Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne

By Elizabeth M. A. Hodgson | Go to book overview
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In Elegy XIX, “On His Mistress Going To Bed,” Donne declares of his lover's embrace that “to enter in these bonds, is to be free.”1 Donne implies in this elegy that entanglement with the female body empowers the masculine speaker, making him a conquering explorer, an emperor, a priest, and a god. The woman into whose bonds he enters becomes paradoxically the one whom he possesses; he declares her to be his “new-found-land,/“his” kingdome,” his “myne of precious stones,” his “emperie,” “Mahomet's Paradise” revealed not to “lay-men” but to the chosen few.2

A somewhat more problematic attempt to enter the bonds of a feminine subjectivity is manifest in Donne's sacred texts, however; here the triumphant colonialism of “Elegy XIX” is often complicated by a greater sense that the masculinity of the speaker may be something of a spiritual liability. As Donne declares in one of his funeral sermons,

We are not called, Filii Ecclesiae, sonnes of the Church: The name of
sonnes may imply more virility, more manhood, more sense of our
owne strength, then becomes them, who professe an obedience to the
church: Therefore, as by a name, importing more facility, more sup-
plenesse, more application, more tractablenesse, she calls her chil-
dren, Daughters.3

Of course in this passage “daughter” is just as much a secondary and inferior category as “mistress” is in “Elegy XIX.” But those attributes which Donne here attaches to a feminine role, secondary as they are, are also desirable for the preacher and his congregation. This contingent and strategic adoption of certain culturally feminine roles and qualities in service of what is, finally, a project of masculine self-construction is an important dynamic in Donne's sacred works.4 Janel Mueller argues that Donne's secular lyrics are part of a tradition which “celebrated femininity for offering the male poet a privileged access to ideality and divinity as well as a


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