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Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship. (Reviews).

Ilona Bell, Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiv + 262 pp. $60. ISBN: 0-521-63007-X.

H.L. Meakin, John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine

(Oxford English Monographs.) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. xii + 273 pp. $65. ISBN: 0-19-818455-7.

Ilona Bell set out to write a book about John Donne and the Elizabethan female lyric audience, but ended up writing a book on the Renaissance poetry of courtship and the sometimes implicit, sometimes obvious voice of women in that poetry. H. L. Meakin's book on John Donne, on the other hand, does not address female audience at all; instead, Meakin seeks to articulate the ways in which Donne "articulates" the feminine in some of his less studied works. Both books attempt to locate female voices -- or the feminine -- in a range of early modern texts, and both offer useful insights into the concept of private versus public literature in early modern England. But the authors conduct their studies in very different ways.

Bell's study positions the poetry of courtship as an active manifestation of courtship rather than as simply a game played by male authors. She describes her book as the "first full-length study of lyric form and social custom to explore the tendency of Elizabethan love poems not only to represent an amorous thought but also to transact an amorous courtship" (13). Bell uses a variety of feminist approaches in her study, including reading within the context of the available historical documents, to locate the active female voice in poetry by men and women. She suggests that "An Elizabethan poetics of courtship represents Elizabethan women not only as victims of patriarchy or pawns of ideology, but also as subjects of consciousness and initiators of action" (12). One of the beneficial approaches to reading that Bell suggests is to view the literature as "a dialogic poetics of courtship" which would highlight "the collaborative role female writers, readers, and interlocutors play in reshaping Renaissance lyric t radition" (12).

Bell delineates her argument in the first three chapters. In her third chapter, she usefully sets forth the practice of Elizabethan courtship and reviews patterns of marriage in early modern England. She notes that heterosexual courtships often were conducted actively by the couples themselves, and nor by the parents or guardians of couples (41). After setting up her methodology, Bell begins examining actual texts in chapter four, which includes a discussion of The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, A Hundred Sundrie Flowres, The Arte of English Poesie, and letter-writing manuals -- a range of texts that "span [s] the transition from private manuscript poetry to printed book" (53). In chapter five, Bell examines a set of poems that circulated privately between Anne Vavasour and Henry Lee, a discussion that is useful to her overall thesis, but often dry. Her sixth chapter looks at poems by female writers Mary Sidney, Queen Elizabeth I, and Isabella Whitney, while her seventh and eighth chapters examine poetry by Samuel Daniel and by Edmund Spenser, respectively.

Bell's point that women were not simply literary fictions is useful. She states that "the few secular love poems written and translated by Elizabethan women all strive... to construct an alternative to the male voice of Ovidian or Petrarchan poetry" (100). Her strongest chapter is the one in which she discusses female writers as creators of poems of courtship. Her analysis of the works of Isabella Whitney is particularly illuminating. One of the weakest parts of the study occurs early on when Bell traces the role of critics in erasing the true presence of women within the poetry of courtship. While her discussion of critics' complicity in erasing women is useful, it would have been helpful at points had she made dearer the historical periods in which the critics were writing. Another shortcoming is that she does not fully enough contextualize the language of courtship within the language of the polemical writings about the relationships between women and men. Such a discussion would have made her points about lyric poetry more pertinent to the full range of the cultural realities for women in early modern England.

H.L. Meakin also uses feminist theory in her work on Donne, but her method is more precise than Bell's. Observing that "Donne's work seem [s] conspicuously absent from the feminist re-readings of Renaissance literature which have been ongoing for two decades now" (3), Meakin hopes to join other scholars "in showing that to read Donne from a feminist perspective is, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, not a 'violent yoking together' but a mutually illuminating exercise" (5). Readers hoping that Meakin will provide a unifying feminist perspective on Donne will be disappointed, but this inability to neatly categorize Donne is due to the slipperiness of Donne and not because of any weakness in Meakin's methods. Meakin traces "articulate" to its Latin root, which "denotes the joints or limbs of the body, or more abstractly, 'pieces', which are distinctly divided, yet form a coherent whole', hence, clear, distinct speech itself." Meakin continues, "An articulation is thus paradoxical, for it is a whole which is only whole o r coherent as a result of the differentiation of parts within itself" (20).

One of the most useful theoretical tools Meakin employs is to examine Donne's writings within the context of work by Luce Irigaray. Meakin uses Irigaray "so as to listen for what has been silenced, repressed, or hidden" (15). Connecting Donne and Irigaray may also seem to provide a "violent yoking together," but the connection is a fruitful one in that it moves the discourse surrounding Donne and masculinity out of the realm of critics following T. S. Eliot and into the realm of feminist critics of language.

Meakin's choice of works by Donne is also interesting and makes the study a departure from other critical works on Donne. Chapter one explores "Donne's relationship with the Muse in the early verse letters," while chapter two is devoted to "'Sapho to Philaenis', the first lesbian love poem in the English language," which Meakin says has been "politely ignored for close to four hundred years." The third chapter "marks a change in focus which is continued in chapter four, from a classical to a Christian horizon, and also pairs an early epithalamium and a wedding sermon together" (7). The fourth chapter moves "to Elizabeth Drury, a nearly anonymous fourteen-year-old girl, a 'nobody' who, some critics have argued..., is transformed by Donne into a Christian 'everyman'..." (7).

Meakin's arguments are not always entirely convincing, as when, in discussing "Sapho to Philaenis," she suggests that "in contrast to the intense misogyny of the classical sources, Donne and his friends explore lesbianism in new, less misogynistic, if still phallocentric, ways, by exploring its metaphoric possibilities rather than its actual practice" (68), but even when not entirely convincing, Meakin's arguments are almost always provocative. And as Meakin notes, there is scant information available about lesbians in early modern England; this makes providing a contemporary context for "Sapho to Philaenis" nearly impossible.

While very different in approach, these books contribute valuable additions to the continually growing body of feminist analyses of the period's literature, Taken together, they also demonstrate the multiplicity of approaches to be found under the term "feminist theory." Bell's book seems more traditional in its approach, but it offers a useful way to locate women's voices in places they sometimes appear not to be. Meakin's book, on the other hand, provides fruitful ways to approach the work of Donne and to move arguments about his work into new categories of discourse.
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Author:Cohee, Gail E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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