What John Donne May or May not Have Don(n)e for Feminism.


What needst thou have more covering than a man?

As an actor, usually of Shakespeare’s plays, I am well-acquainted with the patriarchal backdrop of Western literary tradition. Despite Good Queen Bess and her 45-year-reign, Elizabethan England was unquestionably a patriarchal society, one in which Lewd, Idle…and Unconstant Women was the title of a non-fiction bestseller and the reigning monarch’s sex life was a matter for public debate.

It is unsurprising, then, that 16th century literature was a man’s world, fuelled by love poetry in which the speaker compares his virginal, unattainable muse to a series of desirable (and silent) physical objects. As literature students past and present know, John Donne is no exception at first glance. Flicking through a not-yet-well-thumbed anthology of his works for the first time, I distinctly remember raising an eyebrow in equal parts apprehension and mockery, ready to passionately condemn yet more high-profile celebration of a double standard which blighted the lives of women for centuries and continues to do so today (President Trump, I am looking at you). How very wrong I was.

John Donne himself was raised a Catholic in Protestant England and, finding himself unable to graduate as a result, began a financially unstable career at court. It is around this time that he began writing, his religious uncertainty, notorious promiscuity, and clandestine marriage inspiring some of the most evocative poetry in Western literature in defiance of contemporary taboos:

License my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America, my new-found land.

Donne was part of an emerging middle class dependent on earned rather than inherited wealth – a group which increasingly sought romantic relationships based on intellectual and personal compatibility rather than patriarchal control. Equality of the body and mind fast became a requirement of contemporary courtship as reflected on page and stage, one example being Shakespeare’s popular battle-of-the-sexes comedy Much Ado About Nothing, with Donne's own lines echoing the play's sparring lovers in lively mutual debate:

Thou triumph’st, and sayest that thou Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now.

Although obviously sexual, there is an intellectual joy in much of Donne’s love poetry. Better known for his assertive, masculine style – ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love’ – he was also the first of his era to bridge the distance from which women were viewed in literature, directly addressing an outspoken and accessible ‘mistress’:

Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime, Tells me from you, that now 'tis thy bed-time.

Donne's suggestion of the female voice through 'that harmonious chime' is unprecedented in early modern poetry, heralding a departure from the idealised detachment of earlier poetic muses at a time when female (but not male) premarital sex was still punishable by law.  Donne’s ‘Elegies’ advocate female sexual freedom, questioning the patriarchal control of fathers and husbands:

Can men more injure women than to say They love them for that, by which they’re not they? Makes virtue woman?

Here, years ahead of his time, Donne argues on behalf of women, condemning fellow men for valuing women on impermanent ‘virtue’ alone while actively seeking sexual satisfaction themselves.

Often dismissed as a disempowering product of his patriarchal society, John Donne’s work does of course contain much which is no longer palatable to a 21st century, feminist audience; in this example, subject and speaker set out upon a variety of impossible tasks, only to conclude that they

Swear No where Lives a woman true, and fair.

Despite this, Donne's poetry undoubtedly contributes to the dismantling of idealised femininity in literature, celebrating heterosexual love in an especially forward-thinking manner for his time. It is by placing his ‘mistress’ in the room and allowing her to powerfully, autonomously consume it that Donne dramatically disregards the sexual double standard, idolising women of both wit and beauty who are celebrated, not shamed, for their sexuality:

Cast all, yea, this white linen hence, There is no penance due to innocence. To teach thee, I am naked first; why then What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Where aristocratic mistresses were immortalised as virginal symbols of national identity and religious poets turned their heads to God, scorning carnal pleasure, it is in Donne’s love poetry and the ‘libertine’ verses of his successors that real – and accessible – women are celebrated in defiance of social convention, with the formerly silent, cold poetic muse newly bestowed with the power to ‘make one little room an everywhere’. Now, at a time when 21st century men and women are still having to protest against the patriarchal rhetoric that should have been consigned to history long ago, I no longer read Donne’s poetry with scorn. Though early modern texts such as his will always reflect their cultural contexts, they have also done much to alter those contexts; it is thanks to Donne that flawed, lifelike female characters are no longer confined to their Petrarchan* pedestal – in literature at least.

That said, most would argue that the poetry of John Donne contains one too many possessive pronouns for him to be considered a feminist icon just yet. Even so, some of his most controversial 400-year-old poems prove more considerate – and more articulate – than much of the tasteless ‘locker room banter’ 21st century audiences have been exposed to. And in a world where the most powerful man in the West consistently shows himself to be less progressive than a 16th century erotic poet known for his philandering, I would encourage readers past and present to keep raising their eyebrows in passionate condemnation of this irony until there is no double standard left to debate.


*a sonnet form popular in the 16th century, in which the rejected lover compares his scornful mistress to a series of beautiful objects.