John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine

By H. L. Meakin | Go to book overview

1
Donne's Domestic Muse: Engendering Poetry in the Early Verse Letters

[T]he Invention of Young Men is more lively, then that of Old: And Imaginations streame into their Mindes better, and, as it were, more Divinely.

( Francis Bacon, Essayes, "'Of Youth and Age'")

[ Donne's] Muse suffers continual pangs and throes. His thoughts are delivered by the Cæsarean operation.

( William Hazlitt, Lectures On the Comic Writers)

This chapter explores Donne's representations of his relationship with his Muse. Nearly half of the twenty-two references to a Muse in Donne's poetry occur in the verse letters he wrote during the 1590s, and so my focus is related to certain generic issues because of the concentration of these references in a single genre. Indeed, my contextualization of Donne's poetry using contemporary Renaissance texts will show that the adaptation of the Muse figure which occurs during the Renaissance is connected, in part, with generic experimentation and the self-conscious definition (in some cases, the derogation) of a specifically English poetry. Because Donne's early verse letters often self-consciously articulate the process of their own creation through the use of gendered imagery, I also consider gender-related images of poetic creation in these poems, whether or not a Muse is involved.

The verse letters which Donne exchanged with male friends during the 1590s are a felicitous place to test a feminist reading of gender dynamics in Donne's writing for several reasons. First, these short poems to his university and London Inns of Court friends are Donne's earliest extant poetic work in English.1 Second,

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1
See Flynn 1995 for a persuasive argument that a number of Latin epigrams were Donne's 'earliest literary efforts' written at age 14. They are printed for the first time since the seventeenth century in Donne 1995b.

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