Sexual Transgression in Donne's Elegies

Author(s): Diana Trevino Benet
Source: Modern Philology, Vol. 92, No. 1 (Aug., 1994), pp. 14-35
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Sexual
Transgression
in Donne's
Elegies
DIANA TREVINO BENET
New York
University
Over the
past
two centuries, readers have often been
puzzled
or alien-
ated
by John
Donne's
Elegies.
Their discomfort has arisen
primarily
from his treatment of women.
Nineteenth-century
critics worried that
the
Elegies
indicted the Dean of St. Paul's of
gross passions
and mis-
conduct; today,
some readers
argue
that
they
convict Donne of
misog-
yny. During
the
past
few
years, however, perplexities
have
begun
to
clear as scholars have recovered
elucidating
materials and
perspec-
tives. This article sustains the recent
depreciation
of love as the
pri-
mary
concern of the
Elegies;
it
proposes
a new
interpretive
field with
the
potential
to
change
the
way
we read these
poems:
the
popular
con-
troversy
about women.
Along
with other Renaissance authors, Donne
was
prompted
to
question
the distinctions and the relations between
the sexes
by
a
public controversy
in
England
that
spanned
the
years
from 1540 to 1640. This
debate, a
protracted
reevaluation of
changing
sexual roles,
sprang
from a combination of economic and cultural fac-
tors while
chronicling
sexual and social anxieties across a broad
spec-
trum of
people-from
women who wanted more freedom and
respect
to men who worried about the loss of male
identity.
But it
especially
recorded the anxieties of men who feared the loss of their traditional
dominance over women, and of
people
who feared that
changing
sex-
ual roles would
bring
on the
disintegration
of
family
and
society.
An awareness of the
stereotypes, concerns, and themes that consti-
tuted the public debate can clarify the Elegies substantially. In brief,
the Renaissance woman question resituates these poems in a cultural
context that explains their characteristic features, so alien to the tra-
ditionally idealizing bent of most vernacular love poetry. These in-
clude their frequent satirical cast as well as their variously nasty and
I would like to thank Judith Herz, M. Thomas Hester, John R. Roberts, Ernest Sullivan
II, and, especially, John
T. Shawcross for their suggestions concerning this article.
? 1994 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0026- 8232/95/9201-0002$01.00
14
Diana Trevino Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne 15
humorous
aspects;
the
appearance
of certain
broadly
caricatured
types;
the
emphasis
on the
seamy
details or circumstances of love
affairs; the
discrepancy
between the
apparent
and the real
impor-
tance of the amorous situations; and the
contempt
sometimes ex-
pressed
for women. The last two items are the most
important
for
interpretation: identifying
characters and situations
according
to the
terms of the
controversy
enables us to
dispel
the notions that Donne
wrote in
flagrant disregard
of erotic convention or that he
expressed
a
general
hatred for women.
The
Elegies
are not bizarre, misogynistic
love
poems.
Most of
them are less interested in the inner world of emotion than in the
outer world of social interactions
impinging upon any relationship
they might
sketch. In
unsystematic
but
pointed
comments on
ques-
tions and issues raised
by
the
public controversy
about women,
Donne sets out to
explore
the natures of women and
of men, consid-
ered
separately
as sexes,
and
together
in various social and familial
relationships
to each other. The
poems
take their
typical
concerns
and themes from the
controversy, focusing
on
people
whom it
pin-
points
as sexual
transgressors: aggressive
or uncontrollable women,
a would-be cross-dresser, an effeminate man, men overcome
by
wo-
men, powerless
husbands, and an anarchic lover. Donne's
specific
manifestation of
originality
has
compounded
confusion about these
poems,
for he does not treat the matters raised
by
the
controversy
as
abstractions; instead, he chooses to dramatize them,
embodying,
for
instance, the issue of the masculine loss of
authority
in a dramatic
monologue spoken by
a timid lover.
Having
widened the frame of reference
beyond
the erotic conven-
tions current in
poetry
at the end of the sixteenth
century,
I will ar-
gue
that the woman
question
interested Donne in the
potential
fluidity
of
gender
identities and that this interest
produced
a
major
thematic
emphasis
on the sexual
transgressions
of the masculine wo-
man and the feminine man in the
Elegies.
This article will also show
that, unlike most of the contributors to the
public controversy,
Donne was more inclined to
explore
sexual
transgression
than to
pass
any particular judgment
on it.
Consequently,
his attitude in the Ele-
gies
about the
culturally
defined "deviance" of masculine women and
feminine men
proves complex beyond any easy labeling
or formula-
tion: sometimes he echoes conservative
contemporaries,
who see sex-
ual
transgression
as an
image
of eroded values and omen of social
destabilization; sometimes, however, he
presents transgression
as an
attractive and
vigorous
counter to
stagnant
or restrictive social condi-
tions.
Obviously,
an unusual feature of the
interpretive
field I
pro-
pose
here is its breadth: a context
large enough
to include most of
MODERN PHILOLOGY
the women and men who
populate
the
Elegies,
not
just
the lovers, it
accommodates social roles and concerns that are varied
enough
to
suggest
a little world.
Modern criticism of Donne's
Elegies began
in the
early
nineteenth
century.
These works of the Dean of St. Paul's shocked
readers, who
acted
subsequently
on two related
impulses-a
desire to
preserve
the
Dean's
posthumous reputation
and a need to
explain
how the
offending poems
related to the actual man. Editors
suppressed
all or
some
parts
of the
Elegies,l
and scholars who took notice of them de-
vised other
protective strategies, explaining,
for instance, that the ob-
jectionable
voice
belonged
not to the
poet
but to Ovid.2 But critics
assumed that even if Donne did imitate classical models, he was still
in some sense the
speaker. Though
the
Elegies
were "Ovidian or Ti-
bullan studies," Edmund Gosse added that "it is seldom so much what
the unbridled lover
says,
as his utter
intemperance
in
saying it, that
surprises, especially
in one who, by
the time the poems were
given
to
the
public,
had come to be
regarded
as the holiest of men."3 In
1825,
an
anonymous
critic
ingeniously sought
to
explain
how "the holiest of
men" could be the "unbridled lover" without being morally objec-
tionable: "The curious reader might do well to glance over Donne's
early amatory poems, to see how coarse the language, if not the men-
tal perceptions and morals of his age were, since so pious a person
could write in so free a style." In 1894, Gosse was more succinct:
"Even saints . .
.
were coarse in the age of James."4
1. Except for Elegy 6, Henry Alford omitted the Elegies from his edition, The Works of
John Donne, D. D. Dean of St. Pauls, 1621-1631. With a Memoir of His Life, 6 vols. (London,
1839); Frank L. Babbott included only Elegy 6 in its entirety in Poems of John Donne se-
lected from his Songs, Sonnets, Elegies, Letters, Satires and Divine Poems (New York, 1905).
Among others, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt omitted lines 31-46 of "On his Mis-
tris," though they assumed Donne there addressed his wife. See Leigh Hunt, The Town;
its Memorable Characters and Events, 2 vols. (London, 1848), 2:50-51; and The Complete
Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (1930-34; reprint, London, 1967),
17:124-25.
2. Following Ovid's classical example, "Donne writes as the man of pleasure, of
bonnes fortunes, with a cynical laxity of ethics" ("The Poetry of John Donne," Academy
59 [1900]: 608-9).
3. Edmund Gosse, The Jacobean Poets (1894; reprint, New York, 1969), p. 56.
4. Review of Izaak Walton, The Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard
Hooker, Mr. George Herbert, and Dr. Robert Sanderson, in Literary Gazette (1825), pp. 566-67,
quote on p. 567; and Gosse, The Jacobean Poets, p. 56.
16
Diana
Treviino
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
Another
way
of
rendering
Donne blameless was to
posit ungovern-
able emotion. The first to do this was
John Major.5
He
interpreted
several
elegies
as
referring
to Donne's love for Ann
More, thus invok-
ing
a
biographical
subtext that
might
exonerate a Donne whom se-
crecy, distress, and
passion
constrained in unwonted
ways.6 Seventy
years later, Gosse followed suit,
ransacking
the
Elegies
for references
to a secret
courtship.
But Gosse read more
carefully
than
Major
and
proposed
another lover for Donne. He
pieced
the narrative of an
affair that Donne
supposedly
had around 1596 from
Elegies 20, 5, 7,
12, 1, and 3.7 In this involvement with a married
woman, Gosse
claimed, Donne's
"heart, hitherto whole and
callous, was shattered
into
reflecting fragments,
like a mirror-was torn into
rags
like a
garment.
His
passion completely
overwhelms
him; for the first
time ... he felt the
genuine tyranny
of love."8 The Donne of these El-
egies
was a victim, not a sinner. The artful Gosse blended coarseness
and
piety, transmuting
the
supposed
adulterous
passion
into a fortu-
nate fall: "It was from these
agonies
and
errors,
bleeding
as from rods
with the wounds of
passion,
that Donne rose to those
spiritual heights
in which he so
glorified
the
grace
of God."
Reviewing Gosse, John
Chadwick added a scenario in which Donne
contemplated publishing
his love
lyrics
after
entering holy
orders: "It was as if he meant to
pu-
rify
himself
by public
confession and so wash his hands of them.
But... he had a great affection for these naughty children of his
early Muse. He could not find it in his heart to lay violent hands upon
them, even when he had become the conscious saint as the great
preacher of St. Paul's."9
What the nineteenth century gradually came to imagine-a tale of
sexual confession and purging that suited period tastes-our own
5. Alexander Chalmers had already suggested, in 1810, that Donne wrote "On his
Mistris" to dissuade his wife from "the romantic design of accompanying him in the dis-
guise of a page" when he went to France (The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to
Cowper, 21 vols. [London, 1810], 5:120).
6. Major simply looked for elegies that emphasize secrecy or mention antagonistic
parents. He misread in pursuit of his thesis, ignoring, e.g., the reference to the "towring
eyes" of the woman's husband in "His Parting from Her." See John Major, ed., The Lives
of
Dr. John Donne, Sir
Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert, and Dr. Robert
Sanderson, by Izaak Walton (London, 1825), pp. 451-54.
7. All numberings and citations of the Elegies are from The Complete Poems of John
Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides (London, 1985).
8. Edmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, 2 vols. (New
York, 1899), 1:68.
9. Ibid., 1:69; John Chadwick, "John Donne, Poet and Preacher," New World 9 (1900):
31-48, quote on 39.
17
MODERN PHILOLOGY
time has been content to
neglect.
While our critical
predecessors
had
problems
with the churchman's
sensuality,
we have had
difficulty,
as
Roma Gill first
put
it in
1972, with the love
poet's
"irrelevant nasti-
ness" and his
"contempt"
for women. Until
recently,
the
Elegies
had
elicited
relatively
little critical
commentary,
but included
Anthony
LaBranche's, Alan
Armstrong's,
and Stella Revard's studies of their
classical
antecedents.l0
The situation
changed, however, with Arthur
Marotti's
groundbreaking reading
of the
Elegies
as antiauthoritarian
exercises whose
purpose
was to
repair
the wounded self-esteem of a
frustrated office seeker.
Placing
the
Elegies
in Donne's cultural mi-
lieu, Marotti
opened
them
up
to new
approaches,
and
significant
fur-
ther work has followed, including George
Parfitt's
John
Donne and
Stanley
Fish's "Masculine Persuasive Force," an
original
treatment of
Donne as a verbal "bulimic"
courting
an
identity.ll
R. V.
Young's
arti-
cle on
"imperial politics"
in the
Elegies,
Annabel Patterson's
essay
on
the
political
Donne, M. Thomas Hester's
topical reading
of
"Going
to
Bed," and Achsah
Guibbory's
recent article advance our newer un-
derstanding
of these
poems.12
As these studies indicate, a
prominent
contemporary perspective highlights politics and attitudes toward
women in the Elegies. Guibbory, for instance, defines her subject as
the politics of love in the Elegies and stresses Donne's misogyny; she
focuses on the encounter of two people as a power relationship that
ultimately reflects "tensions over submission to [the] female rule" of
Elizabeth I.3
But I want to argue otherwise. Representing Donne as a misogynist
and reading the Elegies simply as erotically motivated encounters
10. Roma Gill, "Musa locosa Mea: Thoughts on the Elegies," in John Donne: Essays in
Celebration, ed. A. J. Smith (London, 1972), pp. 56-57; Anthony LaBranche, "'Blanda
Elegeia': The Background to Donne's 'Elegies,'" Modern Language Review 61 (1966):
357-68; Alan Armstrong, "The Apprenticeship of John Donne: Ovid and the Elegies,"
ELH44 (1977): 419-42; Stella Revard, "Donne and Propertius: Love and Death in Lon-
don and Rome," in The Eagle and The Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Sum-
mers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia, Mo., 1986), pp. 69-79.
11. Arthur Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison, Wis., 1986), pp. 45-66; George
Parfitt, John Donne: A
Literary
Lfe (New York, 1989); Stanley Fish, "Masculine Persuasive
Force: Donne and Verbal Power," in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary
Theory
and Seven-
teenth-Century
English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chi-
cago, 1990), pp. 223-52.
12. R. V. Young, "'0 My America, My New-Found-Land': Pornography and Imperial
Politics in Donne's Elegies," South Central Review 4 (1987): 35-48; Annabel Patterson,
"All Donne," in Harvey and Maus, eds., pp. 37-67; Thomas Hester, "Donne's (Re)An-
nunciation of the Virgin(ia Colony) in Elegy XIX," South Central Review 4 (1987): 49-64;
Achsah Guibbory, "'Oh, Let Mee Not Serve So': The Politics of Love in Donne's Ele-
gies," ELH57 (1990): 811-33.
13. Guibbory, p. 813.
18
Diana
Trevinio
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
between two
people
introduces new sources of
misunderstanding
as
well. Here I will outline a
reading
of the
Elegies
that continues the
general
shift
away
from an amorous or erotic
purview.
As the recent
attention to ambition, politics,
and
power
can be taken to show, most
of Donne's
Elegies
are not love
poems.
Love
poems
need not be
confined to
longings, pleas,
or celebrations. But even
musings,
med-
itations, complaints, tirades, and other
generalized
or
negative
ex-
pressions-if they are, indeed,
love
poems-will
be found to focus
on a
particular relationship
or on the
range
of amorous emotions.
Thus, a
song
like Sir Thomas
Wyatt's
"To wish and want and not ob-
tain" comments on the
futility
of
unrequitedness
without
referring
to
any
one woman or situation. But most of Donne's
Elegies
do not
concentrate either
positively
or
negatively
on a
particular
woman, re-
lationship,
or amorous emotion.
Elegy
1:
"Jealosie,"
stresses evasion
of a
suspicious husband; Elegies
2 and 8, "The
Anagram"
and "The
Comparison,"
are
exaggerated descriptions
of
ugly women; Elegy
3:
"Change,"
is
chiefly
about
inconstancy; Elegy
4: "The
Perfume,"
complains
about
parents spying
on a
daughter.
It is
finally
easier to
list the
Elegies
that can be called love
poems: they
are
Elegy
5: "His
Picture"; Elegy
6
("Oh
let mee not serve
so"); Elegy
12: "His
Parting
from Her"; Elegy
15: "The
Expostulation"; Elegy
16: "On his
Mistris";
Elegy
19: "To his Mistress"; and
"Sapho
to Philaenis." In most of the
Elegies, a beloved is not the object of the poet's desire (or even of his
principal interest); a beloved is the subject who activates certain
paradigmatic situations or the blank point around which characters
play out various feminine-masculine interactions. Not only are most
of the Elegies not love poems; most of the Elegies, including the love
poems, are about the nature and roles of women and men and the
familial or social relations between the sexes.
Feminist scholars and historians of the English Renaissance agree
that the years 1540-1640 saw a controversy in print that differed from
earlier attacks and encomia on women in its causes, its rhetorical
characteristics, the questions it raised, and the materials it deployed.
This multifaceted and protracted debate has now been described
in detail sufficient for exploring its relevance to Donne's poetry.14
14. The first modern historian to discuss this controversy was Louis B. Wright. See
his "The Popular Controversy over Women," in his Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan En-
gland (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935), pp. 465-507. Of recent scholars, Linda Woodbridge
defines the characteristics of the debate most clearly (though more restrictively than
others); see her Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Woman-
kind, 1540-1620 (1984; Urbana, Ill., 1986). I add twenty years to Woodbridge's terminus
of 1620 on the strength of the arguments and materials presented by Wright and by
Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and
19
MODERN PHILOLOGY
During
this
period,
a number of factors contributed to women's
sense
of
greater independence,
which in turn aroused tremendous interest
in the behavior and roles of both sexes. The
contributory
factors
in-
cluded a
growing
market
economy
that
directly
involved a
large
num-
ber of women in cloth
making
and
dairy farming;
the increased
visibility
and
productivity
of women outside the home as more wives
worked
alongside
their
shopkeeper-
or tradesmen-husbands;
and the
Puritan ideal of
marriage
as
partnership
and of the wife's
moral re-
sponsibility
in the domestic
sphere.
An additional factor for half of
the relevant
period
was the
reign
of a female monarch
(1558-1603).
Subsequently,
with
James I, there was also
England's progressive
ori-
entation "toward the
peaceable,
mercantile values of a nonchivalric
age"
and its
development
into "an urban
society"
in which
women
had
comparative liberty.15
At the same time that women achieved a measure of economic and
social freedom, the
increasingly urbanized, peacetime
culture
elicited
social and
entrepreneurial
skills from men rather than martial
or
other athletic
prowess.
These
large
cultural currents activated fears of
social
disruption
and sexual chaos from what
people perceived
as the
blurring
or breakdown of
gender
distinctions. Some authors
laid ma-
jor responsibility
on
women,
producing negative
and
positive
stereo-
types
that would become familiar: the
seductress,
the vain woman,
the
shrew,
the chaste
woman,
the
nurturing
woman,
and the pious
woman.16
But as the attention to women
sharpened
into the differen-
tiation of one sex from the
other,
men in turn became
objects
of
scrutiny.
The local terms of the debate could be
crude,
like John
Marston's
charge
that a
city perfumer
showed no
profits
"Vntil he
made his wife a brothell
stale,"
but
they
could also be
sophisticated,
like the enactment of "shared
gender" by Pyrocles/Zelmane
in The
Countess
of
Pembroke's Arcadia
(1593)
or Nicholas Breton's assertion
that man
partakes
of the female and "that man and woman are one
'substance.''"l7
Whether in
simple
or
complex
treatments,
the prose
Texts
of
the
Controversy
in
England,
1540-1640
(Urbana,
Ill.,
1985);
as well as D. E. Under-
down,
"The
Taming
of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal
Authority
in Early
Modern
England,"
in Order and Disorder in
Early
Modern
England,
ed.
Anthony
Fletcher
and
John
Stevenson
(1985;
Cambridge,
1987),
pp.
116-36. Also see
Angeline
Goreau,
introduction to The Whole
Duty of
a Woman: Female Writers in
Seventeenth-Century
England
(New York, 1985).
15.
Woodbridge, p.
168.
16. See Henderson and
McManus,
pp.
47-50.
17.
John
Marston,
'Totum
in
Toto,"
in The
Scourge of
Villanie
(1599; reprint,
New York,
1966),
p.
56;
Constance
Jordan,
Renaissance Feminism:
Literary
Texts and Political Models
(Ithaca,
N.Y.,
1990),
p.
221;
Breton
quoted
in
Jordan,
p. 242.
20
Diana
Treviino
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
fiction, sermons,
pamphlets, verses, plays, essays,
and satires raised
two fundamental
questions:
What is the nature of women? and "What
really
is the difference between men and women?"18
The literature shows an abundance of more
finely
differentiated is-
sues, which included
questions
like these: Is the nature of women
(and of
men)
fixed and immutable? What behavior and
apparel
are
appropriate
to each sex? How does the "real" woman
compare
to the
idealized
poetic beauty?
The themes and
subjects generated by
these
questions
are
usually directly
related to the inversion of sex roles. Hic
Mulier and Haec Vir
identify
the
figures causing
the
general anxiety
as
the masculine woman and the feminine man. The titles of those rela-
tively
late works
(1620) epitomize hybrid
creatures who animated the
controversy
from its
inception.
The Schoolhouse
of
women
(1541?) por-
trays
woman as "far more lecherous," more
aggressive,
and more
ambitious than her male
counterpart
and warns that such blatant
disorder means ruin: "Because the wife would have a tail / Come rak-
ing
after. . . / The man must be ruled till all be in the dust."19 The
masculine woman and the feminine man manifested sexual trans-
gression
in several
ways.
Female transvestism, insubordination, ag-
gression,
and
promiscuity
made for
part
of the threat of social
instability;
the other
part
was due to male
dandyism, permissiveness,
passivity,
and
effeminacy.
A sizable number of late sixteenth- and
early seventeenth-century works deal with the haec vir-hic mulier
themes and with other subjects and concerns of the debate. Besides
Sir Philip Sidney and Breton in "The Praise of Vertuous Ladies"
(1599), Shakespeare addresses some of the controversial themes in
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra
(to cite only the most obvious instances), as does Ben Jonson in his
poetry as well as in Volpone and Epicoene. Everard Guilpin, John Mar-
ston, and Joseph Hall-all acquaintances of Donne-were among
the satirists who fed the controversy about women in the 1590s, when
most scholars believe Donne wrote the Elegies.
Katherine U. Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, commenting on
Donne's "Communitie," have shown his awareness of the popular con-
troversy.
0 As a
body
of
verse, however,
his
Elegies
most
consistently
feature women and men who variously engage its issues or commit
sexual transgression as defined by the debate. In various tones and on
different levels of seriousness or levity, all but three of Donne's Elegies
are relevant to the era's woman question. Eight consider woman's
18. Woodbridge, p. 141.
19. Henderson and McManus, p. 146.
20. Ibid., p. 107.
21
MODERN PHILOLOGY
nature.
Elegies
2 and 8 deal
facetiously
and
superficially
with the
definition and worth of feminine
beauty-the
first of these, "The Ana-
gram," showing
that the
components
of
beauty
and
ugliness
are iden-
tical and that
ugliness
is more
desirable; the other, "The
Comparison,"
suggesting
that a woman's attractiveness or
repulsiveness
is the
prod-
uct of the male beholder's
perspective.21 Elegy
3:
"Change,"
asserts
that woman is
by
nature lustful and
changeable; Elegy
7
("Natures lay
Ideot")
adds that, once
taught,
she is
just
as "subtile" and deceitful as
man.
Elegy
9: "The Autumnall," defines the mature woman
according
to attractions which include a decreased sexual
appetite ("no volup-
tuousnesse," line
22)
and
infertility ("ages glory, Barrennesse," line
32).
Elegy 15, before
addressing "My
dearest love," expatiates
on the
falsity
of woman. And
Elegy
18: "Loves
Progress," explicitly
seeks the essence
of the feminine:
Makes virtue woman? must I cool
my
bloud
Till I both be, and find one wise and
good?
May
barren
Angels
love so. But if we
Make love to woman; virtue is not she:
And
beauty'is
not nor wealth.
[Lines 21-25]
Locating the vagina as "love's object," this poem finally "defines
Woman by her sexual organs."22
Such flippancy in equating woman with her sexual organs is delib-
erately scandalous as well as reductive. Elsewhere and in another
tone, however, Donne explores an aspect of the basic question of
sexual difference: What differentiates her loving from his? "Sapho to
Philaenis," his most adventuresome exploration in the Elegies, places
female and male sexuality in deliberate juxtaposition. A remarkable
poem
in which Donne tries to understand the sources of a woman's
pleasure and displeasure, "Sapho" has received a good deal of atten-
tion lately. James Holstun notes that Donne departs from his Ovidian
model, "Sappho to Phaon," but without seeing that he altered his
source precisely to draw out complications raised by the controversy
regarding a woman's perspective on sexuality.23 It is crucial to
21. Compare
"Satire II" in Everard Guilpin, Skialetheja; or, A Shadowe of Truth, in Cer-
taine Epigrams and
Satyres
(1598; reprint, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974).
22. Parfitt
(n.
11
above), p.
35.
23. See James Holstun,
" 'Will You Rent Our Ancient Love Asunder?': Lesbian
Elegy
in
Donne, Marvell, and Milton," ELH54 (1987): 835-67. I do not agree with him that in this
"uninspired poem" (p. 838) Donne "controls and distances lesbian love ... by periodiz-
ing it" (p. 841). My views are more in line with two recent papers: Stella Revard's "Donne's
'Sapho to Philaenis,'" read at the Ninth Biennial Renaissance Conference in Dearborn,
Mich., October 1990; and Janel Mueller's "Lesbian Erotics: The Utopian Trope of
22
Diana Trevino Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
Donne's concerns that
Sappho
and Philaenis are bisexual. Choice is
available to both women,
making
it
possible
and
necessary
for
Sap-
pho
to discuss the relative merits of male and female love.
Donne sets the erotics of sameness
against
the erotics of
difference,
but
begins by implying
that desire is not
sexually
differentiated. Dis-
tinctions
begin
to
emerge
when his
Sappho
asks her
lover, "if we
justly
call each
silly
man I A litle
world,
What shall we call thee than?"
(lines
19-20).
A man's
glory
is his
correspondence
to the
larger world, but
Philaenis's
glory
is that she is like herself alone. "Such was
my
Phao
awhile, but shall be
never, / As
thou, wast, art, and, oh, maist be ever"
(lines 25-26).
A "soft
boy"
cannot
participate
in the
mutuality
that is
possible only
between lovers alike in their
appeal
and
anatomy.
To
sameness in the senses of
unalterability
and of
identity, Sappho
adds
self-sufficiency
or
completeness
as a source of feminine
delight.
Thy body
is a naturall
Paradise,
In whose self, unmanur'd, all
pleasure lies,
Nor needs
perfection; why
shouldst thou than
Admit the
tillage
of a harsh
rough
man?
[Lines 35-38]
Man is
superfluous
in this
paradise
of
sensuality.
For
pure pleasure,
Sappho argues,
lesbian love and self-love have the
advantage.
"Ma-
nure" and
"tillage"
remind Philaenis that heterosexual
pleasure may
be diminished by anxieties about pregnancy. Sappho's diction also
evokes the physical quality of heterosexual passion, elsewhere charac-
terized as "labor" or "strife" by Donne and other male poets; in con-
trast, she describes the love between two women as a "dallyance" as
smooth and natural as the gliding of fish and birds in an unresisting
element (lines 39-44).
The final part of Sappho's appeal elaborates passionately on her
similarity to Philaenis. The Donnean idea that "Likeness glues love"
(Elegy 3: "Change," line 23) underlies Sappho's glorification of homo-
sexual love as true union. She declares her bodily parts as much like
Philaenis's as Philaenis's own:
Likeness 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.
Donne's 'Sapho to Philaenis,'" in Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment En-
gland: Literary Representations in Historical Context, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York,
1992), pp. 103-34, published simultaneously in Journal of Homosexuality 23, no. 1-2
(1992). Mueller's paper was first read at the Fifth Annual Conference of the John
Donne Society, Gulfport, Miss., February 1991.
23
MODERN PHILOLOGY
Me, in
my glasse,
I call thee; But alas,
When I would kisse, teares dimme
my eyes,
and
glasse.
O
cure this
loving madnesse, and restore
Me to mee; thee, my halfe, my all, my
more.
[Lines 51-58]
Though Sappho
is
finally
frustrated
by
the fact of
physical separation,
there is a sense in which
by loving herself, she loves Philaenis. These
lines work a variation on Donne's
customary image
of love as
exquis-
ite
self-regard,
with the beloved's
eyes
as
looking glasses.
The frustra-
tion that
disrupts Sappho's
mirror
revery spurs
the
greatest
claim for
the love she offers Philaenis. Likewise, to conclude "The Good Mor-
row," the male
speaker
calls
upon
his lover to match his affection:
"What ever
dyes
was not mixed
equally;
/ If our two loves be one, or,
thou and I / Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die." De-
cay, according
to Scholastic
teaching,
occurs "when a
thing
is com-
posed
of
unequal
or dissimilar elements."24 These female lovers,
whose sameness
Sappho emphasizes,
have a better chance than their
heterosexual
counterparts
of
achieving
the stasis of desire and desir-
ability
that is love's ideal.
Donne's effort to understand feminine erotics is
surprisingly
sensi-
tive. In "Sapho," he assumes that emotions like unfulfillment, longing,
and desire for union are identical in women and men. He also assumes
that what attracts men to women would attract women to women-
beauty and softness. It does not take much imagination, perhaps, to
argue that soft skin is more pleasurable to touch than stubble, but the
poem also registers some aspects of a woman's peculiar vulnerability.
Given her relative physical weakness, her experience of male sexuality
may seem somewhat violent: Sappho's reference to "the tillage of a
harsh rough man" evokes invasive and overpowering associations. Sap-
pho also alludes to the possibility of pregnancy-a complication not
often acknowledged in love poetry. In "Sapho to Philaenis," Donne ex-
plores the lines of similarity and difference that lie between the femi-
nine and masculine experiences of passion.
Donne's imaginative exercise joins company with efforts to define
the feminine in the public controversy, and his attention to the simi-
larities between men and women has some affinities with the concept of
"shared gender" that Sidney, for instance, had broached. But Donne's
celebration of same-sex love is unique. Apart from his, there are no dis-
cussions of lesbian sexuality in Renaissance English literature; even a
simulacrum of it elicits a deeply censorious response. Thus, in Arcadia,
24. A. L. Clements, ed., John
Donne's
Poetry,
Norton Critical Edition (New York, 1966),
p. l,n.4.
24
Diana Trevino Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
when Philoclea feels
passion
for Zelmane
(Pyrocles
in woman's cloth-
ing),
she suffers confusion and self-blame:
O you
Stars
judge rightly
of me, & if I have with wicked intent made
myself
a
pray
to fancie, or if
by any
idle lustes I framed
my
harte fit for
such an
impression,
then let this
plague dayly
increase in me, till
my
name bee odious to womankind . . . Sinne must be the mother, and
shame the
daughter
of
my
affection ... it is the
impossibilitie
that
dooth torment me: for unlawful desires are
punished
after the effect of
enjoying,
but
impossible
desires are
punished by
the desire itself.
As
Jeannette
Foster comments, "There could
scarcely
be a more eco-
nomical record of how
girls
were
taught
to
regard
homosexual
pas-
sion in
sixteenth-century England;
of the heroine's
ignorance
that
any
satisfaction of the desire was
possible."
Foster also
quotes
an ora-
cle's
negatively
loaded characterization of Philoclea's attraction: she
shall, he
says,
"with nature's bliss embrace an uncouth love, which nature
hateth most."25
Sidney's depiction
of lesbian
sexuality may
be li-
censed in
part by
the absolute innocence of Philoclea, but the ora-
cle's uncouth adds
"strange
or
unpleasant
or distasteful"
(OED)
to the
judgment
that such a
relationship
is unnatural.
Sappho's passion
for Philaenis would have been considered "un-
natural"
by
Donne's
contemporaries
not
only
on
physical grounds
but on the behavioral
grounds
of her "masculine"
aggressiveness
and
her confidence that she can supplant a completely superfluous male.
All such rejections of a woman's traditional role or challenges to male
dominance were abhorrent to men who argued that women's perfec-
tion consisted of "sober shows without, chaste thoughts within, / True
Faith and due obedience to their mate."26 Though the larger part of
Donne's world would classify and condemn lesbian passion as trans-
gression (if they were able to imagine or consider it at all), nothing in
his poem reflects negatively on Philaenis's and Sappho's love as such.
More typically, the Elegies represent sexual transgression through the
complex of types, themes, and subjects that clustered around the in-
versions of conventionalized masculine and feminine roles. In the
popular controversy, women who failed to confine themselves to the
sphere deemed proper to their sex were often assumed to be sexual
sinners: for instance, citizens' wives who worked in their husbands'
shops were reputed to be promiscuous, and their work was compared
25. Arcadia is quoted in Jeannette Howard Foster, Sex Variant Women in Literature, 2d
ed. (1956; Baltimore, 1975),
pp.
37-38. See also Jordan, p. 302; and Lillian Faderman's
discussion of the French attitude during this time to "donna con donna" love in Surpass-
ing the Love of Men (New York, 1981), pp. 25-32.
26. Henderson and McManus, p. 276.
25
MODERN PHILOLOGY
to
prostitution.
This
stereotype shapes
the
portrayal
of the woman in
Elegy
14: "A Tale of a Citizen and his Wife," who offers herself to a
stranger
while she rides behind her husband.27
Even
Elegy
16: "On his Mistris," a favorite with
nineteenth-century
critics who believed it was written to dissuade Ann More from accom-
panying
Donne abroad,28 addresses a
young
woman
considering
whether to
practice
the transvestism that
figured
so
prominently
in
the debate about women.
Beginning
in the 1570s and
running
at least
through
the
early 1630s, when William
Prynne
attacked it, female
cross-dressing
was a
recurring
mode in
London, with women
wearing
breeches, ruffs, broad, feathered hats, and other items of male cloth-
ing.29
The addressee of
Elegy
16 wants to
disguise
her sex for the
pur-
pose
of
traveling
with her lover, but he advises her to
"Temper
. . . loves
impetuous rage."
The
poem's underlying
issue is sexual
identity.
A woman is a woman no matter what she wears, and will be
recognized
as such, the
speaker
insists. As
Stanley
Fish comments,
"Masculine
authority
can be asserted
only
in relation to a
firmly
defined
opposite.
... In order for
[the speaker]
to be a man she must
be
unmistakably
and
essentially
a woman." Donne's
contemporaries
agreed
that more than surface
appearance
was at stake in transves-
tism. According to Prynne, "the verdict of human nature . . . deeply
censures the aspiring of women above the limits of their female sex, &
their metamorphosis into the shapes of men, either in haire, or ap-
parell" (emphasis added).30
While it is Prynne who spells out the continuum from costume to
conduct, there are other signs that feminine insubordination lay at
the root of societal apprehension over the woman question. Re-
versed sex roles figure in Elegy 1: "Jealosie"; 3: "Change"; 4: "The
27. Woodbridge (n. 14 above), pp. 174-75; Donne's Elegy 14, which was printed in
1635 and accepted by Grierson, has usually been omitted from the canon by modern
editors. See Herbert J. C. Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne (Oxford, 1912); and
John T. Shawcross, ed., The Complete Poetry of John Donne (Garden City, N.Y., 1967), pp.
xxii-xxiii. However, Patterson argues for its attribution to Donne (n. 12 above), pp. 47-
49.
28. See, e.g., Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne (n. 8 above), 1:151; and Major,
ed., (n. 6 above), p. 454.
29. See Woodbridge, pp. 139-49; and Jordan, pp. 302-7.
30. Fish (n. 11 above), p. 233. William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix. The players Scourge or Ac-
tors Tragoedie (London, 1633), p. 200. Transvestism, a visible sign of shared gender, was
thought to promote unsanctioned sexual behavior. According to the author of Hic
Mulier, the "Masculine women . . . have laid by the bashfulness of [their] natures to
gather the impudence of Harlots." Their new fashions are "all unbuttoned to en-
tice . . . and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action"
(Henderson and McManus, pp. 266-67). Bruce R. Smith discusses the perceived con-
nection between cross-dressing and homosexuality in the late sixteenth century in Sex-
ual Desire in Shakespeare's England (Chicago, 1991), p. 147.
26
Diana
Treviino
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne 27
Perfume"; 5: "His Picture";
7
("Natures lay Ideot");
and 16: "On his
Mistris." In these
elegies,
the women are bolder, or lustier, or more
faithless, or more
something
than men-all exhibit traits or behavior
traditionally
associated with males. "Natures
lay
Ideot," for
instance,
is a woman who
proves
more false and callous than the man who
schooled her and now
complains
of his loss of control over her. Ele-
gies
1, 3, 4, and 6
("Oh
let me not serve
so")
feature
aggressive
women;
and female insubordination vis-a-vis a male
figure (whether
a cuckolded husband, a deceived or
disobeyed father, or a
betrayed
lover)
is
highlighted
in
Elegies 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 12: "His
Parting
from
Her." Several of these
poems
state
outright
what is
implicit
in all
of them: a rebellious woman is a
harbinger
of social
upheaval.
"Jealosie"
likens the deceived husband of the
speaker's
lover succes-
sively
to a
king,
a noble, a
bishop,
the
mayor
of London, and the
pope,
men whose
authority
is
currently
undermined
by
adroit rebels
(lines 25-34). Deliberately,
Donne's
speaker points
the
analogue
be-
tween the
private
and the civil realms: the
transgressions
of women
threaten order in both.
Elegy
4: "The Perfume," compares
the father who cannot control
his libidinous
daughter
to a
"tyran King,
that in his bed / Smelt
gun-
powder" (lines 43-44).
Whether or not this allusion
glances
at
James
and the
Gunpowder
Plot,
the
point
is obvious:
unruly
women threaten
to destabilize the
larger
order
represented by
male
authority.
As one
of Donne's most obvious
depictions
of reversed sex roles, this some-
times
funny poem proves
central for
establishing
the cultural environ-
ment the
poet
assumes for the
Elegies.
Not
very romantically,
the
speaker
of "The Perfume"
complains
to his lover that, having
once
been
caught
with her,
"All
thy suppos'd escapes
are laid on mee." The
young
woman's
spying parents
assume that she is
promiscuous,
so
they
"watch [her] entries, and returnes all
night" (line 16).
Her mother
continually
watches her for
signs
of
pregnancy, trying
to
encourage
confidences
by confessing
"The sinnes of her owne
youths
ranke lust-
inesse"
(line 24).
But the
speaker praises
his lover because their "love
these Sorceries did remove, and move / Thee to
gull
thine owne
mother for
my
love"
(lines 25-26).
Donne
implies
a narrative in which
the
speaker's
defiant lover subverts her
family's
structure.
The
gallant
who
speaks
this
Elegy
and
encourages
the
young
woman
expresses contempt
for her
parents,
but he himself
impresses
her father as
mercenary,
interested in her material
expectations,
the
"Hope
of [the father's] goods" (line 11). Besides,
he is
something
of a
coward
regarding
The
grim eight-foot-high
iron-bound
serving-man,
That oft names God in oathes, and
onely than,
MODERN PHILOLOGY
He that to barre the first
gate,
doth as wide
As the
great
Rhodian Colossus stride,
Which, if in hell no other
paines
there were,
Makes mee feare hell, because he must be there.
[Lines 31-36]
The
speaker's
fearfulness is no match either for his lover's sexual
adventurousness or for her frank rebellion
against
her somewhat
contemptible parents. Indeed, after
regretting
detection
by
the
"loudness" of his
perfume,
and
mentioning
his "silkes"
(line 51),
he
admits his
liability
to "the
greatest
staine to mans
estate,"
that of
being
called "effeminate"
(lines 61-62).
A brave and
lusty young
woman, a fearful and
excessively perfumed youth,
and a father whose
authority
is mocked and circumvented: the reversal of sex roles and
the threat to the
patriarchal
order are linked
quite clearly
in this
poem. During
one of the
upswings
of female transvestism in
1620,
John
Chamberlain
reported
that
King James
had taken
steps
to
quash
this fad as
reflecting
a world
"very
much out of order." A
couple
of weeks later, Chamberlain wrote that
pulpits rang
"with the
insolence and
impudence
of
women,"
as did
plays
and
ballads; "and if
all this will not serve, the
King
threatens to fall
upon
their
husbands,
parents or friends that have or should have power over them, and
make them pay
for it."31 Donne's Elegy 4 projects the same Jacobean
diagnosis: behind every rebellious, transgressing woman, there is a
man
failing
in the superior role his culture has assigned him.
Men who abet or exploit rebellious females also figure in Elegy 1:
"Jealosie," and Elegy 12: "His Parting From Her." These sexual con-
spirators attest the appeal of subversive women as well as Donne's
own interest in the challenges they pose. However, the other kind of
failing
male
appears still more prominently in the Elegies, where the
fathers, husbands, or lovers of successfully defiant women are as
guilty
of sexual transgression as the women are. Parfitt aptly observes
that many
of these poems exhibit "contempt for some categories of
male."32 Disdain for men bested by women explains Donne's com-
plaining, outmaneuvered lovers, his "oylie"-sweaty cuckolds, his fat-
swollen
husbands, his smelly fathers-the dupes that dot the lines of
the
Elegies
like so
many warts. But there is a yet more flagrant form of
male
transgression: male cross-dressing, decried in these colorful
terms
by Joseph
Hall in
Virgidemiarum (1597):
[C] omely striplings wish it were their chance
For Caenis distaffe to exchange their Lance:
31.
Quoted
in Goreau (n. 14 above), p. 91.
32. Parfitt
(n.
11
above), p.
37.
28
Diana Trevino Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne
And weare curl'd
Periwigs,
and chalke their face,
And still are
poring
on their
pocket-glasse.
Tyr'd
with
pinn'd Ruffes, & Fans, and
partlet-strips,
And Buskes, and
Verdingales
about their
hips;
And tread on corked stilts with a
prisoners pace,
And make their
Napkin
for their
spitting-place,
And
gripe
their wast within a narrow
span:
Fond Caenis that would'st wish to be a man;
Whose mannish Hus-wiues like their refuse state,
And make a
drudge
of their vxorius mate.33
The "Lance" that men disdain for
high
heels and
farthingales points
to the martial values
traditionally
linked with
masculinity
and often
represented
in the
public
debate as
being
at risk. In "A
Cynicke
Sa-
tyre" (1599) John
Marston sketched an effeminate
dandy
similar to
Hall's, lamenting that "lust" destroyed his "martiall spright" and con-
sumed "that sacred influence / Which made him man."34
According
primacy
to one's
appearance
or to amorous relations was a
perspective
traditionally
associated with women. Donne's
Elegies
5 and 20,
"His
Picture" and "Loves Warre," feature men who are thus "womanish."
The
primitive
connection between manliness and war, like that be-
tween womanliness and
ornamentation, was evoked
continually
in
the
English
Renaissance debate on woman. The author of Haec
Vir,
for instance, chides men:
Why do you curl . . . bestowing more hours and time in dividing lock
from lock . . . than ever Caesar did in marshalling his Army, either at
Pharsalia, in Spain, or Britain? . . . Were it not for that little fantastical
sharp-pointed dagger that hangs at your chin, and the cross hilt which
guards your upper lip, hardly would there be any difference between
the fair Mistress and the foolish Servant....
Cast then from you our [feminine] ornaments and put on your own
armor; be men in shape, men in show, men in words, men in actions,
men in counsel, men in example.35
The amusing Donnean speaker of "His Picture" laments sincerely that
he is about to leave on a military expedition and be "a man in ac-
tions." Expressing the unselfconscious self-pity of a person who has
no idea that he is foolish, he airs his trivial concerns. He gives his
lover a picture of himself that evidently shows him as he likes to be
33. The Collected Poems of Joseph Hall, Bishop of Exeter and Norwich, ed. A. Davenport
(Liverpool, 1949), pp. 69-70.
34. Marston (n. 17 above), p. 72. See also Guilpin, "Satyre Preludium," lines 9-20, in
his Skialetheia (n. 21 above), p. 59.
35. Henderson and McManus, pp. 286, 288.
29
MODERN PHILOLOGY
seen. Traditional sex roles are inverted first as the
young
man exhib-
its a
vanity
for which women are
usually
faulted. He worries about the
state of his looks in some detail:
When weather-beaten I come backe; my hand,
Perhaps
with rude oares tome, or Sun beames tann'd,
My
face and brest of hairecloth, and
my
head
With cares rash sodaine stormes, being o'rspread,
My body'a
sack of bones, broken within,
And
powders
blew staines scatter'd on
my
skinne.
[Lines 5-10]
The reference to "rude oares" calls to mind the
elegant
and
perfumed
popinjay
who offends
Hotspur
in I
Henry
IV
(1.3.29-69) by assuring
Shakespeare's superwarrior
that, were it not "for these vile
guns
/ He
would himself have been a soldier." In the counterblazon here,
Donne's comic
fop imagines
a "foule, and course" self:
grey head,
dark and leathery face, thin, powder-stained body.
In such a condi-
tion, he envisions the woman
arguing
that her lover's losses do not
affect his
judgment,
"that hee / Should now love lesse, what hee did
love to see" (lines 15-16). She would mean, of course, that the youth
loves her as before; but Donne reminds us, too, of the man's vanity.
That which in him was faire and delicate,
Was but the milke, which in loves childish state
Did nurse it: who now is growne strong enough
To feed on that, which to disus'd tasts seemes tough.
Although the speech that this speaker invents for his lover embodies
a conventional hope that their love will endure, the poem is uncon-
ventional in expecting that the woman will be philosophical about
the fleeting beauty of the vain man-a total reversal of the attributes
respectively associated with the sexes in Donne's day.
The conflict between war and love, between "'masculine military'
values" and "peacetime values traditionally female"36 becomes central
in Elegy 20, "Loves Warre," which is usually read as a reworking of a
classical prototype and as a seduction poem proceeding by double
entendres. Identification of an Ovidian source need not preclude, of
course, the poem's reference to the woman question, for Donne
might have reworked the earlier poem precisely because he saw its
relevance to the contemporary situation.37 However, two aspects of
"Loves Warre" keep it from reading credibly as a straightforward
36. Woodbridge, p. 161.
37. Armstrong discusses Donne's debt to Ovid's Amores 1.9 (pp. 423-24). Unlike
Ovid, however, Donne concludes his poem with an emphatic contrast between those
30
Diana
Trevinio
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne 31
amorous
poem.
The
speaker's emphasis
on the
baby-soldiers
who
will be born to the lovers
(lines 40-46)
runs counter to the heedless
spirit
of seduction. Moreover, his wishes to "batter, bleede, and
dye"
(line 30)
and to use "Neere thrusts, pikes, stabs, yea
bullets"
(line 38)
more
clearly
evoke the
painful
violence of warfare than the
pleasur-
able
assays
and resistances of
foreplay.
But such discordant elements
in a love
poem
are essential to Donne's satirical
portrait
of a sexual
transgressor.
Poems about love and war were not read
by
Donne's
contempo-
raries as trivialities. As we have remarked, the clash of the two value
systems
reechoed
throughout
the 1590s in authors like Hall and
Marston.38
Guilpin
also
depicted
this
opposition:
Heere one's
Elegiack pen patheticall,
His
parting
from his Mistris doth bewaile:
Which when
young gallant
Mutio hath
perus'd,
His valour's crestfalne, his resolues abusd,
For whatsoe're his
courage
erst did moue,
He'le
goe
no
voyage
now to leaue his Loue.
[Lines 15-20]39
Guilpin might
have been
thinking
of Donne's handsome
subject
in
"His Picture," a reluctant recruit
leaving
his love to do battle, but the
speaker
of "Loves Warre," who refuses
military
service
altogether,
is a
closer
analogue.
This
poem might
be read as a more or less
straight-
forward
rejection
of the martial ethic or as an
expression
of ambiva-
lence toward it. Other Donne
poems
like
"Satyre
III" and "The
Calme"
might
seem
comparable
in
exposing
the unheroic reasons
men have for
becoming
soldiers and the "rash
courage" expended
on
trivialities
by
a bellicose man.
But, as Paul Sellin and
Augustus
Veenendaal, Jr.,
have
recently observed, the "effeminate shirker" of
"Loves Warre"
specifically
refuses to
fight
"as
many
of Donne's friends
did, against
the foe in
Flanders, France, and Ireland
(lines 5-16) or,
like the
poet himself,
going
on those
dangerous
raids in
Spanish
waters
(lines 17-25)."40
It is
unlikely
that Donne would trivialize his
who serve in the war and the
speaker's rejection
of
any
form of service. To
Armstrong's
suggestion
that the
"cowardly" speaker
deviates "from ethical norms"
(p. 424), I add
that he deviates also from the traditional masculine role.
38. The love-war conflict
grew larger
and more
complicated
as a theme with the ac-
cession of the
pacifist James
in 1603. See
Woodbridge, pp.
159-68.
39.
Guilpin,
Skialetheia (n. 21 above), p.
59. See also
p.
141n.
40. Paul R. Sellin and
Augustus J. Veenendaal, Jr.,
"A 'Pub Crawl'
through
Old The
Hague: Shady Light
on Life and Art
among English
Friends of
John
Donne in The
Netherlands, 1627-1635,"John DonneJournal
6
(1987): 235-59, quote
on 248.
MODERN PHILOLOGY
friends'
military experience
even if he cared
nothing
about his own.
Besides, criticism of the tedium of
military service, frankness about
practical
reasons for
enlisting,
or
depictions
of masculine bluster
would not reflect
negatively
on the self-conscious
poet.
But fear as a
motive for
rejecting
war was another matter.
Donne
emphasizes
this lover's
antimilitary
attitude
through
the
lengthiness
of his detailed refusal. For
twenty-eight
lines he
prolongs
an
explanation
whose ostensible
purpose
is to inform his mistress that
she is more
important
than
any
war. The
ongoing
conflicts in the
Netherlands, France, Ireland, and
Spain
are dismissed in succession.
Next the lover
projects
what
might happen
to him,
if he were to
go:
And I should be in the hott
parching clime,
To dust and ashes turn'd before
my
time.
To mew me in a
Ship,
is to inthrall
Mee in a
prison,
that weare like to fall;
Or in a
Cloyster;
save that there men dwell
In a calme heaven, here in a
swaggering
hell.
Long voyages
are
long consumptions,
And
ships
are carts for executions.
Yea
they
are Deaths; Is't not all one to flye
Into an other World, as t'is to dye?
[Lines 19-28]
Fear of hardship and death motivates the lover to reject the summons
to war. Though such fears may seem natural or at least comprehen-
sible to us, Donne and most of his contemporaries reacted negatively
to a lack of physical courage. The lover speaks rationally enough, but
his concern for his personal safety diminishes him. This littleness,
like the speaker's preoccupation with current specific wars, serves
Donne's sardonic characterization of a sexual transgressor, a man
who deviates from his own culturally defined masculinity.
Other elements of genuine conflict are kept before us through the
extended and quite specific comparison of love to war. References to
arms, imprisonment, ransom, engines, pikes, and bullets intersperse
with the lover's fantasy of bedding his lady. A final contrast between
the battles out "there" and the war he proposes to fight in "here" en-
capsulates his self-presentation:
There men kill men, we'will make one by and by.
Thou nothing; I not halfe so much shall do
In these Warrs, as they may which from us two
Shall spring. Thousands wee see which travaile not
To warrs; But stay swords, armes, and shott
To make at home; And shall not I do then
More glorious service, staying to make men?
[Lines 40-46]
32
Diana
Trevinro
Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne 33
Dwelling
on
thoughts
that soldiers die in battle and "thousands" serve
the effort
by making weapons,
the lover
exposes
his own cowardice.
He is a
witty
drone whose
"glorious
service" will consist of
impregnat-
ing
his mistress with
boys
who will
grow up
to
fight
the wars evaded
by
their
superficial
father. In
place
of the traditional male attributes of
hardiness and
physical courage,
the lover's
masculinity
reduces to his
penis.
Though
Donne treats the male
subject
of "His Picture" with indul-
gent
humor and that of "Loves Warre" more
satirically,
both are
guilty
of sexual
transgression.
In the dominant sexual
ideology
of
Donne's time, the
exchange
of "masculine" for "feminine" values
figured
as a threat to the social order. In
dramatizing
and
weighting
as he did the clash between the values
traditionally
associated with
masculine war and feminine
love, Donne
joined
his rhetorical force
to the voices of reaction that
inveighed against
a
society turning
topsy-turvy,
in
part by "feminized," antimartial men. A soldier who
worries about sunburn and wrinkles is
merely silly;
but a craven man
who refuses to
fight
his
country's
wars is a rebel
against authority
and
social order. These two
figures together
with the other overcome men
and the
aggressive
or otherwise "masculine" women of the
Elegies
are
guilty
in common of
inverting
sex roles. A
phenomenon
that runs the
gamut
of familial and social
behavior, according
to the
Elegies,
in-
verted sex roles create both
apprehension
and
exhilaration, at once
threatening
social coherence and
triggering
new validations of its es-
tablished norms.
Once we discard the notion that Donne's
Elegies primarily
treat love
either in itself or from an
autobiographical perspective
and read
them instead as
topical
and often satirical social
commentary,
these
poems'
oddities-the
speakers' lapses
of attention to the declared
objects
of their affections, their
emphasis
on sordid details of the
affairs, the
negative perspective
on some women, and the nastiness
about certain men-take on a clearer
purposiveness.
"Social com-
mentary"
sounds like
dry, dusty stuff, but Donne does not deal with
abstractions in the
Elegies. Transvestism, as we saw, is not an exotic
social
anomaly
but a
possibility
discussed between two lovers. Donne
takes the issues and concerns of the woman
question
of his time and
puts
them to the dramatic test: How does the inversion of sex roles
affect the
relationships
between
people?
How
might
it surface in the
behavior of
daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, and lovers? Donne is
innovative in his
depiction
of female and male sexual
transgressors
and brilliant in his utilization of dramatic
monologues
which enable
MODERN PHILOLOGY
him to enter, with more or less
sympathy,
into the
psychologies
of a
lesbian
poet,
a timid lover, a
silly dandy
who almost knows better,
and
a
cowardly
rebel
against
the social order.
While the
Elegies, then, demonstrably
address the issues and con-
cerns raised
by
the
public controversy
about women,
a more inter-
esting question
for some
might
be whether
they
reflect Donne's
considered
judgment
on the natures of woman and of man,
and on
the roles
appropriate
to each. The scholar who wishes to formulate a
sound answer must familiarize herself
thoroughly
with the work of the
other authors, especially
the wits of Donne's
acquaintance,
who also
addressed the
public controversy. Only against
such a
background
might
it be
possible
to
place
Donne with some accuracy.
In the mean-
time,
I offer some caveats and
propose only
a
provisional
answer. It is
hard to evaluate the
quotient
of
personal
commitment
when an au-
thor writes on
predefined
social issues. Furthermore,
it is difficult to
evaluate sentiments intended for
private
circulation within a
relatively
intimate circle, and couched in works
serving
self-advertisement
and
vocational
aspiration
as much as
anything
else. Concerned with the
immediate
impression
he was
making
on
peers
or social
superiors,
Donne
probably
did little
soul-searching
about the natures of women
and men. It seems
unlikely
that the
Elegies
are the
product
of a rigor-
ous personal and philosophical inquiry.
Once these contextual factors have been
noted,
the Donne of the
Elegies
must be seen as
expressing
attitudes about women and men
that are
generally
conservative,
but
complex
beyond
any simplistic
labels we
might
be
tempted
to affix. There
is,
for instance, unques-
tionable harshness
against
women,
but this is
offset,
if not counterbal-
anced,
by corresponding
harshness
against
men. The women and
men who are
criticized, moreover,
are those
specifically
identified
in
the
controversy
about women as sexual
transgressors
(the
masculine
woman and the feminine man in their various
guises),
and Donne's
criticism of them is sometimes
tempered by
humor. To some degree,
Donne also modifies traditional views about the sexes in the Elegies.
The
"pretty boy"
of "The Perfume" is treated with indulgence.
The
lesbian
poet Sappho
is accorded a
straightforward
sympathy,
and the
allure of a
sexually
assertive woman is
given
its due. While the Elegies
often
project
anxieties
typical
of male authors who saw the inversion
of sex roles as a
sign
of a destabilized social
order, they also reflect
some
ambivalence,
most evident in the
speaker-lovers
of poems
like
"Jealosie"
or "Oh let mee not serve so." Sometimes helping a woman
betray
a male
figure
who
specifically represents
masculine authority,
sometimes themselves
betrayed by
a rebellious woman, Donne's
men
in the
Elegies
are threatened and
challenged,
attracted and repulsed.
34
Diana Trevino Benet o Sexual
Transgression
in Donne 35
They regard
women with a
profound
interest
compounded
of fear,
hostility,
admiration, and desire.
Altogether,
the
Elegies depict
a
world as various and
complicated
as men and women can make it
by
transgressing against
the sexual roles
assigned by
their culture.

Sexual Transgression in Donne's Elegies
DIANA TREVINO BENET

New YorkUniversity

Over the past two centuries, readers have often been puzzled or alienated by John Donne's Elegies. Their discomfort has arisen primarily from his treatment of women. Nineteenth-century critics worried that the Elegies indicted the Dean of St. Paul's of gross passions and misconduct; today, some readers argue that they convict Donne of misogyny. During the past few years, however, perplexities have begun to clear as scholars have recovered elucidating materials and perspectives. This article sustains the recent depreciation of love as the primary concern of the Elegies; it proposes a new interpretive field with the potential to change the way we read these poems: the popular controversy about women. Along with other Renaissance authors, Donne was prompted to question the distinctions and the relations between the sexes by a public controversy in England that spanned the years from 1540 to 1640. This debate, a protracted reevaluation of changing sexual roles, sprang from a combination of economic and cultural factors while chronicling sexual and social anxieties across a broad spectrum of people-from women who wanted more freedom and respect to men who worried about the loss of male identity. But it especially recorded the anxieties of men who feared the loss of their traditional dominance over women, and of people who feared that changing sexual roles would bring on the disintegration of family and society. An awareness of the stereotypes, concerns, and themes that constituted the public debate can clarify the Elegies substantially. In brief, the Renaissance woman question resituates these poems in a cultural context that explains their characteristic features, so alien to the traditionally idealizing bent of most vernacular love poetry. These include their frequent satirical cast as well as their variously nasty and
I would like to thank Judith Herz, M. Thomas Hester, John R. Roberts, Ernest Sullivan II, and, especially, John T. Shawcross for their suggestions concerning this article. ? 1994 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0026- 8232/95/9201-0002$01.00

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