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In his essay “A Defence of A Womans Inconstancy,” John Donne wrote of the female race that “for all their fellowship will they never be tamed, nor Commanded by us.” His affinity for the grace and beauty of women is evident in his many works. Yet Donne establishes a paradox within his own poetry that ignites controversy over his view of women in general. Achsah Guibbory, in his article “The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies,” contends that “We may not like to admit the presence of misogyny in one of the greatest love poets in the English language, but we need to come to terms with it” (813).
Though widely known for his witty and intellectual poetry of love, at first glance John Donne is not typically seen as a misogynist, but rather as a craftsman of words and metaphors, providing “an astonishing variety of attitudes, viewpoints, and feelings” (Logan, 1235). Written during the seventeenth century, Donne’s poem “Elegy 19,” later titled “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” is a sexual allegory illustrating the male perspective of intercourse. However, this descriptive and whimsical elegy provides a clear objectification of women, both through Donne’s use of possessive words and phrases in his imagery, and through the persona of his mistress within the poem.
With the use of possessive grammar and images of women as property, Donne establishes a misogynistic tone in “Elegy 19,” particularly in the second stanza. The speaker claims possession of his mistress by using meticulous pronouns:
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery (25-29).
Here, the narrator’s use of “my” and “mine” allude to ownership of his lover, and “the repeated possessives reinforce the sense of his mastery” over the slowly undressing woman before him (Guibbory 822).
Much like the controlling syntax of the second stanza, Donne’s descriptive allegory of the woman in “Elegy 19” establishes power and authority held by the speaker in relation to his mistress. The woman is “wittingly idealized and commodified through a variety of stunning conceits that aim to conquer her” (Guibbory 821). Donne symbolizes the mistress in the second stanza, line 27, as “O my America! my new-found-land,” which implies the mistress as nothing but mere property for the speaker to discover and take as his own. His sole desire in the sonnet is to “possess and thus master the colonized woman” (Guibbory 822). According to Germaine Greer, “Catherine Ginelli Martin identifies the speaker’s purpose in this poem as… at once objectifying, shaming, and figuratively raping his ‘New-found-land'” (218). Line 28 refers to the mistress as “My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,” also signifying the objectification of her by the narrator, as she is portrayed as a conquered kingdom thatis only safe when guarded by him.
The misogyny of “Elegy 19” can also be seen in Donne’s imagery throughout the rest of the poem. One line 11 of the sonnet, the speaker commands his lover, “Off with that happy busk, which I envy.” The bodice to which the narrator refers to is symbolically seen as a device that “allowed women to hide their femininity, endow themselves with masculine form and, thereby, power” (Feinstein 63). Though most likely the speaker’s “envy” alludes to Donne’s parallel of the hard, upright busk to the narrator’s erection, this jealously of the bodice suggests the speaker’s desire for more control over his lover. The bodice is tightly secured around the woman, confining her to its boundaries. The busk, which is “‘happy’ not only for its situation but for its literally infinite control,” relays constraint, and insinuates that the narrator is a misogynist (Feinstein 69).
The last couplet of “Elegy 19” reiterates the speaker’s desire to control and dominate his lover. Donne writes that “To teach thee, I am naked first; why then/ What need’st thou have more covering than a man?” The use of the verb “teach” again implies the insubordinate nature of the woman, who must learn from the speaker, as if she is uneducated in the area of intercourse. The narrator’s ambiguity over “covering” reveals that “as a woman needs no more covering than a man does, a woman needs no more than a man to cover her” (Greer 221).
Aside from the misogynistic grammar and imagery of “Elegy 19,” the mere demeanor of the female character is evidence of the poem’s anti-feminist and sexist tone. During the seventeenth century, the rule of Queen Elizabeth was “an anomaly in a strongly patriarchal, hierarchical culture in which women were considered subordinate to men” (Guibbory 813). Though Donne’s conversion to the Church of England no doubt illustrated his support of the Queen, his portrayal of the woman in “Elegy 19” tends to convey the typical female inferiority of the time period. Throughout the sonnet, the speaker demands and commands his mistress, yet she remains distanced, and “not only is the female figure of the elegy silent, she is unresponsive in every way” (Greer 222). The narrator portrays her in a stereotypical fashion, quiet and demure, as “the woman’s silence and distance dehumanize her” (Greer 217). Donne’s speaker instructs the lover to remove her clothes, thus enacting “passivity” of the woman to her man and establishing her as inferior to his power (Greer 219). The mere fact that the woman is referred to as a “mistress” in the later title given to “Elegy 19” suggests that though the two characters may have been married, she is but a sexual conquest for the male speaker.
Though it would be unfair to ignore the narrator’s admiration and love for his mistress in “Elegy 19,” it would be equally unjust to overlook the clear misogyny revealed in Donne’s sexually amorous sonnet. The speaker recognizes her beauty, yet he yearns to control and overpower it, thus objectifying the recipient of his lust. With possessive pronouns and symbolic imagery, coupled with the passive portrayal of the female lover, Donne establishes a representation of male dominance and superiority in “Elegy 19.”
Donne, John. “Elegy 19.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. George Logan. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000. 1256-7.
Donne, John. “A Defence of Womans Inconstancy.” 2004. Ed. Alan Soble. 31 March 2005 <URL[http://www.uno.edu/~asoble/pages/snip.htm]>.
Feinstein, Sandy. “Donne’s ‘Elegy 19’: The Busk Between a Pair of Bodies.” Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 61-70.
Greer, Germaine. “Donne’s ‘Nineteenth Elegy.'” A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Ed. Michael Hattaway. Crowall: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. UWF Course Reserves. 30 March 2005 <URL[http://www2.lib.edu/reserve/enl2010/7th/warn.htm]>.
Guibbory, Achsah. “The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies.” ELH 57 (1990): 811-833.
Logan, George, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000.
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