In "The Undertaking" John Donne, a poet who exulted in challenging traditional ideas regarding love and gender, counters his era's belief in the false nature of women. He engages in what the scholar Susannah B. Mintz terms "a playful transgressivenes." His speaker admits to knowing a constant woman but holds that he, and other males who had enjoyed the same exposure, keep their discovery quiet. That need for quiet Mintz calls "a space of anxiety in Donne's love poetry." While she views Donne's approach as somewhat enlightened, other critics hold that Donne simply "reentrenche[es] conventional gender roles" despite his seeming attempts in his poetry to blur boundaries between those custom-dictated roles.
Donne establishes a metaphor in the first verse, which he will extend throughout his seven four-line stanzas, that of silence as equivalent to heroism. His speaker begins,
I have done one braver thing Than all the Worthies did An yet a braver thence doth spring, Which is, to keep that hid.
The term Worthies refers to a medieval legend about the individuals who represent the epitome of courage. They included three Jews, identified as Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; three pagans, identified as Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar; and three Christians, identified as Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. Donne engages in his traditional blending of the sacred and the nonsacred in his allusions to champions of two religions and of English history, suggesting the necessity of spiritual heroism as a basis for physical heroism. This expands the definition of bravery into a spiritual and an intellectual context. That expansion proves necessary to his entire claim. His first stanza makes his entire argument, upon which he will simply elaborate in those to follow.
The second stanza utilizes a comparison to "specular stone," a material supposedly used in classical times to cover windows. It allowed some vision into a structure, but the material no longer existed. The speaker adopts that image to let readers know that he understands that his audience may consider him mad, as he discusses an "art," that of revealing the constant woman, when his listeners believe one does not exist.
By the third stanza he excuses listeners who have never identified constancy and bids them to "love but as before." However, in the fourth stanza he draws in those who, as he has, have made a discovery. He tells them,
But he who loveliness within Hath found, all outward loathes, For he who color loves, and skin, Loves but their oldest clothes.
Donne adopts outward appearance, enhanced by the false reflection of color and style in a woman's dress, as a metaphor for deception. others like the speaker have discovered true value, that of internal beauty. He names the valuable internal commodity in the fifth stanza as virtue. Then he introduces the aspect of danger imminent in any contradiction of societal expectations. His culture assumed women inconstant, and for a man to proclaim otherwise publicly could put him at risk of disapproval. The speaker wonders whether any man could take such a step, disputing the gender roles assigned by custom:
If, as I have, you also do virtue attired in woman see, And dare love that, and say so too, And forget the He and She;
He concludes that stanza with a semicolon, indicating that the discovery and the revelation are not all that is involved.
The speaker continues his conspiratorial whisper in stanza 6, suggesting that his audience not proclaim his accomplishment. To do so would be to challenge
Which will no faith on this bestow, or if they do, deride.
Donne suggests that women will be exposed to even greater humiliation if the men who appreciate them open them up to ridicule by challenging the era's beliefs. He concludes his poem by returning to the topic of courage, as the speaker assures his audience,
Then you have done a braver thing Than all the Worthies did; And a braver thence will spring, Which is, to keep that hid.
Feminist critics view this final stanza with interest, as Renaissance women found slander one of their greatest dangers. That tradition informed Edmund Spenser's 1590 allegory the epic poem The Fairie Queene, in which slander appeared in the form of the blatant beast that stalked innocent women. It also translated into everyday life, as evidenced by the gift of a ring from Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, the Renaissance playwright and mother to the poet Patrick Cary, to her eldest daughter. The ring bore an engraving that read, "Be and Seem": A woman should not only be without internal fault, she must also appear so to any who might observe her external actions. In urging men who knew of women's virtues to silence, Donne engages in gender role reversal.
According to popular belief a virtuous Renaissance woman at all times should remain silent and obedient in respect to men. of course women did not always adhere to public precept, and many enjoyed great freedom within the domestic scene. Donne appears to have been one who encouraged such limited freedom, an idea with which Mintz agrees. She writes that Donne speaks "of gender as a fluid realm of experience" and seems to have been able to consider relationships "outside of a patriarchal ideology" that idealized women and then objectified them as a dangerous and "threatening Other."
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