Friday, March 05, 2010

Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind

Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind; Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1985.

In Sir Philip Sidney’s Astophil and Stella (1591) the virtue of Stella, a married woman living at court, is unassailable. She admits to loving Astrophil but repeatedly rebukes his sexual passion and urges him to embrace her own ideal of noble restraint… Although her marriage is not entirely happy, she never wavers in her determination to remain faithful to her husband… Astrophil, unlike Stella, is given a complex character: a well-educated young courtier who knows that his love is wrong and also knows that it could ruin his career, he displays a vast range of attitudes towards Stella, himself, and his courtly responsibilities. At times his voice is intelligent, rational, and dignified; at times he is a silly, besotted lover. [100] …When he happens upon Stella sleeping he loses control, kissing and biting her, … Stella is the firm, still center of the universe of the sequence; Astrophil revolves around her, now adoring, now elated, now despairing, until he finally accepts her loving rejection and turns his energies to the ‘nobler course’ of service to the courtly ideals to which she has directed him. She remains the heavenly body that defines his orbit, however, thus demonstrating the positive power of the chaste woman attested to in the feminist treatises, the power to stabilize any man with a capacity for virtue. (100-101)

In the Renaissance, chastity was considered requisite to ‘true’ beauty in a woman; the surface beauty of a wanton woman was [101] regarded as a thin veneer concealing a fundamental moral ugliness. The Dark Lady may be outwardly beautiful, but her promiscuity renders that beauty an illusion ultimately shattered: ‘For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who are as black as hell, as dark as night’ (Sonnet 147) (101-102)

Donne did, however, use the popular images of women in a variety of ingenious ways. One group of poem in his Songs and Sonnets plays with the image of woman as promiscuously faithless found in the antifeminist treatises. So hyperbolically does Donne treat the conventions of this image, however, that in some cases he is almost certainly teasing the stereotype, perhaps to question its validity or reveal its absurdity. In ‘Sone: Goe, and catche a falling starre,’ the speaker tells the reader that he could ‘ride then thousand daies and nights’ and still not finde a single woman who is both fair and faithful: (105)

In “The Indifferent,” Donne parodies the sermonizing attitude that excoriates promiscuous women by condemning instead those few who are faithful. Of these obstinately faithful women he demands: … In “Change,” one of Donne’s Elegies, the speaker asserts that women are “more hot, wily, wild” than foxes or goats and thus faithless by nature. He argues the right of a woman to take more than one lover and the folly of possessiveness in men… The poem is fraught with ambivalence towards women’s fickleness, viewed as liberating yet also as bestial. (106)

Donne’s “Communitie” suggests his awareness of the controversy over women—in particular, of the fundamental question of wmoen’s good or evil that the treatises addressed. The speaker in the poem argues from the premise that women are morally indifferent object:
If then at first wise Nature had
Made women either good or bad,
Then some wee might hate, and some chuse,
But since shee did them so create,
That we may neither love, nor hate,
Onely this rests, All, all may use.
If they were good it would be seene,
Good is as visible as greene,
And to all eyes it selfe betrayes:
If they were bad, they could not last,
Bad doth it selfe, and others wast,
So, they deserve nor blame, nor praise. (Pp.33-34)
Since women are not moral beings, men’s relations with them are not a moral issue, but simply a practical one analogous to eating:
But they are ours as fruits are ours,
He that but tasts, he that devours,
And he which leaves all, doth as well:
Chang’d loves are but chang’d sorts of meat,
And when hee hath the kernel eate,
Who doth not fling away the shell? (P. 34)
Donne is poking fun at the controversy through the casually exploitative attitude of the speaker, and the poem may be viewed as an outrageous answer to both misogynists who urged men to shun women and feminists who urged men to respect them. The view that women are merely edibles to satisfy the male appetite is of course even more contemptuous than the view that they are dangerous and destructive, but the exaggerated flippancy of the poem’s tone points to an ironic intention. (107)

Donne’s group of poems attacking women is balanced by an equally large group of poems celebrating the spiritual and physical joys of trusting, mutual love. In poems like “The Good-morrow” and “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” neither man nor woman is stereotyped; they are rather individuals in an exalted, deeply private relationship. Donne does draw on positive images of women in three sequential religious poems, however. Probably in 1610, the year of her death, Donne wrote a funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury, … the elegy was followed by longer poems on the first and second anniversaries of her death. In each of these poems Donne presented the young woman as the embodiment of religious, moral, and aesthetic perfection; in the two latter poems, known as the Anniversaries, she becomes through her perfection the agent of man’s conversion from love of the world to love of God. [108] … Donne links the beauty of his subject with her sexual purity in language implying that the two qualities are often not reconciled: “And shee made peace, for no peace is like this, / That beauty and chastity together kisse” (“Of the Progres of the Soule: The Second Anniversarie,” lines 363-64). … Perhaps even more than her beauty and chastity, the Anniversaries stress the holiness of Elizabeth Drury. (108-109)

Donne did not know Elizabeth Drury; he took the occasion of her death to write poems that interweave political, scientific, and theological ideas in a verse sermon on the theme of contemptus mundi. The more conventional eulogies in this anthology, sharing as they do Donne’s concept of the perfect woman, suggest that he chose a woman as the unifying symbol of the poem because the conventional Renaissance ideal of woman (chaste, passive, and holy) neatly suited the [109] theme, while the ideal of the Renaissance man (liberally educated, skilled in arms, contributing actively to society) would not have been appropriate. The life of a model woman (and especially of a girl) was so private, so free of ambition as to suggest a contempt for the larger world and Donne was able to use the sexual purity of Elizabeth Drury to illuminate by contrast the corruption and decay of the world. (109-110)

Of all lyric poets of the English Renaissance, Donne’s work offers the greatest range of attitudes towards women. (110)

It is perhaps not surprising that the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson did not understand or appreciate Donne’s elaborate praise of Elizabeth Drury, for Jonson’s poetic aims and style stood at the opposite pole from those of his contemporary. [According to William Drummond, Ben Jonson termed the Anniversaries “profane and full of Balsphemies” and remarked “if it had been written of ye Virgin Marie it had been something.” Donne responded to Jonson that he described “the Idea of a Woman and not as she was.” ] (111)

Whereas Donne exaggerated the popularity stereotypes of women to shock and tease his audience, Jonson fulfilled his reader’s expectations by building lyrics upon recognizable stereotypes. (111)

Many of Herrick’s lyrics view the elegant dress of women from the perspective of the enraptured lover: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes” (p. 142). Herrick’s lover celebrates the very behavior that the misogynists deplored, the time and art expended by the women on her appearance. In “Art above Nature, to Julia” he proclaims that he is allured not only by her “Lawny Films” and “airy silks,” but also by her various elaborate hairdos, “Tresses bound / Into an oval, square or round, / And knit in knots far more than I / Can tell by tongue, … “ (p. 135). In Herrick’s view (best elaborated in “The Lily in a Crystal”) the beauty of nature needs to be softened and ordered by art, while the art of women’s dress needs to be animated by nature. (112)

The authors of the misogynistic pamphlets believed that women wanted costly garments to seduce men, that they lavished money and time on their appearance because of both vanity and lust; the writers of conduct books generally shared this view. It is thus striking that Herrick, a devout Anglican clergyman, did not perceive a beautifully dressed woman as necessarily either proud or unchaste. (112)

While examples of all six stereotypes that dominate the popular controversy can be found in the poetry, the three most pervasive are the seductress, the chaste woman, and the holy woman. (113)


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