Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Pleasant Conversation in the Seraglio: Lesbianism, Platonic Love, and Cavendish's Blazing World

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Pleasant Conversation in the Seraglio: Lesbianism, Platonic Love, and Cavendish's Blazing World

Article excerpt


One of the most distinctive features of Margaret Cavendish's writing is her practice of transgressing boundaries, of confusing categories, of failing properly to know, "to recognize or distinguish, or be able to distinguish, one thing from another" (as the OED neatly phrases it). Arguably, this transgression or confusion is most evident in the extreme degree to which, even more than most writers, she confounds the figural and the literal. Metaphor, of course, is always unstable. As Leonard Barkan writes in Transuming Passion: Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism (Stanford, 1991), "Metaphors move in unpredictable ways: it is in the interest of many to control them, but a trope that destabilizes the equations of everyday reality cannot easily be harnessed to a narrow purpose" (3). Yet in Cavendish's work, metaphors repeatedly take on a life of their own; products of "fancy," of the imagination, become embodied. Given that lesbianism has so often been portrayed as "mad," as "imaginary," as transgression or confusion of boundaries and categories (particularly the categories of male and female), as wrong or failed knowledge (especially given the sexual meaning of "to know"), it is perhaps not surprising that this boundary-transgressing and category-confusing aspect of Cavendish's work is consistently evident in--more than that, central to--her representation and use of lesbianism. (1)

A brief look at Cavendish's play The Lady Contemplation (in Playes [London, 1662]) will show what I mean. In this work, Cavendish discusses the subject of poetic creativity using a conventional literary conceit, the relationship between Poet and Muse. But she takes the conceit to an extreme of literalization, and in the process gives it a lesbian twist. The subject arises when the aptly named Lady Contemplation, her reverie interrupted by the no less aptly named Lady Visitant, describes an imaginary encounter she has just had with the Muses:

Lady Visit. What always musing? Shall I never find thee in a sociable humour?

Lady Contempl. I would you had come sooner, or stayd longer away.

Lady Visit. Why prethee?

Lady Contempl. I will tell you: A while since, there came the Muses to visit me, being all either mad, or drunk, for they toss'd and tumbl'd me, and rumbl'd me about, from one to the other, as I thought they would a divided me amongst them.... (238)

Lady Contemplation informs her guest that, soon after the Muses' arrival, the Sciences and Arts dropped by to visit Lady C's "rational soul" ("Arts" not in the modern sense, the endeavors over which we imagine the Muses themselves presiding, but rather "Politick Arts, Civil and Combining Arts, Profitable and necessary Arts, Military Arts,... destructive and wicked Arts, base and mean Arts"). But these serious visitors could not abide the Muses' rude treatment, and so departed--at which point Lady Contemplation's narrative takes an interesting turn:

   But when all the Arts departed, [the Muses] took me, and carry'd
   [me] to the Well of Helicon, and there they threw me in over head
   and eares, and said they would Souse me in the Liquor of Poetry; but
   when I was in the Well, I thought verily I should have been drown'd,
   for all my outward Senses were smother'd and choak'd, for the water
   did blind my eyes, stop'd my ears and nostrils, and fill'd my mouth
   so full, as I had not so much space as to spout it forth; besides
   all my body was so numb, as I had no feeling, insomuch, as when they
   took me out of this Well of Helicon, into which they had flung me, I
   seem'd as dead, being quite senseless: Whereupon they all agreed to
   take and carry me up on Parnassus Hill, and to lay me on the top
   thereof, that the Poetical Flame, or Heat therein, might dry and warm
   me; after which agreement they took me up, every one bearing a part
   of me, or was industrious about me, for some carried my Head, others
   my Legs, some held my Hands, others imbraced my Waste, another oiled
   my Tongue, and others powr'd Spirits into my Mouth, but the
   worst-natur'd Muse pinch'd me, to try if I was sensible, or not, and
   the sweetest and tenderest-natur'd Muse wept over me, and another
   was so kind as to kiss me; but when they had brought me up to the
   top of the Hill, and laid me thereupon, I felt such a heat, as if
   they had laid me on AEtna; but after I had layn some time, I felt it
   not so hot, and so less and less, until I felt it like as my natural
   heat; just like those that goe into a hot Bathe, at first crie out
   it is insufferable and scalding hot, yet with a little use will
   finde it cool enough: But whilest I lay on Parnassus Hill, I began
   to make a Lyrick Verse, as thus. … 
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