Habington (1634) William Habington first published his poem "Against Them Who Lay unchastity to the Sex of Women" anonymously in 1634 in a collection titled Castara. Two further editions appeared, one in 1635, and a third, acknowledging Habington as author, in 1640. The third edition is the one most often used for anthologized excerpts. Habington wrote to a real-life Castara, his wife, Lucy. Born into better circumstances than Habington, a fact that he makes clear in his poetry, Lucy nonetheless returned his love, and the two remained happily married. Each poem in the collection deals with one of four themes, the mistress, the wife, the friend, and the holy man. "Against Them Who Lay unchastity to the Sex of Women" deals with attitudes against women promoted by those who judge all women unchaste, because some serve as mistresses. Habington's speaker makes the point that all women cannot be judged by the actions of a few, with Castara's virtue representing the example all should follow. While feminist critics might wish that Habington made clear male complicity in the making of a mistress, his focus is not drawn to blame and judgment. He does not judge the women who give themselves as lovers, except to describe them as slaves to male desire.
The speaker uses the figurative language (figure of speech) of metaphor as he references those who believe all women unchaste in the first few lines. He adopts seasons of the year usually positively associated with love to characterize the charge against all women as an unnatural one: "They meet but with unwholesome springs, / And summers which infectious are." He adds that those "Who ever dare / Affirm no woman chaste and fair" also only hear "the mermaid" sing and "only see the falling star." In other words, they must not inhabit the real world, but only one of fantasy. The second stanza bids those who remain so confused to "cure your fevers" and travel elsewhere in order to "The right ones see, / And grant all gold's not alchemy." Habington adopts the reference to alchemy, a use of magic to produce false gold, as a contrast to objects composed of the pure precious metal. He suggests that chaste women possess true value, as does gold.
In the third stanza the speaker explains that one would have to be a madman to believe that "'cause the glo-worm's flame / Is cold," "there's no warmth in fire." He extends his consideration of things false versus those true in his comparison of a worm's ability to duplicate the appearance of flame to that of fire to produce heat. The speaker next notes that just because some women choose to "forfeit . . . their name," where name means "reputation," "And slave themselves to man's desire," that does not mean that "the sex, free / From guilt," or women who do preserve their chastity, should be also "damn'd to the bondage." Habington asks his readers not to damn all women on the basis of the actions of a few. The fourth and final stanza addresses castara directly, bidding her, "Nor grieve, castara, though t'were frail; / Thy virtue then would brighter shine." The speaker reminds Castara that her commendable character shines even brighter in comparison to that of those who lack virtue. Her "example should prevail, / And every woman's faith be thine," but if women refuse to follow her example, " 'Tis majesty to rule alone."
Habington's final statement represents the occasional lines of strength for which his poetry gained its reputation. His critics willingly admit that he flawlessly controlled his rhetoric. However, his format often suffers from lack of coherency, leaving parts stronger than the whole.
"AIR AND ANGELS" John Donne (1633)
John Donne admired women, as is obvious in his early poetry. Much of it focuses on monogamous love and the importance of shared dedication. It also acknowledges differences between the sexes, holding at times to the traditional beliefs of his age. Those beliefs held that women should exercise control in their lovemaking, while men could make love at will, yet proposed men's love as more pure. Much of the era's religious and civic law supported that view. While Donne's love poetry clearly differs in tone and theme from that of the religious poetry he would later write, including his Holy Sonnets, he often employed biblical and religious allusions. As is obvious in the title to his poem, "Air and Angels," he believed that religion and carnal love could be considered in the same context, an unusual attitude for his day. In the poem he plays with the philosophy that described angels as able to assume human form, while constituted only of air. The airy form proved pure, but not to the degree of the angel's heavenly form. He advanced this idea in "Air and Angels," associating the different levels of purity with female and male capacities to love. As with many of the ideas Donne adapts for poetic means, he did not necessarily believe them.
The speaker begins the first of the two 14-line verses with a dreamy tone. He confesses to the object of his desire that he had previously engaged in fantasy regarding her existence: "Twice or thrice had I loved thee, / Before I knew thy face or name." He suggests the traditional Petrarchan ideal of the female, to which a real woman could never aspire. However, the next two lines suggest a tempered approach, as Donne adopts an abundance of s sounds in alliteration to produce a softened effect: "So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame, / Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be." He suggests he had heard a particular timbre in a voice that attracted him, and that he visualized his love in flame, the shape of which changes too often to form a true representation. Despite man's presumed superiority to woman, her presence proves a necessity. The effect of his fantasy is that of an angel, an airy and difficult-to-recognize form that yet commands respect and reverence. The speaker continues, "Still when, to where thou wert, I came, / Some lovely glorious nothing I did see." Donne manages to use repetition of the w sound to pleasing effect, exercising an uncommon ability to make the harsh sounding term wert appealing. Because the reader understands the common view that angels assume forms of air, the phrase lovely glorious nothing makes sense, as one cannot see air. However, the speaker makes the point that just as his own soul requires a body to function, love must also assume a corporeal form, logic typical of Donne's poetic voices:
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too.
By the conclusion of the first stanza the speaker has requested that love take form in a body, fixing "itself in thy lip, eye, and brow." The Petrarchan tradition often categorized the physical parts of the female body, an approach that Donne employs.
Donne next adopts an extended nautical metaphor, referring to his attempts to "ballast love" and steady the situation "With wares which would sink admiration, / I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught." The wares equate to his lover's overwhelming beauty, and pinnace refers to a small boat, reflecting on the previous verb sink. The speaker continues describing the ultimate nature of his love. If he dotes on every hair, that will be "much too much," but love cannot adhere to "nothing, nor in things / Extreme and scatt'ring bright." Donne returns to the myth regarding angels, whose earthly form might scatter diffused light, offering the only manner by which to recognize their airy presence.
The speaker concludes by commenting on the difference between the virtue of an angel while in heaven and its lesser virtue in earthly form. While he has complimented his love by comparing her to an angel, he has also suggested that she lacked purity, like an angel on Earth. Because the male was believed more constant, he suggests that her love might form a sphere around his own, based on his era's belief in the Ptolemaic theory of the universe as overlapping concentric spheres. His love, the stronger and more pure, could move within her sphere, acting as a control:
Then as an angel, face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
Just such disparity
As 'twixt air and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love and men's will ever be.
The message in this poem differed from that in much of Donne's love poetry, in which he claimed that pure love not only united two people, but made them one and the same person. His use of enchanting imagery and bewitching sounds, however, supports a thoughtful tone not typical of an insincere person. Despite the speaker's claims of male superiority, he reveals a touching vulnerability and remains susceptible to the promise of feminine attention. He also seems to fear that his love may vanish, like so much thin air.
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