Marriage: “Joyes Bonfire”
While Donne's poetic identity and sacred vocation are often emblemized by figures of maternality and birth, a perhaps more fundamental concern over the integrity of the masculine soul arises in the context of marriage and its implied sexual intercourse with women. Donne's texts on marriage address the potential and the problem of retaining a masculine self after becoming one flesh with a woman, and Donne in other contexts suggests the deconstruction of masculine subjectivity through images of brides and wives.1 In contemplating the potential emasculation caused by marriage, Donne engages with his own as well as his culture's struggles to contain, define and evaluate both women and the institution through which the sexes are most closely linked.
Valerie Traub has argued that “in the Renaissance the fear of being turned back into women was constitutive of masculine subjectivity,” and while Aristotelian models of a single (anatomically male) sex should theoretically have made this fear groundless, it is clear that the biblical command that men and women become one flesh in marriage raised just such anxieties, at least in church documents on marriage.2 Engagement with this problem is certainly evident in Donne's poems celebrating literal marriages (the epithalamia), in his prose texts celebrating equally literal nuptials (the marriage sermons) in an explicitly sacred context, and in the metaphorical marriages of the “Holy Sonnets.” In all of these texts Donne builds an icon of a dangerous and also endangered bride to explain and exemplify a fear of marriage's potential emasculation while also celebrating and making use of this powerful metaphor of connection.3 While in baptism Donne fastens on the figure of the fecund but defiled mother, here Donne expresses this ambivalence over appropriating aspects of the other gender through the figure of the criminal/prisoner wife.
Informed by the powerful conventions both of genre and of cultural structures and texts, Donne's poetic and prose texts on mar