Distiller, Natasha, Desire and Gender in the Sonnet Tradition.
Through the Petrarchan tradition that articulates male desire for the chaste Lady, Natasha Distiller examines the female desiring subject within Western culture. Her approach is to psychoanalyse women sonneteers. In particular, Distiller focuses on their use of Petrarchan tropes and what she terms the 'difference of gender' (p. 5). This 'difference of gender' challenges the notion of male superiority from within the patriarchal space of the 'Petrarchan Symbolic' (p. 81) or the phallic law that emphasises sexual inequality. It enables Distiller to focus on uncovering an ideal sexual identity as an original voice, untouched by social and cultural influences.
Serving as an introduction, Chapter 1 draws on Jacques Lacan's notion of subjectivity. Distiller avoids applying Lacan anachronistically, but argues that Lacanian psychoanalysis focuses on the 'construction of ... language in any time and place' (p. 3). The sonnet's notion of identity is created from a particular historic period through a Petrarchan discourse. Distiller emphasises that the 'difference of gender' (p. 5) is decoded through the body. Through its own language, the body creates the gendered being outside social and cultural norms. The implication is that gender is a fluid construct allowing different sexual identities to compete within the same body.
Chapter 2 develops further the book's psychoanalytical tools. Distiller considers Sigmund Freud's theory that the libido is masculine even in women. She then examines Lacan's writings on the courtly love tradition, where the woman becomes an unattainable object. For Distiller, this is 'the idealisation of the Lady' (p. 34). Although Distiller recognises that the Lady 'needs to remain the object to be mastered' (p. 40), she fails to consider a key Lacanian idea that the Lady is surrounded by a barrier.
One of the book's strengths lies in its close-reading of love poetry, which is perfectly realised in Chapter 3's examination of Early Modern English sonnets. Particularly impressive is the analysis of those of Sir Thomas Wyatt's love poems that were linked to Henry VIII's court. This historical background provides insight into Wyatt's difficult roles as courtier and diplomat and how these affected his poetry. It enables Distiller to expose the less-considered Petrarchan tropes of adoring, being punished by, and disparaging, the Lady. Similar shorter readings are applied to Fulke Greville's Caelica (1580s), Edmund Spenser's Amoretti (1596) and Shakespeare's sonnets (1609).
The book's thesis is extrapolated further in Chapter 4 through an analysis of Mary Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621). Adhering to the Petrarchan Symbolic, Pamphilia simultaneously has to articulate her desire and be the sexualised object. As a result, Pamphilia suffers more than the male counterpart. The significance of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is identified by Distiller: 'Wroth is the first woman to enter the amorous sequence as its other, and to begin to speak back' (p. 96). This statement demonstrates the rest of the book's innovative power and originality.
Chapter 5 examines Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon (1796), Elizabeth Cobbold's 'Sonnets of Laura' (1825), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata (1881). Distiller argues that these poets all 'wrote poetry which found strategies to articulate female desire for the first time in the history of the Petrarchan sonnet in English' (p. 99). This feat was achieved from the superior position of respectability that replaces male authority. Robinson's strategy invokes Classical myth to defend Sappho, as the passionate woman, from allegations of promiscuity. Cobbold's sonnets give Petrarch's Laura a voice while recognising the restrictions 'of appropriateness' such a poetic voice would have to endure. Through a desire to be married, Barrett Browning legitimises female passions. Her poetic speaker exceeds the courtly love tradition by being allowed to indulge in corporeal sexual excess. In contrast, Rossetti's female lover is allowed an incorporeal joy. However, this is at the cost of losing the beloved as spiritual desire totally excludes fleshly pleasures.
Chapters 6 and 7 examine the work of Rosa Newmarch and Edna St Vincent Millay. In Newmarch's Horae Amoris (1903), Distiller considers one woman's love for another. Interestingly, this 'same-sex desire' (p. 142) adheres to the Petrarchan rule of the lover having an impossible love for the beloved. In Millay's neglected sonnets, Distiller traces a subtle questioning of desire itself from the perspective of the female lover. This leads her to interlink desire and language through Lacanian theory. In her conclusion, Distiller investigates Petrarchism in contemporary gangsta rap. Interestingly, gangsta rap's aggressive sexual desire is articulated through consumerism and the exploitation of women's body parts. These same tropes, Distiller argues, were found in the Tudor court.
This well-researched, readable, and fascinating book is an important psychoanalytical study of female sonneteers. It provides a critical insight to be appreciated by students and academics interested in Lacan and sonnet sequences. Overall, Distiller provides a valuable study that invites critical debate.
School of English, Sociology, Politics & Contemporary History
University of Salford
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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