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John Donne From A Feminist Perspective English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1689 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The reason feminism exists is basically because of the marginalization of women. Feminists believe that the society is patriarchal and men have all the power in hand. Feminists argue that power imbalances the gender.

The wrong attitude of western culture constitutes Donne’s writing. There is a struggle between masculinity and femininity. The masculine tries to bury the grounds of feminine. That is why there are many examples of same sex love in his poetry. (Meakin 47)

Gender matters for Donne. He has written about women and gender roles both directly and through metaphors. The women in his poems are ‘shadowy figures’, ‘object or reflection of male desire’, and ‘a metaphor for the poet’s aspirations’ because Donne does not talk about their physical appearances. (Bell 201)

A shift of attitude towards women is seen in Donne. The masculine drive to dominate is one major theme in Donne’s poetry. There is an anxiety about women authority in some of his elegies. Another view is seen in Donne’s work which is that of his feelings for his wife Anne More Donne. She is the only woman he loved. Donne’s love poetry shows an attachment to her and this is contradictory to his previous views on the female subject.

Donne underwent a conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism and he accepted the removal of the feminine from divine models and the demotion of Virgin Mary. Feminism can not be applied to all works of Donne. Misogyny is seen in some of his poems. The notion of feminism is clear in his lesser known prose and poetry.

Donne is faced by a crisis of definition of women like his contemporaries. At the time (17th century) women were denied their voice and could only say the utterance of others. They had no function but to bear children (Meakin). Donne’s poetry makes a link between female subjectivity and metaphysical style; also he uses feminism to ground selfhood.

This paper will analyze a few poems of Donne regarding the notion of feminism and Donne’s shift of attitude towards women.

Many of the Songs and Sonnets and Elegies belittle women showing them as ugly, inconstant and deceitful. “Hope not for minde in women” (“Loves Alchemy”) is a good example. Most of the poems entertain, converse with a mistress and even seduce the mistress. In the poem “The Dreame” the speaker is luring the woman:

. . .

Thou art so true that thoughts of thee suffice

To make dreams truths, and fables histories;

Enter these arms, for since thou thought’st it best,

Not to dream all my dreams, let’s act the rest.. . . . (Donne 111)

His other poems praise women for the intellectual and emotional vitality. A good example would be “All my soules bee, /Emparadis’d in you” (A Valediction of my name, in the window”).

Satire III shows Donne’s clearest attitude towards women. The poem “asserts that finding the one true mistress is vitally and undeniably important” and “that it is stupid and morally wrong to generalize about all women on the basis of particular women” (Bell 205). The following line from the poem satirizes Phrygius for hating women because they cannot all be good and later satirizes Graccus for failing to make a distinction among women:

. . .

Careless Phrygius doth abhor

All, because all cannot be good, as one

Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.

. . .

Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so

As women do in diver countries go

In diver habits, yet are still one kind. . . .(Donne 29)

Some of the Elegies show a disgust and hatred towards the female body. Some others show a sexual pleasure that includes its own intellectual joy. “The Comparison” makes a distinction between one particular woman with another woman. They both have the female body but the friend chooses the woman only for sex. The poem studies the subjectivity of desire. The difference of attitudes which makes one man’s desire another man’s disgust. (Bell 207)

In the long elegy 13, “Loves Progress”, Donne argues that the right love is sexual consumption and he states that men more likely measure a woman according to her beauty and money. He himself believes that the sexual part makes a woman, woman. The following lines are taken from the poem:

. . .

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 blood

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. . . (Donne 60)

Donne rejects the ideas in petrarchan sonnets that relates female honor with chastity and subordinates the wife to the husband. Donne in his Elegies persuades women’s sexual freedom and questions the patriarchal control of men (husbands and fathers) on women.

Donne’s Verse Letters shows that ‘gender dynamics’ were central to Donne from the beginning. “These early poems show Donne building the foundation of his ‘house of language’ with, precisely, the feminine as building material” (Meakin 25). The work is consisted of letters exchanged with male friends.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Morning” has the idea of patriarchal society. This is not odd because the poem was written in the 17th century which was a time of male dominance in culture and society. The poem is about the patriarchal situation of the time. The poem starts by stating how men are important in society and how they have the first position in comparison to women who have the second position. Later it is stated that men are more rational than women. The line “No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,. . .” (Donne 120) emphasizes that men do not face their problems by tears. In the last part of the poem it is stated that women have o stay at home when they get married but men can do whatever they want.

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“Sapho to Philaenis” is considered a lesbian love poem. It shows a lesbian desire. Here Donne speaks in the voice of a woman. Sapho is the Greek poet who has written many lesbian love poetry. Sapho sends a letter to persuade her to come back. She praises Philaenis beauty and tells her that their woman to woman love is higher than a love between a woman and a man then she asks her to restore what they had:

O cure this loving madness, and restore

Me to me; thee, my half, my all, my more.

The poem is the first female homosexual poem in English.

There are some poems which do not make the genders of the narrator and the person being addressed explicit. “The Flea” is a good instance. There are a number of poems that revolves around all-male relationships. They show a masculine sort of world, even though some times the narrator is a woman.

In the poem “Aire and Angels” , the person being addressed is assumed to be a woman, but as the argument is developed, especially the last lines of the poem, a contradiction rises. But if one considers the narrator a man, then it will make perfect sense. The poem starts with the following lines:

Just such dispartie

As is twixt Aire and Angells purity

‘Twixt womens love, and mens will ever bee. (Donne 22)

The narrator’s beloved is being compared to an angel which in biblical tradition is male and is told that male love is more spiritual than women love.

The poem “Anniversarie” depicts a heterosexual convention. It is the anniversary of two male lovers who love forward to growing old together. Unlike the neo Platonists Donne unites the lovers and brings them back to earth.

The contradiction of Donne’s attitude is shown in his poems. There were many poems in which he dispraised women as discussed above, however there are a number of poems that Donne praises women. “The Extasie” is a good example. It is one his famous love poems.

One can not come to a definite conclusion regarding Donne’s attitude towards women. His outlook is very complicated. He shocks the reader with his change of attitudes. Depending on which poem one chooses to interpret it would be possible to see him as a misogynist or as a lover of women.

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 women, 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. (Bell 214)

As discussed though out this paper, a great number of Donne’s poems were about men and women and the relations between them and their social roles, some admitted the subordination of women to men, other poems showed another idea that sex differences are not natural and are social constructions and they can be changed. It is the situation of Donne’s time that shapes Donne ideas on what to write about women.

Therefore all the interpretations are possible.

Woks Cited

Bell, Ilona. “Gender matters: the women in Donne’s poems.”The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Donne, John. John Donne: The Major Works. Ed. John Carey. Oxford: Oxford UP,1990.

Guerin Wilfred, et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature.New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Hodgson, Elizabeth M.A. Gender and the Sacred self in John Donne. Newark and London: University of Delaware, 1999.

Meakin, H.L. John Donne’s Articulation of the Feminine. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.


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