Archive for March, 2010
Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
In response to the blog ‘Is ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ feminist?’ I would argue that although I would agree that it is not feminist due the reasons given, it certainly shows Lanyer to be amongst the first gender theorists. In the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity Judith Butler suggests that gender is a performance based on the concept of those rules constructed by society, and that it is the relentless attempt to achieve the almost unachievable expectations that causes the problems within society that the structure is meant to solve. Irigaray furthers the argument by adding that women should not attempt to be equal to men, but create an identity for themselves independent from them. Therefore ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ does not suggest that women are better than men or ask for equality, but suggests that the definitions that restrict women should be abolished to allow both men and women to be the best they can be. Through the use of language to create a tone of humour Lanyer is able to readdress the system under which women are oppressed by men.
In the opening of ‘To the virtuous reader’ Lanyer consciously reminds her readers of the roles that their gender stereotype has created for them:
Often I have heard, that it is the property of some women, not only to emulate the virtues and perfections of the rest, but also by all their powers of ill speaking, to eclipse the brightness of their deserved fame.
With the opening phrase ‘often I have heard’, Lanyer is recalling the times she, as a women, has been made aware of her inability to carve a successful career for herself. Lanyer is mocking the male idea that women should not be able to write as well as men. The irony of the phrase ‘powers of ill speaking’ in such a well written and witty passage makes clear Lanyer’s intentions of highlighting the absurdity that women are not as intelligent and able as men. In the repetition of the word ‘virtuous’ she is speaking to her female readers who, like herself, would have been conditioned to believe that due their femaleness they do not have the potential to become successful in their own right.
Although Lanyer writes the ‘small volume, or little book, for the general use of all virtuous ladies and gentlewomen of this kingdom’, in the way she uses language she is reminding ‘the world’ (ie. Men) to remember that without women ‘they would quite be extinguished from the world’. The idea of men recognising the benefits of women are seen in ‘Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women’. The poem uses the story of Pilate’s wife warning him against the crucifixion of Jesus. Lanyer is highlighting how unfair it is for women to have to be dragged down by men when they make mistakes, and yet the ultimate fall is blamed on a woman: Eve.
It can be seen, therefore, that although Lanyer is mocking men’s thoughts they are better than women, she is not suggesting that women are better or even equal to men, merely that the ideas concerning how women are perceived be addressed.
Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
In the blog ‘Donne’s multiple personalities’ the author touches upon the concept of the conceit. I felt that this was an idea that warranted expanding. A conceit is an extended metaphor that is used as the focus of a poem in order to allow the reader a greater understanding of a potentially difficult topic. Donne utilises the conceit in almost all of the Songs and Sonnets in order to achieve the different personas in that enable Donne to represent the different tones and ideas of love. I have looked at two of the poems that show the diverse ideas expressed: ‘The Flea’ and ‘The Sun Rising’. ‘The Flea’ draws on the well known sexual symbolism of the insect to construct a conceit that plays with the male ideas of sex, love, and virginity. On the other hand, ‘The Sun Rising’ reverses the conceit to place the speaker at the centre of the Earth replacing the sun.
‘The Flea’ uses the conceit of a flea that bites both the speaker and his lover as a metaphor for the sexual longing of the woman by the poetic voice:
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be. (ln.3-4)
Flea’s were a common device used by the metaphysical poets as a metaphor for sexuality, as if the flea were to bite both lovers then their blood would be mixed and they would be physically connected. In Donne’s other poems, such as ‘The Ecstasy’, he sees love as the coming together of soul (‘Our souls[…] hung ‘twixt her and me’)and the debasing of the act so highly regarded by Donne in his other poems to such a physical metaphor creates the persona and humour required to convey the sordidness of the speaker.
Donne often uses grand conceits using religious and spiritual images to suggest the coming together of the lovers’ souls. In ‘The Sun Rising’ Donne places his lovers at the centre of the universe, reversing the devise to suggest love is a conceit in itself. Usually, the conceit would be an external object that is used to place the situation in context. However, within ‘The Sun Rising’ Donne makes the lovers the central image with the sun circle them as though their love is the most important thing. The speaker chides the sun for having the audacity to wake them, but tells it that ‘love, all alike, no season knows no clime / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time’ (ln.10). Therefore, Donne suggests that the physical coming together of two lovers is the most important thing in the world.
Donne does not see the love between his personas and lovers as one that is one of a kind, but declares that love is ‘all alike’ suggesting that the themes of this poems are in themselves as central to the universal as the sun. In both poems the conceit allows for the persona to create an idea of love that is not expressed in the other. ‘The Flea’ suggests love is all in the physical sexual acts between lovers, whereas the enormity of the conceit in ‘The Sun Rises’ evokes a sense of love and sex as a grander experience central to the universe.
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010
The most prevalent stance on love, sex, and marriage in the Renaissance is that which we gather from male writers. From their poetry and prose we are presented with an idealised sexual love full of passion, trickery and crass nakedness. Donne sexualises his mistress in Elegy Nineteen by telling her to slowly remove her clothes and ‘teaching’ her by being naked himself; ‘why then / What need’st thou have more covering than a man?’ (ll. 47-8). Earle’s bawdy tavern maid, ‘She Precise Hypocrite’ is so bound up in her trickery ‘she knows not what herself [is] if you ask her’. And the less said about a certain Miss Elinor Rumming, the better!
However when we look at the works of women, such as Lanyer and Wroth, a different perspective of love appears. Lanyer’s main mention of love in ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of women’ in ‘Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum’ is through saying how Eve had too much love, which made her foolish and give the apple to her husband. This could be a warning about giving too much of oneself to another, possibly by marrying them. Lanyer’s poem appears to advise women to think critically before committing themselves to love. Simlarly, Mary Wroth’s poetry is full of rumination on the nature of love, particularly in ‘Pamphilia to Amphilanthus’. In stanza 1 of Urania’s story, when the speaker first realises she is in love, she believes it has come ‘from knowledge of myself’ (l. 3) rather than her heart, though her heart is shot with this love when her mind realises it. The means by which love comes to Urania is from a burning arrow that ‘martyred my poor heart’ (l. 12), which creates an image of love as painful, not tender and sexual as male Renaissance love poets present it to be. These women are wary of love and urge caution by critical analysis before giving up their heart. Even then the heart will often suffer.
Perhaps this reiterates the commonly accepted fact that men and women are different. The men we have looked at saw love as an all-consuming passion for a person; the women saw it as a contract in which they should cooly assess their feelings without giving in to blind rage or fits of feelings that might cloud their judgement and result in pain. Of course, we only have a few examples to judge this on and I’m not trying to make a general comment on all people during the Renaissance, after all, only 60 per cent of the population were literate. From the examples we have here, there appears to be a trend, which arguably still exists today, that men love with their hearts (or pants) and women with their heads.
Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Lanyer dedicates her poem exclusively to women; she addresses her prose dedication only to ‘virtuous ladies’ and ‘gentlewomen’ (p. 1315). She defends women from men’s persecution by pointing to powerful women in the Bible and by presenting a defence which moves the blame for being excluded from the Garden of Eden away from Eve and on to Adam. Lanyer was clearly moved by the need to set things straight for women, but does this mean she is a feminist?
The OED defines feminism as “a movement or theory supporting women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes”. So, a feminist writer would write about how men and women are equal. In Lanyer’s dedication ‘To the Virtuous Reader’ she uses the Bible, a book that carries great power, to point out women who have triumphed over evil men. She tells us of Esther who subverts a plot against the Jews, Susanna who fights for her honour, Judith who subdues then decapitates the evil Assyrian leader. She also acknowledges women who deface the name of their gender and asks them not to ‘fall into so great an error, as to speak unadvisedly against the rest of their sex’ (p. 1316), but instead to ‘refer such points of folly, to be practiced by evil-disposed men, who […] do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred,’ (p. 1316). In referring to men as vipers (note that this is a type of snake), she is beginning to muddy men’s reputation while she elevates women’s. In her defence, she is referring exclusively to the evil-disposed men who slander women, but the text carries a strongly negative stance on men. If we choose to follow the OED definition of feminism, then Lanyer is not a feminist. She is not making both sexes equal. She is reversing men and women’s honourable and sinful reputations respectively.
A traditional way in which people see feminists ‘equalizing’ both genders is through power. The recent female sovereign (Elizabeth) might have naturally inspired an urge to raise women’s power universally up to the extent held by men. In the act of writing and publishing work, Lanyer can be seen as feminist; she is gaining the same power, through words, that male writers gain. However, ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ and, in particular, ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ reinforce male superiority, rather than abate it. She makes several references to Eve’s faults: to her ‘undiscerning ignorance’ (l. 25), her weakness (l. 71, l. 61 and l.87), and having ‘too much love’ for her husband (l. 57). These descriptions reinforce a wife’s place in marital hierarchy as second to their husband, and suggest that men must be relied upon to think where women are unable. The poem does express annoyance at men ‘[boasting] of knowledge, which he took / From Eve’s fair hand, as from a learned book’ (ll. 63-4), but the main focus is on Eve being foolish enough to be tricked by the serpent and Adam being the one who should have known better, because ‘he was lord and king of all the earth’ (l. 39). In this case ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ is not a feminist piece. Instead it is a plea for people to see women as they are; this may be as inferior to men, but it is as a gender who has redeemed itself for past mistakes and should no longer be blamed.
Monday, March 8th, 2010
In Donne’s Songs and Sonnets he takes aspects of different poets such as Petrarch’s idea of the unobtainable woman and Ovid’s witty cynicism. Only one of the poems is an official sonnet and most of the ‘songs’ aren’t particularly lyrical either. What does join them together is their general theme of love, both romantic (or sexual) and religious. Donne’s poetry is typically full of puns, paradoxes and, most famously, conceits. His life was so varied and changing that, throughout his work, he adopts personas that present a large variety of views and attitudes towards love and religion, sometimes within a single poem, for example, his nineteenth elegy. In Elegy Nineteen, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ he uses metaphors to compare a woman’s body with a newly discovered land, here being America, which the speaker wants to explore and to ‘license my roving hands’ (l. 25). He is excited by the prospect of a new experience and emphasises and exaggerates the woman’s beauty metaphysically by marvelling at her ‘beauteous state’ (l. 13) and using the metaphor of a ‘diadem’ (l. 14) to describe her head as if she is a queen. However, he suggests he wants to rule the country and, indirectly, her. He says, ‘my mine of precious stones, my empery’ (l. 29, italics added). Nevertheless, he goes on to say in the same sentence, ‘how blest am I in this discovering thee!’ (l. 30) which sounds like she is the one who is in control and it is her that gives him permission to discover her.
In ‘The Indifferent’ Donne adopts an entirely different persona which reflects the essence and the title of the poem. It presents the idea that all lovers are dishonest even if their partner, here the male persona, is honest, ‘since you will be true, / You shall be true to them who’re false to you’ (ll. 26-7). Women are asked if ‘a fear that men are true’ torments them (l. 13) and we are plainly answered ‘O we are not’ (l. 14), as if that gives them an excuse to be dishonest. The opinion here seems to be that only ‘heretics in love […] ’stablish dangerous constancy’ (ll. 24-25), so there is no point in caring for a female lover; you should be indifferent, as the title suggests.
When reading Donne, people tend to try and create some kind of order based on his varied life and how it could have affected his poetry. The fact is that we do not know, for certain, when most of his poetry was written so it is not truly valid to make an argument for a reading based upon a particular event in his life. We also need to keep in mind that he often takes on a persona in his poems. As such, it is probably best to analyse and evaluate each poem as an individual and separate comment on the themes he explores, or as a collection of different views on love.
Saturday, March 6th, 2010
Most of Wyatt’s poetry appears to be about love, or rather the pain that comes with it. In some instances the speaker appears to revel and ‘laugh in all [his] pain’ (l. 12), as in ‘I find no peace’. However, when you open up the poems for multiple readings a confused and capricious character begins to appear. This character is used to demonstrate how fickle love can be, or make a person, and makes the poems unreliable. Because he is unable to make up his mind we might ask if he has suffered, or if he is vying for sympathy.
In ‘Blame not my lute’ the speaker appears to struggle with the issue of blame. At first his lute ‘must sound / Of this or that as liketh me’ (ll. 1-2, italics added), which puts the blame on himself for what he sings, but this interpretation begs the question of why the lute would be blamed in the first place. Reading further on in the poem, in stanza five the blame shifts to the one ‘that hast misdone’ (l. 29), to whom the poem is addressed. This blaming others for a perceived lost love or favour can also be seen in ‘They flee from me’. By claiming that he is forsaken in a ‘strange fashion’ (l. 17) and that ‘she also to use newfangleness’ (l. 19), here meaning fickleness, the speaker implies that he has done no wrong to induce this forsaking, in which case he is not to blame.
In the last stanza of ‘Blame not my lute’ the strings of the lute are broken by the person to who this poem is addressed. This immediately brought to mind the now common metaphor of love pulling at the heart strings. This metaphor may not have existed in Wyatt’s time, but the metonymy of strings substituting a heart can still be argued. In which case the speaker is the lute and is, consequently, asking his addressee not to blame him for writing about their unfaithfulness, to which he refers as speaking ‘such words as touch thy change’ (l. 6). In the final stanza the one who breaks the heart with disdain is bid ‘farewell’ (l 36). If this person is interpreted as a lover then by finding new strings for the lute we can read that a new love has been found. If this is the king, however, then it seems that the king’s favour is so fickle that you might as well give up trying to win it, and in this case the infidelity suggested by the word ‘change’ (l. 6 and l. 20) is the king’s flitting favour.
In much of Wyatt’s poetry he paints the picture of a fickle world. His speakers declare they will give up the plight for love or favour, or move on from it, but this vow never seems to be kept. In ‘Farewell love’ the speaker wishes ‘no longer rotten boughs to climb’ (l. 14); in ‘My lute, awake!’ he is ‘done’ on the last line of every stanza; in ‘Blame not my lute’ he has found new strings. These unfulfilled promises present aspects of a man who either gets through a great deal of lovers, each as unfaithful and fickle as the last, or who keeps changing his mind about whether or not he wants to strive for the king’s favour.
Saturday, March 6th, 2010
In ‘The Sun Rising’ Donne elevates himself and his lover above the world of court, mother nature and the sun. For him, his love is the world, nothing else figures. The sun, as an emblem of daybreak can encourage daily activities but he personally will not be ruled by it. He will not succumb to the ‘motions’ the sun wants to put into action as his love knows ‘no season.’ His love exists apart from the seasons and by extension is not changeable like the seasons:
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
His love is timeless, it transcends the seasons and time and all conventional measures. Even though Donne’s world may be physically small, just a bedroom, the whole world is contained within it:
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.
In the second stanza Donne posits his lovers eyes as brighter than the sun and his wish not to lose an opportunity to look in her eyes leads him to declare that he would not waste a moment to ‘eclipse’ the sun’s rays with a wink. By describing the sun beams as ‘reverend and strong’ it seems that Donne is praising the sun but the undercutting of this description with the proclamation of favouring his lovers eyes makes his lover seem all the more brilliant.
The fundamental conceit in this poem is that in his one bed is contained all the wonders of the world, she is ‘both th’Indias of spice and mine’ and they are ‘kings’ who ‘in one bed lay.’
Unlike Wyatt, Donne does not lament unrequited love or rail about changeable, unfaithful women in the fashion of conventional Petrarchan love poetry but prefers in this poem to focus on his relationship with a woman to whom he is unified. They are an ‘us’ and they together are content in their small, all containing paradise.
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010
One of the most remarkable features of Donne’s poetry is his ability to convey several complex emotional processes at once, and from a variety of different viewpoints. Throughout the Songs and Sonnets the key speaker is generally a lover, but the kind of lover the protagonist appears can be myriad and shifting. Donne expresses by turns jealous, or unrequited; adventurous; cynical; quiet; distressed and even female lovers. The use of metaphor, particularly in the form of conceits, is key to the expressing of this range of emotions and points of view.
Overall, one gains a sense from these poems of Donne’s joyous manipulation of language, the feeling that he deliberately chooses the richest sounding words and most powerful images to express what is often at the heart of his poetry: sensuality and desire. This desire is not always sexual, but it is always driving the Songs and Sonnets. There is also a tying together of soul and body, and many of the poems express an almost ecclesiastic experience of another’s body.
Donne’s poetry would most likely have been read by his fellows at the Inns of court, so there is a temptation to read some of them as lecherous. I would agree that some of the Songs, for example ‘Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed’, can be seen as pastiches of love poetry or a boast of conquest, but there is always ambiguity.
‘Elegy 19’ can also be read as a plea or a show of vulnerability, despite its commanding tone, especially in the last lines: ‘To teach thee, I am naked first; why then What need’st though have more covering than a man?’ There is uncertainty as to whether the mistress addressed does consent to sex with the protagonist, and therein lies the question of whether Donne is being ribald or romantic.
Use of intense language in this poem expresses the urgency of the protagonist’s desire for his mistress, particularly in the lines ‘License my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America!’ The speed at which the words must be read due to their grammatical structure is highly suggestive of sexual excitement, as well as the words themselves of course.
In several Songs the idea of two souls entwined as one is prevalent, and is often reflected through physical gestures. For example, in ‘The Ecstasy’ the lovers’ ‘hands were firmly cemented With a fast balm’, reflecting how their ‘souls doth mix again, and makes both one’.
In ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ the link between two lovers’ souls is made more explicit, with the use of one of Donne’s most famous metaphors, that of the pair of compasses: ‘If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two; Thy soul, the fixed foot… when the other far doth roam, It leans and hearkens after it’.
John Donne, ‘Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed’(1669) in The Norton Anthology: English Literature
(1962), ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Volume 1 (United States: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2006), p. 1284.
 Ibid, p. 1283.
 John Donne, ‘The Ecstasy’ (1633), The Norton Anthology, p. 1276.
Ibid, p. 1277.
 John Donne, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ (1633), The Norton Anthology, p. 1276.
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010
When reading the poems ‘Philip Sparrow’ and ‘The Tunning of Elinor Rumming’, it can be difficult to reconcile the apparently conflicting images of the priest and the bawdy poet, yet both of these elements are present in John Skelton’s writing. An introduction to a selection of Skelton’s works describes him as a man ‘full of contradictions and paradoxes… a ribald wit and a creator of delicate beauty, a rebel and a conservative’, and these contradictions are reflected in his poetry. It may seem strange that a man highly educated as poeta laureates at both Cambridge and Oxford, who is a member of the Church, indeed one of its priests, injects such sensuality into his writing, making clear sexual references and describing the women who make ale in ‘The Tunning…’ like an expert. It is also disconcerting when a priest seems to mock ecclesiastic liturgy, such as the close modelling of ‘Philip Sparrow’ on the Service for the Dead, even though this was a Catholic service.
I found the sexuality of ‘Philip Sparrow’ overt, however this is a response orchestrated by Skelton through ‘Jane’s’ very rejection of that possibility. If there were no sexual intent, there would be no need to deny it, and the reader’s attention is only drawn to potential licentiousness because of the denial of it. This becomes clear in the lines: ‘to take him in, Upon my naked skyn, God wot, we thought no syn. What though he crept so low? It was no hurt, I trowe’ (p. 49, my italics). There is a duplicity in the text designed specifically to imply sexuality. The first instance of this is the mention of ‘naked skyn’, and this is immediately amplified by its very denial, and the following lines do precisely the same, introducing the potentially sexual situation and then defending its innocence. Much of the poem seems to work in this way, both apparently affirming Janes’s innocence and undermining it.
The biblical symbolism of the sparrow is also important, yet it is inverted into a sensual tool, guiding the reader around Jane’s body in a distinctly secular way. Also, Skelton intertwines religious statements in Latin ‘Confitebor tibi, Domine, in toto corde meo’ meaning ‘I will praise thee Lord, with my while heart’, with ‘La, soll, fa, fa’ (p. 50) which are simply nonsense notes of the scale. It is supposed to imply that Jane is thinking of her sparrow while listening to singing in church, but I think there are other ways to look at this. Either Skelton is deliberately saying that to Jane, the Latin and notes are interchangeable as she cannot understand either of them, and so affirming her intellectual inferiority, or he is deliberately undermining the service itself by associating the words with nonsense, a somewhat cynical conclusion.
 John Skelton: A Selection from his Poems
, ed. Vivian De Sola Pinto (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1950), p. 6. All following references will be parenthetical.
Monday, March 1st, 2010
In ‘They Flee from Me’ by Thomas Wyatt there is a mood of surveillance that must have permeated the court in his day:
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
From our visit to Hampton Court it was evident that all actions at court were heavily scrutinized by others. There was an atmosphere of suspicion and no sense of privacy as people collected together in the ‘watching room’ to wait for the company of the King. It would only have been in the closets adjoining the main areas that any illicit activity could have taken place. This is further suggested by the line ‘that sometime they put themselves in danger’ which implies that intimacy at court was not easy and would have resulted in accusations and recrimination that would preclude the offendant from further courtly activity. Perhaps Wyatt is expecting too much from these women who evidently had much to lose if associated with him. Indeed Wyatt’s women as exemplified in ‘Whoso List To Hunt’ are the property of other men and so would be putting themselves in danger by being with him. But, Wyatt is ambivalent. Courtly practice seems now to allow women free ‘range’ but it is now that they flee from him. Was it that Wyatt had once been able to offer excitement and sexual favours and had a position in court that the lady’s lusted after and now for some reason, unbeknown to himself he is out of favour? He has been long forgotten.
In an attempt to humiliate the women that now flee from him Wyatt reminds us of a specific incident when a woman made herself sexually available to him. Wyatt wants to remind the readers, possibly other men at court, and himself, of a time when women desired him. Through evoking the woman in parts, first her naked foot, then her shoulders, then her arms Wyatt employs a Petrarchan blazon to dismantle the woman and distance himself from her as a fully realized subject and the emotions attatched to that.
Wyatts loss of sex appeal turns to anger in the last stanza when he proclaims:
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.
Wyatt is asking if the lady should be punished for her ‘newfangleness’ and for politely but emasculatingly giving him leave to go. But his power is impotent. The lady is evidently in a position of authority over him through perhaps some change in status at court that once saw him as taming them with bread but now sees him being ostracised for his ‘gentleness.’
This theme is also addressed in ‘The Long Love that in my Thought Doth Harbour’ as here, the lady teaches him to ‘reign’ in his emotions as she takes displeasure in his ‘bold’ claims of love. In both poems Wyatt is at the mercy of the woman/women he loves but who do not requite his feelings. As in ‘They Flee From Me’, ‘The Long Love’ also seems to suggest that openness about love is unacceptable. In this way Wyatt seems to echo John Skelton in ‘Phyllype Sparowe’ who has to replace the possibility of real affection and sexual gratification with the writing of tittilating soft porn. Just as Skelton cannot live out his desires in the atmosphere of a congested court and so retreats into fantasy nor can Wyatt be free to love or be loved. However, whereas Skelton finds solace in his poetry there is a sense that Wyatt must hide his emotions and accept the lonliness that is bestowed on him. Far from being able to appeal to other men in recompense for his unrequited love, Wyatt retreats into the lonely ‘heart’s forest’, vulnerable, angry, confused and bitter. Wyatt is unable to deal satirically or ironically with his emotions. Rather, his poems convey an ambiguity ( the women are both tame and wild, he talks about them tenderly and sensitively but also objectifies them) which expresses to the reader the insecurity of his position of a man at court who cannot make sense of the women around him and the codes of conduct that control them all.