The politics of gender

Although it is unarguably the case that governmental and other state structures have changed since the seventeenth century, sometimes it can be unthinkingly assumed that in another major site of power differences, that of gender roles, matters have remained largely the same. This has the result that whilst readings of Donne, or Vaughan, or Marvell might include an active consideration of the specifics of the status of Catholics in the early 1600s, or of the problematics of political alliances in the 1650s, it is still relatively common to find work on those same poets paying no heed to the particular contemporary limitations of femaleness and maleness. The result is a blurring of the specificity of the poetry and its concerns.

If the only evidence we had to go on when imagining the relationships between men and women in the seventeenth century was the most frequently anthologized male poetry of the period, we would gain a very distorted impression of the probable social realities. Whereas the legal and economic structures of seventeenth-century society ensured women's subordination to men, defending this through a panoply of ideological assertions, vast numbers of poems present the (would-be) mistress as all-powerful, able to kill her admirer with an angry glance, her will irresistible. In pursuit of his Julia/Celia/Corinna, the lover expends 'Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters' (Donne, 'Lovers' Infiniteness'),1 urging her to remember 'Time will not be ours, for ever' (Jonson, 'Song: To Celia'),2 declaring,

Thou art my life, my love, my heart,

The very eyes of me: And hast command of every part, To live and die for thee.

(Herrick, 'To Anthea, who may Command him Any Thing')3

The fact that we would not know how distorted this impression of female potency is, would also mean that our reading of the poetry itself would be at best inadequate. Recent work in women's and family history and research that is uncovering the forgotten published writings of seventeenth-century women are presenting new questions to men's poetry of the period, making it seem in some ways more complicated than it might at first appear, and stranger. The newness of this research, however, also means that it is fragmentary: there are studies of remarrying widows in Abingdon4 and of family structures in Ryton,5 but no national, century-wide picture. Even once the statistics are all established, or established as far as they can be, this will be no more than a beginning: it is one thing to know that the median marriage age for women in the period was twenty-four, that of men twenty-eight6; it is quite another problem to work out how people felt about this, or how they organized their sexual lives in the long period between puberty and marriage, or why more women remained unmarried as the seventeenth century progressed.7 The relationships between legal and economic structures, and people's knowledge of those structures and their ideas about them, are not simple or predictable. Whilst social history research presents questions to literary critics, writings of the period can also suggest what some of the answers to historians' questions might be.

To begin, though, with one of the most striking differences between social reality and poetic representation: the assertion of female omnipotence in male/female relationships. In fact, women's subordination to men was axiomatic in the legal and economic organization of society, and firmly reinforced in ideological formulations that insisted the subordination was natural; as inevitable, for instance, as the head's control of the body. This is a point frequently made in conduct books, sermons, and other explicitly ideological formulations of the day. Thomas Gataker asserts:

the man is as the head, and the woman as the body ... And as it is against the order of Nature that the body should rule the head: so it is no less against the course of all good order that the woman should usurp authority to herself over her husband, her head.8

The legal and economic identity of a married woman was subsumed in that of her husband. This is succinctly expressed in The Law's Resolution of Women's Rights:

In this consolidation which we call wedlock is a locking together. It is true, that man and wife are one person; but understand in what manner. When a small brook or little rivulet incorporateth with Rhodanus [the Rhone], Humber, or Thames, the poor rivulet loseth her name; it is carried and re-carried with the new associate; it beareth no sway; it possesseth nothing coverture. A woman as soon as she is married is called covert-, in Latin nupta, that is, 'veiled'; as it were clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her stream. I may more truly, far away, say to a married woman, her new self is her superior; her companion, her master.9

The significance of this loss of selfhood to possible readings of seventeenth-century poetry is made clear if we juxtapose it with some of the celebrations of the merging of lover and beloved. Amongst the most famous, and most admired, of these are found in the works of John Donne. In 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning', for instance, the lady is urged not to lament the poet's absence because their unity will be maintained despite physical separation:

Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show To move, but doth, if th'other do.

And though it in the centre sit, Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must Like th' other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end, where I begun.

What is striking is that the celebrated merger is not a union of equals: the lady's part in the relationship is to be the 'fixed foot' of the compasses, only moving when the roaming foot rotates. The conceit indicates, indeed, not mutuality but a power differential. To notice this is not, of course, to dismiss the poem, but it does raise some questions: is the poet here striving to invent an image of equality but failing to do so because of the limitations imposed on his imagination by the world he inhabits? A similar point might be made about Donne's 'The Anniversary' (Donne, Complete English Poems, pp. 41—2.), where both lover and mistress are described as 'kings' and so equal; but a woman, of course, cannot be a king; and a queen is not, quite, equal to a king, and so that term is not an available alternative. The inappropriateness of the description, therefore, exposes the actual lower level of female power both within the relationship imaginatively depicted, and in the nation as a whole.10

Female contemporaries of John Donne's also worked to invent images of mutuality. In 'Friendship in Emblem, or the Seal: To my dearest Lucasia'

Katherine Philips reworks the compasses conceit, making it possible for the identity of the moving foot to alternate: 'Each follows where the other leans, / And what each does, this other means.'11 In Philips's case the imagined interchangeability is made possible by the fact that the lovers are of the same gender: elsewhere she rejoices in Lucasia as 'My Joy, my Life, my Rest', explicitly preferring their delight to the crowing 'mirth' a bridegroom feels with a new bride.12 Anne Bradstreet, on the other hand, writes a poem from the point of view of the wife left at home by the travelling husband. This opens describing him in conventional terms as 'My head', and ends acknowledging that she is 'Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone', as Christian orthodoxy would require; but in between she wittily establishes both her own authority — he is her 'dearest guest', not her master - and her own intellectual powers as a poet.13 As she plays with 'natural' imagery — the relationship of head to body, the changing of the seasons being dependent on the height of the sun in the sky — she demonstrates that argumentation based on such features is false: she is warmer, not colder, as the sun moves northward; head and body can both continue to live when severed. The reader is invited to speculate whether the 'natural' differences between men and women might also be open to question. The poem can be seen then, like Donne's, as enacting and exploring the contradictions of claiming a merged identity of two people divided by a power differential. He explores this from a male perspective, she from a female one:

'A Letter to her Husband Absent upon Public Employment'

My joy, my magazine of earthly store,

If two be one, as surely thou and I,

How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?

So many steps, head from the heart to sever,

If but a neck, soon should we be together.

I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black.

My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,

Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt.

His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.

My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn:

Return, return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn:

In this dead time, alas, what can I more

Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?

Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,

True living pictures of their father's face.

0 strange effect! now thou are southward gone,

1 weary grow, the tedious day so long;

But when thou northward to me shalt return,

I wish my Sun may never set, but burn Within the Cancer of my glowing breast, The welcome house of him my dearest guest. Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence, Till Nature's sad decree shall call thee hence: Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, I here, thou there, yet both but one.

The existence of poems like these rebuts the argument at one time advanced by historians that the fact that the spouse was chosen by family decision, not at the whim of individual emotion, led to seventeenth-century marriages being distant and affectionless. Both Bradstreet and Donne take it for granted that a long-term relationship involves deep emotional commitment, and whilst Donne's own marriage might have been impolitic and therefore seem to make his love poetry atypical in this respect, Bradstreet's marriage at the age of about fifteen was certainly to someone chosen by her parents.14 It is the case, however, that whilst such relationships might have developed intimacy, they were undertaken as economic transactions, and during marriage a woman's right to hold property was largely removed by her husband: as T. E. phrased it, she 'possesseth nothing coverture'. Any love which might develop within the relationship did not undo the power differential between the partners involved.15 A bride brought with her a dowry, or 'portion', in return for which she was promised support in the form of freehold tenancy in land, her 'jointure', should her husband predecease her. The fact that the level of portions increased by 300 per cent between 1600 and 1700 (in a period when general price inflation was just 50 per cent)16 might also indicate that financial considerations increased in significance in the period. A sense of women's lack of influence even over men they might have married for love is voiced by Isabella in Middleton's Women Beware Women:17

Oh, the heartbreakings Of miserable maids, where love's enforc'd! The best condition is but bad enough: When women have their choices, commonly They do but buy their thraldoms, and bring great portions To men to keep 'em in subjection.

... No misery surmounts a woman's: Men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters.

It is scarcely surprising, given the interconnection between finance and marriage, that the love poetry of the day makes such frequent use of economic metaphors. The lady is praised for 'her store / Of worth'

(Crashaw, 'Wishes: To his (supposed) Mistress'18), called to 'unlocke' her 'mine of Pleasure' (Carew, 'To a Lady that Desired I Would Love Her'19), or threatened that she will be superseded: 'I must search the black and faire / Like skilful] Minerallist's that sound / For Treasure in un-plow'd-up ground' (Lovelace, 'The Scrutiny'20). The ending of a relationship is bemoaned as it 'lies now exhaust and spend, / Like summes of treasure unto Bankrupts lent' (King, 'The Surrender'21). A golden age is evoked where women were the common property of men, and sexual pleasure therefore freely available to the male sex:

It was not love, but love transformed to vice, Ravished by envious avarice,

Made women first impropriate: all were free: Enclosures men's inventions be.

In the golden age no action could be found For trespass on my neighbour's ground: 'Twas just with any fair to mix our blood.

(Randolph, 'Upon Love Fondly Refused for Conscience's Sake')22

Within such fantasies lie implicit fears: if men were able 'with any fair to mix our blood' they could not be confident that their wives' offspring were legitimate heirs to their own property, and Randolph's poem ends invoking a time 'when time's colder hand leads us near home / Then let that winter-virtue come'. Such anxieties are also given voice in Donne's Elegy 'To his Mistress Going to Bed', where she is celebrated in terms which simultaneously assert that she is his possession and indicate male anxiety about the extent of that possession: the lady is 'my America, my new found land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned' (emphasis mine).23

The idolizing courtship of the desired mistress, then, is inviting her at best to a legal relationship where she has no independent existence but becomes a man's possession; this is encoded in the language adopted by the male poets. This was also a dynamic much commented on, often with irony, by their women contemporaries. In Her Protection for Women (1589) Jane Anger warns her woman reader, 'Their singing is a bait to catch us and their playings, plagues to torment us. And therefore take heed of them.'24 Katherine Philips published a poem described as 'An Answer to Another Persuading a Lady to Marriage':

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Family History Search

Family History Search

Have you ever wondered just who your ancestors are? Discover The Secrets to Finding Family You Never Knew You Had! Never Before Revealed Information!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment