A Brilliant projection of a very common male viewpoint whereby women are to be denigrated (perhaps out of fear) and also celebrated as objects for male gratification'(George Parfitt). Is this an accurate description of the presentation of women in male-authored poetry? The female, for years, as George Parfitt points out in his quotation, has been subject to the idea of male superiority. Even in Genesis, the earliest of literature, woman is not given her name until after the expulsion from the garden, and Milton very clearly looks down upon Eve in his Paradise Lost: he makes clear that the serpent aims to target Eve all along, as she is ‘opportune to all attempts’1, unlike Adam who is of a ‘higher intellectual’2 than his wife. Eve is seen as of little importance by Milton, although, of course, it is she who brings about the events of his epic poem. She has less value than Adam, is more open to the wiles of the devil, and has less care for the creation of God, or so Milton would have us believe.
Parfitt suggests that it is possibly through fear that the male denigrates the female, perhaps, in Milton’s case, this may be true. Eve is known to be the cause of the original sin, and a vessel of Satan in persuading Adam to eat the apple of knowledge, as such, she is dangerous, and outside of the control of God, since she is under the power of Satan. Women were often seen as imperfect, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
They were seen as being outside of the normal sense of the man, unable to rationalise, or be trusted with decisions of any weight. Men were expected to make decisions for the women, and were seen to have far more sense than the woman. This can be seen in Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’. Marvell takes it upon himself to persuade his lover, to bend her to his will by using threats of death to make her see reason: “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace”.
The poet thinks only of his own pleasure in this piece, the female is, indeed, an ‘object for male gratification’, as it is made clear that he wants nothing more than a more intimate relationship with his lover, while she has other dreams, as he claims that had they time enough, then: Thou by the Indian Ganges side Shoudst rubies find; I by the tide The poet dreams of nothing but his love, and in this sentence seems to be giving control to her, as he makes it seem as if he would be happy for her to go and fulfil her other dreams, but, in reality, he is telling her that she cannot, that she must submit to his wishes, as they do not have ‘world enough, and time’5 to indulge in such fancies.
However, since they do not, he appears to be making the decision for her, since there is not enough time to indulge in the irrationality of women, men instead must rule over them, and make their choices for them, as they do not have the skills of logic to do so. The poet gives his lady little choice in the matter: what seems persuasion could, in reality, be an order, with the position of women so far below that of the men of the time.
John Donne, also scolds his lover for her renitence in going to bed with him in his poem ‘The Flea’, telling her that to do so is no more ‘A sin, nor shame’6 than being bitten by the flea, and, having both been bitten by the same flea, there was no longer anything between them, as ‘in this flea, our two bloods mingled be’7, and so, has made ‘one blood made of two’8. Here, Donne is doing very much the same as Marvell in ‘To his Coy Mistress’ in disguising his order as a persuasion. This is made clear in Donne’s anger in the last stanza of the poem, when his mistress has not bowed to his wishes, and has instead squashed the flea which held such hopes for him, and for their union. It was no mere suggestion on Donne’s part, it was a disguised order, which he wanted to be obeyed.
In the bargaining which takes place in both these poems, it is clear that the men see no value in the woman’s virtue if it should stand in the way of their wishes, although a virtuous woman was valued in the time period, and a woman without virtue was worthless. It was a trait to be admired in the courtly poems: Samuel Daniel values his ‘modest maid’9 and admires her ‘chastity’10. Philip Sidney points out that ‘fixed hearts doth breed/A loathing of all loose unchastity’11 and describes Stella’s virtue in his Astrophil and Stella:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.12 Robert Herrick, too, in his ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ also shows the value of a woman’s virtue, as he claims that: “That age is best which is the first, When youth and blood are warmer; But being spent, the worse.’ Yet, the same poet is as guilty of trying to remove the virtue of virginity from his lover as Marvell or Donne: he entreats his lover to ‘Display thy breasts, my Julia’14, and in his ‘Upon Julia’s clothes’, he dreams of the ‘liquefaction of her clothes’15. Whilst this could be seen to be merely a comment on her silks, it also brings to mind the melting of her clothes, rather than just the flow of them, suggesting that Herrick is in fact contemplating Julia in a more sexual sense that might at first be observed. He is well aware of his misdoings, he entreats his conscience not to reproach him: ‘Can I not sin, but thou wilt be/My private protonotary’.
John Wilmot’s ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’ shows us that even when men knew the disgrace of taking a woman’s virtue, it did little to stop them. The title itself shows that his happiness is marred, as it is imperfect. Whilst the poem begins with ‘I filled with love, and she all over charms;/Both equally inspired with eager fire’17, by line 50, he sees the difference between ‘lewdness’ and ‘love’, just as Philip Sidney sees that ‘a strife is grown between Virtue and Love’18. Wilmot recognises that love should mean more to him than simple carnal pleasures, and so feels guilt, just as Herrick did.
However, whilst the poet claims love for the woman, nowhere is it claimed that the woman, Corinna, feels any love for him. This could suggest that he feels women less capable of the emotion, which would make them mere objects, indeed, as George Parfitt claimed, women are being ‘celebrated as objects for male gratification’. This can be seen in the blazon, especially of the sonnets. Even in love which supposedly surpasses the need for beauty, Shakespeare still feels the need to list the physical appearance in his ‘Sonnet 130’. This, again, heightens the sense of objectification. It has been claimed that ‘the objectification of women had been a constant in lyric poetry since its inception’19.
Of course, in much male authored poetry, there is no sign of the female, or very little. For example, in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, he refers only to ‘the growing Boy’20, the use of the masculine seems to eradicate and exclude the feminine, except, perhaps, in the use of the female as the earth: ‘Earth fill her lap with pleasures of her own’21, but yet, the male comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’22 from heaven, and so is higher than the female, who is restricted to earth.
In some male-authored poetry, there can appear to be an undercurrent of something like feminism, especially in the courtly tradition. The woman was often seen to be in control, inflicting pain upon the man in her refusal to love him. In Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, it seems that the deer is in control, drawing the poet on, and forcing him into an impossible task: ‘since in a net I seek to hold the wind’23. However, despite the fact that the poet is unable to have the deer, or, more accurately, the woman, it is made clear that it is only through another man’s ownership: ‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’24.
The woman is not, in fact, in control of the situation, it is merely a man more powerful who is controlling her. Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 71, ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’ appears to be showing his great love for the subject of the sonnet, placing them, in the tradition of the sonnet, in control, but yet, at the same time, gives orders, and threats for if they are not obeyed, just as Marvell does in ‘To his Coy Mistress’.
Shakespeare orders his love to let their ‘love even with my life decay’25 for fear of the consequence that ‘the wise world shall look into your moan,/and mock you with me after I am gone’26. In Sonnet 55, he tells his lover that ‘you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes’27. At first, this too may seem a declaration of love, and may appear to give honour to the female, but on closer observation, it could also mean that the beloved is worth little or nothing to the world unless seen through lovers’ eyes, and therefore has little real worth except as an object to be admired by men.
Women could be seen to hold power in some male authored poetry of the courtly tradition, perhaps creating the fear alluded to by George Parfitt in his quotation. Philip Sidney, in particular, looks up, not only to Stella, but to other females: his muse calls him a ‘fool’28. He also makes reference to ‘stepdame study’29, a sentiment repeated in his ‘Seventh Song’ of Astrophil and Stella, where study has been abandoned, and it is ‘stepdame nature’30 that antagonises the poet. Boase suggests that this suggestion of female authority could demonstrate a Freudian theory in that ‘the poet ‘deliberately chose a woman whom he had o right to possess because he was sexually inhibited by a mother fixation’.
Thomas Wyatt, too, seems to attribute great power to the woman: as previously mentioned, in his ‘Whoso list to Hunt’ he makes the assumption that the woman is, in fact, in control of him. The same sentiment is repeated in many of his sonnets, but in particular, in his ‘They flee from Me’, as the line ‘She caught me in her arms long and small.’32, she appears to be the one in control of the situation. However, we must remember that Wyatt is writing at the court of Henry VIII, where women still had very little power.
They were entirely subject to men, with a few notable examples- Elizabeth I, for example, never married, although she was still reliant on her male council for advice. ‘Women, it was understood, were either married or to be married “and their desires are subject to their husband”’33. Perhaps it was not the woman that the man feared, but the men who controlled her. Thomas Wyatt was known to be an admirer of Anne Boleyn, indeed, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is generally accepted to be aimed at Anne Boleyn, and ‘Caesar’34, Henry VIII, the King, the highest man in the country, and to be feared by every other man.