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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

II. Poetics of the Body

Naked Words: Figures of Seduction in Donne’s Poetry

Claudine Raynaud

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Et pourquoi ne pas interpréter une face de l’Autre, la face Dieu, comme supportée par la jouissance féminine? (Lacan, 1975, 71)
Le désir ne se soutient... que du manque. (Baudrillard, 1979, 15)

  • 1 We are at the core of the Catholic doctrine of incarnation (the word made flesh) and transubstanci (...)

1That seduction figures as a theme and acts as the very dynamic of Donne’s rhetoric and poetry comes as no surprise. I would like to focus here more precisely on the reference to the body -- carnality, the flesh, the corporeal -- in moments of the poetry where seduction takes place literally (or is about to take place literally, as an event). These moments when the word is "naked": the truth of sexual encounter, when the word "touches" the body, where the word is the body, when the relationship between the signifier and the signified is that of denotation.1 I hope in so doing to come as close as possible to one of the most striking features of Donne’s wit, by giving a provisional answer to the question: how does eroticism (the erotic in/of the poetic text) come up against its limits, i. e. pornography and death? To display this enquiry, I will examine more specifically the following poems: "Elegy 19: To his Mistress Going to Bed", "The Flea", and rape as religious metaphor in "Devotion 14: Batter my Heart", one of the chestnuts of scholarly criticism on Donne.

2Seduction has come to mean what distracts from the truth, from the right path, what threatens the order of innocence. It leads astray; it subordinates. It is also a watershed, a limit. It marks a before and an after. It is both inscribed in time and in the body. Seduction is the mark of temporality in the body by an event: sexual consummation. It anticipates in language what cannot be performed in it. As the speaker of "Elegy 19" declares: "Until I labour, I in labour lie" (l. 2), where "labour" means, among other things, "in impatient anticipation" (note 2, 448). Seduction is also in the order of discourse a lie; in the field of vision, it is a lure. Seventeenth century poetry, and that of Donne more specifically, with its troubling interrogations on the relationship between the soul and the body, testifies to the fact that seduction-in the broader sense of the term of the display/discourse of desirewas still possible in the early modern period. It had not yet entered "the realm of darkness" to which our modern world has relegated if one takes up Baudrillard’s words (1979, 9). Donne the libertine, Jack Donne as a seventeenth-century courtier and gallant, comes to mind (cf. Carey, 1980; Marrotti, 1986; Corthell, 1997; Desa Wiggins, 2000). Yet Donne cannot be thought as a mere addition of two personae divided by the moment of conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, a schizophrenic Jack v. Dr. Donne.

1. Bare desire: "Stealing (the) shadow"

  • 2 Another critic, Thomas Docherty, states: "What is being sought by the poet is recognition of his o (...)
  • 3 "With standing" could be read as "withstanding" in one word, a connotation of resistance underscor (...)

3On first reading "Elegy 19: To his Mistress Going to Bed", the nakedness of the speaker is what is abruptly unveiled at the end, whereas the whole poem consists in a mental undressing of the mistress performed by the listener and the speaker. The clou, the fall, is the final line: "To teach thee, I am naked first..." (l. 47). However, the surprise for the listener should not be total. What is arresting is the refusal of the metaphoric -- the literalisation, or un-punning -- and the speaker’s elision of his own disrobing (cf. Colie, 1970 on a similar tendency in Marvell’s poetry). Yet his undressing has already taken place as the trajectory of the sign of desire through the text. Various critics have shown that the arousal of the speaker is present in the poem through a series of double entendres. I am alluding here more specifically to Anthony Easthope reading in Poetry and Phantasy (1989, 53-60).2 The lines where the male body pierces through the text ("stands out"), where the words conjure up the vision of the male sex, are the following: "The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,/Is tired with standing through they never fight" (ll. 2-4).3 "Standing" refers to the tumid penis, yet the metaphoric battle veils what strikes the ear and the eye ("having the foe in sight", emphasis mine). Next, the speaker envies his mistress’s garment: "Off with that happy busk, which I envy/ Which still can be, and still can stand so nigh" (l. 11). The word "stand" is at that moment in the poem repeated twice in conjunction with "still" with the double meaning of immobile (i. e. fixed) and as an allusion to temporality as in the expression: "I am still waiting" (I keep on waiting). If "labour" meant "impatient anticipation", the male lover’s eagerness -- his restlessness -- is emphasised in this line which point at an end of the waiting, of the standing "still"... The ghostly presence of the feminine, both attraction ("In such white robes heavens’angels used to be/Received by men...", l. 19) and repulsion ("ill spirit walk in white", l. 22), is played up in contrast with the flesh in erection: "Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright" (l. 24, emphasis mine). The mistress is further compared to a kingdom "safeliest when with one man manned" (l. 28). The two final puns have often been commented on: "Where my hand is set, my seal shall be" (l. 32). The word "seal" has a double meaning: it is the seal on a letter and it thus allows the judicial and writing metaphor to become a double conceit. It is also the male organ. Finally, in keeping with the metaphor of the clothed body of the mistress as a book with its cover (see "like books’gay coverings", 1. 39), the last line asserts bluntly: "What needs thou have more covering than a man" (l. 48). "Covering" is also a word used for the mating of animals, hence for coition. It also literally refers to the fact that the speaker is in the simplest apparel, naked as a worm, and so must she be.

4The word "naked", the naked word, at the end of the poem is thus the unveiling of a "truth" already contained in it. The seduction operated by wit consists precisely in pretending that the words which refer to the male body were only present in the surface of the various analogies that describe the different pieces of garment which the mistress must take off upon her lover’s orders. The incongruity of the descriptions and their very length play up against the eagerness of fulfilment and the urgency of desire that is stimulated by the mental evocation of the woman’s stripping. It is all a question of time, of timing, of chime, of chiming (l. 9). The woman’s sex as unsayable truth is also approached in these crude literalisations of the sexual act, of physical intercourse, of copulation.

  • 4 The French "vol" has often been used by proponents of écriture féminine to play on flight and stea (...)

5Explicit references to the sexual act itself are also interspersed through the text to lead up to the final "covering", the male body acting as ultimate cover for the woman’s body, a radical variation on the myth of Genesis. The revelation of the body, and of a certain part of the female body, can be heard in the simile: "As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals" (l. 14). The sexual metaphor in the guise of pastoral allegory is complete with the flower (the female sex, her virginity), the hill as the Mount of Venus, the shadow as pubic hair). The "stealing shadow" is also quite appropriately a way of alluding to the female sex as what is stolen from the eye, the "dark continent". Womanliness is a shadow: it cannot be grasped, it escapes, it steals.4 The word "steal" also works as paronomasis through the internal echoes between of "seal"/"steal"/"still"). Nothing can be more direct than "Show the hairy diadem which on you does grow l. 16). Yet the male speaker will show and not tell his nakedness whereas woman’s nakedness stop at the metaphoric ("diadem"). It is as if her "truth" could never be told (the enigma of woman), whereas his is displayed for all to see. The bed is then described as "love’s hallowed temple", l. 18) in a set comparison, which could also metonymically refer to the female sex. The mistress’s "sex" is what receives men ("Received by men", l. 20). It is where the hand of the speaker is set. It is "a mine", and should be "mine" ("my mine", l. 29). It is the "bonds"/"bands" (MS) into which the male enters. Following on from the mineral metaphor ("mine of precious stones" 1. 29), the traditional conceit of the female sex as gem or jewel is developed together with the notion of apparel and adornment. The false gems are precisely the visible ones ("cast in men’s views", l. 36). The barrier of the visible as the essential lure of femininity recalls the earlier " Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear, / That the eyes of busy fools may be stopped there" (l. 8, emphasis mine). The real gem is not the lures ("Atlanta’s balls", l. 36) that men mistake them for. Here Donne is reversing the myth of the "balls" thrown by the Goddess: men are the dupes and women the distracting agents (note 26, 450). In the myth, Aphrodite gives three golden apples to Hippomenes who casts them in Atalanta’s way. She stops to pick them up and forgets the race that he consequently wins. His winning means that he can marry her. This reversal of the roles, together with the pun on "balls", is a symptom of the whole text, of the fear of castration that is inscribed in the paradoxical fore-grounding of erection, while woman’s castration makes no doubt. It is also a moment of confusion of the two bodies, which plays on attributes (what one has) and attribution (what one is supposed to have).

6Ultimately, the poem stages the coincidence of the feminine with accoutrement, apparel, attire, array, adornment to finally resound with the insolubility of the enigma of woman. Where is she? Why is she silent? Or rather why is her silence so loud in this poem? What do we know of her? Can male "teaching" be effective when it comes to female sexuality and since he does not "know" her in the course of the poem? What if the poem were to be read as putting forward the evanescence of woman’s sex while pointing at the inescapable visual quality of male erection and its fragility? To quote Lacan:

C’est ce que le discours analytique démontre, en ceci que, pour un de ces êtres come sexués, pour l’homme en tant qu’il est pourvu de l’organe dit phallique-j’ai dit dit-, le sexe corporel, le sexe de la femme, alors que, justement, il n’y a pas la femme, la femme n’est pas toute-le sexe de la femme ne lui dit rien, si ce n’est par la jouissance des corps. (1975, 13).

7The poem is also a magnificent dramatisation and/in discourse of the fact that woman (who does not have the phallus) takes on the value of the phallus. She possesses a female body. That body is unknowable, whereas the Biblical meaning of "know" (have sexual intercourse) reactivates the equivalence between knowledge and sexuality. At the same time, the male body is finally reduced to being a garment, another veil/cloth: the best "covering", l. 48) that the woman wears. The male body as ultimate cover hides the truth of the feminine that can never be told.

8Serge André and Joan Riviere in her famous essay on "Womanliness as a Masquerade" (1986, 35-44), can help provide the theoretical background against which the poem could be read. I quote Serge André:

Ainsi, à défaut d’avoir le phallus, la femme soigne-t-elle tout particulièrement son image corporelle, de telle sorte que celle-ci arrive à prendre la valeur de phallus : à défaut d’avoir le signe identificatoire du pénis, elle a un corps féminin. Par conséquent, le corps féminin, tout en s’étayant sur le réel de la chair, acquiert un statut principalement symbolique : à la limite, comme symbole phallique, il vaut mieux encore qu’un pénis. (1995, 119)

9Similarly, Lacan’s famous quotation on the reason why the penis is taken as a sign for the phallus finds in this poem an apt pre-figuration.

The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark where the share of the logos is wedded to the advent of desire. One might say that this signifier is chosen as what stands out most easily seized upon in the real of sexual copulation, and also as the most symbolic in the literal (typographical) sense of the term, since it is the equivalent in that relation of the (logical) copula. One might say that it is by virtue of its turgidity, it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation. (1982, 82, emphasis mine)

10The difficulty of sexual relation is evident especially for woman whose relationship to the phallic term is described only in terms of masquerade. To quote André again:

Les hommes tendent à avoir la phallus, les femmes à l’être. Cette répartition se résout au niveau imaginaire dans ce que Lacan appelle l’intervention d’un paraître. Chacun et chacune joue à paraître détenteur du phallus-pour se protéger lorsqu’il l’a, pour en masquer le manque lorsqu’il ne l’a pas. Ainsi écrit Lacan : "c’est pour être le Phallus, c’est à dire le signifiant du désir de l’Autre que la femme va rejeter une part essentielle de sa féminité, nommément tous ses attributs, dans la mascarade...." La femme joue la comédie du phallus, ce n’est pas tant qu’elle désire le posséder au même titre que l’homme, mais plutôt qu’elle s’en sert pour poser son appât. C’est pour ce qu’elle n’a pas qu’elle entend être désirée en même temps qu’aimée. (1995, 119)

11Donne’s poem thus sets the terms of male and female in their relationship to the phallus, by showing and with-holding the physical signs of male desire in counterpoint to the display of the impossible dis-robing of woman, up to the question of her own desire.

12The woman’s covers, her coverings, her clothes, enter in correspondence with the veil of truth, a mystical truth that must be revealed (one of the possible etymological origins of revealed is re-velum, from veil). The whites robes (l. 19) and the woman’s disrobing also echo the German "Raub" as spoils, what is stolen (from sight), or simply robbed. Another connotative field finds its source in the "hairy diadem", the pubic hairs which veil the female genital organs, and which Freud links to the female invention of weaving (See Cixous and Derrida, 1998).

2. Sexual se-duction

  • 5 As Carey remarks that flea poems were common place: "Flea poems were a smutty old joke. There were (...)

13"The Flea" is generally thought to proceed through several analogies: the bed, the temple, the cloister. The murder of the flea is an act that the speaker asks the mistress not to perform. It is a prelude, or rather a pretext, to summoning the beloved to sexual consummation. Faithful to Donne’s rhetoric, "The Flea" convinces, persuades, sways, imposes sexual consummation through the detour of the killing of a flea.5 The Mistress’s loss of virginity is what the three stanzas weave in common, in the same way as the turgid penis was the link between the far-fetched metaphors of "Elegy 19". The word "flea", itself when translated into French puce, is directly linked to puceau, pucelle, dé-puceler, derived from the Latin puella, young girl. The breaking of the hymen is thus contained in the word flea, although in the seventeenth century virginity and "loss of maidenhead" were of a different order. In contrast with "Elegy 19", where the entreaty is not actually consummated by the lovers in the narration of the poem, the murder of the flea is performed within the duration of the poem, much to the feigned astonishment of the speaker. This murder was prefigured by the two bites: "Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee" (l. 3), The mistress is "cruel and sudden": "Hast thou since/Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?" (ll. 19-20). I in the beginning of the poem, the "two bloods mingled" within the swollen body of the flea refer to coition since it was thought at the time that coition entailed a mingling of the bloods. The killing of the flea metonymically performs deflowering ("loss of maidenhead", l. 6/"blood of innocence", l. 20/"honour", l. 26), while the Christic metaphor ("purple nails", "innocence") takes up the convincing first stanza. The flea teaches/shows that mingling two bloods cannot be loss of innocence since "enjoyment" comes in the flea before wooing, a way for the speaker to conflate two meanings of seduction: the joys of sexual pleasure and courting as seduction. It is indeed what the speaker is actually doing throughout the poem.

14The whole demonstration is based on a pun on "more/less" and on "little" (l. 2) and what could be of consequence: what will you lose? Are we "more" or "less" married?: "Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,/Where we almost, nay more than married are" (ll. 10-11). More cunningly, the rhythm of "more" l. 9, l. 11) and "less" (cf. "weaker", l. 24) is that of desire, of sexual intercourse, with at the horizon the idea that there should be no "waste" (l. 27), i. e. no "rest", no remainder. The flea’s death did not take the life of the mistress; hence the latter will not die if she dies, i. e. experiences sexual pleasure. The flea is first said to do "more" (maybe a pun on Anne More) than the lovers would do since the insect-which gradually becomes an object, yet a living one, epitomises coition ("we’are met", l. 14). The last part of the final stanza tries to convince the mistress that they are not weaker for the loss of the blood contained in the flea, for the loss of the blood which results from breaking the hymen (loss of maidenhead).

15Although metaphors seem to multiply (one, two, three), in fact the argument of the poem also puts forward containment and, at the end, strict correspondence between life and (metaphoric) death. Whereas "Elegy 19" put forward the male sex and its visibility and approached the female sex as much as it could, the second poem tries to make visible, concrete, by using the flea as objective correlative, so to speak, of the loss of innocence: "Mark but this flea, and mark in this...", l. 1). How can loss be made visible? The speaker’s rhetoric turns this loss into a willing murder (the mistress is guilty) and then tells the mistress that this murder is far greater than the loss of her honour. The wit consists in inventing a metaphoric murder in order to seduce the mistress into thinking that the murder of the flea is sacrilegious. Hence, losing her maidenhead will not be more than a flea’s bite, the first drawing of blood. Reversing the terms between the religious and the profane, the poet elevates the killing of the flea to sacrilege, which helps him conversely to deflate deflowering to an innocent innocuous act.

3. Religious ravishment

16The last poem which I would like to take up in relation to seduction is the famous "Meditation 14" where the speaker finally tells God: "Take me to you, imprison me, for I/Except you enthral me, never shall be free,/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me" (ll. 2-14). The speaker’s final call to be ravished by God places him, as other scholars have remarked, in an effeminate position. Yet that statement should be qualified if we think of the one sex model (Laqueur, 1990) which prevailed throughout the Renaissance. Furthermore, if we place it in relation to the reversals which we have already encountered, it is in keeping with the transitivity already noted, the great fluidity of sexual roles in the text of seduction: the male speaker takes up the female position and reverses the usual gender positioning. I would also quote an epigram that plays on the notion of "manliness":

Thou callst me effeminate, for I love women’s joys;
I call thee manly, though thou follow boys (152)

  • 6 Helen Wilcox has kindly reminded me that the reading of rape as rape for the period cannot be so e (...)
  • 7 See Nicolas Poussin’s The Estasy of St. Paul (1649), Musée du Louvre. For a commentary on this pai (...)

17The paradox of the final line-that the speaker’s chastity can only be guaranteed by God’s ravishment-can be read literally in the same way as the fact that the priests’chastity is guaranteed by the fact that they have dedicated themselves to God. So why all this emphasis on a God who rapes the speaker? Ravishment is not rape. And at any rate, rape is first the seizure of a thing, then the taking away of a person, and thirdly, the violation or ravishment of a woman.6 Once again, the speaker voices the instability of sexual positionnings. To take up Baudrillard’s words: "Toute masculinité a toujours été hantée par cette soudaine réversibilité dans le féminin. Séduction et féminité sont inéluctables comme le revers même du sexe, du sens, du pouvoir (1979, 10-11). The speaker might simply be asking that God seize him and take him away with him. His chastity will be preserved by an elopement with God. Behind the use of "chast" (l. 14) and "ravish"(l. 14), the chase (chased) and the elopement of female mortals by Gods in Greek myths (Europa, Ιο and the Golden Shower) hovers as the intertext that helps Donne use such an abrupt rapprochement of two antithetical terms. The mystery of the Virgin Mary, at the same time mother and virgin, is no less paradoxical than the speaker’s request that his chastity be guaranteed by ravishment. Ravishment does mean taking away, carrying away and it is only the third meaning that states the violation of a woman (OED). Another meaning is that of a seizure by grace, as Paul was ravished "into the third heaven".7 We could then conjecture that the literal meaning of ravish is not so much sexual as an abduction (rather than a seduction) of the speaker, like Paul. It is a call for Grace, for its suddenness, for its irruption into the world of men where chastity is threatened. The "knot" and the "tie" (untie, "l. 11)) would be that which links the speaker to the world and its earthly concerns, but the metaphor of marriage is also present ("divorce"). The words are explicit: the speaker is asking God to "make [him] new" ("Divine Meditation 14", l. 4), to make him a new man, a man taken by grace according to the Anglican doctrine. St Paul is the apostle of conversion; he is also the Church Father who imposed the wearing of the veil for women (see Cixous and Derrida, 1998, 72) and separated men from women. Of course, he is above all the patron Saint of the Cathedral whose Dean Donne was. The reference to the body: "I.../Labour to admit you" (ll. 5-6) recalls the earlier "Until I labour, I in labour lie" ("Elegy 19", l. 2). Chastity means a refusal of sexual intercourse. Yet the call for ravishment is a cry for the arbitrariness of the seizure (the trance), the transportation of the speaker to heaven, another world, ecstasy. Such bringing together of the sacred and the profane can be found in Bernini’s statue, The Ecstasy of St Theresa (Rome, S. Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro chapel) mentioned in Lacan’s seminar on female jouissance (1975, 70)

4. "Calling for more"

18I have deliberately proceeded without smooth transitions through various angles of vision, juxtaposing and confronting different facets of seduction: the male body in erection in the textual fabric of a call for literal unveiling; the female coaxed into losing her maidenhead; and finally the ravishment by God of the Christian who demands conversion by grace. I would like to close this small overview of the insistence on the body, on the flesh and its reversal, the use of bodily metaphors to describe a state of ecstasy, by taking up the argument made by Catherine Belsey about desire. Donne’s texts are texts of desire in the sense that the instability of the text is always at work: puns, wit, circumvoluted conceits. His are poems of seduction, poems that are trying to seduce the addressee, the mistress, to bring her to yield. It is ultimately in the textual deployment of ingenuity, in the tours de force, in the trouvailles, in the intellectual prowess that the poetics se-duce, that the sensual-the grain of the text, the grain of the skin-is linked to (and not divorced from) the abstract (Belsey, 1994, 130-149).


Works cited

André, Serge. 1995. [1986] Que veut une femme? Paris: Seuil.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1979. De la séduction. Paris: Denoël

Belsey, Catherine, 1994. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Colie, Rosalie, 1970. Andrew Marvell’s Poetry of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida. 1998. Voiles. Paris: Galilée.

Corthell, Richard. 1997. Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: The Subject of Donne. Detroit: Wayne State University press.

Desa Wiggins, Peter. 2000. Donne, Castiglione and the Poetry of Courtliness. Bloomington. Indiana University press.

Docherty, Thomas. 1986. John Donne, Undone. London: Methue

Easthope, Anthony. 1989. Poetry and Phantasy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellrodt, Robert. 1960. L’Inspiration personnelle et l’esprit du temps chez les poètes métaphysiques anglais. Tome I, John Donne et les poètes de la tradition chrétienne. Paris: José Corti.

Lacan, Jacques. 1975. Le Séminaire LivreXX "Encore". Paris: Seuil.

—. 1982. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell Eds. Trans. Jacqueline Rose.

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Marrotti, Arthur. 1986. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Massin, Marianne. 2001. Les Figures du ravissement: Enjeux philosophiques et esthétiques. Paris: Grasset.

Riviere, Joan. 1986. "Womanliness as a Masquerade" in Formations of Fantasy. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan eds. London: Methuen, 35-44


1 We are at the core of the Catholic doctrine of incarnation (the word made flesh) and transubstanciation (the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist). For a summary of Donne’s position on these mysteries, see Ellrodt, 1969.

2 Another critic, Thomas Docherty, states: "What is being sought by the poet is recognition of his own maleness, recognition of his phallus, and an acknowledgement of the power which its potency is supposed to give him" (1986, 82).

3 "With standing" could be read as "withstanding" in one word, a connotation of resistance underscored throughout the whole poem.

4 The French "vol" has often been used by proponents of écriture féminine to play on flight and stealth, to point at the fact that woman cannot be pinned down or "manned"?

5 As Carey remarks that flea poems were common place: "Flea poems were a smutty old joke. There were scores f them in all European literatures, going back to an original wrongly ascribed to Ovid. The standard set-up was that a flea found itself on a girl’s body and crawled around providing a commentary on the bits and pieces it came across. Its remarks on the breasts and genitals were, of course, considered the cream of the jest" (1980, 146).

6 Helen Wilcox has kindly reminded me that the reading of rape as rape for the period cannot be so easily dismissed.

7 See Nicolas Poussin’s The Estasy of St. Paul (1649), Musée du Louvre. For a commentary on this painting, read Massin, 2001, 247-249.


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