John Donne


John Donne


The Enigmatic Narrator: The Voicing of Same-Sex Love in the Poetry of John Donne
By George Klawitter
Peter Lang; New York, Washington, DC/Baltimore, San Francisco, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Vienna, Paris; 1994, ISBN 0-8204-2491-9, $40, 285 pages.


Reviewed by John Lauritsen


The seminal Metaphysical Poet, John Donne (1572-1631), had the reputation of being discreetly wild in his youth: a womanizer and lover of fashionable company. Born into a good family, some of whose members had been persecuted for adhering to the Roman Catholic faith, he was educated in philosophy and law at Cambridge, Oxford, and Lincoln's Inn. He fell in love and eloped with Anne More, who bore him twelve children. Discovery of their secret marriage ruined Donne's career at court, and led to many years of poverty. Converting to Anglicanism, Donne was ordained in 1615, and only six years later became Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral and the most influential preacher of his time. His sermons are among the most celebrated in the English language.

All of the above is true. But the received image of Donne as a man whose love life involved only women, progressing from lesser to greater respectability, has now been detonated by George Klawitter, who makes a strong case that some of his greatest love poems may express the love of one man for another.


Donne is a difficult poet, and the book does not make for light reading. George Klawitter has written a serious, scholarly book. With assurance he employs the formidable tools of present-day literary criticism. In addition to bibliography, notes, and indices, the book has a series of analytical appendices dealing with such issues as poem inclusions, sequences, and gender attributions in various editions and manuscripts.


Rather than recounting intricate explications of intricate poems, I'll summarize the overall conclusions that follow from Klawitter's analysis: Few if any of the Songs and Sonnets (written in Donne's youth) are unambiguously heterosexual. In almost half of these poems, both narrator and love-object are genderless. To use Klawitter's apt word, the genders of the characters in the poems, and the narrator's own proclivities, are “enigmatic”. However, once a reader is open to the possibility that both the narrator and the object of his affections may be male, he recognizes unmistakable passages of all-male love.


In the first chapter, Klawitter discusses verse letters written from Donne to other young men, and one of the replies written to him. Despite the arcane quality of many allusions, the letters are playful, seductive, and occasionally passionate; they go beyond mere friendship. Some of the opening lines are marvelous: one addressed to Sir Henry Wotton begins, “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle Soules.” One to Mr. T.W. [Thomas Woodward] — “All haile sweet Poet, more full of more strong fire” — appears, in a convoluted fashion, to be saying that his love for the physical attributes of T.W. has now been augmented by a love for the young man's intellectual attributes.


In the third chapter, Klawitter examines a relatively unknown poem, “Sapho to Philaenis”. The first problem is with the title, which was not written by Donne himself, but by a later editor, who apparently recognized that the lovers in the poem are of the same sex, and that therefore a lesbian title was called for. The same sex, yes, but male or female? Read with an
unprejudiced mind, it is clear that the person addressed is male; he is explicitly compared to gods (not goddesses), and is counseled to abstain from a pederastic relationship with “some soft boy”. Thus, a passionately erotic relationship between two men has been bowdlerized through a spurious title into a more acceptable lesbian relationship. The lesson is that caution is called for when confronting gender in Donne's poems, and that a female presence should never simply be assumed.

Although complexity is an essential characteristic of metaphysical poetry, it often seems that Donne is deliberately arcane or cryptic when gender rears its head. In Klawitter's words:

This Donnean narrator speaks a multi-layered language that dives beneath words to hide meaning in convoluted syntax that requires as much labor to untwist today as was required in the century in which it was spun. This is a playful narrator who slips masks on and off with the ease of a chameleon changing color, and just when we think we appreciate the narrator and his audience and his message, we become plagued with doubts: could Donne also have meant something quite different?

The gender enigmas in Donne's poetry may result, not only from playfulness, but from a rational instinct for self-preservation. The Statute of 1533, which Klawitter quotes, stipulated that those found guilty of “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast” should be put to death, as well as suffering the loss of all their worldly goods. However tender, playful, and even campy some of the Songs and Sonnets may be, we should never forget that they were written in the shadow of the scaffold. At the end of the 16th century, as now, male love was informed by the presence of Death. The use of code and camouflage was more than understandable.

Many years ago, when studying Donne in a college poetry course, I did a double-take over some of the lines in “The Blossome”. After some disparaging remarks about women in general — their inability to appreciate “a naked thinking heart, that makes no show” — Donne (addressing his own heart) concludes the poem with a paean to male relationships:


Meet mee at London, then,

Twenty dayes hence, and thou shalt see

Mee fresher, and more fat, by being with men,

Than if I had staid still with her and thee,

For Gods sake, if you can, be you so too:

I would give you

There, to another friend, whom wee shall finde

As glad to have my body, as my minde.



For some reason Klawitter chooses not to analyze one of Donne's best known poems, “The Flea”, a charming blend of seduction, camp, and “metaphysics”. Nowhere does the poem make explicit the genders of the narrator and the person he is addressing. It begins with the description of a flea which has drawn blood from both of them:


Marke but this flea, and marke in this,

How little that which thou deny'st me is;

It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee....



One notes the words “suck'd” and “sucks”, which probably had exactly the same meaning four hundred years ago as today. The Donnean narrator argues that, since their bloods are already mingled, yielding to his sexual entreaties would be a trivial step forward. Then, observing that his friend is preparing to crush the flea with his fingernail, the narrator begs him (or her?) to refrain on the grounds that the flea represents a “mariage bed” and a “mariage temple” for the two of them.

Alas! The friend purples his nail with the flea. The narrator then turns this to his advantage by arguing that this is even more reason for the person addressed to yield. To my ears, the tone of “The Flea” is entirely consistent with a highly intelligent young man seducing another, though this is admittedly subjective. However, the giveaway is the final three lines:


'Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;

Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,

Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.



Exactly what “honor” would be at stake for a young male being seduced by another male? At most, the honor of not breaking the law and the honor of not violating a theological taboo and a social convention. However, if the two friends are discreet, and if they (as students of philosophy) are not in thrall to taboos, then the honor problem is not insuperable.

In sharp contrast, the issue of “honor” makes no sense if the object of seduction is a female. If the putative female be a virgin, then the question of honor is potent indeed; the Elizabethans took virginity seriously, and the loss of virginity eliminated the possibility of a good marriage. If the putative female be a married woman, then the question of adultery arises, and the question of honor would involve, among other things, the contractual rights of the husband. If the putative female be a whore, then there would be no honor to lose and no need for seduction, and the radiant intellectuality of the poem would be rendered otiose. And one should not forget that there were no female students at Oxford, Cambridge, or Lincoln's Inn.


Klawitter examines in detail a number of poems that only make sense when understood as involving all-male relationships. These poems portray a masculine world, though sometimes with a sensitive and even feminine narrator. A strong theme is the powerful attraction of equals, the element of friendship in love relationships. These poems, which have consistently been misinterpreted by critics, include some of Donne's greatest works.


Aire and Angels” has always been a problem poem for critics, because they persist in assuming that the person addressed is a female, although the poem contains not the slightest hint that this is so. The poem begins with, and sustains, a tone of tenderness and rapture, right up to the final three lines, which are traditionally interpreted as being an insult to womankind in general and to the woman allegedly being addressed:

Just such disparitie

As is twixt Aire and Angells purity,

'Twixt womens love, and mens will ever bee.



If the person addressed be a woman, then the final lines are in jarring contradiction to the rest of the poem. But if another man is being addressed, there is no contradiction; the poem as a whole makes perfect sense. The narrator's beloved, having previously been compared to an angel (which in biblical tradition is male), is told that male love — the love they enjoy — is more pure and more spiritual than love that involves women. One may regard the sentiment as politically incorrect, by the standards of present-day feminism, but it is nevertheless the point of the poem.

One of Donne's tenderest poems is “The Anniversarie”. Read without the blinders of heterosexual convention, it clearly depicts the first anniversary of an affair between two young men, who look forward to growing old together in love and friendship. The maleness of both characters is indicated by referring to them as “Princes” and as “Kings”. The elements of mutuality and equality inform the entire poem. The poignancy of the final lines lies in a paradox: the fervent expression of happiness and confidence is offset by the need forever to keep the relationship secret:


    Here upon earth, we'are Kings, and none but wee

    Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects bee.

    Who is so safe as wee? where none can doe

    Treason to us, except one of us two.

    True and false feares let us refraine,

    Let us love nobly, and live, and adde againe

    Yeares and yeares unto yeares, till we attaine

    To write threescore: this is the second of our raigne.



After finishing The Enigmatic Narrator, I immediately began reading or re-reading all of Donne's poems, and it was a revelation. Freed from the previously obligatory heterosexual paradigm, poem after poem sprang to life. Donne became a much warmer, a much less cerebral poet.

Admirers of Donne's poetry will want to obtain this book. If the price seems a bit high, a request to an appropriate library would be in order.

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