'But do not so': Herrick's ravishment and lyric address.
Here upon Earth, we're kings, and none but we
Can be such kings, nor of such, such subjects be.
(l. 23) (2)
Elsewhere, the famous conceit of the compasses in 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning' introduces a logic that presents an ithyphallic mistress whose 'firmnes makes [the poet's] circle just' as the couple endure their forced separation and who 'growes erect' on his return home (ll. 35, 32). But such power as she is accorded emerges as a consolatory maleness rather than as a recognition of genuine feminine alterity. In many of the poems, though, desire is frequently manifested as a fearsome demand to possess and dominate, to extend the sovereignty of the ego over the Other. Such power as there is in the relationship is figured in terms of a hierarchy and logic of domination. Rhetorically, this can be accounted for as the familiar monological deployment of the lyric voice as that which occludes the Other even as it valorizes her, a strategy most patently realized in Donne's 'The Flea', in which the female voice is marginalized to the extent that it is rendered inaudible, acting only as an unvoiced punctuation to the wholly intelligible words of the militantly single-minded seducer.
This will to domination is also tellingly, if comically, displayed in Sir John Suckling's poem 'The Siege' in which, after spending 'a year and more' seeking to engineer the downfall of his mistress by means of a language consisting of indelicate 'great cannon oaths', the frustrated speaker simply declares that he will:
To such a place our camp remove
As will no siege abide.
(l. 37) (3)
The language of veneration is exposed as a mere pretext for the violence of possession. Other perhaps more malleable quarry is to be sought. From this small sample alone, then, there is a sense in which this poetry often explores the nature of power as it appears in the relationship between male and female. Variously celebrated, ridiculed, made ironic, or simply described, these poems register the tensions, born of the conflict within male desire, between the reciprocity and openness of love on the one hand and the will to subjugation on the other.
In his anatomy of the exquisite possibilities of the postures available to the subject in love, Roland Barthes identifies a term which suitably compresses the dialectical forces of love and subjection that such desire involves. For him 'ravishment' (ravissement) refers to the putatively inaugural moment in the drama of love, the love-at-first-sight often replayed or re-staged after the fact, 'during which the amorous subject is "ravished" (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object'. (4) Ravishment constitutes a drama of forceful subjection, alternately enrolling the lover as the violent possessor of his mistress and as the powerless victim of forces beyond his control:
Language (vocabulary) has long since posited the equivalence of love and war: in both cases, it is a matter of conquering, ravishing, capturing, etc. Each time a subject 'falls' in love, he revives a fragment of the archaic time when men were supposed to carry off women (in order to ensure exogamy): every lover who falls in love at first sight has something of a Sabine Woman (or of course some other celebrated victim of ravishment). (pp. 188-89)
Elsewhere, Emmanuel Levinas explores the relationship with the Other as an openness to be found in love, a force that, even when it belongs to Eros, is not to be identified with a violent desire for subjection such as Suckling's militaristic persona asserts. In opening his discussion of 'The Phenomenology of Eros' by declaring that 'Love aims at the Other', Levinas acknowledges that it originates in an impulse projected outwards to an Other treated as a target ready to receive a wound in a manner recalling the ancient figure of Cupid's arrow. However, finally, what love, rather than egocentric desire, seeks is not to overpower and dominate but to come to the assistance of the Other through a recognition of vulnerability: 'it aims at him in his frailty [faiblesse]. [...] To love is to fear for another, to come to the assistance of his frailty.' (5) From this perspective, then, there would seem to be an overt tension between this love and the often violent demands that go under its name and are figured in the desires presented in many of these poems. Such a poetics is one based not in Eros but in ego. It is around this duality and tension between the desire of the subject and the love for the Other that many of the (so-called) love lyrics of the seventeenth century are constructed.
Robert Herrick's poetry, even as it looks back to classical models, belongs to its time in this respect. Like the work of his contemporaries, Herrick's Hesperides presents its readers with a collection of diverse, and sometimes inconsistent, positions and poses. These range from isolated moments of splenetic misogyny, in which some women are 'a mere botch':
False in legs and thighes;
False in breast, teeth, haire and eyes;
False in hand, and false enough,
Only true in shreds and stuffe
('Upon Some Women', l. 9)
to the idealistic conflation of a mistress with 'every thing that's most sweet'. (6) He is sometimes dismissed as a relatively flippant or even puerile celebrant of 'cleanly wantonnesse', a Christian hedonist, keen on the pleasures of the flesh but all too painfully aware of its transience. F. R. Leavis saw this as a failing in Herrick's work, contrasting his 'The Funeral Rites of A Rose' negatively with Marvell's verse; while the latter reveals masculine virtues of 'strength' and 'seriousness', he argued, Herrick is exposed as a poseur, dwelling in an elaborately staged and implicitly effeminate narcissism. 'There is in Herrick's verse', he writes, 'nothing of the crisp movement, nothing of the alert bearing, that [...] we recognize in Marvell's verse as the familiar urbane wit.' (7) Leaving aside what this reveals of Leavis's particular attitude to verse and sexual politics, it seems to me that in some ways he does identify a feature of the poetry that is worthy of consideration. Indeed, if ravishment is a dominant figure amongst his contemporaries, Herrick writes a number of poems that seem to interrogate it in a suggestively feminine (if not exactly effeminate) way. As Barthes notes in his discussion of this phenomenon, while its ancient form presents the male as wholly active and the female passive:
in the modern myth (that of love-as-passion), the contrary is the case: the ravisher wants nothing, does nothing; he is motionless (as any image), and it is the ravished object who is the real subject of the rape; the object of capture becomes the subject of love; and the subject of the conquest moves into the class of loved object. (There nonetheless remains a public vestige of the archaic model: the lover--the one who has been ravished--is always implicitly feminized.) (p. 189)
Herrick is 'modern' in this sense because many of his poems seem to do precisely this, staging their speaker's condition as implicitly feminized, in which he is the object of a female power. In fact, at several points within Hesperides, Herrick identifies his poetry and himself with a feminine condition. In one of the twenty-four poems titled 'Upon Himself ' he refers to how he is 'Mop-ey'd [...] as some have said, | Because I've lived so long a maid' (ll. 1-2). This apparently self-mocking but wistful reference to his enforced celibacy makes a not wholly unknown use of the word 'maid' to refer to a man, (8) but this word unavoidably carries connotations of femininity, as when Sebastian announces to Olivia at the end of Twelfth Night, 'You are betrothed to both a maid and man'. (9) This feminized condition is restated in 'Upon Julia's Breasts' in which Herrick declares himself ravished by the significance of his mistress's body:
Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me
Behold that circummortall purity;
Between whose glories, there my lips Ile lay,
Ravisht, in that fair Via Lactea.
In this poem of just four lines, whose combination of fantasy and masculine desire is so boldly stated as to seem prurient, the assertion of subjection is unlike anything we would find in the more urbane and knowing Donne, Marvell, or Cavalier Poets. Indeed, a similar request is made in Donne's 'Elegy XIX: Going to Bed' where he calls upon his mistress to 'Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear, | That th'eyes of busie fooles may be stopt there' (ll. 7-8), but here, this functions as a ruse to ensure that he may possess the mistress more and it remains a mere step towards the ultimate consummation he demands. Herrick is more akin to one of those 'busie fooles' who remains fixated on the inventory of the seduction rather than its culminating moment, and the abruptness of his declaration corresponds to the starkly intense impulse it evokes in him.
Herrick's exploration of this feminine (ravished) pose is worthy of consideration. It is especially interesting because he clearly identifies his muse with a feminine principle, a common enough trope but one that, for Herrick, is founded in a conflation of his roles. In 'To Mistress Katherine Bradshaw, the lovely, that crowned him with Laurel', Herrick describes his poetic gift and role in female terms. He claims that, through his verses, his muse has been able to 'crown' those people he has described; none of these has ever reciprocated until Mistress Bradshaw, who returns the compliment not with a verse but with a literal 'crown'. However, what she 'crowns' is not the poet as a man, but the feminine muse instead. He reports that no-one
Gave her a day of Coronation;
Till you (sweet Mistresse) came and enterwove
A Laurel for her.
(l. 5, my italics)
In short, Mistress Bradshaw reveals the feminine status of Herrick-as-poet: he occupies a double role because while being the crowned 'him' of the title, he is also the 'her' whose head receives the laurel.
My point here is not to turn Herrick into a proto-feminist nor to align his writing with that of such significantly different writers as Katherine Philips, Margaret Cavendish, or Mary Wroth: that would be not only anachronistic but untrue to the multifarious role-playing of his verses. Instead, I consider those aspects of Herrick's writing that have been identified as characteristically his in order to think about the significance of a certain indirection and indecision in his verse that distinguish him from poets of more confident masculine rhetorical powers. In order to do this I turn, somewhat speculatively, to the work of Emmanuel Levinas, both to locate Herrick's work within the framework of questions concerning power and to examine it in terms of its relationship to the feminine Other. (10) While the reading of Herrick I shall elaborate may involve making some observations that more familiar methodologies might invoke, I hope I manage to isolate the specific contribution that Levinas's ideas might be able to make to our understanding of Herrick's poems in particular and, possibly, Renaissance poetry in general. More specifically, in what follows I shall be concerned with the ways in which the relationship between the speaker and his addressee in the lyric (the lyric voice) is characterized by a particular stance or mode of being, not simply a subjectivity for the self alone but an openness of relation. The classical problem of tone, so often marginalized in more formal (analytical and deconstructive) poetics lies at the heart of this issue. However, I begin with a brief sketch of those aspects of Levinas's work that are relevant to my argument.
Levinas is above all a philosopher of Otherness. In this, he extols the phenomenological method of Husserl and the early Heidegger of Being and Time, calling other modes of knowledge to account for their aspirations to technical mastery and certainty. He sets against this an ethics that takes the form not of the explication of a specific system or code of morality but of an excavation of the structure of the ethical itself. In his terms, ethics emerges from beyond the founding question of ontology and metaphysics, the question of 'what is ...?', that stakes out a claim to know and reduce the Other to the categories of my language and my modes of being in the world. Above all, he argues, ethics concerns relation, the social, and as such it is 'otherwise than being or beyond essence'. Levinas's account of self hood and subjectivity is based on ethics rather than on a psychological anatomy or critique of consciousness. Ethics is not an addition to an already constituted subjectivity in relation to others, rather it is in the relation itself that subjectivity is constituted and it is the relation itself that generates the origin of ethics. His thinking tenaciously works to provide an opening towards the Other whilst relentlessly resisting any of those modalities of language or being that seek to master and definitively situate the Other. Such claims to mastery reduce the Other to the familiar co-ordinates of the Same, to its established paradigms or codes of knowledge, its conventions and protocols of representation, the concepts and genera of our scientific taxonomies, all of which allow us to recognize (re-cognize: literally, 'to know again') but not encounter ('move towards') the Other in its specificity, or as he calls it, its 'nudity'. Adopting phenomenology as his guide, Levinas scrupulously seeks to circumvent those attempts to capture the Other through recourse to conceptuality, preferring instead to meditate upon the way the Other presents itself to us. The paradigmatic form that this presentation takes is through what Levinas refers to as the 'Face-to-Face'.
The encounter with the face of the Other invokes a set of relationships and responses that exceed the acts of knowing, representing, or understanding it. The question is not simply 'how do I understand this thing?', 'what is it?' or 'what does it mean?'. Such questions seek to know the face exhaustively as if it were a totality that could be encompassed by language as a certain kind of object. By contrast, the face invites us to encounter an infinity: it presents an openness to whatever exceeds the familiar world I know as 'mine'. The face calls to me from beyond the world I inhabit, from beyond being, in Levinas's terms, summoning me into an ethical relationship that throws me into the heart of an ethical dilemma: 'how do I respond to the poverty of the face?'. As he says in Ethics and Infinity:
The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity. It is the most destitute also; there is an essential poverty in the face; the proof of this is that one tries to mask this poverty by putting on poses, by taking on countenances. The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill. (11)
The face of the Other, then, constitutes us as subjects to the law of its ethical demand. Faced with its vulnerability or fragility we are tempted to destroy it, to evade its 'marks of weakness, marks of woe'. However, the face is also a powerful force: to look upon it is to be solicited to care for it, to be summoned to the incalculable fact of responsibility. This is one of the two key contributions by Levinas to debates about ethics that concern me here. For him, subjectivity is, above all, born out of an ethical condition. He argues that:
[Responsibility is] the essential, primary and fundamental structure of subjectivity. For I describe subjectivity in ethical terms. Ethics, here, does not supplement a preceding existential base; the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility. (p. 95)
This is because 'Subjectivity is not for itself; it is [...] initially for another' (p. 96). Our subjectivity is grounded in the ethical and it emerges attending, before all other things, upon the summons of the face. We are not only indebted to the Other for calling us into our human condition, but we also stand before the Other as we stand before an accuser. To this end, he cites Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov: 'We are all guilty of all and for all men before all, and I more than the others' (quoted on pp. 98, 101).
The second significant contribution that Levinas makes to discussions about ethics, for my purpose here, is that for him the relationship between the self and the Other is not dialectical. At this point it is worth clarifying the distinction Levinas makes between 'the other' (l'Autre), which refers to the empirical and social other with whom we may find things in common and have affinity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the 'Other' (l'Autrui), which refers to the absolute alterity that cannot be appropriated in this way and with which he is most concerned. Colin Davis concludes from this distinction that
The former [the other] may be incorporated into the Same whereas the latter [Other] never can be; the former confirms totality, the latter reveals infinity. The other may initially appear alien to the empirical self, but it does not fundamentally challenge its supremacy; the Other is utterly resistant to the transcendental Ego and cannot be assimilated to the world the Ego creates for itself. (12)
Any specific addressee or interlocutor or any other human agent will exhibit both these aspects of alterity, but the fact that a relationship with an other always entails a relationship with transcendent Otherness suggests that no simple reciprocity is involved, as Levinas makes clear in Totality and Infinity:
The relation between me and the other commences in the inequality of terms, transcendent to one another, where alterity does not determine the other in a formal sense, as where the alterity of B with respect to A results simply from the identity of B, distinct from the identity of A. Here the alterity of the other does not result from its identity but constitutes it: the other is the Other. (p. 251)
In this sense of the essential asymmetry of the relationship to the Other, ethics functions as a point of rupture in the assuredness of our being. 'Ethics does not have an essence', writes Richard A. Cohen, 'its "essence" so to speak, is precisely not to have an essence, to unsettle essences. Its "identity" is precisely not to have an identity but to undo identities. Its being is not to be but to be better than being. Ethics is precisely ethics by disturbing the complacency of being'. (13) The asymmetrical subjection to the Other that generates what he calls the 'deposition of sovereignty by the ego', is a condition that constitutes 'the social relationship with the Other, the dis-inter-ested relation', in short, a crisis in assuredness and self-certainty (Ethics and Infinity, p. 52). The face presents itself as an irreducible otherness which cannot be augmented by union with another or appropriated into a union with the self. When John Donne in 'The Extasie' expounds what 'interinanimates two souls' he is at odds with Levinas's more solipsistic vision in which any escape from the burden of the self is a mere 'romantic fiction'.
In summary, it is in the encounter with the face that, for Levinas, we are summoned by the Other into an ethical relation; we are, as it were, called from beyond the familiar coordinates of being and afforded a critical responsibility. As he writes: 'The fact that in existing for another I exist otherwise than in existing for me is morality itself ' (Totality and Infinity, p. 261). It is in this light that Levinas makes his paradoxical claim that ethics is based upon 'a relation without relation' (p. 80), a claim Colin Davis lucidly glosses: 'It is a relation because an encounter does take place; but it is "without relation" because that encounter does not establish parity or understanding, the Other remains resolutely Other' (p. 45). The Other, then, can never be either a phenomenon or a being; the Other is neither a mere thing in the world reducible to a science nor a thing to be possessed or mastered, owned or held as a standing reserve.
The elegant simplicity of Robert Herrick's poetry may seem a long way from such theorizing, but it is possible to read at least some of the poems in Hesperides in ways that show they are responding to and dramatizing the kind of inescapable ethical dimension of experience that Levinas so assiduously explores. In general terms, Herrick's work can be used to think about the nature of the ethical relation between speaker and addressee in the seventeenth-century lyric. More particularly, though, I suggest that some of the interest of Herrick's work lies in the way that he relates to his many mistresses and addressees in a manner whereby he at once nominates himself to a position of mastery and sovereignty, from which he would control and appropriate the world to his own uses, and yet also discovers the limitations to that same power through a kind of impotence that he does not dolefully mourn but accepts, if not celebrates. This wilful celebration of his impotent condition in the face of his own attempt to exercise mastery seems in some ways to recapitulate that structure of the ethical relationship that Levinas describes. In what follows, I consider the ways in which Herrick uses his modes of address to help dramatize and enact this dual presumption and withdrawal of power. Indeed, it is in considering the lyric that the questions of ethics most powerfully raised by Levinas's work may become apparent for literary studies, and this will mark him out as significantly at odds with those who would claim that the lyric is inevitably monological or concerned with giving voice only to an (ultimately oppressive) bourgeois discourse. (14) The lyric's importance lies precisely in the way that its form implicitly poses the question of how the self can (and perhaps should) address the other: in other words it poses the precise problem of the modality of address. Levinas's work incessantly raises this same concern. As Jill Robbins comments, there are many issues that remain urgently in play for those interested in Levinas in literary contexts, such as:
How to speak about the invocation of the other without neutralising the relation, transforming it into a form of knowledge? How to speak about Levinas's discourse without rendering its performative dimension constative, assimilating it to the denotative language of the same? How for that matter, to speak to the other without comprehension (a form of 'repatriation')? (15)
Writing after the work of Bakhtin or Barthes, it is now almost obligatory to unpick the texture of the 'voice' of the literary text, including the lyric, to expose its multiply-encoded speech genres and languages, and to decompose the voice into its constitutive elements. The other's voice is thereby released into a writerly and democratized play, where it can clash with and subvert those voices that would otherwise aspire to conceal such energy. However, this always assumes that the Other can be incorporated into the representation, since the text is thought of as embracing the Other by giving voice (licitly or illicitly) to a discursive plenitude. An alternative approach would be to describe how a 'voice' reaches out to an other which remains Other precisely by virtue of its absence from the representation, precisely by its silence and lack of voice, its unrepresentability. This would highlight the 'relation without relation' that marks the radicality of Levinas's ethics. Formalist criticism dissolves the participants of speech acts into ciphers or functions of the abstracted social languages in use, and so potentially eliminates consideration of the encounter. However, what Levinas's comments lead towards is a poetics predicated on an encounter in which everything would seem to hinge upon the orientation, the stance or modality of the speaking voice, expressed in its mode of address and its tone, in the attitude of its speaker and the claim it makes upon the Other. To exemplify this I look first at a short poem called 'To the Rose. Song' collected in the 1648 edition of Hesperides. I also consider a group of other poems, chosen because they seem to provide a way into the theoretical issues I have raised, not because they form, or have been thought to form, a specific group of poems within the collection: my concern is theoretical, not canonical in this respect. (16)
'To the Rose. Song' takes the form of a series of imperative sentences which confidently assert the speaker's ambition to either seduce or placate his anonymous mistress, it is not made clear which, but certainly the intention is to subjugate her through the disciplines of love:
Goe happy Rose, and enterwove
With other Flowers, bind my Love.
Tell her too, she must not be,
Longer flowing, longer free,
That so oft has fetter'd me.
Say (if she's fretfull) I have bands
Of Pearle, and Gold, to bind her hands:
Tell her, if she struggle still,
I have Mirtle rods, (at will)
For to tame, though not to kill.
Take thou my blessing, thus, and goe,
And tell her this, but doe not so,
Lest a handsome anger flye,
Like a Lightning, from her eye,
And burn thee'up, as well as I.
Significantly, the poem establishes a drama that abjures a face-to-face encounter. While the ultimate 'target' of the poem may be the mistress, she is not the addressee: the rose is. The rose itself is a complex sign of love, heavily freighted with cultural signification; but it is also being addressed here as the medium of 'communication' between the speaker and the mistress, and by implication it metonymically alludes to the realm of signs known and mastered by the speaker. The speech act that the speaker initially attempts to realize clearly evokes a power relation: the assertive imperatives project a world he both desires and regards as rightfully his, a world in which the conventions and codes of love serve to reproduce his masculine sovereignty, but the poem shows how this confident claim is compromised during the encounter with the mistress, such that his recognizable world is disrupted.
The first stanza alludes to his masculine line of attack, the ambition of ravishment as possession which, as it were, engages in a dual action of veneration and subjugation. The rose is asked to combine with other flowers, in effect to form a garland, and to present itself in this way as part of a traditional love token to honour the mistress. (17) However, this is from the start repressive: although the rose is free to 'enterweave' with other flowers in a manner which suggests mutuality and support, the speaker seeks to use this figure for quite another thing: he aims to 'bind' his mistress, thereby rendering her an object. A balance of equality and reciprocity is not being sought by the poet, nor is a 'dialogue of one', such as Donne envisages in 'The Extasie' (l. 74), contemplated here; rather the speaker of these lines aims to possess, indeed to ravish the mistress by reducing her to his control. The love token is really meant to ensure that 'she must not be, | Longer flowing, longer free'. In this way, this is not a love poem; it proposes only an egocentric desire in which the Other is reduced to enslavement, a fairly recognizable convention of the Renaissance lyric, but one that is given an avid emphasis here. Indeed, the relationship between the two of them is conceived of in this violent way: according to the speaker, at least, they form the twin poles of a master-slave dialectic, for she too, it is claimed, has 'fetter'd' him. We have no knowledge, though, of whether she is actively playing this role or if the whole drama is a projection of male fantasy through the language of Petrarchan love.
The speaker's deployment of signs of love to fulfil his punitive ambitions becomes more urgently stated in the second stanza. Here he suggests that if the mistress resists the interwoven rose, then other means of discipline will be introduced to subjugate her to his will. Alongside the use of other tokens of love (the pearl, sacred to Venus Vulgaris, and the gold, a sign of constancy), he introduces the more explicit threat of 'Mirtle rods'. The word 'rods' here is significant, highlighting his disciplinary intention: conventionally, myrtle is sacred to Venus and the symbol of everlasting love and conjugal felicity; reference to 'rods' in this context is suggestive of a proposed punishment. He clearly regards the bond of love that he is asserting as a punishment for the effects of enslavement to his desire that she has provoked in him.
However, while he begins the third stanza assertively enough, with a reiteration in the imperative mood of his demand that the rose take this, by now thoroughly ironic, 'blessing' to the mistress, his sense of certainty is suddenly and surprisingly punctured, even to the extent that the sentence itself takes a strangely incoherent form:
Take thou my blessing, thus, and goe,
And tell her this, but doe not so,
The effect created here is one of surprise. The swift flow of imperatives maintained throughout the poem barely seems to be interrupted; the smoothly continuous iambic rhythm does not falter. Yet, despite this formal continuity there has been a sudden and gratuitous reversal in argument. The effect is to puzzle the reader and register a dislocation of sense: at the level of rhythm and cadence there is a suggestion that the change of mind indicated by this conjunction is incidental, but at the semantic level the sense conveyed is a total negation of the poem's direction. The introduction of this new idea is devastating to the poem's development yet also curiously inconsequential, something made more evident by the fact that it is not disrupted by anything more than a comma. (18) It is as if the course of the poem has been derailed and yet the impetus of its argument, sustained in the continued use of the imperative form ('doe not so') but simultaneously negated in its content, is still carrying it onwards, although now without a clear destination. The confident world of the poem's ambitions has been rendered suddenly unstable, an effect that is both deflationary, in that it drains the embedded final imperative of its force, and assertive, since the energy of the final images (concerning 'handsome anger' and 'a Lightning, from her eye') persists unimpeded at the poem's abrupt end.
What causes this reversal is the realization that in order to exert his power over her, the mistress must be encountered, if only through the mediating rose. The certainty of the face-to-face is either too appalling or too chastening. It is as if the masculine pose, which can remain so confident when confined to the realm of signs and codes (that is, when addressed to the rose) which can be known, is revealed as hollow at the point of its imagined encounter with the mistress. The proposed ravishment suddenly dissolves and the poet is, as it were, feminized by the powers of the mistress such that he is ravished in his turn. It would be easy enough to construct a reading of this situation based on the assumption that the speaker fears the encounter and therefore is symbolically castrated by the threat of the mistress's gaze, such that the poem is simply about the man's loss of nerve. In such a reading the speaker demonstrates a fear of experience, as he retreats from the lived situation and in its place sustains only its eviscerated image in the visual emblems of his art. However, such a reading would be more convincing if the tone of the piece registered a sense of loss. The continuity of the poem's formal properties suggests not mourning but a passivity before an accomplished fact. The impotence of the final stanza, then, perhaps needs to be considered in another way. Reading with Levinas in mind, it could be argued that the poem does not end with a descent into sorrowful impotence: instead the impotence of the poem exposes a recognition that mastery over the Other is actually impossible. The drama of the final stanza is precisely the disruption of the speaker's narcissistic project of domination and enslavement through love, the source of which is to be found in the face of the mistress: what he fears is the face-to-face encounter, her 'handsome anger' and the 'Lightning of her eye'. In this light, the speaker openly and clearly acknowledges the limitations of his power without complaint. This recalls the Levinasian idea that it is in the face of the Other that we see the limitations of our power: we can never master or dominate or even destroy the Other. Even in an act of murder we manage to kill only an empirical face: the alterity that that face asserts before us cannot be murdered, it remains in every face endlessly restating its claims and accusations upon us. So in this light, the act of violence before the Other is enacted in a permanent condition of impotence. 'Murder', Levinas writes, 'exercises a power over what escapes power. It is still a power, for the face expresses itself in the sensible, but it is already impotency, because the face rends the sensible', in other words it tears the phenomenal world asunder to reveal what is beyond being (Totality and Infinity, p. 198).
Clearly, Herrick is not attempting to murder the mistress: his aim is, as he says, 'to tame, though not to kill', but even so, the desire to delimit and reduce her is asserted. What the speaker encounters is an absolute limit to his power, and his response to this is a tactic not shared by all the poems of the period: he does not persist in ever more sophisticated strategies of seduction (as might Donne, Marvell, or Lovelace), he does not break off to attack a new target with his eloquence (as in Suckling's 'The Siege') nor, finally, does he decline into a neurotic self-involvement such as we find in Wyatt's lyrics or Sidney's Astrophil. Instead, the speaker withdraws to save both himself and the rose, and in doing so the woman is left to her freedom. She will neither be caught up in his world of mastery nor will she be subjected to his artfully demanding communications. His ironic 'blessing' has not been delivered and she is presumably assured of a life beyond his 'binding love' for now.
A similar pattern, albeit more comically conceived, is exemplified in 'The Bubble. A Song' which deploys comparable strategies. (19) Like the first poem, this one has a speaker who addresses the very medium of his 'communication' (in this case the eponymous bubble) and, as before, he asks it to transmit his passionate feelings to his mistress. The feelings here are qualitatively different: now the passion is for revenge for some presumed but unnamed slight. Despite these differences, though, the desire to subject the woman to his power remains a constant feature:
To my revenge, and to her desp'rate feares,
Flie thou madd Bubble of my sighs, and tears.
In the wild aire, when thou hast rowl'd about,
And (like a blasting Planet) found her out;
Stoop, mount, passe by to take her eye, then glare
Like to a dreadfull Comet in the Aire:
Next, when thou dost perceive her fixed sight,
For thy revenge to be most opposite;
Then like a Globe, or Ball of Wild-fire, flie,
And break thy self in shivers on her eye.
It is apparent from the start that if this poem presents a genuine proposal for an assault then it is comically inept, because all it actually achieves is to demonstrate his impotence. The comedy here is in the purely metaphorical notion of the poet's power, the great celestial spheres he calls upon, the planet, the comet, the globe of 'Wild-Fire', share only their outward form with his weapon of choice. Unlike Donne's strangely compelling conceits, Herrick's appeal to the puny bubble evokes a disproportionate and absurdly ineffectual image emasculated of anything more than the merest formal connection with what it figures. While the rhetoric proposes violent assault, the only damage actually described is that to be inflicted upon the integrity of the bubble itself which is instructed to 'break in shivers on her eye'. The gaze of the unnamed mistress would be only temporarily interrupted by this assault. As with 'To the Rose', the speaker seems to draw back from any serious slight and, furthermore, he is dramatizing and, indeed, positively affirming his weakness and limitations in the face of the mistress. If the bubble is construed as a figure of the poet's fragile ego being projected towards an implacable alterity, it would seem that it seeks only to be shattered in a kind of jouissance in the eye of the mistress, and the shivers depicted are those of his solipsistic pleasure rather than of a genuinely exteriorized violence aimed at resisting her power. The speaker is playing a double game, here: while allusions to such portents as comets suggest an earth-shattering event, all that is actually affected is the figure of the ego (the bubble) which remains in thrall to the mistress. The pleasure that he seeks is that to be found in the mastery of images, the flux of signs within which he is operating, but these signs exist to batter themselves feebly against the curiously potent alterity of the mistress. This poem, at one level, projects a ravishment but it also exposes it as a self-absorption: in other words, in recognizing that its claim to exercise powers which might contain the mistress are actually futile, and even comedic, the poem stages the simultaneous assertion and rescission that characterizes 'To the Rose'. It presents its readers with a 'relation without relation', proposing an approach and a claim of relation but also graphically negating it, insisting upon the irreducible alterity of the mistress as Other.
The poem 'Mrs Eliz. Wheeler, under the name of the lost Shepardesse' (pp. 106-07), in many ways stages the same kind of dilemmas that Herrick's work seems to be operating with elsewhere. This poem describes a dialogue between the personified voices of Love and the poet's Sighs, in short, between his feelings of desire for the mistress and the feelings of frustration at not possessing her. Love replies to his Sighs:
In every thing that's sweet, she is.
In yond' Carnation goe and seek,
There thou shalt find her lip and cheek:
In that ennamel'd Pansie by,
There thou shalt have her curious eye:
In bloome of Peach, and Roses bud,
There waves the Streamer of her blood.
The mistress seems to be caught up in what Derrida, discussing Rousseau, calls a 'chain of supplements' which 'ineluctably [multiply] the supplementary mediation that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception'. (20) Her presence shares in the sweetness of each sweet thing, which therefore becomes an expression of her. In this light, the lover then 'went to pluck them one by one, | To make of parts an union (ll. 14-15). At this point he is chastened for his attempts and pretensions to so capture and bind his Shephardesse:
But on a sudden all were gone.
At which I stopt: Said Love, these be
The true resemblances of thee;
For as these flowers, thy joyes must die,
And in the turning of an eye;
And all thy hopes of her must wither,
Like those short sweets ere knit together.
However, what is collected here is not indicative of the mistress's condition as Other; these things merely resemble her. They are signs of sweetness, each bearing their own freight of signification, both public and private, but all of which can be appropriated by visions of love and femininity readily assimilable to the familiar masculine world. Her actuality, though, exceeds such delightful and collectable certainties. What the quest for them reveals is that the speaker's desire does not escape narcissism: when he thinks he is capturing her through a symbolic intermediary of supplementary flowers to bind her to his union, he is actually only gratifying his impulse to master the signs of his poetic vocation. She, as Other, remains resolutely outside the play of signs and is 'on a sudden all [...] gone'. In this way, his art, as long as it is caught up within the play of signs (something which by definition it cannot escape), is incapable of capturing her, it cannot possess or ravish her: it can only project itself towards her in self-defeating, self-enslaving gestures of verbal ingenuity. The poet becomes ravished by his desire for her, to the extent that he becomes the personification of his own sighs. She remains autonomous and, once again, his art has to rescind its powers. Just as in 'To the Rose' the poetic garland into which the rose is woven finally proved to be ineffectual, so here the anthology (anthos + logia: 'a collection of flowers') proves to be empty.
Although quite different in its frame of reference, 'The Vine' (p. 16) seems to raise many similar concerns and provides a model for thinking about the relationships between Self and Other that bears much in common with what has been suggested already. Like the other poems considered so far, the situation 'The Vine' describes involves a speaker who is caught up in a phantastic projection of egocentric desire: he describes a dream in which, like a character from Ovid,
this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz'd to a Vine,
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthrall'd my dainty Lucia.
The image clearly reiterates those desired ravishments outlined above; and, while the 'mortal part' refers to his body which seeks to encompass Lucia's, it is also perhaps not too fanciful to see it as an allusion to the mortal phallus of his sexual ambition. This poem shows a particular fascination with the sensuous possibilities of the female body as, like a classical statue in a dishevelled garden, it is overrun by this masculine vine:
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprize:
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv'lits were embrac'd.
However, as before, this mistress becomes less susceptible as the poem progresses. In this case, the very act of coiling round her transforms her into something alien to his intentions:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung.
So that my Lucia seem'd to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree.
While an androgynous figure, Bacchus is decidedly male here and this metamorphosis of the mistress brings a power of its own to her body which refuses his triumphal ravishment. He aspires to make her a prisoner, explicitly proclaiming that he has 'all parts there made one prisoner': the excessive plurality of the Other has, he thinks, been unified and made available to him in his act of domination, but his ambition is nevertheless suddenly and finally thwarted:
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock, then like a Vine.
Although she has been transformed into masculine Bacchus, she remains inscrutably female: it is at the point when he encounters the absolute alterity of her body from his that he is foiled, and he is forced to recoil from his dream. In his waking world, the phallic 'vine' of his fantasy, which would incorporate the entire flourishing world of his desires, is reduced to the banality of a 'stock', both a lifeless stump and a merely masculine erection. (21)
In 'To the Rose', the poet had been the mere potentiality of his speech act: the imperatives could suggest, but not initiate, power beyond the realm of artifice, and the effect created is one of impotence. Here, however, the rich potentiality of the metaphor of the 'stock' suggests another way of figuring the relationship with this Other that he cannot master. A stock is, after all, 'a stem into which a graft [scion] is inserted' (OED, sense 4) thereby allowing the scion to propagate its own fruit, not that of the stock. Returned from the experience of heady fantasy to the world of wakeful reality the poet has undergone his own transformation: attempting to overpower his mistress he has experienced her potency and come to see it as a fecundity he is now prepared to sustain. As a stock he can attend to and aid her (as a scion and genuinely productive vine). In such an arrangement, difference and alterity are acknowledged: the attempted conflation of the two bodies in his initial assault, in which 'My curles about her neck did craule, | And armes and hands they did enthrall' (ll. 14-15) is aborted: there is no union or merging. Whatever the new relationship between them, from this point onwards it will no longer grow in the way he wills but according to her nature. On this basis, then, the relationship to which he returns is, in one sense, a deflation of his imagined self, but it is also a return to a condition of responsibility for the life of the Other in which there is a fertile future. What is established is not a hierarchy of masculine power, nor a staging of ravishment as mastery. Instead, there is a figuration of the relationship with the Other that insists on acknowledging the extent to which masculine desire is reversible, so the speaker becomes the object of ravishment and the addressee is left free.
The poems so far discussed constantly raise the question of relationship and address. In so doing they dramatize the conflict between two possible stances or orientations towards the feminine Other: one pits the assertion of the masculine against the Other and tries to appropriate her to the familiar lineaments of the Same; the second, which often disrupts the first by means of sudden reversal or comedic deflation, leaves the Other to her freedom and autonomy. The issue these poems raise is how to address the Other and, more particularly, how to orientate oneself so as to enter into an ethical relationship. Achieving this has not been done through a poetics that conveys the mistress's voice by representing or enclosing it in some polyphonic or disseminative text. Such a text would not necessarily extend beyond the masculine Imaginary. Instead, it is necessary to find an appropriate mode of address to encounter her and institute a 'relation without relation'. Herrick may not have theorized his writing in such a vocabulary, nor would he necessarily have been consistent in pursuing such a goal. His poems none the less initiate ways in which to approach the problem.
These considerations add an extra poignancy to 'A Ring presented to Julia' (p. 65), in which marriage appears as something other than the eroticized play of mastery, namely a mutual acknowledgement of freedom and a form of respect. (22) Here, the conceit compares the wedding ring to the relationship:
Close though it be,
The joynt is free:
So when Love's yoke is on,
It must not gall,
Or fret at all
With hard oppression.
But it must play
Still either way;
And be, too, such a yoke,
As not too wide,
Or be so strait to choak.
So we, who beare,
This beame, must reare
Our selves to such a height:
As that the stay
Of either may
Create the burden light.
And as this round
Is no where found
To flaw, or else to sever:
So let our love
As endless prove;
And pure as Gold for ever.
Herrick cannot escape playing the game of ravishment: the Julia to whom this poem is addressed is one of his serial mistresses. Yet the treatment she receives is noticeably different from the casual attentions provided by the speaker of, for example, Cowley's 'The Chronicle' or the feverish, but often ultimately uncommitted, seductions of Donne. The argument of this poem revolves around the presentation of the relationship. The images concern the sharing of burdens and the allowance of freedom aligned with responsibility for the Other, and while the first person plural pronouns are given great prominence, there is no sense of either participant being absorbed into or mastered by the other. Without forcing the text into a plurality of voices, the poem establishes a tone that affirms the virtues of openness to the Other.
This essay has been constructed around two arguments. I first attempted to show how Levinas's ethics may have implications for considerations of the lyric and, more particularly, for considerations of the lyric voice. Essentially, I contend that an ethical reading of the lyric can only be initiated once the lyric voice has, to some extent at least, been reclaimed as a viable vehicle for theoretically informed literary analysis. While political criticism can produce powerful and persuasive conclusions by alienating the reader from the ideological conditions of the subject of discourse in any one text, an ethical criticism might best proceed from ontological questions pertaining to the text's modes of address. The ethical moment is realized, in this project, at those points in texts where the Other (l'Autrui) interrupts the self in its certainty. Moreover, it is proved ethical by the response of the self which neither produces further discourse nor stages a 'dialogue' in which the other (l'Autre) is merely ventriloquized; instead, the self gives way to a chastened silence which acknowledges the limits of the powers claimed by its language.
This leads to my second claim, which is that, perhaps surprisingly, a range of Herrick's poems can be seen as exemplary instances of the kind of drama that may be taken to underpin the ethical encounter. They do not simply stage a retreat from an encounter with the ethical dimension of life into masculine fantasy as many readers might perhaps assume. While they make use of the full lexicon and iconography of love poetry they also often acknowledge and, more importantly, accept the way in which the powers claimed by that language fail. Herrick is not a poet of conquest and of 'masculine persuasive force' such as Donne, nor is he a libertine in the manner of Rochester or the Cavalier Poets. (23) He does not seem to be a poet of consummation, either, as 'The Vine' shows only too well. Many other poems in Hesperides attest to this: Herrick often poses as a celebrant of erotic desire but he is frequently disempowered. This does not always manifest itself in a recognition of the alterity of the mistress, nor do the poems always raise the question of how to address the Other. In fact, very often Herrick is a highly voyeuristic poet who does not raise himself beyond the narcissistic demands of the masculine gaze. However, he is a writer who at times, at least, can allow sensuality and voluptuousness to stand forth in his poems and, as I have suggested, go further by putting these into the 'relation without relation' precipitated by an encounter with the Other. At his most interesting he does not intellectualize or sentimentalize these experiences but lets them be, while simultaneously negating the speaker's claims to authority. It is this aspect of his writing, one which impedes the energies of his desire even as he attempts assiduously to gratify them, that suggests these poems would be illuminated by placing them in conjunction with elements of Levinas's work.
I hope that I have established a way in which commentators on Herrick might begin to modify the observation that Leah Marcus makes of his poetry:
Some readers have found Herrick's sexuality curiously, even disturbingly infantile; rather than celebrating sexual consummation as Thomas Carew, for example, does in 'The Rapture', Herrick focuses on his mistresses' feet ('The Night-Piece, to Julia'), or their nipples and the 'Via Lactea' between them ('Upon Julia's Breasts') or the flowers, dainties and little ceremonies with which they surround themselves and him. 'Julia's Petticoat' displaces onto her glittering garment the heaving, panting 'transgression' of a willing mistress. ('Robert Herrick', p. 178)
Marcus, who is a reliable commentator on Herrick's work, here treats him as a poet characterized by a displacement of sexual affect: in short, as a poet of fetishism. He is more than this. Read in the way I have outlined here, many of his poems become fascinating dramas which present a masculine rhetoric of mastery encountering the limits of its claims of power in the ethical demand registered in the face of the mistress. (24)
(1) Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, ed. by Joost Daalder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), CX, ll. 1-4.
(2) John Donne, Poetical Works, ed. by Herbert Grierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).
(3) John Suckling, Works, ed. by L. A. Beaurline, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).
(4) Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 188.
(5) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. by Alphonso Linghis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1979), p. 256.
(6) Robert Herrick, The Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. by L. C. Martin (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), from 'Mrs Elizabeth Wheeler, under the name of the Lost Shephardesse', l. 6. For further discussion of this poem, see below.
(7) F. R. Leavis, 'The Line of Wit', in Revaluation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 44.
(8) See OED, sense 2c.
(9) William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. by M. M. Mahood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), V. 1. 260.
(10) The discussion that follows is at variance with the strategies in Robert Eaglestone, Ethical Criticism: Reading After Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997). However, I do not engage extensively with this important book here.
(11) Ethics and Infinity, trans. by Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA.: Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 86.
(12) Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p. 43.
(13) Richard A. Cohen, Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, pp. 1-15 (p. 10).
(14) See Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983) for a version of this thesis.
(15) Jill Robbins, 'Visage, Figure: Reading Levinas', Yale French Studies, 79 (1991), 135-49 (p. 141).
(16) All quotations are taken from The Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. by L. C. Martin. See Leah Marcus, 'Robert Herrick', in, The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry: Donne to Marvell, ed. by Thomas Corns (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 171-82, for a brief discussion of the arrangement of poems in Hesperides, and of the way critics have concerned themselves with finding subsets within what is, by all accounts, an otherwise ad hoc concatenation of verses, exemplifying something in its organization of the 'delight in disorder' so favoured by the poet.
(17) OED, 'Garland', sense 4: 'A collection of short literary pieces, usually poems and ballads; an anthology, a miscellany'. In this light, the parallel with the powers of poetry in this poem is perhaps more systematic still.
(18) It is noteworthy that, whereas both Martin's OUP edition (see note 6) and John Hayward's 1961 edition of Herrick's Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961) have a comma here, the recent Douglas Brooks-Davies edition of the Selected Poems (London: Dent, 1996) has a hyphen which implies a clear syntactical boundary.
(19) Another such reiteration, in an even lighter vein, occurs in 'The Present: or, The Bag of the Bee', in which a bee is instructed to 'fly to my Mistresse' and leave a bag of honey on her lip. If she tastes it they will live; if she does not, 'with mournfull humme, | Tole forth my death'. Again it is the mistress who is all powerful and she can be approached only through an address to a figure of his art.
(20) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 157.
(21) See OED, 'Stock', sense 1. 'Stock', like 'supplement', is a word rich in associations and is paradoxical in its use, meaning both 'a type of what is lifeless, motionless or void of sensation' (OED, 1c) and 'the trunk or stem of a living tree' (OED, 2).
(22) As an epithalamist Herrick wrote several poems celebrating marriage, often appealing to the vocabularies and ideologies of his specific historical situation. These poems include: 'An Epithalamie to Sir Thomas Southwell and His Ladie'; a sonnet, 'The Entertainment: or Porchverse, at the marriage of Mrs Henry Northly', and the most extended and perhaps the most sophisticated of them all, 'A Nuptiall Song, or Epithalamie, on Sir Clipseby Crew and His Lady'. A fuller examination of these would make an interesting commentary on the claims I have made here.
(23) See Helen Carr, 'Donne's Masculine Persuasive Force', in Jacobean Poetry and Prose: Rhetoric, Representation and the Popular Imagination, ed. by Clive Bloom (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 96-118; Stanley Fish, 'Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power', in Soliciting Interpretation, ed. by Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 223-52.
(24) This article is based on a paper delivered to the Northern Renaissance Seminar at University College Chester on 15 November 1997. I would like to thank Tony Gorman, whose help with the preparation of this essay was invaluable.
<ADD> DARRELL HINCHLIFFE NEWCASTLE-UNDER-LYME </ADD>
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|Title Annotation:||Robert Herrick, poet|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2001|
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