John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine

By H. L. Meakin | Go to book overview
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new Philosophy cals all in doubt. (The First Anniversary)

To paraphrase Sapho, What shall we call Donne, then? Clearly (or rather, complicatedly) he is more than the masculine monolith which has become almost a casual observance in criticism of his poetry and prose.1 A. C. Partridge observes that 'any student who seeks to explicate the writings of Donne must be prepared to amend his [or her] judgments repeatedly' ( 1978: 11). There are certainly grounds for extending Donne's reputation for originality and iconoclasm to his construction of gender, especially in his exploration of lesbian love, his evocations of mutual love between men and women, and the fluidity of gender boundaries in poems such as the early verse letters. But where does this leave the feminine? Still, 'all in pieces'.

Lamenting Donne's general elusiveness, Judith Herz betrays her residual disappointment in settling for 'solace' in individual 'fragments' of Donne's work, and William Kerrigan suggests this

The trend having been started by Donne himself and Thomas Carew, Helen Carr cites examples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of critics who assert and approve of Donne's 'masculine perswasive force'. For example, Coleridge approves of Donne's 'manly harmony' in his satires, as well as his more general 'masculine intellect'; Emerson speaks of Donne's 'masculine' oratory; G. H. Lewes enthuses, 'Honest John Donne--rough--hearty--pointed and sincere . . . was in every sense a man' ( Carr 1988: 97). Milgate hails the 'manly lucidity' of Donne's style in his verse letters to men, and then goes on to describe the style of his verse letters to women: ' Donne entertains and also flatters the ladies by the playful wit, the intellectual fantasy, sometimes (almost) the mild engaging idiocy with which he elaborates the basically simple thought and imagery from which he begins' ( Donne 1967b: p. xxxviii; my italics). Margaret Maurer asserts that as Donne's style matures from his early to his later verse letters, his 'posture of inferiority' disappears and '[t]he tone becomes manfully self- reliant' ( 1976: 247). Laurence Lerner suggests that 'what Donne takes from Ovid may be above all his masculinity: masculine cynicism, masculine power, masculine brilliance' ( 1990: 126).


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