Enigmatic Narrator: The Voicing of Same-Sex Love in the Poetry of
Lang; New York, Washington, DC/Baltimore, San Francisco, Bern,
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Vienna, Paris; 1994, ISBN 0-8204-2491-9,
$40, 285 pages.
by John Lauritsen
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.
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.
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.
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
is open to the possibility that both the narrator and the object of
his affections may be male, he recognizes unmistakable passages of
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
Soules.” One to Mr. T.W. [Thomas Woodward] —
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.
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
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,
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
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:
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
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.
years ago, when studying Donne in a college poetry course, I did a
double-take over some of the lines in “The
After some disparaging remarks about women in general — their
inability to appreciate “a naked thinking heart, that makes
show” — Donne (addressing his own heart) concludes
poem with a paean to male relationships:
mee at London, then,
dayes hence, and thou shalt see
fresher, and more fat, by being with men,
if I had staid still with her and thee,
Gods sake, if you can, be you so too:
would give you
to another friend, whom wee shall finde
glad to have my body, as my minde.
some reason Klawitter chooses not to analyze one of Donne's best
known poems, “The Flea”, a charming blend of
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:
but this flea, and marke in this,
little that which thou deny'st me is;
suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee....
notes the words “suck'd” and
probably had exactly the same meaning four hundred years ago as
today. The Donnean narrator argues that, since their bloods are already
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”
“mariage temple” for the two of them.
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:
true, then learne how false, feares bee;
so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.
what “honor” would be at stake for a young male
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.
sharp contrast, the issue of “honor” makes no sense
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.
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
and Angels” has always been a problem poem for critics,
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:
is twixt Aire and Angells purity,
womens love, and mens will ever bee.
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
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.
of Donne's tenderest poems is “The Anniversarie”.
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
and as “Kings”. The elements of mutuality and
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:
upon earth, we'are Kings, and none but wee
be such Kings, nor of such subjects bee.
is so safe as wee? where none can doe
to us, except one of us two.
and false feares let us refraine,
us love nobly, and live, and adde againe
and yeares unto yeares, till we attaine
write threescore: this is the second of our raigne.
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
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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