If it were true that the history of the west were the history of men oppressing women, we would expect to find some significant evidence of such oppression—of male entitlement to women’s bodies, sexual violence, or indifference to women’s pain—in the literature that privileged men wrote.
We would expect that some of the most culturally influential men of their time would at least occasionally reveal their contempt for women and their pleasure in controlling them.
What we encounter instead is a massive body of love poetry stretching back through the centuries in which extended adoration of the woman and expressions of dedicated or hopeless yearning form a major component, and in which the commission of violence is presented as the height of mental malady, as in Robert Browning’s sinister dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” (1842).
At the height of the English love poetry tradition, in the 16th and 17th centuries—the time of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), and John Donne (1752-1631), to name only the most illustrious—there were literally thousands of love poems written in which the sexual and emotional power of the female and the delirious joy, wracking self-doubt or passionate yearning of the male are the central subject.
If such had been written by women about men, we wouldn’t kid ourselves about their meaning. Here we have one sex focused with amorous intensity on the other, men obsessed with pleasing, winning, and paying homage to women.
There is no comparable body of love poetry by women about men despite the fact that since at least the early 19th century, women have been active as poets in English.
There are individual love poems or sequences—one thinks of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portugese (1850) including her famous poem “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways”—but there is no established convention of female expression of obsessive love for men’s bodies or minds.
Men’s love poems run the gamut from joy in wedded bliss to exasperation at the indifference or cruelty of the beloved, dwelling on the frustrated desire of the spurned lover or the satisfied desire of the happy one. Sexual entitlement, coercion of the woman, or indiscriminate lust are rare to non-existent.
In John Donne’s magnificent love poem “The Sun Rising” (published after his death in 1633), the speaker of the poem (the voice we hear) is so unwilling to get out of the bed he shares with his beloved that he castigates the sun for its rudeness in shining on them through the window, commanding the sun in mock exasperation to go elsewhere, and finally conceding that it makes sense for the sun to focus on his beloved and him since the center of the universe is in the lovers’ bed:
She's all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
Given this realization, the speaker ends in grudging yet exultant submission to the sun’s mandate: “Since thy duties be / To warm the world, that’s done in warming us. / Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.” The dramatic exaggerations of language and mood throughout the poem are a joyful declaration of the effect of love on the speaker.
In Thomas Wyatt’s mid-16th century sonnet “Whose list to hunt,” the speaker’s mood is the opposite: he is despondent, having been fruitlessly pursuing a woman for a long time with no happy ending in sight. Not only is he making no progress, but he is losing ground, and others, likely to be no more successful, are running after the same woman. The voice that speaks in this poem is humiliated and full of self-disgust, but unable to give up on the woman. Whenever he tries to leave off, he finds himself wanting her again: “Yet may I by no means my wearied mind / Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore / Fainting I follow.” The poem is structured around the extended metaphor of a pointless hunt, with the woman compared to a deer who won’t be caught—leading feminist critics to moralize about male dehumanization of women and sexual violence; but it is clear from the poem that the man has no power to compel the woman, or even to touch her. Though he is the hunter, he is the one helplessly caught.
Many of the sonnet series of this time are about untouchable women.
One of the greatest English poets of the late 16th century, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote a sonnet sequence, dated to 1582, entitled Astrophil and Stella, comprising 108 sonnets, in which the inaccessibility and coldness of the woman, and the hopelessness of the poet’s efforts are already indicated in the title.
Astrophil combines the Greek words for “star” (Astro) and “lover” (Phil) (and includes a shortened version of the poet’s name, Philip) while Stella is the Latin word for star. Astrophil loves Stella, but she is distant as a star—and all he can do is imagine ways to provoke her pitying interest in his anguish,
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
The series of mights in the lines emphasize his despair. The collection of poems overall ruminates on the intensity of unrequited love, and the connection between desire and poetic creativity.
In contrast, Sidney’s poetic rival Edmund Spenser wrote a series of poems, about 90 sonnets, called the Amoretti, published in 1595, to describe Spenser’s real-life courtship and marriage, in 1594, to Elizabeth Boyle. In the final poem in the series, the Epithalamion (poem in honor of the bride), he lavishly praises his wife’s physical loveliness, itemizing
Her goodly eyes like Sapphires shining bright
Her forehead ivory white,
Her cheeks like apples which the sun hath rudded,
Her lips like cherries charming men to byte
and so on, but paying ultimate tribute to her “inward beauty,” which includes her “sweet love and constant chastity.”
Such poems praising the beloved often included formulaic descriptions of the woman’s attractiveness—and/or declare that her beauty of character outweighs all. This tradition of idealized comparisons became so familiar in the poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries that it could be mocked. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which begins famously “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” plays on the many comparisons that besotted poets made to celebrate a woman’s beauty.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Shakespeare’s poem admits that his beloved’s hair is more like dark wire than spun gold, her breath isn’t always sweet, and her breasts are dun-colored rather than snowy white, but insists that he loves and desires her anyway: as the final couplet states “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, 1609). The speaker’s tone is fervent and full of admiration for his human goddess.
And what of the women in these poems, the subjects of so much close contemplation, wonder, and exasperated longing? Are they merely objects, disempowered, passive, voiceless? That’s what the feminist critics allege, and almost no literary analysis today escapes an overlay of feminist condemnation or skepticism about male love poetry. But the feminists are wrong.
The beloved is often implicitly present in these poems; we not only see her beauty and learn of her actions but sometimes actually hear her voice talking back to the poet, responding to him, intellectually sparring or teasing.
The beloved in Edmund Spenser’s 1595 Sonnet 75 is directly quoted in the poem chiding the poet-speaker for imagining that he can defeat death and time with his pen. She mocks him as a “Vain man […] that dost in vain assay / A mortal thing so to immortalize.”
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."
It is foolish for him to try to make her immortal, she is saying. But the speaker persists in an elaborate compliment both to himself as writer and to her: he promises her that “My verse your virtues rare shall eternize, / And in the heavens write your glorious name.” 400 + years later, we still know her name—we know she was Elizabeth Boyle much-admired second wife of Spenser.
John Donne’s tour de force lyric poem “The Flea” (1633)—in my opinion the wittiest and most exuberant love poem ever written—also dramatically brings to life the woman it addresses. The poem is about a flea that the poet sees on the arm of his beloved, which having just sucked his blood, he imagines as a sacrament mingling his blood with hers in a kind of miniature marriage ceremony. They might as well consummate the marriage, he suggests erotically, since it has already, in a sense, occurred. “Mark but this flea,” the would-be lover says (in other words, take note)—
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
In response to her persistent lover, the beloved is vibrantly present, responding to the speaker, disobeying him, co-writing the poem, as it were. Between the second and third stanzas, she impishly crushes the flea against his wishes. The poem dramatically bring to life not only the desire of the speaker for the woman but also her self-confident sexual power.
Feminist critics have analyzed such poetry extensively in order to tell us that we read with our own eyes is not what is really there, and that these expressions of love and desire are nothing more than patriarchal objectification, in which the woman is reduced to a thing to be owned and exploited.
But even in the simplest expressions of the tradition, such an argument is hard to maintain. Thomas Campion’s 1617 sonnet “There Is a Garden in Her Face” is typical of the convention of the extended idealized comparison in which individual features of the woman’s face are compared to beautiful objects in nature such as flowers, fruits and precious gems: in this case, we have roses and white lilies describing her complexion, cherries and at other times rosebuds as similes for her lips; her teeth are Orient pearls, and so on. These comparisons, which are at once innocent and erotic are intended to evoke the sensual attractiveness of the beloved’s face, and the admiration of a lover who sees no flaw. Here is the middle stanza of the three-stanza poem.
Those cherries fairly do enclose
Of orient pearl a double row,
Which when her lovely laughter shows,
They look like rose-buds fill’d with snow;
Yet them nor peer nor prince can buy,
Till “Cherry ripe” themselves do cry.
“Cherry ripe” in the repeated refrain of the stanza’s final line is what fruit sellers would call to advertise their wares. The poem emphasizes that no one can possess the woman against her will; she cannot be kissed until she is ready. The beautiful sounds and images of the poem combined with its emphasis on the woman’s choice showcase her power to inspire.
Poems like Campion’s, which were produced, as I said earlier, in the thousands during the English Renaissance, can be seen as acts of objectification only if one understands objectification to mean a form of sacralization in which the poet pays tribute to the woman’s physical and moral self as precious enough to inspire his most exalted feats of poetic creation. There is nothing demeaning, quite the contrary.
The tradition of the lover aflame with passion is part of a popular convention that did not necessarily express the literal reality of the writers’ lives. But it is impossible to believe that the convention or style would have had the enduring appeal it did if it didn’t correspond to the heart experience of generations of men and women. In this tradition, loving deeply and sometimes suffering the pangs of unrequited love were an honorable part of male experience; and women were clearly considered worth suffering for.
Many more examples could be given, but those of the most esteemed names in Renaissance poetry should be adequate to make the case.
I will end with a 20th century example, a poem published in 1931, by the famous American poet e.e. cummings (1894-1962) who updated the tradition of the love sonnet while keeping many of its essential features. In “somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond,” cummings employed paradoxical phrases to evoke the speaker’s disorientation and wonder, as he turned to new uses the highly conventional imagery of flowers and unknown territory. In the final line of the poem, the power of rain to nurture a garden pales in importance to the small hands of the beloved, whose touch produces an emotion the speaker cannot fully explain. In using the image of the rose to describe himself rather than the beloved, the poet freshens the traditional emphasis of the form while acknowledging the tenderness that has always been a part of this centuries-old male tradition.
Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond (1931)
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands