P. 1
The Representation of Female Desire in Renaissance Verse

The Representation of Female Desire in Renaissance Verse

|Views: 39|Likes:
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Katie McNeice. It is nominated by Lecturer Siobhan Collins of University College Cork in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Katie McNeice. It is nominated by Lecturer Siobhan Collins of University College Cork in the category of English Language & Literature

More info:

Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
See more
See less



'Early Modern Poetry is a male poetry; there is no place for female desire.' Discuss this statement with reference to at least three poems on your course. Early modern poetry may be seen as an artistic expression of the cultural and sociopolitical conceptions of its era. Legitimated by the embodiment of the patriarchal ideal, literary content is saturated by the phallic perspective. As such, the representation of the female is continually harboured by the male consciousness; the female’s sexual and social status therefore amount to an identity devoid of the capacity to articulate desire. Voiceless within this paradigm of the male homosocial conversation that dominates poetic production in this period, the sexuality of women is a cryptic topic asphyxiated by male control. One may only conceive of an eloquent female desire by investigating the anonymity which pervaded male texts. Hence, one may investigate the position of the feminine through the manner in which it is characterised, concerning female participation with and subjugation of the sexually defining regime of patriarch. As a founding for early modern writers, secondary historical texts also provide insightful reference to a lineage of the estimation of female autonomy. The literary tools employed by male writers to characterise women are a conscious symbol of scholarly awareness and social reflexivity. Drawing upon the Carpe Diem motif for example, a male writer doubly demonstrates his artistic talents firstly by illustrating his literary education, and secondly by competently engaging with the expectation of the inevitably male reader. Generally dependent upon patronage, the poets' adherence to this model is rarely challenged and consequently preserving of politically constructed sexual inequality. Intimately bound with the male subconscious, divergence from the psychosocial conscription of biased gender relations is embodied only through male hysteria at the prospect of its collapse. As such, the images of women who threaten patriarch are most


telling of female desire, such as we find in William Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis', Thomas Nashe's 'A Choice of Valentines', and John Donne's 'Sappho to Philaenis'. Shakespeare's 1593 poem, 'Venus and Adonis', diverges from the original Ovidian myth, excluding the sexual consummation of the earlier tale. The text's polarisation of that which is chaste and vulturous is one which allows the constitution of Venus as a depraved and sexually volatile character, whilst the pre-pubescent Adonis embodies the pure and untainted. By opposing the protagonists thus, Shakespeare allows for the formulation of a sexually implicit dichotomy which entwines the female and the predatory whilst alternatively fusing the male and the innocent. Venus' desire for Adonis is therefore subject to an image of degeneracy when met with the youth's lack of reciprocation, by virtue of the linguistic connotations which attend to their interaction. For example, unremitting appeals to the colours red and white obviate a poetic association with virginity and promiscuity as in the lines, “She red as hot coals of glowing fire, / He red for shame but frosty in desire.” (35-6) As such, any deviation from that which signifies Venus' desire as illicitly masculine is incoherent with the hunting theme of the poem, which simultaneously envisions Adonis as the feminized object of prey. This reversing of traditional roles is, as we will see, portrayed as monstrous. The portions of narrative which verbalise Venus' speech are interjected with an absence of the narrator’s empathy, escalating the consideration of her unreciprocated sexual persistence as abnormal. There is a disdain for her narrative which is supported by the notion of female sexual hysteria, thus equating female desire with uncontrollability. As such, the sexual confidence of the female is attuned to a womanly power and desire which is inevitably circumcised by an inability to separate itself from monstrosity in the male discourse. This may be seen in the animalistic imagery of the poem being assigned to that which is representative of the female blazon, and whose relation to the character may even be constituted by absence or negation in self descriptive flattery. Feeding into the psychological


depiction of female as that which is lacking, Venus’ portrayal facilitates an undercurrent of ideological male criticism which fosters disturbance regarding female entitlement to sexual autonomy. Instances of this unfavourable personification include, “sickthoughted...serpent...vulture...devouring...murder...wolf” etc. (6-480) Devoid of allusion to the stereotypical maternal or marital image, Venus’ undermining of archetypal gender roles is profoundly disturbing to the male reader. Ironically, Adonis’ character doubly defends the denunciation of his female counterpart through a composition typical of the literary tendency to subvert women as objects of the male gaze. His femininity progresses the negative masculinisation of Venus, and yet heightens male empathy with his supposed victimisation. For example, “Rose-cheeked Adonis...more lovely than a man...the maiden burning of his cheeks...his soft bosom.” (3-81) Willingness to accept this contradictory sexualisation as part of that which also delineates a female tyranny pays homage to the notion of early modern alignment of female desire with male disgust. Oscillating within masculine favouritism, the obvious disdain for female sexual experience fails to recognise its own hypocrisy as, “...the rules of aesthetic production and indeed of the hermeneutic act itself are mapped onto a phallomorphic regime of production” (Miller, 291) ...which subverts the non-male irrespective of the properties of its opposition. There is an absolute revolt against the powerful female in ‘Venus and Adonis’ which seems to abet a consciously referenced precluded logic. Its integration into the text is subtle and yet resounding, and thus reflective of cultural discourses which also denounce female desire as heinous. Renaissance medical research is an example of one such discourse. As noted by Traub, “Not only was the existence of the clitoris disputed among anatomists [at this time], but the representation of the clitoris became a focal point for anxieties about the cultural meaning of female bodies.” (Traub,204) The fear accompanying the physicality of a potential female uprising attached itself to those anxieties which had long been ideologically


established. These are then professed through the poetic medium which thereafter animates such emotive images in favour of those subject to their threat. Intimately allied with the physical and ideological image of female desire, the clitoris was horrifyingly realised as the “...seat of the female erotic pleasure with the ‘fury of the uterus’ that drives young women into uncontrollable fits of erotomania”. (Beecher, 1003) Morally associative with degeneracy, any female sexual act or ideal which did not adhere to prescribed cultural norms found the accused straddling parallel allegations replete with malevolent sexual desire. Venus’ alignment with the grotesque in Shakespeare’s poem hence incorporates the ferocity and beastliness of other creatures, such as the horse. Recalling the clitoral association with pleasure and deviancy, Shakespeare’s description of “The iron bit” the horse “crusheth ‘tween his teeth / Controlling what he was controlled with” (290-1) assumes a contiguous relationship to Venus as the masculinised woman, substituting not only the penis as commander of narrative, but also that which embraces the female voice in the context of what may be suggested as indirect masturbation via allusion to the promiscuously nonreproductive act of oral sex. The engineering of this immoral and transgressive female figure is also recognisable in Nashe’s ‘A Choice of Valentines,’ unpublished due to its controversial reception until 1905. The abjection of male prerogatives is more pronounced in this poem, as the narrative facilitates female willingness not only to engage in licentiousness under the aegis of prostitution, but to tantalise the subordinated male figure through graphic masturbation. The freedom of lusty Frances is one which foresees the dangers in mutually contrived sexual relations. Guided with a satiric voice which parodies the opportune female mockery in the face of male sexual incompetence, the reader of 'A Choice of Valentines' is privy to a deliberate condescension of legitimated female desire, as in the statement, “I com for game, therefore give me my Jill.” (34). Subsequently supported by what one may consider the


'normalisation of the abnormal', the inevitable association of female sexual liberty with an adulterated secondary collection of evil qualities obstructs the capacity of any reader to identify Frances' unabashed display as anything more than farcical. Due to the intensity of the male hysteria at his replacement by a non-organic dildo, the embodiment of the kinaesthetic capabilities of the penis without male pleasure or the expulsion of male seed invokes the Platonic account of the perfect male form, and thus qualifies an expected female heterosexual dependency on masculine faultlessness. Nashe also inverts the Petrarchan tradition through sexual impotence, and yet the tantalisation of the male speaker by the sexual potential of the female digresses from the typically amenable result of artistic flourish. It is inevitable that despite the prostitute’s sexual victory in this text, male tendency to hyperbolise the vice of female desire is forever havened by the immanent personification of the pen by the male hand. Hence, poetic mechanisms adopt a reflexivity which salvage the male arrogation, even in the most reversed circumstance of misogyny which sees that, “...the female erotic body carries with it the burden of the illicit, the disgusting, the abject, and...the unnatural.” (Traub,123) The male poet thus participates in a culturally defined narcissism whose principles subvert the female not only visually, but also in consequent ideological infiltration of her sexual liberty. Suffering this political and artistic embargo, even displays of entirely straightforward heterosexuality in female sexual lust favours the male in absence of continual physical and conceptual penetration. The ability of early modern poetry to quench female desire with such naturalised dismissal was not unsupported by other influential bodies of the time. Appeals to biblical, philosophical and medical 'fact' were common in the period, and informed many poets with a foundation upon which to build a “...one-sex model in which difference was inconceivable.” (Laquer, 8) The ability of the female to desire and become sexually proactive derives its consequent disturbance to the male psyche through the dependence of the masculine identity


upon sexual distinction. Often cohering to the censorship of the church, the poet is perfectly capable of drawing upon biblical references which not only achieve him religious praise, but excuse a misogynistic framework which may actually be easily destabilised through simple linguistic technicalities. Critic Mieke Bal re-translates Genesis revealing Adam as originally neither androgynous nor sexual before the creation of Eve, as sexuality itself is not made possible until the existence of woman. It is also argued that if drawn correctly, the familial model between the first man and woman is that of brother and sister, and so views which consider man the parent of woman are incorrect. Bal asserts that church officials recognised that, “God created man and woman as equals (Gen. 1) but on the other hand, saw in society no such equality. Therefore, they included the sexist version of Gen. 2” (Bal, M. 1985) The establishment of the female image as that to which the male is indebted for his sexual existence makes more poignant the erratic need to poetically define her sexual inclinations as unreal pseudo-desires. Plato's ‘Republic’ touches upon this in discussions of legitimate political appreciation of the female by calling for a neutrality which overlooks biological difference: “But the city in which men and women have, so to speak, the same political body is a city that subsists outside history. It is also a city without images or desire.” (Canto, M. 55) There is an admittance of the impossibility of any community existing in such a manner, as political affairs are dependent upon bodily distinctions, and thus reinforce the artistic notion of dependence upon the female form. This circumcision of aesthetic possibility extends to erotic poetry: “The poet is the first person to be received into the city, and his poetry is real insofar as it satisfies the political desire.” (Canto, M. 49) Plato is also known to have written about Sappho, whose controversial position in renaissance literature injects the masculine siege on artistry with an unforeseeable challenge. Sappho's legacy illustrates the inheritance of the male poetic concepts by a group presupposed never to be vocally enabled or ambitious: that of the sexually active renaissance


lesbian. John Donne's 'Sappho to Philoenis' published with his other love poems in 1633, is narrated by the voice of Sappho who mourns for her female lover amidst a crisis in sexual identity. This willingness to embody the homosexual voice may derive from Donne's engagement with the feminine perspective, which is as striking as its difference to contemporary texts. Considering the narrative's complete adoption of the female voice, Donne utilises Sappho's homosexual identity in much the same manner as Socrates's physical guise is adopted in Plato's text, which is acclaimed by feminists as, “...the canonical expression of desire...to become the lyric poet possessed by the poetess, to blur once again the lines between the sexes by dressing oneself in the words and images of the other.” (duBois, P. 148) Showing the female attempt to define a means of sexual existence whilst knowingly embodying that of which previous women were emptily accused, the actual lesbian finds herself facing an array of degrading associations negating the possibility of a comfortable organic identity. Sappho's blazon of her lover in Donne’s poem makes blatant references to the gender difference present between her lover and man, as in the question, “For, if wee justly call each silly man / A little world, What shall we call thee than?” (18-19) By obviating her previous sexual experience, she is knowingly guilty of acts which have been included in the expansive and incriminating accusations against transgressive heterosexual women. Although possible to reduce these connotations to an irrational male anxiety, there still remains the insecurity and burden of having to separate the legitimacy of these acts from their horror of their reputation, even outside the constrictions of patriarch. Lesbian sex, and indeed the desire to partake in lesbian sex, has a heinous quality in renaissance society which saw the exclusion of the masculine form impossible to dissociate from depravity. Also invoking images from 'Venus and Adonis' and 'A Choice of Valentines', “...penetration – with enlarged clitoris, fingers, or dildo – signified the greatest usurpation of male prerogatives, and thus


was most readily recognised and most harshly punished.” (Traub, 124) However, 'Sappho to Philaenis' openly negates the preference of the male body and the desire to reproduce in the lines, “Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man? / Men leave behind them that which their sin shows.” (47-48) This issue is prevalent even in modern psychology, which sees Freud responsible for, “...the advent of psychoanalysis [in which] ...the clitoris and the 'lesbian' have become mutually implicated within a sisterhood of shame.” (Traub, 189) Even Sappho seems to question the normality of the sexual act between two women as in the contradictory lines, “Why should they not alike in all parts touch?...Likeness begets such strange self flatterie.” (47-49) This sexual self consciousness enunciates a need to confess its physical implications without shame. All women of sexual proactivity in early modern poetry are burdened with the impossible labour of defeating charges of inhuman lust. Obsession with the male form and medical curiosity saw a masculine terror at the concept of a woman not only mirroring male behaviour, but sexually performing in a manner which could replace the penis altogether. Thus, the recognition of the pleasurable capacities of the clitoris stimulated intense phobias of women no longer remaining subservient to men for sex, and worse yet engaging in the sex act amongst themselves. Medical practitioner Ambrosè Parè published a text in 1573 entitled, 'On Monsters and Men. Memorable Stories about Women who have Degenerated Into Men.' The obvious hypocrisy of aligning the female transformation to male with degeneracy considering the accepted Platonic and Aristotelian considerations of the male as the perfect form is emphasised in Parès concurring statement, “...males are not devaginated females.” (Parè, A.) Parè recounts tales of women who were forced to re-christen themselves as males and lead a masculine lifestyle if found with genital apparatus resembling the male penis. This included large clitoris and the sudden appearance of what is now most likely considered a prolapsed womb, due to the genuine concern that women could penetrate


one another. As a lesbian woman, Sappho faces the psychologically taunting prospect of embracing her own sexual tendencies including her desire to penetrate her lover, without conceiving of herself as unnatural and monstrous. Her attempts to speak of their relationship in the same manner as a male speaker in a heterosexual context falters in the unavoidable doubt of the reader in her self confidence. Venus and Frances' unsuccessful attempts to act upon their sexual urges without a conflation of accusatory challenges are also bound within these same allegations. This results from the illogical panic which accompanies female sexual autonomy projecting itself into cultural dialogue in much the same manner as sexual orientations which displace the boundaries of standardised domestic models. Hence, although the homosexual female speaker is given full reign to discuss her sexuality and desire in 'Sappho to Philaenis', she is unable to portray herself as fully autonomous and disintegrate the poetic implications of the male writer and early modern era. Indeed, the more Sappho attempts to reconcile her loss through indulging her sexual inclination, the more she incriminates herself. For example, her masturbation in a vain attempt to relive her previous lesbian sexual satisfaction exists within a confusion of desire for that which is like herself, and the inherent grief at the act's lack of success and the shame it derives. “That touching my selfe all seems done to thee. / My selfe I embrace, and mine owne hands I kisse...O cure this loving madness.” (52-57) She thus flails within her natural sexuality as figure unable to become liberated from within the male structure which has itself deemed her existence both impossible and volatile. Female desire therefore exists in early modern poetry only through the male’s desire to illustrate its need for subversion, and at the same time present his own form as comparatively more perfect. Infinitely traceable to texts from various sources, the misogyny present in the poetic medium is clearly reflective of its cultural context. The masculine poetic influence preserves itself so steadfastly that even female characters that have successfully


attained the indulgence of their desires are not free of an incriminating sexualisation which impedes the capacity to celebrate this success. This involves a reconsideration of the context of female desire in early modern poetry, as her inability to find solace whilst engendered as a female of transgressive sexuality becomes more a pressing narrative issue than the relationship itself. In this way, one sees the act of female masturbation and sexual fantasy in these poems as threatening to the physique and sexual competence of men. The ability to threaten masculine control by virtue of amassed female immobilisation exposes the predetermination of the war between the sexual categories, and the impropriety of the practise of female sexual suppression.


Bibliography: Beecher, D. 'Concerning Sex Changes: The Cultural Significance of a Renaissance Medical Polemic.' Sixteenth Century Journal, 36. 2005. 1003.

Canto, M. 'The Politics of Women's Bodies, Reflections on Plato.' trans. Goldhammer, A. ed. Tuana, N. 'Feminist Interpretations of Plato.' State of New York University Print.

Press. 1993. 49, 55.

Donne, J. 'Sappho to Philaenis.' ed. Carey, J. John Donne the Major Works. Including Songs and Sonnets and Sermons. Oxford University Press. 1990. 65-67. DuBois, P. 'The Platonic Appropriation of Reproduction.' ed. Tuana, N. 'Feminist Interpretations of Plato.' State of New York University Press. 1993. 148. Print.

Laquer, T. 'Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud'. Harvard University Press. 1992. 1003. Print.

Mieke, B. 'Sexuality, Sin and Sorrow: The Emergence of a Female Character (A Reading of Genesis 103). ed. Sulieman, S. R. The Female Body in Western Culture. Harvard University Press, 1986.

Miller, N. K. (1985) 'Rereading as a Woman: The Body in Practice.' ed. Sulieman, S. R. The Female Body in Western Culture. Harvard University Press.1986. 291. Print.

Nashe, T. 'A Choice of Valentines.' ed. Hunter, J. Payne, M. Renaissance Literature: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 823-829. Print.


Shakespeare, W. 'Venus and Adonis.' eds. Duncan-Jones, K. Woudhuysen, H. R. Shakespeare's Poems. The Arden Shakespeare, 2007. 124-420. Print.

Traub, V. 'The Psychomorphology of the Clitoiris.' Feminist Approaches to Theory and Methodology. Eds. Hesse-Bieber, S. Gilmartin, C. Lyndenberg, R. Oxford University Press. 1999. 224. Print.

Traub, V. “A certaine incredible excesse of plesure”: female orgasm, prosthetic pleasures, and the anatomical pudica. ed. Traub, V. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. University Press of Michigan, 2002. 123. Print.

Traub, V. 'The Psychomorphology of the Clitoris.' The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. ed. Traub, V. University Press of Michigan, 2002. 189, 204. Print.

You're Reading a Free Preview

/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->