Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Spermatique Issue of Ripe Menstrous Boils": Gender Play in Donne's Secular Lyrics

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Spermatique Issue of Ripe Menstrous Boils": Gender Play in Donne's Secular Lyrics

Article excerpt

Dryden's (in)famous opinion of Donne's value as a love poet is today all but a critical commonplace; writing in 1693, Dryden objects to Donne on the grounds that "He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love." (1) While we might smile (or cringe) at Dryden's assessment of the intellectual capacities of "the fair sex," this should remind us first, that Donne's posture vis-a-vis gender and sexuality has long been the object of critical inquiry, and second, that all assessments of this posture are necessarily inflected by the time in which they were written, very much including mine. Thus is it that we have readings from the mid-twentieth century in which scholars tended to prioritize and read straightforwardly the poems of "mutual love," enshrining Donne as one of the great poets of (proto-)heterosexual romance. (2) In what was likely a necessary corrective, beginning in the 1970s, many critics shifted their focus to the more troublesome Elegies in order to not only complicate but in many cases demolish this reputation, insisting instead that Donne was virtually incapable of feeling anything but a threatened contempt for women. (3) Even some of the once-beloved Songs and Sonets were reviled as ridden with misogyny, and, indeed, some of them can be troubling from a modern perspective, given, for example, the masculinist twist ending of "Aire and Angels" ("Just such disparitie / As is twixt Aire and Angells puritie, / T'wixt womens love, and mens will ever bee" [26-28]). (4) In these critical accounts, Donne is the consummate misogynist, perhaps self-deluding in his protestations of love for women, but nearly always spoiling his poems with scorn for his love object.

While this critical posture is seductively straightforward, it fails to consider the complexities of gender throughout the entirety of Donne's corpus; representations of women indeed sometimes invoke the gynophobic invective these critics identify, but this by no means characterizes all, or even the majority, of Donne's work. Insistent on the unqualified misogyny of the early modern period, such criticism is adamant about the impossibility of a man of Donne's time respecting or genuinely loving a woman. (5) There are exceptions to this trend--Ilona Bell and Susannah B. Mintz are two of the most obvious examples--but this conception of Donne as overdeterminedly misogynist remains not unfashionable. (6) While Bell seeks to recuperate the poet through insightful rereadings of his work using a friendly feminist lens, Mintz lays out a brilliant reading in which Donne evinces a "desire to exceed the restrictions of binary gender roles." (7) Articulating what she sees as Donne's engagement with liminal spaces, Mintz provides a critical terrain for an understanding of Donne untethered from a gender binary, and it is to her effort that I would like to here contribute. In many of his poems, Donne not only combines images associated with conventionally masculine and feminine attributes and anatomy (which was not in and of itself an unthinkable project in early modern England), but also takes rhetorical and imaginative pleasure in doing so, which is far more radical. In these poems, then, rather than hastily reasserting barriers between himself and the fungible female Other, Donne's speakers confuse and confound both gender difference and gender fixity without anxiety, disrupting not only normative attitudes for his time (and ours), but also straightforward critical accounts of the attitudes his poetry displays towards women, sex, and gender.

It must here be noted that merely portraying the difference between male and female as inherently unstable would not have been particularly subversive in the early modern period. In fact, it informed both popular and medical accounts of the human body. …

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