"The Uncanny Stranger on Display": The Female Body

in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Love Poetry

(Reproduced from The South-Atlantic Review 56.2 (1991): 7-25.

  My study of Renaissance love poetry begins with a twentieth century laugh: Helene Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa." Referring to the ways in which texts inscribe gender, Cixous contends that "there is such a thing as marked writing." By this she means that texts encode "a libidinal and cultural--hence political, typically masculine--economy." These predominately masculine codes of writing, she suggests, constitute "a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, ... often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction" (249). Woman's body, Cixous continues, "has been more than confiscated from her, ... has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display" (250). This "uncanny stranger" has been, in fact, no stranger to me in my own reading of Renaissance love poetry. And so, I would like to define some strategies of "display" and some of the cultural assumptions that might account for the curious ways in which the female body is "confiscated" or appropriated in Renaissance verse.1 My reading of Renaissance love poetry, thus, considers some of the subtextual assumptions encoded in representations of the female body. Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Fulke Greville's Caelica, and Robert Herrick's Hesperides offer a diverse sampling of Renaissance verse, and serve to illustrate a range of rhetorical strategems for (dis)embodying female power and thus attempting to master it, textually, at least, if not sexually.

In Sonnet 1 of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, the hapless Astrophel-- marauding other poets' works, gnawing his pen, and "great with child to speak"--reveals his dual anxiety: literary "anxiety of influence" and sexual anxiety about pleasing and thereby mastering Stella:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,

Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:

Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow

Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn'd brain.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,

Biting my truand pen, beating myself for spite,

Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write.

(1-2, 5-7, 12-14)

The poet/speaker's appropriation of the pregnant female womb and his look into his own heart to be delivered of his verse in the "throes" of his speechlessness have sexual and textual implications. In view of the generative power of woman, the male poet asserts his greater power through the creation of poetry. The verses he creates, children of his parthenogenic womb, ostensibly praise the woman, but actually seek to gain her grace, that is, to effect her submission to his will.2 The conflation of womb image and male speaker suggests his attempt to control the generative powers of the feminine, which his imagination has rendered mysterious, perhaps even fearful, as he envisions the "throes" possessing one in birth.

That Astrophel's glance inward should bring parturition suggests Sidney's autoreflexive poetics in the collection. In his important study of Petrarch's poetics, John Freccero argues persuasively that the real subject of Patrarch's poetry is its own act; the real creation, its own author.3 The same may be argued of Sidney's Astrophel. As Freccero writes of Petrarch's Canzoniere, the idolatrous love in Astrophel and Stella, "however self-abasing it may seem, has the effect of creating a thoroughly autonomous portrait of the poet who creates it" (27). Lauren Silberman argues that Petrarchan poetry "enshrines male subjectivity in a specious transcendence, . . . so that [the poet's] own perpetual longings provide subject matter for his poetry and the occasion for his assuming the vocation of poet" (260).

Sonnets 57 and 58, in which Stella sings or reads Astrophel's poetry to him, best reveal the essential narcissism of Sidney's poetics.4 In Sonnet 57, hoping to "pierce" her heart "with sharpness of the moan," the poet/speaker sends his verse to Stella. When she not only hears but sings his verses of complaint, it is not she who feels his griefs, but he who rejoices in his versified plaints, so sweetly does she sing them. The subsequent sonnet, whose octave explores the power of the orator to control the heart and will of others, similarly emphasizes the delight his own words enkindle in himself regardless of Stella's response. When Astrophel hears Stella's voice reading his verse, he fulminates, "my speech's might / Which wooed woe, most ravishing delight, / Even those sad words, even in sad me did breed" (12-14). The poet is ravished and delighted by his own words, and the woman seems merely to provide an occasion for plying his rhetorical skill. The poems, thus, focus upon the agency of the male poet, upon his subjectivity, prowess, and craft; Stella appears as a passive instrument or voice who mouths the sentiments of another in ways that delight him but render her an object: without her own voice, desires, or subjectivity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this pervasive narcissism, Astrophel continually protests his innocence of poetic ambition: "Stella think not that I by verse seek fame / Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee" (90.1-2). Twice he repudiates the poet's crown, the laurel branch (74, 90). Yet, the sequence focuses almost obsessively on the act of articulating in verse the pain of love in order to conquer the resisting woman. This focus and Astrophel's extraordinary wit and craft as he denies any rhetorical polish demonstrate both Sidney's concern with language as an instrument of sexual power and his consummate skill as laureate. That the collection masks the political and sexual relations of Sir Philip Sidney and Penelope Devereux Rich under the most transparent veil can hardly be gainsaid (Hulse 272; Hudson; Lanham 108). But that does not weaken the force of my argument, for the poems can serve simultaneously as seduction pieces and as demonstrations of Sidney's poetic mastery. Aspiring toward the literary identity and fame that poetry confers, Sidney self-consciously (mis)shapes and (de)forms the female body to demonstrate his control of language.

The female body serves as the battleground on which Sidney contests with other poets to prove his own mastery of language and his control of woman. Nowhere is this as apparent as in his use of the blazon, which Nancy Vickers sees as a device of control ("Diana Described" 265-79).5 For Sidney, the act of praising the woman is an act of self-fashioning as he dismembers her body and divests it of its autonomy. Through his stylized fragmentation and reification of the female body, he asserts his subjectivity as a poet, manipulating and controlling her objectified person.

This impulse in Sidney to control the feminine is characteristic of patriarchal sexual discourses. According to Dianne Hunter, Western patriarchal masculinity is associated with the power of the dominant subject who objectifies and fetishizes with a gaze; femininity, in Western sexual discourses, is therefore associated with the passive object who takes pleasure in being gazed upon and dominated (2). In "Sorties," Helene Cixous, following the deconstructive strategies of Derrida, argues that all of logocentric Western discourse organizes itself in terms of binary oppositions and the hierarchical privileging of one term in the opposed pairs.6 Sexual discourse, too, sets up its own binary oppositions--male/female, activity/passivity, culture/nature, reason/passion, and so forth--which grant privilege to the first term (associated with man), devalue the second term (associated with woman), and inform all representations of gender within Western culture. The outcome of such sexual discourse is the subjugation of woman, the denial of her subjectivity and agency: "Organization by hierarchy makes all conceptual organization subject to man. Male privilege. ... Traditionally, sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition: activity/passivity" (Newly Born 64).

Sidney's representations of the female body are situated within the sexual discourses that have traditionally shaped Western culture and attempted to contain female sexuality by denying woman full subjectivity and physical autonomy. In the first song of Astrophel, for instance, Sidney writes a blazon on his beloved, devoting a separate stanza to each adored body part: eyes, lips, feet, breast, hand, hair, and voice. Segmented and scattered into objects of fetish worship, the adored female body like a shattered mirror broken into brightly polished fragments reflects back to the speaker his own act of self-creation as master-poet. "Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth, / Which now my breast o'ercharged to music lendeth," he begins, and focuses attention as much on his own act of creation as on the woman (1-2). After rhapodizing over a specific body part in each stanza, the poet/speaker rounds up the piece by repeating the first stanza. Each stanza is linked to the subsequent stanza by repetition of the same line in the third verse: "To you, to you, all song of praise is due." Though ostensibly rendering praise to the woman, the poem calls attention to its own artifice, to its linguistic ingenuity, and the poet's control of language. Scrutinized by the gaze of the male lover who objectifies her body and makes of its fragments a poem, the woman remains the silent and passive other, merely a collection of parts without human subjectivity.

Because it calls attention to the act of blazoning itself, both in heraldry and poetry, one of the most interesting examples of the blazon occurs in sonnet 13. Sidney invents a competition among the gods to determine "whose arms were the fairest," each god's shield bearing the image of his beloved. Phoebus judges the last contestant, Cupid, winner for "on his crest there lies / Stella's fair hair, her face he makes his shield, / Where roses gules are borne in silver field" (9-11). Stella's face constitutes the heraldic device that outstrips the heraldry of the other gods whom Phoebus proclaims "scarcely gentlemen" (14). Male contestants display their blazons--here shields, but by extension poems--in competition for the title of gentleman, or by extension master poet. As Vickers suggests, the celebratory conceit inscribes the female body between rivals; her face is the shield that both protects the poet and is the battlefield on which he struggles for poetic supremacy and domination of the feminine. For to describe, Vickers demonstrates, "is to control, to possess, and ... to use to one's own ends" ("'This Heraldry'" 219).

If the female body constitutes for Sidney the field upon which he struggles for poetic acclaim, aesthetic self-creation, and sexual mastery, for his life-long friend, Fulke Greville, it represents an ambiguous "temple over a sewer," to borrow Tertullian's unfortunate but telling metaphor. In Caelica, Greville's anomalous sequence of secular love poems and penitential lyrics, woman's body is at once a garden of paradise and the cause of the male speaker's banishment from Eden. His responses to the feminine are as ambivalent as his modes of representation are contradictory. In the dialectical search for love which the sequence acts out, the speaker moves from disillusionment with Petrarchan idealizations of love, to brutal cynicism about sexuality and a rejection of human love, to despair that anything short of the eschaton could redeem the world and his flesh.7 Beneath Greville's religious skepticism and cynicism about love rests a fundamental ambivalence toward the female body represented as fascinating and desirable yet fearful.

Like Sidney, Greville fragments and reifies the female body. Yet as he explores Petrarchan idealizations of love, he displays woman as a disembodied repository of abstract virtues without flesh, desire, or subjectivity:

Love, the delight of all well-thinking minds;

Delight, the fruit of virtue dearly loved;

Virtue, the highest good that reason finds;

Reason, the fire wherein men's thoughts be proved;

Are from the world by nature's power bereft,

And in one creature, for her glory left.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Her worth is passion's wound, and passion's physic. (1.1-6,10)

The string of abstractions cools all eroticism as the female body is divested of its sexuality. Woman may arouse passion, but only with her virtues which then, of course, quell that passion.

As the pressures of reality bear down upon Petrarchan idealizations of love, however, the speaker must deal with his own powerful sexual desires and the flesh of his lover. Addressing the woman as "Fair dog," he envisions her sexuality as bestial, predatory, hungry for his flesh: "Fair dog, which so my heart dost tear asunder, / That my life's-blood, my bowels, overfloweth" (2.1-2). By poem 38 cynicism descends into misogyny after the lovers have obviously had sexual relations: "Caelica, I overnight was finely used, / Lodged in the midst of paradise, your heart" (1-2). The woman's body is imaged first as the Garden of Eden and then, when she spurns her lover, as enclosed lands over which other men's cattle rove because of a "broken fence"--presumably the loss of her virginity in their sexual relations. In these conceits, the woman's body is property to be controlled or consumed by the lover. Plucking delicacies from his garden of paradise, he avows: "Of every fruit and flower I had part." But Greville's inversions of the Garden images grow obscene and brutal in their innuendo once the female lover rejects the speaker: "While that fine soil which all these joys did yield, / By broken fence is proved a common field" (13-14). Greville's imagination allows for no middle term in his representation of woman's sexuality: either she remains his exclusive property or she must be the common property of several men; if she does not desire him, then surely, because of her voracious appetite, she must desire numerous men indiscriminately. The subtextual assumptions shaping Greville's text are rooted in the legal, economic, and political discourses of early modern England which articulated "woman" as property. As Stallybrass comments, "economically, [woman] is the fenced-in enclosure of the landlord, her father, or husband" (127). She is as chattel in the transactions between men, and her body is the currency insuring an orderly disposition of property among them.

Though the woman is envisioned as passive in the poem, she is still the cause of sin, as the elaboration of the Eden image suggests. Her body precipitates the speaker's banishment from Eden because, having made love with her, he sees her genitals, here figured as the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil forbidden Adam and Eve:

But curious knowledge, blown with busy flame,

The sweetest fruits had down in shadows hidden,

And for it found mine eyes had seen the same,

I from my paradise was straight forbidden. (5-8)

The woman's body now becomes not just the earthly paradise, but the passageway to the speaker's banishment from Eden. I would argue further that, within the context of the whole sequence which rejects human sexuality in favor of divine love, Eden suggests metaphorically not just the sexual paradise of the woman's body; rather it represents the prelapsarian state before humanity knew sin and death.

That the woman's body, specifically her genitals, causes an exile from happiness suggests she is the conduit of sin and death. Woman's sexuality is inscribed in an impossible, self-contradictory position: it is at once the earthly garden of sexual delights and the forbidden pleasure that, once tasted, exiles man from heavenly bliss. Greville's ambiguous representation of woman confines her within a space which Helene Cixous says she has always occupied, "the place reserved for the guilty (guilty of everything, guilty at every turn: for having desires, for not having any; for being frigid, for being 'too hot'; for not being both at once ...)" ("Laugh" 250). In his ambivalence toward female sexuality, Greville echoes one of Judeo-Christian tradition's most characteristic disfigurations of the female body reminiscent of Tertullian's famous diatribe against women: "Do you not know that you are Eve? ... You are the devil's gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God" (De Cultu Feminarum qtd. in DuBois 43). Greville's positing of the moment of banishment at the spying of the woman's genitals, therefore, has theological significance, and it partakes of a traditional theological discourse, which constructs female sexuality as destructive, evil, guilty, seductive--in short, as the gateway to Hell.

In a later poem, the speaker's glimpse of the woman's genitals evokes not a theological but a psycho-sexual revulsion with female sexuality. An ironic, comic-erotic fantasy, poem 56 constitutes an attack on Petrarchan notions of love, and, as Winters suggests, uses the conventions of such verse only to discredit it (17). Though a comic piece in a mock-epic mode that directs its irony against the speaker, the poem suggests an undercurrent of fascination with, and dread of, the female body. Endowing his sexual desire with epic dimensions, the speaker vows to "take arms in Cynthia's name" and seek consummation with his lover. As he approaches his sleeping mistress, his vaunting fantasies transform the object of his lust, the locus of human passion, and the nature of his sexual desire. No longer a mere human, the woman is Venus to his Jove; her body is translated into the heavens and becomes a celestial playground; his passion is no longer fleshly but "divine" (17-20).

Deification of the mistress and the apotheosis of her body lead to self-deification and unbounded delusions of sexual power. The speaker becomes, consecutively, Mars in his adulterous desires for Venus (27); Apollo, whose potency the blushing Aurora acknowledges to all the world (37-43); and Phaeton, whose ambition leads him to enflame the heavens with his passion (44-7). Scanning the woman's body from her breasts to her thighs, the speaker fixes his gaze upon that "dainty throne," her genitals:

Look where lies the milken way,

Way unto that dainty throne,

Where, while all the gods would play,

Vulcan thinks to dwell alone. (17-24)

At this sight, however, the speaker is struck motionless, paralyzed by his own fantasies as he "[gives] reins to this conceit" (25), and he hesitates in his approach to the woman. Awakening, the woman flees, leaving him only the ironic consolation of his erection as the speaker laments: "There stand I, like arctic pole" ( 37).

While the obvious pun on an erection enriches the bawdy humor of the piece, it is also quite possible that beneath the pun lurks a disturbing fear of woman, who, Medusa-like in a projected male fantasy, turns man to stone. In his "Medusa's Head," Freud explores the terror of castration brought on by the sight of the female genitals.8 "The terror of Medusa," Freud explains, "is ... a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of ... the female genitals ... surrounded by hair" (273). The spectator, Freud continues, becomes "stiff with terror," yet this offers consolation, for "becoming stiff means an erection. ... [H]e is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact" (273). Freud notes that the Medusa's head suggests the ambiguous "horrifying ... and pleasure-giving" effects of the female genitals, the sight of which creates this ambivalent response in the male viewer (274).9

Re-reading Freud from a feminist critical perspective in her groundbreaking study of woman as signifier in narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey contends that the female figure in patriarchal culture implies "a threat of castration and hence unpleasure": "Woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified" (13), that is, the fear of castration. I would like to suggest that the speaker's hesitant, almost stunned, response as he gazes upon the woman's genitals evokes the same anxiety and unpleasure to which Mulvey refers, and suggests the same tangled affect, the same ambivalence toward female sexuality, that Freud intuited in his study of the Medusa head. Desire and horror attend the beauty of woman's body in Greville's representations of it.

These representations of the female body are shaped by contemporary sexual discourses, the assumptions of which are encoded in Greville's text. Page Ann Du Bois argues that the Renaissance attitude toward woman's body caused by a "fear of women's corporeality" reflects an ambivalent "strain of fear and disgust which conceals a desire for unthinking sensuality" (45). Greville's use of the female body suggests the same subtextual assumptions about the deceptions of woman's body as she lures man into an earthly garden only to strike terror into him with her destructive sexuality. Not surprisingly, the speaker of Caelica rejects the feminine entirely, avowing, "Cupid now farewell, I will go play me / With thoughts that please me less, and less betray me" (84.13-14). Following this rejection of human love, Greville arranges a sequence of lyrics which enact the process of repentance in the mind of the speaker. Finding the world itself hopelessly corrupt in all its institutions, the speaker, in the final poem, calls for a similar destruction of the entire physical world at the Second Coming in order to "yield the sin her everlasting doom" (109.30)10 Ultimately, Greville's ambivalence toward female sexuality issues in a rejection not only of woman's body but of the world's body and of human life itself.

Chief among the earthly delights of Herrick's Hesperides is the female body. A garden of poems, the book attempts by means of art to shape a vision of an ideal world of pleasures like the classical garden on the Isle of the Blest to which the title refers. Yet beneath the vision of delight, indeed shot through it, is the perception of impermanence, mortality, decay: "Putrefaction is the end / Of all that nature doth entend" (H-432). Art, for Herrick, preserves, in a transparent way, the world that is decaying; the poetic image fixes life in its inevitable process of decay, as poems like "The Amber Bead" and "Upon a Flie" illustrate. Within this garden, woman's body is an avatar of change and decay; her flesh, even as it arouses male desire, is a constant reminder to him of the forces that threaten the garden state. Like numerous Renaissance writers--Spenser, Lyly, Nashe, Donne, Marvell, to name a few--Herrick associates the theme of mutability with woman's material form.11 In Herrick's representations of the female body, we see, as in Greville, a deeply divided mind at work. Herrick's ambivalence toward the female body and all it evokes results in his consistently rendering woman an incorporeal being.

This denial of corporeal presence reflects the fear and disgust, also apparent in Greville's poetry, which DuBois argues accompanied desire of the feminine in the Renaissance male imagination. Much of the discourse in a tradition of biblical, classical and medieval misogyny focuses on the alluring and destructive qualities of women's bodies (DuBois 45). According to a medieval tradition, which remained very much alive in the Renaissance, sexual intercourse desiccates the man's vital bodily humidity. As Albertus Magnus contends in De Secretis Mulierum: "Too much ejaculation dries out the body because the sperm has the power of humidifying and heating. ... That is why men who copulate too much and too often do not live long" (qtd. in O'Faolain and Martines 124). In patriarchal sexual discourses, the female body, associated with corruption and mutability, tempts men to waste themselves--to hasten along their own deaths. Denying woman's body corporeality, Herrick's representations encode this subtextual assumption by inscribing the deceptions of woman's body as she lures man into an earthly garden only to ensnare him.

Though these assumptions usually lie quietly beneath the surface of Herrick's poems, they at times flash out with surprising venom. In "Upon Some Women," for instance, Herrick notes women's strategies for masking their own mutability. In the excesses of her painting and finery, woman is no more than "In-laid Garbage ev'ry where" (6). Lines 9-12 then characterize woman's body as a walking dumping ground:

False in legs, and false in thighes;

False in breast, teeth, haire, and eyes:

False in head, and false enough;

Only true in shreds and stuffe. (9-12)

It is as though the poem serves to strip woman naked and expose her as she appears in the Western philosophical tradition, that is, defective in the Aristotelian sense.

Herrick's warning against the deceptiveness of woman's body is by no means anomalous for it is only one of many tangled skeins in a web of contemporary sexual discourses representing and bounding "Woman" as a category. John Lyly's Euphues, to choose just one example, reflects the same cultural assumptions about the repugnance of woman hidden beneath her artificial adornments: "The sleeking of their faces, and all their slibber sawces ... bring quesiness to the stomacke, and disquyet to the mind. Take from them their periwigs and their payntings, ... and thou shalt soone perceive that a woman is the least parte of her self" (Works 1.252).

To confront this culturally constructed notion of woman's deceptiveness, Herrick denies woman's body its full fleshliness in two ways: by eroticizing a part of the woman's clothing or by fragmenting the female body and fetishizing the scattered members. Paradoxically, he uses these strategies for denying the female body corporeality in order to pique arousal. Both strategies distance poet, poem and reader from the female body itself, for they focus attention on the shaping power of the male imagination as it fixes a fleeting moment of passion in the poetic image. The subject of much of Herrick's erotic verse is not woman's body at all, but the male poet's power to appropriate that body and manipulate it in language to create delicious fantasies for himself.

In a number of poems--"Delight in Disorder," "Upon Julia's Clothes," "Julia's Petticoat," for instance (there are many others)-- Herrick empties the woman's body of its corporeality by attributing the qualities of her body to her clothing. Using sexual innuendo and a complexly intertwined pattern of ambiguous references, Herrick weaves a dense linguistic texture that eroticizes the woman's clothing to suggest either her imagined seductions--projections, actually, of the male imagination--or the speaker's impassioned responses, or both. The designedly ambiguous language leaves both possibilities open and meaning indeterminate. The shaping of the poem itself becomes an erotic experience: word play as foreplay. For the male reader, the experience of the poem, with all its teasing ambiguities, all its dual referents, invites an erotic response. I posit here a male reader since I agree with Vickers that the canonical tradition of description of the female body was "shaped predominately by the male imagination for the male imagination" ("'This Heraldry'" 207).

"Delight in Disorder" provides a good example of what I wish to argue about Herrick's use of language. When Herrick writes, "A Sweet disorder in the dresse / Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse" (1-2), the poem seems to ask a reader to see in the woman's clothing her own wantonness, her willful seductiveness, for she dresses so as to make her clothes a token of her own lasciviousness; they're "hot" if you will. Yet the ambiguous reference of "kindles" and "wantonnesse" seems simultaneously to suggest the lasciviousness of the poet's response "kindled" by her clothes. Just who or what is wanton and enkindled here? The poem refuses to say. And that is the point. The mind of the reader is allowed to ponder several possibilities; the imagination is free to dally with the implied seductiveness of the woman and the male speaker's erotic response, both of which he projects onto her clothing. A studied inexactness of reference characterizes Herrick's language, and the playful ambiguity of the poem forecloses determinacy. The language provokes the mind's freeplay with erotic possibilities in its attempts to decipher a meaning that, by design, eludes comprehension.

As the poet's eye moves down the woman's clothing to the "erring Lace," the reader is teased with the possibility of the woman's sexual misconduct for she, presumably, has strategically placed the lace so that it will "err" in an alluring way. Does this suggest that she, as well as her lace, is prone to "err"? Again, the poem withholds certainty, gesturing toward a sexually charged reading and encouraging the imagination to make what it will of it.

The next line, in which the reader discovers that this erring lace "enthralls the Crimson Stomacher," compels the reader to adjust the original sense of "erring," for the sexual implications of enthrallment and the ambiguity of reference sets the imagination off and running again. Is the reader to consider thoughts of the male viewer's desired enthrallment of the woman? Though a thrall to the woman (or at least to his fantasies of her) he may be, with language at least, imaginatively ravishing the stomacher and, by extension, the woman's body concealed beneath it. The language insinuates this possibility and, with a knowing and conspiratorial wink, nudges the mind in that direction.

After this ambiguous enthrallment, the reader is asked to pay particular attention to "A winning wave (deserving Note) / In the tempestuous petticote" (9-10). Who is won by this wave? And what does it mean to win? Has the woman, by waving, invited the viewer to make love to her? Has he won something or someone here? At any rate, the parenthetical reminder that this is an especially noteworthy wave arrests the reader's mind, inviting it to consider the possibilities, before finding out in the next line that this is merely the wave of her "petticote." But what a petticoat. For it is "tempestuous." Yet the cause of this agitation is indeterminate. It could, of course, be just the stirrings of a breeze. Or is it the woman's own tempestuous movements? And are these movements associated with her own passionate overtures toward the viewer? Or could the tempestuousness suggest his passionate responses to her? Is it all these things? What are we asked to see here? One thing, alone, is certain: we are not asked to see the woman's body, for language itself has taken on flesh.

The real subject of the poem is not the woman's clothing at all, nor the body beneath it, but the poet's power to shape language into an erotic experience, the power of artistically crafted language to "bewitch" or "enthrall." Layer upon layer of ambiguity, the playful indeterminacy of signification, calls attention to its own artifice. The closing couplet asserts that the seductive carelessness of the woman's clothing "does more bewitch" the speaker "then when Art / Is too precise in every part" (13-14). But the reader's experience of the poem suggests that it is the artifice of the language itself that is seductive because it is not "too precise" in its layered ambiguity. The poet ravishes himself with his own language and invites the male reader to share in this aesthetic/erotic experience. Woman has been estranged from her own flesh, which the poet appropriates in his sexually charged language.

Another of Herrick's strategems for (dis)embodying woman and thereby divorcing her from her flesh, that powerful reminder to him of mutability and decay, is the fragmentation of the body, the scattering of the parts, and the fetishizing of each part. In his study of Petrarch's poetics, Freccero discusses the conception of idolatry as a kind of fetishism, "the worship of reified signs devoid of significance" (27-8). Gods, he continues, become coextensive with their representation, and idols, like fetishes, are attempts to render presence. This Frecerro likens to Petrarch's fetishizing of Laura's segmented body. In much the same way, Herrick objectifies the female body, fetishizing its parts and denying it fleshly presence and significance; the reified body part, thus, suggests no significance beyond itself and focuses attention on the poet who has created it.

This fetishizing of the body and eroticizing of the individual part are Herrick's most characteristic modes of inscribing the female body. Herrick serves us up poems upon Julia's: voice, hair, hair filled with dew, breasts, nipples, and sweat. Julia's body, in fact, lies scattered about Hesperides, enfolded in the text as the branch of the golden apples lies buried within the garden which sprang from it. Her segmented body is the stuff out of which the poet shapes his poetic garden. And his objective in creating this garden is to insure his lasting fame, as poems like, "His Poetry, His Pillar," "Pillar of Fame," and "On His Book" declare.

Curiously, in the poems on Julia's body, the part does not imply the whole, for it is given erotic significance in and of itself. The eroticized part, in fact, denies the female body its integrity and erotic power which Herrick transfers to one part. The erotic relationship of greatest import is not the imagined one between the poet and the woman but the one between the poet/gazer and the fetish he has created in language. "Julia's Churching, or Purification" offers probably the most bizarre example of this impulse to fetishize the female body as a strategy for emptying woman of her corporeality and thus circumventing mutability. The fictional occasion of the poem is the churching of Julia, her ritual purification after giving birth; the fetishized body part, her hymen.

Herrick's poetic version of the churching ceremony lends a most inventive and peculiar stress to the traditional Anglican rite which Herrick would surely have known and administered. The Anglican ritual stresses thanksgiving for "safe deliverance ... in the great danger of childebirth" (Booke of Common Prayer, D3v), affirms that the Lord shall ever protect the woman from evil, and ends in supplication that the woman may "both faithfully live, and walke in her vocation" (D3v). The exhortation to remain faithful to her wifely vocation suggests that the chief evil from which the woman will be protected is adultery, and that she can expect to bear other heirs to her husband. The emphasis here on fidelity in conjugal relations is not surprising; it reinforces the patriarchal authority of state, church and husband. As Lawrence Stone suggests, the Seventeenth Century saw a reinforcement of patriarchy in England as the monarchy began more forcefully to assert its authoritarian prerogatives (Chapter 5). "Authoritarian monarchy and domestic patriarchy," he argues, "form a congruent and mutually supportive complex of ideas and social systems" (152). In seventeenth century England, patriarchy was reinforced by the state, Stone contends, "in the ... form of authoritarian dominance by the husband and father over the woman and children within the nuclear family" (153).

In his rendition of the churching ceremony, Herrick reinforces the patriarchal domination of woman in marriage even more strongly than does church rubric. After fulfilling the ritual of purification, the speaker claims, Julia can return home as a virgin bride "to the breaking of a Bride-Cake ... / Where ceremonious Hymen shall for thee / Provide a second Epithalamie" (10-12). While urging Julia to marital fidelity, the speaker focuses attention on her hymen, which obviously has been torn, but here, through the poet's power over language, is miraculously restored:

She who keeps chastly her husbands side

Is not for one, but every night his Bride:

And stealing still with love, and feare to Bed,

Brings him not one, but many a Maiden-head. (13-16)

That Julia will steal "with feare" to bed suggests that Herrick envisions her body undergoing a painful ritual defloration which can be repeated for each of the many maidenheads his language has bestowed upon her. The image of the hymen in Herrick's appropriation of it emphasizes not female eroticism--let alone female pleasure--but the power of the male to tear, dominate, and control the female body. Interestingly, the bestowal of assorted maidenheads upon Julia also suggests the poet's use of language to control or dominate not only female sexuality, but also time and change themselves; it is as though Herrick attempts to turn back time as he confronts the woman's loss of virginity, that salient emblem of mutability. Once again, what strikes the reader is not so much the eroticism of woman's body as the poet's sprezzatura display of mastery over language, time, and the segmented female body.

The same can be said for poems on the numerous other imagined mistresses, whose body parts the poet gazes upon. In "To Dianeme," for instance, the poet begins his survey of the woman's body by gazing first at her feet, then legs, then thighs. He then arrests the movement upward at those "Fleshlie Principalities," the woman's genitals, by using a polysyllabic abstraction. The reader is invited to ponder this fleshly kingdom which the poet/king, by power of his language, has taken possession of and rules. Rather than cooling eroticism as one might expect, the latinate abstraction renders the poem all the more provocative since it requires the mind to pause, untangle the metaphoric language, and consider the sexual implications. And it is not so much the woman's body itself which the reader sees as the provocateur of erotic response; rather, it is the poet. He, after all, has at his command both language and the woman's body which he has fragmented and reshaped in language to provoke the erotic response. Reshaping is actually de-forming, for it takes from the body its very physical form, thereby attempting to deny woman subjectivity and power. Language is the tool with which Herrick attempts to dominate the feminine, for, as Nancy Vickers argues of the Renaissance blazon, description is a strategy of domination ("Diana Described" 265-79). Herrick's roving descriptions and the aggressive gaze fixed upon the female body are, as Vickers suggests, devices of control ("'This Heraldry'" 219).

Norman Bryson in his brilliant study Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze distinguishes between two types of vision: the gaze and the glance. His examination of the gaze in Western art is particularly germane to Herrick's strategy of inscribing the female body by segmenting it and fixing the reader's vision upon the fetishized parts. The gaze, Bryson argues by considering the etymology of the word "regard," is vigilant and masterful. It is an act "which is always repeated, ... a persevering drive which looks outward with mistrust and actively seeks to confine what is always on the point of escaping or slipping out of bounds" (93). Above all else, according to Bryson, the gaze tends toward "a certain violence (penetrating, piercing, fixing)" (93). In "The Uncanny," Freud theorizes the gaze as a phallic activity linked to the desire for sadistic mastery of the object.12 The gaze enacts the voyeur's desire for power, in which the object of the gaze is cast as its passive, masochistic, feminine victim (Moi 180). The female body, thus eroticized by the gaze for the male viewer, is, according to Irigaray, "called to a double movement of exhibition and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the 'subject'" (26). Obsessive, driven, mistrustful, confining, aggressive, domineering--violent: from a certain angle of vision, Herrick's representations of the female body strike the viewer as attempts to exercise textual mastery over female sexuality for the erotic pleasure of male poet and reader. As in the poetry of Sidney and Greville, representations of the female body in Herrick reflect a shared impulse among Renaissance male poets to dominate, control, and display this "uncanny stranger" in an auto-reflexive act of self-fashioning that delights the male reader and perpetuates the cultural repression of women.




 1 As Fredric Jameson suggests, the literary text may be seen as a "rewriting or restructuration of a prior historical or ideological subtext" (81). Paradoxically, according to Jameson, the literary work is at once constituted and constituting, structured and structuring: "the literary work, ... as though for the first time, brings into being that very situation to which it is also, at one and the same time, a reaction" (82). As Louis Montrose states it, a text "restructures [its] ideological subtext" (87). In other words, a text restructures within itself a culture's ideological assumptions about gender, power, class, and so forth. In the introduction to her superb collection of contemporary essays on the female body in Western culture, Susan Rubin Suleiman suggests that the cultural significance of the body is not primarily its flesh-and-blood solidity, but its function as a "symbolic construct." All that a culture perceives and knows about the body exists in some form of discourse, which is never unmediated, free of interpretation or politically "innocent" (2). The present study, hence, looks at Renaissance poetry as a discursive practice situated within the larger sexual discourse of the time in order to see how the symbolic construction of the female body is shaped by, and in turn shapes, specific assumptions about gender and power.

2 Richard Lanham puts the case clearly when he argues that Sidney's purpose is "to bed the girl" (108).

3 John Freccero argues that Petrarch's Canzoniere offers the "model of poetic self-creation" (21), and his analysis of the self-reflexiveness of Petrarch's poetics offers insight into Sidney's practice. See also Mazzotta's study of language and the self in Petrarch (271-6).

4 Frecerro notes the narcissism of Petrarch's poetics as well when he argues that the woman celebrated by Petrarch possesses only a seeming exteriority to the poet. In actuality, he argues, Laura provides Petrarch with an "Archimedean point from which he can create himself" (30).

5 In "Diana Described: Scattered Women and Scattered Rhyme," Vickers traces the Petrarchan basis of the blazon as a device of control (265-79). Hulse accepts that Sidney's use of the blazon attempts to "gain control ... through the power of his witty conceits" (276).

6 In the rhapsodic prose/poetry of "Sorties," Cixous sets up the dichotomies which ground Western discourse and suggests that the fountainhead of all these hierarchically arranged binary oppositions is the fundamental opposition, Male/Female, created by patriarchal culture:

Where is she?





. . . . . .


Woman. (Newly Born 63)

Derrida argues that the "classical philosophical opposition" is never a "peaceful coexistence," but a "violent hierarchy" in which "one of the two terms governs the other" (Positions 41). Among these hierarchies, Derrida includes "male/female" or "masculine/feminine."

7 Davis suggests that Greville's religious beliefs shifted from an early Christian stoicism to a Calvinism more severe than that of any of his contemporaries (79). In his meticulous biography of Greville, Rebholz concludes that Greville discarded Christian neo-Platonism in favor of Christian stoicism and a belief that through self-mortification the individual could at least prepare himself or herself for authentic faith. Ultimately, however, Greville seems to have rejected this belief in favor of a stringent Calvinist conviction of total human depravity, which allowed him to hope only that God would transform the sinner (321). See also Waswo, 12-13.

8 Freud suggests in "Medusa's Head" that the "sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult" convinces the young boy of the threat of castration. He then explains how the terror of Medusa in mythology and art represents the terror of castration: "The hair upon Medusa's head is frequently represented ... in the form of snakes, and these once again are derived from the castration complex. ... The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone" (273).


9 In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous notes the dread associated with female sexuality in patriarchal culture as it posits two unrepresentable things: "death and the feminine sex." She notes that in traditional sexual discourses, male desire and sexual excitation are related to fear of woman: "They need femininity to be associated with death; it's the jitters that give them a hard-on! ... They need to be afraid of us" (255).

10 For a full study of the speaker's rejection of erotic love and subsequent experience of repentance in the light of Calvinist theology, see Richard Waswo's illuminating study of Greville's theological perspective (134 ff).

11 In "Christs Teares over Jerusalem," Nashe reminds women of their inevitable mortality: "Your morne-like cristall countenaunce shall be netted over and (Masker-like) crawle-visarded with crawling venomous wormes" (Works 1.16-17). Similarly, Lyly implies in Euphues that women seek to disguise their mutability and lure men into their corruption: "When they be robbed of their robes, then will they appeare so odious, ... that thou wilt rather thinke them Serpents than Saynts, & so like Hags that thou wilt feare rather to be enchanted then enamoured" (Works 1.252).

12 French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray finds the logic of this gaze which has dominated Western culture "foreign to female eroticism" (25). Her argument supports Nancy Vicker's contention that traditional descriptions of the female body are devised by the male imagination for the male imagination ("'This Heraldry'" 207).



The Booke of Common Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites of the Church of England. London: Robert Barker, 1640. STC 16421.

Bryson, Norman. Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1983.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. The New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980. 245-64.

Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Davis, Walter R. "The Life of Fulke Greville." Rev. of The Life of Fulke Greville, by Ronald Rebholz. Seventeenth-Century News (Fall 1973): 78-9.

Derrida, Jacques. Positions. U of Chicago P, 1981.

DuBois, Page Ann. "'The Devil's Gateway': Women's Bodies and the Earthly Paradise." Women's Studies 7 (1980) 43-58.

Ferguson, Margaret W., Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, eds. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Freccero, John. "The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch's Poetics." Diacritics (Spring 1975): 34-40. Rpt. In Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts. Ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. 20-32.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. And trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1955.

---. "Medusa's Head." SE. Vol 18. 273-74.

---. "The Uncanny." SE. Vol. 17. 219-52.

Greville, Fulke. The Works in Verse and Prose. Ed. A. B. Grossart. 4 vols. New York: AMS, 1966.

Herrick, Robert. The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick. Ed. J. Max Patrick. New York: Norton, 1968.

Hudson, Hoyt H. "Penelope Devereux as Sidney's Stella." Huntington Library Bulletin 7 (1935): 88-129.

Hulse, Clarke. "Stella's Wit: Penelope Rich as Reader of Sidney's Sonnets." Ferguson, Quilligan, and Vickers 272-26.

Hunter, Dianne. Introduction. Seduction and Theory. Ed. Dianne Hunter. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989, 1-10.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Cahterine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lanham, Richard. "Astrophil and Stella: Pure and Impure Persuasion." ELR 2 (1972): 100-15.

Lyly, John. The Complete Works. Ed. R. W. Bond. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1902.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. "The Canzoniere and the Language of the Self." SP 75 (1978): 271-76.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Montrose, Louis. "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations fo Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture." Representations 1.2 (1984): 61-94.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Nashe, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Nashe. Ed. R. B. McKerrow. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1910.

O'Faolain, Julia and Lauro Martines. Not in God's Image. New York: Harper, 1973.

Rebholz, Ronald. The Life of Fulke Greville. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Sidney, Philip. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. William A. Ringler, Jr. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1962.

Silberman, Lauren. "Singing Unsung Heroines." Ferguson, Quilligan, and Vickers. 259-71.

Stallybrass, Peter. "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed." Ferguson, Quilligan, and Vickers. 123-42.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper, 1977.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.

---. Introduction. Suleiman 1-4.

Vickers, Nancy J. "Diana Described: Scattered Women and Scattered Ryhme." Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265-79.

---. "'This Heraldry in Lucrece's Face.'" Suleiman 209-22.

Waswo, Richard. The Fatal Mirror. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1972.

Winters, Ivor. Forms of Discovery. Chicago: Alan Swallow, 1967.

Home Page | Scholarly Interests | Curriculum Vitae | Courses Taught | Course Descriptions and Syllabi