John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine

By H. L. Meakin | Go to book overview

Introduction

Nor could incomprehensiblenesse deterre
Me, from thus trying to emprison her.

( John Donne, The First Anniversary)

The Copernican revolution has yet to have its final effects in the male imaginary.

( Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman)

In one of John Donne's most startling love elegies, Sapho searches for a means of praising her beloved, Philaenis: 'What shall we call thee then?'1 The topos of inexpressibility is common in Renaissance love poetry, but Sapho's question contains radical implications for what follows here: a feminist reading of some of John Donne's constructions of gender. Donne's sexual politics have yet to be fully understood in the context of his own work, as well as in terms of how they illuminate or complicate gender constructions circulating in the literature of the English Renaissance. Might Donne's reputation as an 'original and matchless poet' ( Carey 1990: p. ix), extend to his constructions of gender? What were 'the limits of the thinkable'2 for this 'Copernicus in Poetrie',3 this intensely passionate, intensely frustrated poet/priest, writing at a historical moment when anxiety around the definitions of masculinity and femininity (usually formulated in terms of the nature of woman) was repeatedly registered in fictional and non-fictional texts?

In the following four chapters I will explore a number of Donne's

____________________
1
Donne 1965: 92, 'Sapho to Philaenis', 1. 20. Unless otherwise indicated, all elegies and Songs and Sonets are quoted from this edition, by line number. For purposes of clarity I reverse Renaissance spelling here. The resumptive conjunction, 'then', was spelled, 'than', and the quasi-preposition or comparative conjunction, 'than', was spelled, 'then'.
2
James Turner applies the phrase to Renaissance interpretations of Genesis ( 1993a: p. vii).
3
Quoted in Carey 1990: p. ix. See also Milgate 1950: 292, Bodleian Library MS Malone 14, p. 38.

-1-

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