This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.
The Renaissance period in Europe brought about much literary art. At the same time, while new writers were being born, so were new ideas. The seventeenth century gave birth to a controversial poet by the name of John Donne. While new literary works and ideas were circling, Donne made his own distinguishable mark on literature. For centuries women have been a subject of debate. Prior to the twentieth century, women were minimized and see as property in society. Even those who attempted to speak up and try to fight for women’s rights, were castaway and shunned from society. Donne’s poetry raises controversy for the simple fact that his diction causes one to question whether or not he is misogynistic.
Before delving into the linguistics of his poetry, it is important to understand the context of the world around John Donne. In other words, what roles did women have in Jon Donne’s life? At an early age, Donne’s father died and his mother later remarried. Donne’s first encounter with a woman, is his own mother. He was obviously closer to her due to the passing of his father when he was four. Although his mother remarried a wealthy widower, he still witnessed her struggles and accomplishments trying to provide for her family after the passing of her husband. Although Donne enters college at the young age of eleven, he is still not mature enough to handle what life has to offer: “during the 1590s, he spent much of his inheritance on women, books, and travel” (Bio.com).
It was during his wild escapades with women, that Donne wrote many of his erotic poems and love lyrics. Perhaps, because of the women whom he encountered he felt inspired to write about the things he wish he could do and the things he did with them. At the same time, there is a hint of resistance from the women. However, over the years, Donne matured and began to gain status. He had a promising career in Parliament. Yet, the love he had for a woman would be his downfall. In his thirties, Donne married Anne More, who was the niece of Sir Egerton. Both uncle and father of Anne More, strongly disapproved of their marriage, but that didn’t stop John Donne. As a result, Donne was fired and even imprisoned for a short period of time (Bio.com).
John Donne appears to have a lot of love and appreciation for women, based on his two strong encounters. His mother raised him first as a single mother before she later remarried. His wife, Anne More, he was willing to sacrifice everything he had for her because he loved her. Although during his mid years, he engaged in sexual escapades with women, that didn’t seem to have a great effect on his opinions of them. In analyzing his literary work, which has a “lack of female speakers and the emphasis seemingly placed upon using women as props to fulfill the male narrator’s sexual desires” (Adney 2), one would quickly jump to the assumption that John Donne was a misogynist. However, as a result of female voices severely lacking in work, readers are still able to “learn a great deal about what he thinks of women due to their implied presence and reaction to the male narrators of Donne’s poetry” (Adney 2). The implied presence and actions of the women in Donne’s poetry is what allows one to stop and consider that Donne may have possibly tried to depict these women as honorable and intelligent. Looking specifically at two of his poems, “The Flea” and “Elegy XIX,” “it is obvious that Donne thought women honorable and intelligent” (Adney 2). The simple notion that none of the women seem to fold quickly to the male narrator, Donne
must believe them honorable since the narrator is forced to use a grand amount of convincing to get the addressed woman to even consider granting his requests; he must consider them intelligent primarily because they play along with and rebuke the male narrator, thus implying they are smart enough to understand the complex wit of the arguments made by the narrator (Adney 2).
“The Flea” incorporates the male narrator’s metaphor of a flea to represent a sexual connection that should be explored. The woman in which whom the male narrator is speaking with, seems adamant about resisting his advances. At the same time, she seems to comprehend what he is trying to say, only further emphasizing he blunt rejection.
Yet, does Donne’s portrayal of an intelligent and honorable woman, negate the fact that he presents the people in his poetry as “sexual transgressors: aggressive or uncontrollable women, a would-be cross-dresser, an effeminate man, men overcome by women, powerless husbands, and an anarchic lover” (Benet 15)? Returning to the world in which Donne was acquainted, there is a possibility that Donne’s poetry reflects the women whom he was exposed to. Women whom he was able to spend his inheritance on, were not necessarily women of upstanding quality. In this sense, Donne was just writing his honest take on the women he encountered. Women such as his mother and his wife, he did not come across frequently, and he didn’t write much when he did finally marry. His wife died after giving birth to their twelfth child, and with Donne already questioning his Catholic faith, he converted. Around this time, Donne stopped writing about love and sex.
Nevertheless, the argument at hand is whether or not Donne is a misogynist or if he truly valued and respected women. In his poem, “Confined Love,” Donne creates the image of sin. Desire seems to try to destroy the “innocent” being:
Donne’s speaker would be defending free love against a reading that linked it with aspects of sexuality most threatening to patriarchy-the power of the most “innocent” to destroy the authority figure by means of desire (Coren 235).
The use of manipulation and destruction of innocence is a constant theme in the poems by Donne. When looking closely, one can see that it the male narrator that is trying to destroy the innocence of the woman. In “The Flea” the male narrator hints toward breaking the implied woman’s “purity” and that losing her virginity, to him, is no big deal. In “Confined Love,” Donne’s last two stanzas “utilize his familiar perversity of argument, moving from absurdity to manipulation” (Coren 235). The male narrators seem to try to manipulate the implied female in order to coerce them into engaging in sexual acts. In some fashion, the male narrator comes across as the “bad guy” and the implied female is just an innocent being trapped in the male’s lustful gaze.
The illustration of Donne’s male narrators being overzealous in their desires of trying to manipulate the implied women to engage in sexual acts, forces the reader to view the women as more upstanding and moral-based people. While many of Donne’s poetry seems to pin women as being sexually uncontrollable, overtime, the shift in attitudes toward women changed:
Donne is perhaps the only metaphysical poet whose depiction of women became more positive over time. In his love poetry, Donne seems to be mostly concerned with the way in which the male is permitted to act due to the female’s responses, and seeks mainly to fulfill his own desires—primarily sexual (Adney 2).
While Donne may have undergone a sense of maturity, his poetry still paints the implied woman persona as a victim of the male narrator. Sexual desire is a continuous melody that only seems to get more and more aggressive on the part of the male narrator. If sex is an immoral thought for a woman to have, is there a difference for men? Donne does well in being “fair” to the female gender. He does not outright paint that as moral beings, for in some poems they are willing to pursue these sexual acts. At the same time, more of Donne’s poetry appears to be a battle between the sexes and the male narrator trying to outwit the female persona. This idea of “outwitting,” again emphasizes a sense of intelligence on behalf of women. During this time, women were not to be heard, but rather seen. Giving women an intellectual mindset is a new revelation for this time period. At the same time, there is some honorability in rejecting or playing hard-to-get. The woman in “The Flea” does not hesitate to reject the advances of the male narrator, showing that she not only understood his wit, but also that she is not interested and values her own purity.
The question at hand, while it may not have a definitive answer, can be predicted. John Donne’s writing in actuality presents a somewhat heroic view of women. Through exploration of “The Flea” and “Elegy XIX,” obvious indications of Donne portraying an intelligent and honorable women are presented. The women show a resistance to the male narrator and their implied actions demonstrate an understanding of the diction the male narrator chooses to use to symbolize a sexual connotation. Analyzing the lifestyle that Donne grew up in, sheds light on the roles women played in his life. With his father dying when he was young, Donne was subjected to view the struggles and accomplishments his mother endured before she later remarried. At the same time, in his early years, Donne splurged on women. The assumption can be made that these women were prostitutes or women who were not cheap to hang out with. Nonetheless, during this time is when Donne wrote many of his love lyrics and erotic poems indicating that these woman inspired his sexual writing. At the same time, this form of writing is what was real for him at the time. Alas, his wife. Donne gave up everything he worked so hard for out of love. He loved Anne More that losing a prestigious job and going to jail was worth it for him. John Donne was not a misogynist. Instead, Donne was a man who valued and respected women, but during his early years, puberty and sex intrigued him. His immature mindset and the women whom he surrounded himself with, led him to write the poems he did that now raise controversy.