Baptism: “The Second Birth”
Baptism in the English Reformed Church of the seventeenth century is a ritual intrinsically linked to another, that of birth itself.1 The traditional identification of the female womb with original sin thus places powerful spiritual demands on this sacrament: it must redeem or save the corrupt and fleshly birth which has preceded it. The model of baptism as a redemption of birth's and the womb's evils is abundantly clear in the liturgies of the baptismal rite and in the cleansing ceremony for new mothers, and its importance is not just theological but cultural as well. Such ambivalence toward the maternal persona is clear in the social meaning of a “gossip,” for instance: the term could be used to refer to a woman who engages in idle and malicious talk, a midwife, or a baptismal godparent of either sex (from “god-sib”) (OED). The term defines a caricature of woman's sinfulness, represents a female birth-giver, and is an ungendered term for the honored baptismal sponsor. Just so the evils of the female womb are connected to the transcendant power of baptism's spiritual rebirth.
Such a complex ideology of women's childbearing capacities might be expected to have a powerful effect on the metaphorical applications of such capacities. This isn't always immediately evident when Donne and other writers of the period make frequent connections between their own literary creations and fleshly female birthing by imagining themselves as mothers to their texts. The long classical tradition of such imagery seems to be the central antecedent when Philip Sidney says he is “great with child to speak,” when Jonson calls his child his “best piece of poetry,” when Herbert “represents the writing of poems to be a process like gestation” and plays on the “mater/metra” pun in his Latin verse, or when Milton and others multiply the meanings of “conception.”2 In “Elegy XIX” Donne imagines himself as his lover's midwife and herself as his text; in his verse-letters, where he is particularly self-conscious about his poetic identity, his verses