But if of that you do despair, Think how you did amiss, To strive to fix her beams which are More bright and large than this.
Many of the verses addressed by men to women in the period were courtship poems of the kind mocked here by Anger and Philips. More specifically, a large number, like Randolph's quoted above, call on women to abandon their 'coyness' and agree to sex. This is so common as a literary pattern that it is easy to forget that a real woman's choice in matters of sexual desire was not a free one. The central requirement imposed on seventeenth-century women was chastity: to be thought an honourable woman she must be a virgin on marriage, and thereafter be sexually faithful to her husband. In the poems the mistress is admonished for refusing sex with a would-be lover, but in the social world women were supposed to be chaste. At the same time, she would have been taught from childhood that hers was the gender with the more libidinal nature; that her sexual appetite was enormous, and must be kept under careful restraint. For women, these contradictions might have been a source of confusion, or of irony, or a site of potential resistance. In men's poetry of the period, these self-contradictory ways of thinking about female sexuality produce curious effects. For instance, male fearfulness about women's sexual capacity often lurks in the corners - or perhaps at the heart — of poems urging a reluctant mistress to agree to consummation. This is most famously dramatized in Donne's 'The Apparition' where the poet envisages his would-be mistress in bed with another lover:
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before, Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more, And in false sleep will from thee shrink.
(Donne, Complete English Poems, pp. 42.-3)
His imagined punishment of her — that if she refuses him now, she will in the future be sexually rejected herself - barely masks a suspicion that once aroused, women might be difficult for men to satisfy. Aphra Behn was presumably responding to such masculine fears about sexual performance in her mischievous poem 'The Disappointment'. This opens with the 'amorous Lysander' urging his advances on 'fair Cloris', and her refusing them. Eventually, though, she is overcome by her own desire, and offers herself to him, at which he becomes instantly impotent and 'the o'er-ravish'd shepherd lies / Unable to perform the sacrifice'. Behn describes Cloris's disgust and her would-be lover's attempts to regain his erection in a detail that is agonizing for 'poor Lysander' and for the male reader:
Nature's support (without whose aid She can no human being give) Itself wants the art to live; Faintness its slackened nerves invade: In vain th'inraged youth essayed To call its fleeting vigour back, No motion 'twill from motion take; Excess of love his love betrayed: In vain he toils, in vain commands; The insensible fell weeping in his hand ...
Cloris returning from the trance Which love and soft desire had bred, Her timorous hand she gently laid (Or guided by design or chance) Upon the fabulous Priapus, That potent god, as poets feign; But never did young shepherdess, Gath'ring of fern upon the plain, More nimbly draw her fingers back, Finding beneath the verdant leaves a snake
Than Cloris her fair hand withdrew,
Finding that god of her desires
Disarm'd of all his awful fires,
And cold as flowers bathed in the morning dew.
Who can the nymph's confusion guess?
The blood forsook the hinder place,
And strewed with blushes all her face,
Which both disdain and shame expressed:
And from Lysander's arms she fled,
Where a woman's honour was dependent upon her sexual behaviour, a man's honour, by contrast, was associated with the reliability of his word and his physical bravery. In a rather banal way this difference is manifest in Lovelace's 'Song: To Lucasta, Going to the Wars', where he assures the mistress 'I could not love thee (Deare), so much, / Lov'd I not Honour more' (Lovelace, Poems, p. 18). More curiously, it is the distinction between the definitions of male and female honour - or, more accurately, a confusion of those definitions - that produces the terms of the opening lines of Carew's sexually explicit fantasy, 'A Rapture' (Carew, Poems, pp. 49—53). He urges her to join him in bravely defying 'The Gyant, Honour', and 'be bold, and wise'. Given the locus of the definition of women's honour, urgings in such terms as Carew uses here could not be expected to be effective: they entirely miss the point, from a seventeenth-century honourable woman's perspective. But they make possible an exploration of the nature of 'honour', and the way in which this concept relates to male understandings of the erotic:
We shall see how the stalking Pageant goes With borrowed legs, a heavie load to those That made, and beare him; not as we once thought The seed of Gods, but a weake modell wrought By greedy men, that seeke to enclose the common, And within private armes impale free woman.
... there I'le behold Thy bared snow, and thy unbraided gold. There, my enfranchiz'd hand, on every side Shall o're thy naked polish'd Ivory slide.
The connections between this poem and the one by Randolph quoted above are obvious: the rapturous state is one in which women are freely available to male sexual possession, and this is a common fantasy in male poetry of the period, found in many of Carew's other works, as well as, for instance, in Lovelace's masturbatory fantasy 'Love Made in the First Age: To Chloris' (Lovelace, Poems, pp. 146—8).
Another ubiquitous concern in the poetry of the period is with the mistress' physical appearance. The assumption is clearly made that a woman dresses not for warmth or comfort, but to attract a man. Both Jonson's 'Still to be Neat' (Jonson, Poems, pp. 2.91—2.) and Herrick's 'Delight in Disorder' (Herrick, Poetical Works, p. 28), for instance, depend on the woman being there on display to the male gaze, gaining her definition and worth from her power to attract him. She is sternly warned that she can only please by presenting an image of unadorned simplicity. In Jonson's words, 'Such sweet neglect more taketh me, / Than all the adulteries of art.'26 The point then is not to be 'natural', but to appear to be so in order to please the male observer. Herrick's poem precisely captures the contradictoriness of this desire: the woman must make an effort to appear to not be making an effort if she is to be a successful instigator of male desire. This 'sweet disorder' makes it possible for the clothes themselves, not the lover or his desired object, to be seen as the source of lust and the active party in love-making. It is her lace that is 'erring', the stomacher that 'enthralls' her, her petticoat that is 'tempestuous'. This relieves him of responsibility for his desire, and appears to relieve her of responsibility for it, too, as long as she is sufficiently careful in producing her impression of carelessness.
In a culture where connections were regularly drawn between people's external features and their inner qualities, it is not surprising that this preoccupation with the lady's looks also links to wider opinions or anxieties about her other characteristics. Such connections are commonplace, in particular, in the misogynistic polemics that reached a wide readership in the day, such as Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615). He warns his male reader:
Women have a thousand ways to entice thee and ten thousand ways to deceive thee and all such fools as are suitors unto them: some they keep in hand with promises, and some they feed with flattery, and some they delay with dalliances, and some they please with kisses. They lay out the folds of their hair to entangle men into their love; betwixt their breasts is the vale of destruction; and in their beds there is hell, sorrow, and repentance ... For take away their painted clothes, and then they look like ragged walls; take away their ruffs, and they look ruggedly; their coifs and stomachers, and they are simple to behold; their hair untrussed, and they look wildly. And yet there are many which lays their nets to catch a pretty woman, but he which getteth such a prize gains nothing by his adventure but shame to the body and danger to the soul ... Many women are in shape Angels but in qualities Devils, painted coffins with rotten bones.27
These views are crudely echoed in Herrick's 'Upon some Women', where the male reader is urged to 'Learne of me what Woman is':
False in legs, and false in thighes;
False in breast, teeth, haire, and eyes:
False in head, and false enough;
Onely true in shreds and stuffe.
(Herrick, Poetical Works, pp. 76-7)
More challengingly, Richard Crashaw's 'Wishes: To his (supposed) Mistress' (Crashaw, Complete Poetry, pp. 479-83) longs for 'That not impossible shee ... that Divine / Idaea', a woman whose virtue is in part made evident by the fact that she does not make use of extravagant clothing or make-up: she has 'A face made up / Out of no other shop, / Than what natures white hand sets ope'. In part the concern here is, once again, an economic one: whilst the woman is supposed to be an adornment to her husband, an advertisement of his financial well-being, she is also often portrayed as a potentially dangerous spendthrift. Swetnam, explaining to his male reader the 'real' meaning of the idea that God created woman as a helpmeet to man, insists that 'she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painfully getteth' (Swetnam, The Arraignment, p. i). What is implicitly at stake in this description of the perfect woman, though, is not only a question of money. The poem is a fantasy which invents a 'supposed', that is, imagined, mistress; a perfect woman who also has 'A well tam'd Heart' and whose highest desire, since 'her store / Of worth, may leave her poore / Of wishes', is to 'dare' to be worthy of this man's love:
Her that dares bee,
What these Lines wish to see:
I seeke no further, it is shee.
'Tis shee, and heere Lo I uncloath and cleare, My wishes cloudy Character.
May shee enjoy it, Whose merit dare apply it, But Modesty dares still deny it.
Such worth as this is Shall fixe my flying wishes, And determine them to kisses.
Let her full Glory, My fancys, fly before yee, Be ye my fictions; But her story.
Crashaw here makes explicit what is implicit in much of the writing on ideal women in the period: these are his fictions, his invention; but they are, nonetheless, to provide the pattern, the 'story', of her life. The desirable woman is the woman who wants her very identity to be defined by male desires. Most women are not like this: as the users of make-up and deceit, they are implicitly reproached in this praise of the exceptional mistress.
There is a curious irony in the fact that Crashaw's own mother died in childbed after giving birth to him, her first baby: her story in a literal sense ended with the beginning of his life. After her death, however, The Honour of Virtue, a collection of writings eulogizing her as the kind of perfect woman later reinvented by Crashaw, was published. The praise here, like the compliments to Crashaw's 'supposed mistress', is also implicitly derogatory of the general run of womankind who, it is said, do not achieve the same standard.28 In the light of this dynamic - the 'perfect woman' being invented as a standard against which most women can be found wanting -one of the poems in The Honour of Virtue is particularly interesting. F. Smith of Cambridge describes her as:
Mild, gracious, modest, comely, constant, wise, Matchless for piety and spotless fame: All words want force her merit to comprise, Complete in all Grace, Art, or Nature claim.
An honour of her Sex: blest virtue's pride, True beauty's pattern, mighty nature's wonder. In her, Pandora-like, there did reside All Graces others do possess asunder.
(Henderson and McManus (eds.) Half Humankind, p. 349)
At first glance, this poem simply says that the lady was exceptional because she united in her so many virtuous qualities, something most women fail to do. The reference to Pandora, however, introduces a profound ambiguity into the poem. Whereas Smith refers to her here ^ts the site of 'all Graces', taking the literal Greek meaning of her name, 'all gifts'; the reader will have another point of reference. In myth, Zeus created Pandora to punish Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity. At her creation she was endowed by the gods and goddesses with special qualities such as beauty, grace, and dexterity. But upon her arrival on earth she opened a box given her by Hephaestus and let loose on the world suffering and disease. She also originated the race of women, who 'live with mortal men, and are a great sorrow to them, and hateful poverty they will not share, but only luxury'.29 Within even the most perfect of women, the implication goes, is a source of evil and destruction, just as the praise of an individual woman is premissed on the assumption that in being virtuous, she is exceptional. In Swetnam's words, 'Many women are in shape Angels but in qualities Devils, painted coffins with rotten bones.'
The fear of female deviation from the male ideal revealed here is also manifest in much other writing of the time. In 1620 King James ordered church ministers 'to inveigh vehemently in their sermons against the insolence of our women and their wearing of broad-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettos or poniards, and such other trinkets of like moment'.30 Whether or not many women actually cross-dressed in this way, certainly the belief was commonplace that some wished to do so, and that to allow such behaviour was to allow a threat to natural order. The best known attack on such unfeminine behaviour is found in a pamphlet published in the same year that King James expressed his own anxieties: Hie Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine—Feminines of our Times?1 This is particularly concerned that women who have financial independence are choosing to dress and behave like men, making them 'good for nothing' (that is, presumably, not useful as breeders of children):
Such as are able to buy all at their own charges, they swim in the excess of these vanities and will be manlike not only from the head to the waist, but to the very foot and in every condition: man in body by attire, man in behaviour by rude complement, man in nature by aptness to anger, man in action by pursuing revenge, man in wearing weapons, man in using weapons, and, in brief, so much man in all things that they are neither men nor women, but just good for nothing.
(Henderson and McManus (eds.), Half Humankind, p. 269)
It is worth remarking that these fears also reveal a feature that is often found in assertions about the 'naturalness' of gender difference: if the difference is so natural, why is it so threatening for women to behave in a way not given them by 'nature'; and, indeed, how is such 'unnatural' behaviour possible? The most famous poetic rendering of a man's concern about women cross-dressing appears in Donne's Elegy, 'On his Mistress' (Donne, Complete English Poems, pp. 118-19). The lover, who is off to war, urges his lady to abandon her plans to dress as a lad and go with him as his page. The details of his argument reveal how interlinked and, therefore, potentially fragile are the elements commonly presented as assuring gender difference. The lover in asking the lady to be his 'true mistress' recalls to her her proper role in his past courtship of her, when he won her 'remorse' through 'my words' masculine persuasive force'. The manipulativeness of such argumentation is revealed when he continues by urging her to 'feed on this flattery, / That absent lovers one in th'other be' (emphasis mine). If none of this succeeds in convincing her, he has a dirtier trick yet: she is threatened that her true femininity will shine through her clothes, and she will be the object of sexual advances wherever she goes; or that 'th'indifferent Italian' will happily rape her as a boy, anyway. It is better for her to stay at home and dream of him. Deliberately or not, the poem makes it clear that what is really being protected here is not the woman, but gender differentiation.
It may well be the debate about the man/woman, the cross-dressing woman, was based more on fears and fantasies than on the actual behaviour of particular individuals. There is evidence, though, of some women choosing to assume men's clothes for their own reasons. One of the most delightful explorations of the pleasures for a woman of abandoning female garb appears in the memoirs of Ann, Lady Fanshawe, a royalist who travelled widely with her husband during the Civil War and Commonwealth period. She recalls an episode in 1650 when, at the sighting of a Turkish warship, all the women on her ship were ordered by her husband to hide below deck, because 'if they saw women, they would take us for merchants and boord us':
This beast captain had locked me up in the cabine. I knocked and called long to no purpose, untill at length a cabine boy came and opened the doore. I, all in teares, desired him to be so good as to give me his blew throm cap he wore and his tarred coat, which he did, and I gave him half a crown, and putting them on and flinging away my night's clothes, I crept up softly and stood upon the deck by my husband's side as free from sickness and fear as, I confess, from discretion; but it was the effect of that passion which I could never master. By this time the 2. vessels were ingaged in parley and so well satisfyd with speech and sight of each other's forces that the Turk's man-of-war tacked about and we continued our course. But when your father saw it convenient to retreat, looking upon me he blessed himself and snatched me up in his armes, saying, 'Good God, that love can make this change!' And though he seemingly chid me, he would laugh at it as often as he remembred that voyage.32
The terms in which this incident is described are as revealing as the forms of persuasion used in Donne's poem: she portrays herself as not rebellious but ruled by a 'passion' that we are required, through her husband's approving reaction, to read as love for her man. It is the ship's captain, not her husband, who is criticized as a 'beast' for locking her up. She wins the cabin boy over not with threats or with money, but with feminine tears. Rebellion, then, can be managed, and recorded, as long as it is written about as if motivated at its heart by properly feminine desire.
The wifely behaviour described and excused here by Lady Fanshawe is not at all the kind of thing commended by the ideologues of the day. If the nation, and the world as a whole, was to continue in an orderly fashion, women must accept their proper subservient position and display the required characteristics. It is no accident that an integral part of Jonson's harmonious vision in 'To Penshurst' is a good housewife who is also an honourable spouse:
Thy lady's noble, fruitful, chaste withal.
His children thy great lord may call his own:
A fortune, in this age, but rarely known.
(Jonson, Complete Poems, p. 97)
The fiction was that women's virtue, or their beauty, or, failing all else their class status or size of dowry would bring them security, and help ensure stability in the country. The reality, however, was that women were designed to be powerless whilst appearing to have control. The fact that this version of womanhood is an active social construction, and one invented by men in the interests of maintaining hierarchies, is displayed in Carew's 'A Married Woman':
When I shall marry, if I doe not find A wife thus moulded, I'le create this mind: Nor from her noble birth, nor ample dower, Beauty, or wit, shall she derive a power To prejudice my Right; but if she be A subject borne, she shall be so to me: As to the soule the flesh, as Appetite To reason is, which shall our wils unite; In habits so confirm'd, as no rough sway Shall once appeare, if she but learne t'obay.
The power of the husband is directly tied here to the structure of domination and subordination within the state: 'if she be / A subject borne, she shall be so to me'. It is also linked to the control of the mind or soul over the body: the man is reason/the soul, the woman is flesh/appetite. If she will give her 'free' consent, he will not be rough with her. Such vehement assertions, and explicit threats, contrast sharply with the reworking of these connections that is made by Bradstreet in her poem quoted earlier.
During the seventeenth century the asserted naturalness of these power structures came under increasing pressure as the focus of state power, the monarchy and national church, were first challenged and then overthrown.33 Thomas Edwards, a presbyterian divine, attempted to persuade men against tolerating heterodox religious belief by reminding them that their own power as husbands and fathers was intimately related to the authority of the church and state:
Oh! let the ministers, therefore, oppose toleration ... possess the magistrates of the evil of it, yea and the people too, showing them how if a toleration were granted, they should never have peace in their families more, or ever after have command of wives, children, servants.34
That the distribution of power within the church and state mirrored that between the genders had long been asserted: James I, for instance, in his speech to Parliament on zr March 1610 had justified his authority over the nation by comparing it to that of a father in the family.35 The ubiquitous appearance of this parallel, and the fact that the economic basis of society was indeed partially dependent on the alliances and exchanges produced through marriage contracts, makes it unsurprising that poetry presenting itself as solely concerned with personal emotion sometimes also encoded a discussion of public political matters.36 After 1629, when Charles I dismissed Parliament and ruled for eleven years without it, social tensions increased, and many poems appeared that long for an escape from such conflicts, sometimes linking this with a call to return to the 'peace' of loving relationships.37 One of the most interesting of these was written by Sir Richard Fanshawe, the husband of the cross-dressing woman quoted above. In 'An Ode, upon Occasion of His Majesty's Proclamation in the year 1630: Commanding the Gentry to Reside upon their Estates in the Country', he images England as the sole locus of peace and harmony in a Europe erupting in war, urging the gentry to stay away from the political conflicts of London and live on their country estates. In presenting the sweetness of domestic life, he evokes a conventional image of romantic love, the nightingale; and in this moment is made manifest the difference between the actual power relations between the sexes, and the politically motivated poetic use of a mythology of loving contentment:
There shall you heare the Nightingale (The harmelesse Syren of the wood) How prettily she tells a tale Of rape and blood.38
Although the nightingale is typically associated in male poetry with love, the classical myths which explain the nightingale's song, and to which Fanshawe refers here in unusual detail, shows the linking of this bird to romantic love silences the female perspective on what it can mean to be desired by a man. Philomela, the woman who was metamorphosed into the nightingale, was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, who then cut out her tongue to prevent her betraying him. To see the family as a centre of loving harmony that can be contrasted to public discontent, one has to forget the inequality of power that could be made manifest in rape. Even whilst Fanshawe presents romantic love as a centre of harmony, the terms in which he does this betray the underlying social reality. As the author of The Law's Resolutions of Women's Rights sharply reminded his reader, if a woman resisted the advances of her aspiring 'lover' he could take her by force:
When sweet words, fair promises, tempting, flattering, swearing, lying will not serve to beguile the poor soul, then with rough handling, violence and plain strength of arms they are, or have been heretofore, rather made prisoners to lust's thieves than wives and companions to faithful honest lovers. So drunken are men with their own lusts, and the poison of Ovid's false precept, 'Vim licet appellant, vis est ea grata puellis' ['You may call it force: that force is pleasing to girls'], that if the rampier [i.e., 'rampart'] of laws were not betwixt women and their harms, I verily think none of them, being above twelve years of age and under a hundred, being either fair or rich, should be able to escape ravishing. (p. 377)
It is worth adding that once raped, she might be forced to marry her attacker rather than live dishonoured and unmarriageable. Alice Thornton's autobiography records her relief that Jerimy Smithson's plot to rape her and thereby force her to marry him was revealed in time for it to be foiled.39 It is also the case that it was quite legal for a man to beat his wife: the nightingale's tale is indeed one 'Of rape and blood'.
It is the silencing of the nightingale, or of the abused woman that she can be seen to represent, that forms the final focus of this essay. One of the most marked features of male love poetry is the silence within it of the women it is supposedly addressed to: the woman is usually present as an object of desire, but not as a speaking subject. Indeed, as has frequently been commented upon, the very existence of the poetry often had little to do with the woman or women to whom it was ostensibly addressed: the writing of poetry was a social skill which brought acceptance within the upper echelons of male society, its subject-matter and tone dictated by the expectations of that grouping. It is for this reason, most of all, that the writings by women of the period are precious: they demonstrate the limitations of the required male stances. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, for instance, was fiercely critical of the cleverness of much male writing:
The reason why men run in such obscure conceits, is because they think their wit will be esteemed, and seem more when it lies in an odde and unusual way, which makes their verse not like a smooth running stream; but as if they were shelves of sand, or rocks in the way, and though the water in those places goeth with more force, and makes a greater sound: yet it goeth hard and uneasy. As if to expresse a thing hard, were to make it better.40
Donne was criticized by Dryden for the fact that he 'affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with the nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love',41 but this remark missed the point. The person who was expected to be impressed was not the lady, but other men.
The outbreak of civil war not only ended for ever the assumption that kings ruled by divine right and could not be challenged. It also released into print the voices of many women protesting against their confinement to roles of domesticity and/or desired lady. The first great outpouring of published women's writing is concerned not with love and courtship, but with the structures of the public world and, crucially, with women's right to voice opinions on such matters. This shift of perspective was put most eloquently by Hester Biddle as she lamented the return to 'business as usual' in the debauched Restoration court:
Oh you high and lofty ones! who spendeth God's Creation upon your lusts, and doth not feed the hungry, nor cloath the naked, but they are ready to perish in the streets; both old and young, lame and blind lyeth in your streets, and at your Masse-house doors, crying for bread, which even melteth my heart, and maketh the soul of the righteous to mourn: did not the Lord make all men and women upon the earth of one mould, why then should there be so much honour and respect unto some men and women, and not unto others, but they are almost naked for want of Cloathing, and almost starved for want of Bread? and are you not all brethren, and all under the Government of one King? Oh repent! least the Lord consume you, and be ashamed, and cloath the naked, and feed the hungry, and set the oppressed free.42
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