Imperialism and Patriarchy in the Poems of John Donne

John Donne was an English poet and satirist who began writing in the sixteenth century. Particularly known for his inventive metaphors, brazen use of language and tonal shifts his works resonate with various cultural themes, patriarchy and imperialism being some of them. By definition patriarchy refers to the centrality of male authority over all social institutions and imperialism implies and maintenance or creation of unequal relationships based on law, economy and territory between states working on the ideas of domination and subordination. Patriarchy in Donne’s poetry features explicitly to such an extent that some critics term him as a “misogynist who loathed women’s bodies and scorned their minds” John Donne unlike his contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser was uncomfortable being in the position of a subservient lover making strenuous efforts to woo his beloved. He rejected the prevalent notions of Petrarch and firmly believed that consummated love was better than perused one. His poetry is characterized by installation of images that lead the reader to wonder at his expertise of the art. It can be contrasted with the smoothness of Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation of the European baroque and mannerist techniques. He sought inspiration from Ovid, who represented love that was fulfilled and regarded sex to be a religious experience. Donne on the other hand seems to exercise an act of using rhetoric in order to formulate the argumentativeness of his verse comprising jugged rhymes that closely resemble casual speech. Donne basically used his own genius to create his poetry coupled with the notions of the era. Elaine Hobby notes that ”his audience was not a conventional lady but other men subordinated in the legal and economic axiomatic structures and the ideologies of the time which sustained and cemented them.” The overt sense of superiority and dominance can be seen in many of his poems including ‘love’s progress’ where the woman is viewed in terms of her ”central part”, ‘the undertaking’ wherein he establishes that the act of finding a virtuous woman was impossible. ‘The Comparison’ is another poem where he demeans the so called beauty of the lady and in poems such as ‘The Apparition’, ‘The Relic’ that embody the inherent contradictions in the womankind.

Discussing ‘The Elegy: To the Mistress Going to Bed’, the male speaker assumes the role of a teacher and the entire process of disrobing the female becomes an act of usurpation. When he states “to teach thee, I am naked first”, he places the woman in the position of vulnerability and seeks to exploit her both physically and psychologically. He is not a philosopher of love per se but he seeks to explore a new language of love that can contain the opulence of his feelings. Anthony Low avers that he views the female body as an object and lays it bare to be explored and exploited. In most of his poems, though profusely about females there is hardly a female voice to be heard. He silences the woman by his poetically overloaded lines that subvert courtly elegance but nonetheless are engorged with lyrical beauty. George Parfitt views this as being knowledge of love for the male wherein the process the male lover discovers new truths and the meaning of life itself. The entire journey of the undressing of the beloved caters to the sensual and sexual nuances of Donne’s poetry and his obsession with the body of the female. F.R Leavis and T.S Eliot term him as an ”anti-romantic”. Even in his poem ”the flea” he seems to belittle the social considerations of the mistress and almost forces her to grant him immediate pleasure. ‘The Sun Rising’ and ‘The Good Morrow’ are his efforts to create a utopian world for themselves but this world encompasses a ”loquacious, predatory male on one hand and a wholly silent subject on the other” argues Catharine Belsey. The commodification of woman, the act of consciously not praising the virtues in her and the act of wanting to possess her completely are symbolic of Donne’s work. The misogynistic and desperate overtones linger on, juxtaposing them with the complete subordination of the inferior sex, women. The male voice can be analyzed as monarchial, exclusive and oncological that builds a series of imperatives and reiterates them for producing a wholesome effect of the master-slave relationship. Thus the patriarchal heritage features in most of his works and he can be contrasted in this regard with Andrew Marvell who in his poems ”to the coy mistress” combines the persuasion of love with the carpe diem philosophy. The material energies that seem to be the focus of Donne’s body of work do not follow the traditional elegiac pattern but invite the reader to question the prevailing ”politics of love” and examine the power-equation in the hierarchy of the gender roles and the naturalness associated with them. Since love as a moral virtue does not entail its holy connotations for this poet who seems to be interested in pursuing carnal desires and the potency of the male genitalia that raises him to a pedestal and from where he controls both his passion and that of his beloved, so the subjugation seems holistic in terms of spiritual, carnal, emotional and psychological nuances of life.

Imperialism was a factor that was prevalent in England at the time of Donne’s writing. There were energetic and optimistic beginnings of expansion of kingdoms and the manifestation of authority over the oppressed colonies. We can see in his poetry a frequent use of images of cartography, navigation and the like. This can also be attributed to his intrinsic sense of interest in these disciplines. The process of colonization was linked to the process of new discoveries and explorations in terms of topography. The geographical symbolism which categorizes Donne’s work also sustains the process of controlling by force. The territorial advancements of the empire also entail the working of a rule by domination and subordination that is the very essentialist theory of the concept itself. It precludes the exploitation and possession of local resources and includes socially boycotting the subjects of the colonized area.

In Donne’s poem ‘ A Hymn to God, My God in My Sickness’, he uses a variety of metaphors like ‘the pacific sea’, ‘Jerusalem’, images of maps, ‘south-sea discovery’ to describe the process of his last voyage that is from earth to heaven. One perspective views this as being transcendental, but more than that it features as a function of the process of colonization that cannot be subdued in effect. He uses puns, ironies, conceits and dislocations in order to explain the shifting meanings in this text. For example, he puns on the word ‘straits’ as passages that divide oceans to passages that redefine desire. In his poem ‘Elegy: to my mistress going to bed’ he metaphorically addresses his mistress as ‘America, a new found land’. Anthony Easthope defines this as a process of ”de-sexualization” of the beloved linking her to the most crude objects or ideas: such as theology, religion or cartography. This also does not undercut the underpinning of the power equation of the oppressor and the oppressed. The woman as the colonial subject is defined in terms of the ”other” whose difference is both biological and sexual and social. The body of the woman becomes the land to be acquired and seized and thus incorporates geographical dimensions. In ‘The Good Morrow’, heroic quests and commandments over sea-facing expeditions help illustrate this further. Also in poems like ‘Canonization’ and ‘The Sun Rising’, imperialism is hinted upon. In the former, Donne establishes his supremacy at a dual level- at the level of making love and at the level of instructing people around him so as not to intrude in this act. Catharine Belsey states that the objective of the male is to ‘possess’ land and ‘possess’ the woman as well. Thus the constant use of the word ‘possess’ heightens the claim that the woman stands as a passive subject, placed textually to glorify the male speaker’s hegemony. The latter poem speaks of a ‘bed’ to be the center of the universe, encapsulating the entire world of the lovers concentrating the sun’s beams wholly upon them. Thus the breadth of the marital bed, the poet enlists the spectrum of his tyranny over both the women, conquering her literally and also challenging the sun to disempower itself. K.W Grandsen sees these explicit and recurrent references to discovery as a ”sexual intercourse to adventure” where Donne uses and dilutes his fantasies to control and subordinate. John Dryden criticizes him of playing with the minds of the fairer sex. Thus Donne uses the twin processes of imperialism and patriarchy in order to reinforce the stasis in his mind to subjugate the weaker individual-be it the woman or the colonial slave. He breaks from employing the traditional poetic instrument of being slave to the mistress and causes a complete inversion of this style. He subverts the existing model and attempts to carve a niche for himself. Though his poetry can be called ‘un-sentimental’ but it nevertheless stirs up the reader’s emotions. He plays on words giving subtle clues to his readers to gain an in-depth glance of his psyche.

Joan Benet avers that ”Donne has tasted every fruit in love’s orchard”. What Donne attempts to do is not to negate the existing patterns of love but to reinvent them so that they are tailor-made to envisage his theories on it. His range of subjects include religion, theology, divinity and his range of tones include the flamboyant as well as the somber. He cannot be shunned of writing about only the instincts of the flesh or only the domination of one particular sex in this aspect. Coleridge praises him stating that he has wonder-exciting vigor, boundless stores of capricious memory, penetrating thought that he uses at will and wit which he exercises at the most unexpected time!

Source by Sanjhee Gianchandani

Fahad Hameed

Fahad Hashmi is one of the known Software Engineer and blogger likes to blog about design resources. He is passionate about collecting the awe-inspiring design tools, to help designers.He blogs only for Designers & Photographers.

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