious man venereal disease, threatening his life and heirs.

According to literary convention, the epigram gives us direct access to the author’s own views, so what, if anything, do these epigrams reveal about Donne’s attitude toward women and gender? Who is the licentious person, the man or the woman? Who is being mocked, Klockius or his mistress? Is Donne affirming the conventional code of ethics, preaching chastity and marital fidelity? Is he endorsing antifeminist stereotypes that scorn women as shrewish, deceitful, and inconstant? Perhaps, but I doubt it, for these men are no less contemptible than the women. Donne’s epigrams satirize individuals like Klockius or types like A Licentious Person, but they do not generalize about men or women.
The epigrams invite us to measure these sketchy characters against clandestine lovers whose daring and devotion triumph over the death they incur:

Both rob’d of aire, we both lye in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drownd.
(Hero and Leander)

Two, by themselves, each other, love and feare
Slaine, cruell friends, by parting have joyn’d here.
(Pyramus and Thisbe)

The plural nouns and pronouns, the interactive diction, and densely interwoven syntax celebrate the mutuality of love which turns ‘‘both’’ into ‘‘one,’’ or which presents ‘‘two’’ paradoxically ‘‘joyn’d’’ by their ‘‘parting.’’ As these miniature love stories show, even the briefest of poems and loves can achieve abiding value, drawing the lovers together first in life, then in death, and finally in poetry and myth.

As a group, the epigrams show Donne immersed in London life with its sexual temptations and sexually transmitted diseases, its vanity and self-deceptions, its antagonisms and greed; but they also showhim living in a world of books where timeless truths trump earthly failings.While the first three epigrams satirize men and women who delude themselves even more than they deceive each other, the last two eternize lovers so involved in each other that whatever they do ‘‘by themselves’’ has an immediate impact on ‘‘each other.’’ Even as Donne’s satiric, worldly wit impresses and amuses his male coterie, his incisive intellect and moral severity mocks those who are too dull or complacent to recognize and root out the lies, the self-deception, and corruption that propel their sleazy lives. Donne himself stands above it all, implying that his mistress is or will be a very different sort of woman, and that his love, when he chooses to express it, will be a very different sort of love, one that he is prepared to fight for against all odds.

Like the epigrams, the Satires also show Donne deeply immersed in city life, negotiating the allures of sex, money, and power. Surprisingly, it is ‘‘Satyre III,’’ the search for the one true church, that makes the clearest declarations about women and gender.7 ‘‘Satyre III’’ presents ascertainable truths about women as a way of discovering less easily ascertainable truths about the church: ‘‘but unmoved thou / Of force must one, and forc’d but one allow’’ (69–70). The poem never determines the one true Church, but on two key points about women it leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt. First, it asserts that finding the one true mistress is vitally and undeniably important. Second, it declares that it is stupid and morally wrong to generalize about all women on the basis of particular women. ‘‘Carelesse Phrygius’’ is satirized because he ‘‘doth abhorre / All, because all cannot be good, as one / Knowing some women whores, dares marry none’’ (62–64). Graccus makes the opposite decision, but he is also mocked for failing to make distinctions among women: ‘‘Graccus loves all as one, and thinkes that so / As women do in divers countries goe / In divers habits, yet are still one kinde’’ (65–67). By foolishly assuming all women are the same, Graccus shows himself to be both intellectually unsophisticated and morally undiscriminating.

Written in the 1590s when Donne was studying at the Inns of Court or working for Sir Thomas Egerton, the Elegies, like the Satires, represent Donne as an upwardly mobile but principled lawyer and civil servant, a seductive and persuasive lover, and an increasingly authoritative poet. Some of the Elegies express revulsion for the female body: a ‘‘grave, that’s dust without, and stinke within.’’ Others revel in intimacy or sexual pleasure that contains its own spiritual glory and intellectual joy: ‘‘Here take my Picture; though I bid farewell, / Thine, in my heart, where my soule dwels, shall dwell.’’8

The Comparison is entirely devoted to making distinctions, not between one kind of woman and another, but between one particular woman and another: ‘‘As the Almighty Balme of th’early East, / Such are the sweat drops of my Mistris breast . . . Ranke sweaty froth thy Mistresse’s brow defiles, / Like spermatique issue of ripe menstruous boiles’’ (3–4, 7–8). No doubt Donne’s male coterie found this gross physicality amusing. No doubt some men, and even some women, still find it amusing, but ultimately Donne’s language is less playful than unsettling.

Although the two women are alike in having female bodies, the poem, and especially the conclusion, draws important distinctions between them. The friend apparently chose his mistress for one reason: sex. Ironically, the friend’s single-minded pursuit deprives him of pleasure: his ‘‘last act,’’ the sex act, is ‘‘harsh, and violent, / As when a Plough a stony ground doth rent’’ (47–48). Because he thrusts himself into his mistress without first preparing the ground, intercourse is aggressive and laborious. The descriptions of Donne’s mistress are also grounded in the flesh, in sexuality that joins spirituality with its own earthy purposes. Donne’s imagery demystifies his mistress by comparing her to ‘‘th’earths worthlesse durt’’ (37) but it also elevates her by comparing her to Christ’s body and blood:

So kisse good Turtles, so devoutly nice
Are Priests in handling reverent sacrifice,
And such in searching wounds the Surgeon is,
As wee, when wee embrace, or touch, or kisse. (49–52)

Since these surgical wounds recall the ‘‘ripe menstruous boils’’ marring the friend’s mistress, conflating face and genitals, Achsah Guibbory concludes that Donne’s loathing for the female body extends to his own mistress, and betrays a misogyny that pervades the Elegies as a whole. And so it may.9 But I think the poem invites discriminations rather than generalizations, discriminations that yield an enlightening, non-judgmental account of explorative, reciprocal sexuality.

Unlike the friend’s rough and unsatisfying copulation, Donne and his mistress share the tender kisses of turtle doves, the reverence and delicacy of a priest handling Christ’s body and blood, and the openness of a surgeon, ready to explore the body with a beneficent, knowing touch. Whereas the friend feels revulsion ‘‘as a worme sucking an invenom’d sore’’ (44), Donne and his mistress explore each other’s anatomy with a clinical gaze and careful touch, like a surgeon examining a wound without disgust. Donne doesn’t quite say where they ‘‘touch, or kisse’’ (52), but the image of the wound evokes the body’s apertures, suggesting not only French kisses but also oral sex and genital foreplay.10 As Katherine Park has demonstrated, this was the period when the rediscovery of the clitoris placed renewed emphasis on women’s capacity to reach orgasm, which explains why, her passion being equal to his, the ‘‘best lov’d part’’ (38) is the female sexual part, filled with the heat of Donne’s ‘‘masculine equall fire’’ (35). For Donne and his mistress, love-making, replete with touches and kisses on mouth and genitals, is reciprocal, attentive, and highly pleasurable.

Since The Comparison’ is addressed to a specific lyric audience, Donne’s male friend, it places us in the position of eavesdroppers. Regardless of which perspective we take, the poem invites us to join the debate. Since Donne attacked first, he is morally culpable if the poem initiates a cycle of degrading attacks against women. If all the friend hears is criticism of his mistress, he may respond with a counterattack on Donne’s mistress. But if the poem provokes Donne’s interlocutor and us to think more seriously about what constitutes sexual attraction and how sexual and spiritual bliss merge, then it serves a more positive and far-reaching rhetorical purpose.

The Comparison explores the subjectivity of desire, the difference of opinion that makes one man’s desire another man’s loathing. Nasty as some of its similes are, The Comparison urges its lyric audience not to construe Womankind in the abstract but to look closely at each woman in all her specificity and corporeality. Making distinctions between one woman and another or one love affair and another – between rough, aggressive copulation and reciprocal, tender love-making – not only questions antifeminist stereotypes that condemn all women as shrews and whores; it also questions social norms that divide women into angels and whores. Donne’s mistress is laudable and loveable precisely because she is sexually active and emotionally responsive. In the elegy beginning ‘‘Who ever loves’’ (commonly known as Loves Progress) the speaker argues that the ‘‘right true end of love’’ (2) is not idealized, unrequited Petrarchan desire or Neoplatonic heavenly beauty but sexual consummation:

Can men more injure women then to say
They love them for that, by which they’re not they?
Makes virtue woman? must I cool my bloud
Till I both be, and find one woman wise and good?
May barren Angels love so. But if we
Make love to woman; virtue is not she:
As beauty’is not nor wealth. (19–25)

Petrarchan poets exalt the beloved as a heavenly, angelic creature with hair like gold and skin like alabaster, forever adored and forever unattainable. In seeking a wife, Donne argues, men are more likely to measure a woman’s worth by her beauty and wealth. Yet contrary to poetic and social convention, Donne argues that it is ‘‘the Centrique part’’ (36), the sexual part, that makes women, women. From one point of view, this is critical and demeaning to women, reducing them to sex objects, or commodities to be traded among men. From another point of view, it is a matter of fact – or biology. From yet another point of view, it is liberating to women, challenging the double standard. Early modern English homilies, sermons, and marriage manuals all insist that men and women alike are bound to chastity; in practice, however, men were allowed much more sexual freedom. Like contemporary feminist criticism, Donne’s Elegies question patriarchal ideology that equates female honor with virtue and chastity, subordinating the daughter to the father, and the wife to the husband.

In the elegy beginning Once, and but once, the speaker convinces a young unmarried woman to make love with him under her father’s roof. In the elegy beginning Natures lay Ideot the speaker teaches a married woman to evade her husband’s watchful eye and to enjoy the erotic pleasures of clandestine love.

The Elegies encourage women’s sexual freedom, and challenge the patriarchal control of women by fathers and husbands. Yet they also seek to use the poet’s ‘‘masculine perswasive force’’ (‘‘By our first strange and fatall interview,’’ 4) to assert his power over his mistress. In the elegy beginning Come, Madam, Donne conducts a hot and heavy sexual seduction as if it were a military campaign. The language becomes increasingly graphic as the poem unfolds, culminating in an image of geographical exploration that is as unconventional as it is audacious:

Licence my roaving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie . . . (25–29)

Having politely asked permission to explore every part of her naked body, Donne gets carried away. The outpouring of prepositions, one following another in quick, rhythmic succession, says it all. As the thrill of discovery tears the sentence apart, making the rules of grammar seem as constraining and irrelevant as the clothing the lovers discard, the rhetoric is almost irresistible. At the same time, however, the imagery betrays Donne’s masculine desire to conquer and control.11 If the woman is his kingdomand his empire, he is her king and emperor, reveling unabashedly in his masculine dominion over her.

In Sapho to Philænis Donne speaks in the voice of a woman, the classical Greek poet, Sapho, author of astonishingly passionate lesbian love poetry. The poem has provoked considerable critical controversy. Some critics have argued that Donne could not have written a lesbian love poem. Others have argued that it is an exploitative male fantasy of female sexuality. Donne finds in Sapho a classical antecedent and a poetic guise through which he can represent female self-expression, artistic, emotional, and sexual.

Sapho’s verse letter is addressed to her current but absent female lover, Philænis, whose name is the Greek word for female friend.12 In a moment of jealousy, Sapho imagines Philænis with a new lover, a young boy:

Plaies some soft boy with thee, oh there wants yet
A mutuall feeling which should sweeten it. (31–32)

To forestall the competition, Sapho reminds Philænis that this faceless, archetypal young boy lacks the ‘‘mutuall feeling’’ that enables Sapho and Philænis to give each other such sweet pleasure.

Traditional Renaissance poets catalogue and metaphorize each body part,13 but Sapho abjures comparisons as trite and tedious distractions from the frank and open relationship she and Philænis share:

For, if we justly call each silly man
A little world, What shall we call thee than?
Thou art not soft, and cleare, and strait, and faire,
As Down, as Stars, Cedars, and Lillies are,
But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only
Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye. (19–24)

The bare, unadorned nouns – hand, cheek, and eye – dismiss the elaborate poetic tropes by means of which male poets objectify female love objects. It is the female body in and of itself that moves Sapho to poetry and sexual ecstasy. At the climax of the poem Sapho gazes at herself in a mirror:

Likenesse begets such strange selfe flatterie,
That touching my selfe, all seemes done to thee.
My selfe I embrace, and mine owne hands I kisse,
And amorously thanke my selfe for this.
Me, in my glasse, I call thee; But alas,
When I would kisse, teares dimme mine eyes, and glasse. (51–56)

In the famous and the oft-imitated 45th sonnet of the Canzoniere, Petrarch chastizes Laura for a narcissism that is the poetic reflection of his own selfabsorption. Trapped by the male gaze and male discourse in an infantile stage of self-absorbed narcissism, Laura is objectified and subjugated by the Petrarchan tropes of adoration and frustration. Donne’s revision of the conventional Petrarchanmirror image is shockingly erogenous: abjuring the ‘‘likenesse’’ of metaphor for the ‘‘likenesse’’ of their unadorned female bodies. Sapho brings herself to sexual climax by imagining that she is touching Philænis.

Let’s face it, this is hot stuff. Clearly, Donne knew that male readers would be aroused by Sapho’s sexuality. Some critics argue that Donne’s ventriloquized female voice objectifies Sapho, turning her into the reflection of male desire, making her a fetish to be circulated among Donne’s male coterie, much as today’s pornographers frame lesbian lovers for the voyeuristic pleasure of male viewers. Yet, while anti-pornography feminists argue that pornography violates and degrades women, an opposing feminist discourse staunchly defends both male and female freedom of speech, advocates women’s sexual liberation, and celebrates lesbian sexuality as the purest and least oppressive form of female sexual pleasure; and that, I think, is much closer to Donne’s position in ‘‘Sapho to Philænis.’’14

After masturbating, Sapho tells Philænis, ‘‘So may thy mighty, amazing beautymove / Envy’in all women, andinall men, love’’ (61–62). Of course men will desire Philænis; as Sapho acknowledges, Philænis is beautiful, amazingly sexy, and mightily charismatic. Women envy Philænis because she is so powerfully attractive to men. At the same time, however, the poem suggests, women should also admire Philænis because she lives in a world (or at least in a poem) that allows her the strength and freedom to make her own decisions and fulfill her own desires. Bursting into tears, Sapho addresses Philænis directly – ‘‘And so be change, and sicknesse, farre from thee, / As thou by comming neere, keep’st them from me’’ (63–64). Rather than reveling in the narcissistic pleasure that transforms the loved object into material for poetry, Sapho acknowledges Philænis’s independent agency – and that, I think, is Donne’s position in ‘‘Sapho to Philænis.’’

Philænis is the object of male desire, but she is also ‘‘mighty’’ and ‘‘amazing’’ because she is neither defined nor controlled by men. According tomy reading, the poemcelebrates both Sapho and Philænis as strong, independent, creative, and sexually liberated women – as role models not only for male poets, readers, and lovers but also for female poets, readers, and lovers. Men and women alike have a lot to learn from the ‘‘mutuall feeling’’ ‘‘Sapho and Philænis’’ expresses with such feminine ‘‘perswasive force.’’ Unimpeded by the ideology of Renaissance poetry and society, independent of male control, Donne’s Sapho is gloriously erotic, boldly outspoken, and brilliantly persuasive.

If Sapho is the archetypal female poet/lover who forges her own distinctly female poetic voice, Philænis is the archetypal private female lyric audience. For what could be more private than a verse letter conceived during the act of masturbation? Towards the very end of the poem, when Sapho snaps out of her erotic reverie to realize that Philænis is, oh, so painfully absent, Donne is hinting that he wrote the poem for his own private female lyric audience, Anne More, whose last name appears carefully encoded at two climactic moments in the poem:

My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two,
But so, as thine from one another doe;
And, oh, no more; the likenesse being such,
Why should they not alike in all parts touch?
. . .
O cure this loving madnesse, and restore
Me to mee; thee, my halfe, my all, my more. (45–48, 57–58)

Punning allusions to a lover’s real name were a common feature of Renaissance love poetry, famously illustrated by Sidney’s puns on Penelope Rich’s name in Astrophil and Stella or Shakespeare’s puns on his own name, ‘‘Will,’’ in the sonnets. Donne often puns on his and Anne More’s last names. In the letter informing Anne’s father of their clandestine marriage, Donne declares, ‘‘it is irremediably donne.’’ In A Hymne to God the Father, he tries but cannot get beyond his love for his deceased wife: ‘‘thou hast not done, / For I have more.’’ But most interesting for ‘‘Sapho to Philænis,’’ in ‘‘A Valediction: of my name, in the window’’ where ‘‘love and griefe their exaltation had’’ (38) and Donne fears Anne may be tempted to accept another suitor, he writes his name in the window (or at least in the poem) in the hope that the words will preserve their love during his absence: ‘‘’Tis more, that it shewes thee to thee . . . Here you see mee, and I am you’’ (9, 12).15

In Sapho to Philænis the possible biographical allusion is just a hint, two words ‘‘do’’ and ‘‘more,’’ not likely to have been noticed by anyone but Anne More herself. While the sparse, unadorned diction, ‘‘lips, eyes, thighs’’ (45) disguises their identities, the pun quietly suggests that Donne may have secretly sent the poem to Anne after her father, hearing of their affair, tried to separate them.16 The exclamation, ‘‘oh, no more,’’ asks, oh, am I never again, to enjoy the ‘‘mutuall feeling’’ which gave us both ‘‘alike’’ such pleasure? Or ‘‘oh, no More,’’ have I lost my beloved More forevermore? Afraid that Anne might succumb to her father’s pressure to marry ‘‘some soft boy’’ who was both more socially appropriate and more malleable, the poe strives to keep alive the ‘‘mutuall feeling’’ which made John Donne’s and Anne More’s love sweeter than anything he had ever before experienced.

The poignant final rhyme – restoremyMore – transforms Sapho’s passionate outcry to an intensely private plea, begging Anne More not to be tempted by all the men who are bound to fall in love with her. (Perhaps Donne was also hinting that Anne should keep their love alive by touching herself while reading the poem and thinking of their ‘‘mutuall feeling,’’ much as Sapho brings herself to sexual climax while writing the poem and thinking of Philænis). Please, Donne implores in a state of ‘‘loving madnesse,’’ don’t destroy both yourwell-being andmine; I cannot continue to be ‘‘mee’’ without you, ‘‘my halfe, my all, my more’’ (58). Wait for me; hold out until we can find a way to be reunited. The dramatic fiction, with its historical displacement and its emphasis on the physical ‘‘likenesse’’ of lesbian love, provides a protective veil that preserves this most private subtext for the lovers themselves.

Sapho to Philænis ends not with a recollection of past love or a declaration of present oneness but with an anxious plea for a future reunion – ‘‘And so be change, and sicknesse, farre from thee, / As thou by comming neere, keep’st them from me’’ (63–64). By adopting the persona of female poet/ lover, Donne moves beyond the egotism and narcissism of Petrarchan poetry. Having made a passionately persuasive argument, both Sapho and Donne must await the response only the female lyric audience can provide.

Although Donne clearly wished he could control the women he wooed, especially when he was feeling libidinous or bereft, he was also forced to confront the limits of his poetic power. Poetry of courtship and seduction is one side, but only one side, of an ongoing dialogue between poet/lover and beloved. In the end, poetry of courtship is always dependent on an answering response; the poet/lover can no more force the woman to respond positively to his poem than he can force her to reach sexual climax through his touch.

Sapho to Philænis, the first female homosexual love poem in English, expresses female sexuality with a boldness and openness that is unsurpassed in English Renaissance poetry. If we imagine Sapho to Philænis written by a sophisticated, witty male poet for a coterie of lusty young men, its explicit sexuality may look exploitative, objectifying, and demeaning to women. But if we imagine it written for and read by a private female lyric audience – by Philænis, or Anne More, or ‘‘some lover, such as wee’’ (The Extasie, 73) – it becomes breathtakingly intimate and extremely moving. If we then try to make ourselves into the ideal lyric audience, the elegy looks more like The Canonization, where Donne provides a ‘‘patterne of your love’’ – a model for a radical new vision of sexuality, poetry, and society:

You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole worlds soule contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes
(So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize,)
Countries, Townes, Courts: Beg from above
A patterne of your love! (39–45)

The odd displacement which posits an ideal sonnet reader who then becomes both lyric speaker and lyric audience mimics the displacement Donne achieves by speaking to his private female lyric audience through ‘‘Sapho and Philænis.’’ Moreover, the image of ‘‘glasses’’ and ‘‘mirrors’’ recalls both ‘‘Sapho and Philænis,’’ ‘‘Me, in my glasse, I call thee,’’ and ‘‘A Valediction: of my name, in the window,’’ ‘‘Here you see mee, and I am you.’’

The conclusion of The Canonization alludes to the Neoplatonic notion that a beautiful woman can provide a ‘‘pattern’’ of ideal, transcendent love, but here too Donne rewrites the conventional trope. Whereas the Neoplatonic lover leaves the woman’s earthly body behind as he climbs up the ladder to heavenly love, Donne immortalizes the intersubjective union of man and woman: ‘‘and thus invoke us.’’ By driving the whole world into their eyes, Donne creates a pattern for future lovers that is both immortal and fully embodied, both spiritual and sexual:

And wee in us finde the Eagle and the Dove.
The Phoenix ridle hath more wit
By us, we two being one, are it.
So to one neutrall thing both sexes fit,
Wee dye and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love. (22–27)

The surface meaning of ‘‘we dye and rise the same’’ suggests that to the world Donne and his mistress look ‘‘the same’’ after lovemaking as they did before. The deeper, more revolutionary meaning suggests that they ‘‘rise the same,’’ no longer male and female but something entirely new, a phoenix, a mythical creature that, dying to be reborn from its own ashes, is simultaneously male and female: ‘‘So to one neutrall thing both sexes fit.’’ The phoenix endows Donne’s heterosexual lovers with the ‘‘likenesse,’’ the similarity and mutuality, that makes Sapho and Philænis’s same-sex love so wondrous. The pun on ‘‘die,’’ meaning both to expire and to reach sexual climax, suggests that sexual ecstasy is transformative, miraculously dissolving sex differences and reshaping traditional gender roles.

The Canonization spells out what Sapho to Philænis implies: Donne’s mutual, egalitarian love may be too far out for his own day, but, the poem prophesies, it will be admired and copied in times to come. Hampered by the limits of his own society, Donne can only ‘‘build in sonnets pretty roomes’’ (32), but someday ‘‘Countries, Townes, [and] Courts’’ will be ready to institute the radical new vision of poetry, sexuality, and society that Donne and his mistress represent.

In The Anniversarie Donne creates another image of heavenly transcendence, but unlike Neoplatonists Donne unites the lovers and, after imagining their heavenly ascent, quickly returns them to earth: ‘‘then wee shall be throughly blest, / But wee no more, then all the rest; / Here upon earth, we’are Kings, and none but wee / Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects bee.’’ Donne’s imagery restructures the patriarchal polity that subordinates subjects to their king, as it subordinates women to their fathers and husbands. Unlike the elegy beginning Come, Madam, which asserts the speaker’s male dominion over his female lover, The Anniversarie makes both lovers both kings and subjects, both rulers and ruled. This relationship is all the more wondrous because it is unparalleled and unprecedented on earth – and in poetry.

When we give Donne’s ambiguous, enigmatic language the close attention it demands, his attitude towards women, sexuality, and gender becomes more multi-faceted, more complicated, and less predictable than it might at first seem. The interanimation or cross-pollination of sacred and profane, the refusal to simplify or suppress thoughts or feelings for the sake of clarity or consistency, the readiness to challenge orthodoxy and to shock the reader into a more open, inquiring, unconventional point of view – these impulses continue to disturb and unsettle any position Donne might take on love, women, and gender. Depending on which poems or lines one chooses to quote and, even more importantly, depending on how one chooses to interpret and evaluate the lines one selects, one can see Donne as a witty misogynist, a great devotee of women, or a lover willing to risk everything for the woman he adores.

Readers and critics can choose to ignore the women in Donne’s poems, focusing instead on Donne’s self-analysis or self-fashioning. They can allegorize the woman, turning her into a metaphor for Donne’s professional advancement, or they can objectify her, turning her into a sex object to be circulated among Donne’s smirking male coterie. Nonetheless, a remarkable number of Donne’s love poems are, first and foremost, poems for and about women and the relations between men and women and the social roles played by men and women. Misogyny and male domination are fundamental to Donne’s poetic and cultural inheritance. Not surprisingly, therefore, Donne’s poems acknowledge the sexual stereotypes and the gender hierarchy that subordinated early modern women to men through primogeniture and marriage; however, his poems also dramatize the ways in which Donne and his mistresses – above all and most importantly, Anne More – challenged, even if they were powerless to overturn, the patriarchal polity and society into which they were born and died. Donne’s most daringly innovative poems describe not only male desire but intimacy itself, the ecstatic ‘‘mutuall feeling’’ that embodies and constitutes an extraordinary, unprecedented ‘‘dialogue of one’’ (The Extasie, 74).

When Donne argues that it is not virtue or honor but the ‘‘Centrique’’ part that makes women, women (Loves Progress), when he ‘‘forget[s] the Hee and Shee’’ (The Undertaking) and reminds us that women like men have ‘‘two lips, eyes, thighs’’ (Sapho to Philænis), he is anticipating the modern conception of gender which argues – biology being one thing and gender another – that sex differences are not natural or universal but culturally constructed and constantly changing. Inevitably, the rules of the genre, the demands of the situation, and the beliefs of early modern English society shape what Donne writes about women and gender; at the same time, however, his poems, ‘‘In cypher writ, or new made Idiome’’ (A Valediction of the Book, 21), also reconfigure poetic and social conventions, thereby reconstituting what poets and readers can say, even as the poems prophesy what poetry and society will one day do.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to John Donne Edited By Achsah Guibbory Cambridge University Press 2006


1 For these respective critical positions, see Achsah Guibbory, ‘‘‘Oh, let mee not serve so’: The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies,’’ originally published in ELH (1990), and reprinted in abridged form in Andrew Mousley (ed.), John Donne (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 25–44; T. S. Eliot, ‘‘Metaphysical Poetry,’’ in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), pp. 241–50; Carey, Donne; Judith Scherer Herz, ‘‘‘An Excellent Exercise of Wit that Speaks so Well of I Ill’: Donne and the Poetics of Concealment,’’ in Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (eds.), The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), pp. 3–14; Stanley Fish, ‘‘Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power,’’ reprinted in Mousley, John Donne, pp. 157–81; and Ilona Bell, ‘‘The Role of the Lady in Donne’s Songs and Sonets,’’ SEL 23 (1983), 113–29.

2 Fish, ‘‘Masculine Persuasive Force,’’ pp. 161ff; Janet E. Halley, ‘‘Textual Intercourse: Anne Donne, John Donne, and the Sexual Poetics of Textual Exchange,’’ in Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (eds.), Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), pp. 187–206, makes an analogous argument.

3 Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), privileges Donne’s male coterie; Dennis Flynn, ‘‘Donne and a Female Coterie,’’ LIT 1 (1989), 127–36, responds by emphasizing Donne’s female coterie.

4 M. Thomas Hester makes this argument in ‘‘‘Faeminae lectissimae’: Reading Anne Donne,’’ in Hester (ed.), John Donne’s ‘‘desire of more’’: The Subject of Anne More Donne in His Poetry (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), pp. 17–34.

5 See readings of ‘‘The Flea’’ by Theresa M. DiPasquale, Literature and Sacrament: The Sacred and the Secular (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999), pp. 173–86; and Bell, ‘‘Courting Anne More,’’ JDJ 19 (2000), 59–86. 6 See J. Thomas Hester, ‘‘Donne’s Epigrams: A Little World Made Cunningly,’’ in Summers and Pebworth (eds.), Eagle and the Dove, pp. 80–91.

7 For gender matters in Donne’s religious poems, see DiPasquale, Literature and Sacrament, and Elizabeth M. A. Hodgson, Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999).

8 Quoted from the elegy beginning ‘‘As the sweet sweat,’’ henceforth referred to as ‘‘The Comparison’’ (26); a different elegy begins with this quote.

9 Fish, ‘‘Masculine Persuasive Force,’’ thinks the poem ‘‘triumphs at the expense of the two women who become indistinguishably monstrous when the poet makes it impossible for us to tell the difference between them’’ (159).

10 Heather Dubrow, ‘‘Donne’s Elegies and the Ugly Beauty Tradition,’’ Donne and the Resources of Kind, ed. A. D. Cousins and Damian Grace (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2002), p. 65, notes that Donne describes the genitals in ‘‘androgynous terms.’’

11 This reading is indebted to Guibbory’s compelling postcolonial critique of the poem, ‘‘‘Oh, let mee not serve so,’’’ 32–33. 12 C. A., Patrides (ed.), The Complete English Poems of John Donne (London: Dent- Everyman, 1985), p. 188.

13 Nancy Vickers, ‘‘Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,’’ Critical Inquiry 8 (1981), 265–79, offers the classic feminist critique of this conventional strategy.

14 For diametrically opposed responses to the poem, see Halley, ‘‘Textual Intercourse’’; James Holstun, ‘‘Will You Rent our Ancient Love Asunder?: Lesbian Elegy in Donne, Marvell, and Milton,’’ ELH (1987), 835–68 ; Janel Mueller, ‘‘Lesbian Erotics: The Utopian Trope of Donne’s ‘Sapho to Philænis,’’’ Journal of Homosexuality 23 (1992), 103–34; H. L. Meakin, John Donne’s Articulations of the Feminine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 84–138; and Ronald Corthell, Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: the Subject of Donne (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), pp. 70–74.

15 On Donne’s name puns, see Julia M. Walker, ‘‘Anne More: A Name Not Written,’’ in Hester (ed.), Desire of More, pp. 89–105. For Donne’s letter to his father-in-law, see Original Letters of John Donne Relating to his Secret Marriage, John Donne Papers, Folger Library.

16 For the full story, see Bell, ‘‘Under Ye Rage of a Hott Sonn and Yr Eyes: John Donne’s Love Letters to Ann More,’’ in Summers and Pebworth (eds.), Eagle and the Dove, pp. 25–52.

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