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The Petrarchan Tradition and the Female Object in John Donne's Songs and Sonets

In the 1590s, at the time when John Donne produced his Songs and Sonets, the Petrarchan tradition had already had several centuries of undeniable rule over amorous poetry and literature in general. Donne probably thought this rule should come to an end, for his sonets rudely, and even cynically changed the concepts concerning love and women. His love poetry is best valued when compared to the very strong at the time Petrarchan concept. The most scandalous of his ideas is probably how he viewed women.

Speaking of Donne's female object and its bonds to the Petrarchan, one should first compare the physical characteristics. For the followers of the courtly love tradition it was necessary to present 'a catalogue of the mistress's physical beauties' [1]. This 'catalogue' had to be filled with learnt by heart phrases, such as 'coral lips', 'pearly teeth', 'alabaster neck', and etc [1]. But not for Donne. He seemed to forget to describe his beloved except for the "bracelet of bright hair" from The Relic. And that is all; no 'false compare' and no ridiculous praise.

Another point for comparison would be the female object's inner world. The Petrarchan mistress dominated the poet's heart and thoughts. She was 'disdainful' and by law 'treacherous' [1]. The poet, on the other hand, 'was deeply in love with her' [1]. There was no second opinion on the fact that he was faithful from the moment he saw her to the day of her death [2]. In the case of Petrarch the idolatry continued even some years after her death. Donne, of course, changes all these. First of all, he emphasizes on the fact that neither he, nor his mistress is "true". He shows off his promiscuity. The image of his mistress covers several female characters from the innocent girl, who blushes at the mentioning of her virginity from The Flea, to the triumphant woman aware of sexual pleasure as the only means of achieving Love. But it is only rarely that she goes any closer to the 'disdainful mistress'. She is not worshiped, too, in lines like:

    Rob me, but bind me not...

Maybe the most significant of his ideas is the construction of the male - female relationships. Where the ideals of courtly love held the woman to be unreachable, Donne has lines such as the following from The Indifferent:

    I can love her, and her, and you , and you,
    I can love any so she be not true.

Far from unreachable, Donne's mistress is now made a commodity, which can easily be replaced. In his sonets Donne abridges the icy distance from which the lady is viewed. Unfortunately from modern perspective this looks very much like misogyny. In some other texts Donne suggests equality of the sexes, like in The Undertaking:

    And forget the He and She

The strange thing is that although the Petrarchan sonneteers cherished their unattainable mistresses, they never seemed to consider the possibility of relationship rooted in equality. This would destroy the whole framework in which they wrote.

All in all, John Donne managed to step aside from a centuries old tradition in literature that went on even throughout his lifetime. Namely his audacity to violate the conventions, to try something new made a very special place for his works in the English Renaissance. Not only that; to a great extent he foretold the upcoming women's struggle against sexism and more or less set the ground for breaking the rules of the Petrarchan tradition.


References:

  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of Literary Terms
  2. Redpath, Theodore's Introduction to The Songs and Sonets of John Donne

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