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“The first poet in the world in some things”, as Jonson said of Donne, was one of the important figures of 17th century; the leading poet of metaphysical school and the writer of “Song and Sonnets” as well as “Divine Poems”. Donne’s poems had a fashion in his own day and just after fell completely into neglect until recent times that they are given a general esteem never experienced since the time of Charles I. thanks to Elliot’s famous remark which introduces Donne as the best example of a writer who observes association of sensibility; his poetry once again becomes the subject of many controversial discussions and criticisms.
The notion of the self or individual identity, in the sense that is recognized now, hardly existed in Medieval Ages, and was still in process of development as a new notion in Renaissance. “The notions of ‘trusting one’s self’ or ‘believing in one self’ were incomprehensible to renaissance Christians. Rather, the self was understood in negative terms as the part likely to be swayed by the devil or at least to turn from God” (Sugg, p. 24). In the late Renaissance England, human identity was related to questions of space and place. “Place is identity in a hierarchal topology of the universe and society. Each person has his/her own proper place in the social system that is determined in terms of capital, private ownership” (Docherty, p.125). Renaissance man develops a deep fear of woman, a kind of unknown and ambiguous otherness which appears to be hard to conquer. As Sugg asserts, “In 1590s identity was defined via opposition. Women by nature were considered more passive and less well-explained in terms of their identity” (Sugg, p. 68 ).
The question of gendered identity is one of the most controversial issues which Donne critics are just now taking into consideration. Despite his clear voice and apparently devotion to women, his relationship to feminine subjectivity provokes much debate recently. Twentieth-century critics generally assume that the woman in Donne’s poems is an obscure figure which is “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 titillation and amusement of Donne’s male speaker” (Docherty, p. 81). There is no communication between Donne and the woman in his poems: Not only does the woman not speak, she also quite simply disappears, and Donne is left talking to an aspect of his own self. Woman becomes the very condition that enables Donne to engender an identity for himself. Besides, she is a constant threat to his identity. This paper will try to explore the reflection of his attitude toward women and feminine identity.
The selected poems here are examples of how Donne uses his wit to suppress the threatening feminine identity and to reassure his own Self. “The most important thing about renaissance misogyny is its religious character” (Sugg, p.77). Donne not only in his “Songs and Sonnets” but in his “Divine Poems” makes use of theological ideology and religious doctrines to subvert and undermine woman and her identity. According to Sugg, “although Genesis doesn’t announce that Eve was not inspired by a soul, it never mentions explicitly that God breathes his spirit into her as He does into Adam” (58).
Donne (qtd. in Sugg) reflects this idea most clearly in following lines:
“Man to God’s image, Eve, to man’s was made,
Nor find we that God breathed a soul in her” (57).
As a matter of fact religion tends to support the oppression of women via its account of the process of her creation. In Air and Angle, woman and her love is regarded as a medium for experiencing the divine; it must be noted that woman in this sense is nothing but a means to elevate the soul of man. Donne, in Community, mentions that according to ethical principles human being must love good and hate ill; but there are things which are neutral that we neither love nor hate. He places woman in the third category to reach the conclusion that women lacks this ethical moral basis.
“If then at first wise Nature had
Made women either good or bad,
Then some we might hate, and some choose,
But since she did them so create,
That we may neither love, nor hate,
Only this rests, All, all may use” (qtd. in Sugg 30).
He attributes this state of neutrality to the specific condition of woman’s creation which is quite different from that of man. Regarding the lines just mentioned, Sugg maintains, “The second stanza’s seeming insistence that women-not either good or bad-lack the same level of human ethical responsibility as men is one version of gender-theory which plunged deep roots through the foundation of renaissance thought and feeling” (30).
Notions of inconsistency, changeability and promiscuity have a paramount significance in Donne’s rendering of feminine identity. There are clear associations between woman and the idea of changeability and instability. “Change is the founding condition of the struggle for authority and power against the vagaries of history â€¦ the source of such authority, if we carry the analogy between promiscuity and woman to a logical conclusion, turns out to be characterized as female” (Docherty, p. 61). There are many instances of such picturing in Donne’s poems. In Woman’s Constancy, the linkage of woman capable of change or promiscuity, with the concept of the Other, is indicated. In The Anagram, Donne, with a cunning comparison, states that an old, ugly woman is a better partner than a young beautiful one. The comparisons and concise arguments follow each other so swiftly that there is no time for contemplation or objection on the part of the reader. The Anagram makes of female body a kind of crossword puzzle, which demands completion, solution, and fixity in the hands of the controlling intelligence of the male. In fact, they are only accorded the state of object of study and thought.
” Though all her parts be not in th’ usual place She hath yet an anagram of a good face. If we might put the letters but one way,
in that lean dearth of words, what could we say?”
(Donne, p. 103) .
It seems that the real source of man’s fear is the unknown, mysterious, strange, and to some extent, unpredictable female subjectivity or female’s desire and will; something that can challenge the male authority which has its roots both in the ideology and the time. According to Docherty, In The Anagram, it is impossible to say who the woman is; she owns no fix identity, no recognizable face or body and can go unrecognized and unnoticed (63). The woman as an object of desire is in the process of constant changing to the point that man’s inclination and long for her takes the form of a desire for an abstract. The first part of the Anagram starts with praising some kind of ugliness; but as the poem progresses Flavia, the anagrammatic woman of the poem, changes to a different person with a different kind of identity. “Flavia is simply one of many possible anagrammatic configurations of woman’s body, stripped of stable identity, anonymous in fact, in the elaboration of the text” (Docherty, p.65). Thus the fear of such a changing, mysterious creature appears to be natural for a man.
In Renaissance, the concept of Great Chain of Being, a philosophy that accounts for the origin, type and relationship of all living things, believes that “the existing species exhibit a hierarchy of status and so compose a great chain or ladder, extending from the lowest level of the merest existence up to God Himself” (Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 112). In this system of thought each individual has his own determined position in this hierarchal society mainly in accordance with the amount of one’ property; a position that must not be transgressed. Since “the place is identity and things out of place are not properly themselves”, woman who doesn’t know her place in society is consequently devoid of any identity (Docherty, p. 63).
Furthermore, woman is also capable of violating her predetermined position or limitation. Docherty points, “Woman in the Anagram, is a microcosmic version of a revolutionary landâ€¦she is a demonstration or articulation of an unnatural society which questions or stands against the interests of the dominant ideological or cultural norms of the male dominated society” (63). Considering her potentiality in subverting the dominant power can justify man’s endeavor to confine her and render her powerless and submissive.
In the same poem, Donne also compares women to angles which, contrary to what it signifies today, can be interpreted quite differently in the light of Renaissance culture. Donne states:
“Women are all like angels ; the fair be
Like those which fell to worse ; but such as she,
Like to good angels, nothing can impair :
‘Tis less grief to be foul, than to have been fair”.
( Donne, p. 103).
What is obvious here is the reversal of fair-good, ugly-bad idea usually held in viewing women. In addition, what is most striking here is the fact that such a comparison is not made to give an aura of holiness to women; quite contrary it serves to depreciate and belittle her. Docherty explains,
Angles in theology are thought to occupy the median metaphysical space between humanity and godhead. Woman described as an angle is a symbol of exchange with no inherent value in her and worth only what her owner determine. Besides, angle is a slang term in 17th century meaning a gold coin. (69)
Comparing women to angles which like coin and money are only mediums to be used, to be spent the way their owners and masters desire, reduces them to a mere instrumental medium for men to achieve their own selves and identities. As a coin gets its validity via picture of king inscribed on it, woman is defined and validated through her efficiency and usefulness in elevating men’s position.
There are numerous instances of regarding women as mere objects in the hands of men. The explicit articulation of colonial discourse is most vividly reflected in Elegy 19. Going to Bed. It is quite obvious how this widespread discourse of the time finds its way to the poetry of Donne as well. He wittingly uses his colonial tendencies to induce the supposed primacy of male over female and to undermine her identity. Woman in his poem is regarded as the other space; Docherty describes
Donne explicitly relates the space of the alien female body to be overcome with that geographical space which demands colonization, “oh my America! My new founded land.” The woman here becomes another space, demanding to be incorporated, assimilated and controlled by this inner space of the self speaking. (78)
The male speaker seems to have the presupposition of ignorance and inability on the part of women in his mind, much like what colonizers propose to justify their supposed superiority.
The poem also expresses,
Contradictory views of woman that were part of Renaissance culture in England, where the vogue of courtly love and the presence of a female monarch could glorify a woman as the source of all riches, favor, and grace, but political, legal, economic, and medical conventions and conditions defined woman as inferior and subordinate. (Guibbory, p. 134)
Furthermore, throughout the poem, the body of the girl extends to encompass the whole universe:
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
(qtd. in Abrams, the Norton Anthology, 609).
The masculine speaker wants to have the license of roving his hands to go before, behind, between, above, and below her body; that is to say to gain access to all possible recesses of her being. But Donne has the power and wit to express such an idea via applying the terminology of colonial discourse. Doing so, “the woman and her body have been replaced by a kind of female landscape, thus becoming a microcosmic conception of the world of America or, more precisely, Virginia, a supposedly virgin land” ( Docherty, p. 79). Besides, the blest speaker, by discovering such new founded land, female body, is empowered to the extent which makes him a conquering explorer, an emperor and a God.
According to Guibbory, “[At] the beginning of this passage the woman is the monarch, providing a license; but the moment she gives this license she loses her sovereigntyâ€¦The man becomes not only explorer but conqueror, and she becomes his land and kingdom” (qtd. in Adney). This can be regarded as a feasible strategy to dethrone the one who seems to be in position of power. Docherty also states,
This demarcation of identity, this giving of a name to a woman, America, works to establish the primacy of the nominator (the parent) over the nominee (the infant, who, literally, is refused a voice). This female America, then, is dependent upon the primacy of the male England or Donne for its identity (80).
Natural subordination of women, as inevitable as head’s control over the body, is a point frequently made in conduct books, sermons and other ideological formulations of the day.
Donne’s special attention in all matters scientific and his special interest in incorporating scientific ideas and terminology into his poetry are easily traceable. In some of his poems, he places the basis of his argument on some newly invented scientific instruments of the time, most notably of which is illustrated in the conceit of a compass in Valediction: Forbidden Mourning or that of a telescope in The Flee. He tries to manipulate the scientific discourse of his time to make it serve his aim in reassuring his authority and status.
Telescopic vision plays an important part in the development of The Flea. The flea changes in size constantly throughout the poem. After sucking the lovers, the body of the flee swells to include not two but three lives which bear “a conspicuous reference to the notion of trinity, thus encompassing the entire universe” (Docherty, p. 54). Then flee is reduced to the space of “you and me”. It also changes to the space of a bed, and then continues to expand to the extent that it forms a marriage temple. This changeability in size is exactly the same as the motion back and forth of the tubes of the telescope that creates the varying perspectives; this is the same as the cinematic perspective employed nowadays in film-making industry to explore the whole existence of something that is under the scrutiny.
Regarding its shape and the basic form of its movement, telescope can be considered as analogue explaining the notions of phallic potency. As the phallus is the authoritative and controlling organ in a sexual intercourse, telescope, being masculinized in this sense, is an instrument of knowledge at the service of masculine ideology and epistemology. As Docherty best puts it,
This phallic potency is mediated as a mode of predictability, dependent upon the supposed primacy of the phallus itself which controls its Other that is always characterized as female; therefore, the kind of knowledge of the Other engendered here is specifically male-oriented, production of male or masculinist power and ideology (59).
Besides, the relationship between knowledge and power, proposed by Foucault, is thoroughly at work here. Telescope offers an acute knowledge of environment and this knowledge in turn offers the possibility of control or power over the environment. So the kind of knowledge produced here is not a neutral knowledge at all; rather it is ideologically constructed to act in favor of masculinity of the society.
In 1693, John Dryden argues that Donne is a failed lover of women: “[I]n his Amorous Verses, where Nature only shou’d reign [he] perplexes the Minds of the Fair Sex with nice Speculations of Philosophy, when he shou’d ingage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of Love”(qtd. in Bach 281). But he misses the point that the person who is expected to be impressed is not the lady but other men. Donne himself once says, “He has no such readers as he can teach” (qtd. in Sugg 63). In that case he probably has male readers in his mind. So as a result, it can be argued that even the most adoring and love making lines of Donne’s poetry are written for entertaining men, ignoring such being as woman.
To recapitulate, by acute reading and going beyond the façade of Donne’s poems, it becomes crystal clear that in spite of his seemingly adoring and praising tone used in his poetry, he considers no proper identity for women. Their identity, social status, and what so ever a human being needs to live with are accorded with a masculine ideology. Women in Donne’s time and poetry are reduced to nothing but an 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 amusement of men.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th Edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinel, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc., 1999.
—. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. 2 vols. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986.
Adney, K. “Defending Donne: ‘The Flee’ and ‘Elegy xix’ As Compliments to Womankind.” 2006. Northern Illinois University. June 2009< http://www.mind firerenew.com/issue 5 winter2006/0106-donne.html>.
Bach, R. A. “(Re)placing John Donne in the history of sexuality.” Renaissance Quarterly 72 (2005): 259-89.
Donne, J. Poems of John Donne. Ed. E. K. Chambers. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.
Docherty, T. John Donne, Undone. London: Methuen, 1986.
Guibbory, A. ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Sugg, R. John Donne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
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