Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900,
Wntr 1994 v34 n1 p61(17)
Donne's "Elegy 19": the busk between a pair of bodies.
Abstract: The reference to a 'busk' in John Donne's 'Elegy 19' suggests several meanings to the symbolism of this item of clothing. The busk is a rigid, dagger-shaped stay inserted in a corset to keep it stiff. Symbolically, the busk allowed women to hide their femininity, endow themselves with masculine form and, thereby, power. Moreover, the busk is both a phallic symbol and was believed to be a means for women to control or prevent childbearing. Read in the light of these meanings and uses, Donne's poem suggests irony by juxtaposing both powerlessness and impotence, represented by the narrator's request of a lady to strip off her busk.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994 Rice University
Although critics have often noted Donne's imperious call to the unnamed lady of "Elegy 19" to strip, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the clothes and personal effects that he demands be discarded.(1) Only the "innocent white linen" seems to have captured anyone's particular interest, and of late, the question seems to be whether or not the Lady listens to her would-be lover and strips or retains her elaborately catalogued clothes while the narrator appears before her naked.(2) Regardless of whether it is she or he who by the end of the poem is disrobed, one thing is clear: Donne has an eye for the details of women's clothing. I, too, will be concerned with the details of dress, specifically with one part of the Lady's dress, the "busk" of line 11. But before considering the busk and its significance, we shall need to glance, however briefly, at the changes that had taken place in women's fashion in the sixteenth century--the effects of which are behind Donne's use of the device.(3)
The importance of fashion at Elizabeth's Court has been well established by historians.(4) It was also a period marked by "great activity in the matter of sumptuary legislation."(5) From the beginning of such legislation in the fourteenth century under Edward III, the laws, like fashions, "expressed the dominance of a social class."(6) More subtly, however, fashion expresses "in ways that we do not yet fully comprehend, the finer nuances of shifting relationships between the sexes, as well as between segments of dominant, rival, or upwardly mobile classes."(7) As might be expected, both through legislation and sartorial example, the queen was to influence fashion and be its focus.(8) What is perhaps less often recognized is how women at court, led by the queen, appropriated male fashions and adapted them to fit both their needs and their bodies.
In short, women's fashion was in fact little different in style and design from men's fashion. Women attempted to imitate the contours of male dress and in so doing wore the same garments as men, including undergarments--and this before the advent of trousers. To mention only the most obvious, stockings, ruffs, and stomachers were worn by both sexes; less obviously, corsets or bodices--the subject of this paper.
That women, including Elizabeth, appropriated some of the basic designs and looks of male fashion should come as no surprise. The queen certainly understood the power of appearance.(9) Therefore, it can be assumed, powerful women like Elizabeth used clothes to reinforce their presence and even their authority. Undergarments in particular reshaped the body in such a way that at least one early scholar of fashion goes so far as to say, "All semblance of the feminine figure disappeared beneath the iron corsets and various devices used to extend the skirts."(10) This scholar is supported by Barnaby Rich (1540?-1617), who, criticizing the fashion, remarked that the function of the busk was "to streighten a lasciuious bodie."(11) "Streightening" the body apparently suggested physical presence and authority. Even the queen understood the effect of clothes that "disguised" the actual shape of her person, as Pomeroy points out in her discussion of the Ditchley portrait (ca. 1590).(12) The gown that "disguises" or reshapes the body may be at its most obvious in this well-known portrait, but, in general, clothing for fashionable women of the time created such an effect, though likely less exaggerated and iconic than that of the portrait.
The queen's awareness of the powerful effect of costume is apparent from her various directives on dress. She had her own sense, too, of what constituted "grotesque" fashion. In 1579, the queen gave one of her "commandments" on the subject:
No person shall use or weare such excessive long clokes, being in common sight monstrous, as now of late are beginning to be used, and before two years past hath not been used in this realme. Neither also shoulde any person use or weare such great and excessive ruffes, in or about the uppermost part of their neckes, as had not been used before two yeares past; but that all persons shoulde, in modest and semely sort, leave off such fonde, disguised, and monstrous manner of attyring themselves, as both was unsupportable for charges, and undecent to be worne.(13)
Elizabeth did not just rely on this sumptuary edict to enforce her commandment; she also appointed officers "whose sole duty was to break every man's sword exceeding the limited length, and clip all the ruffs whose size infringed upon her regal ordinance."(14) The sumptuary laws enacted by Mary and Elizabeth "generally had economic motives behind them" and "were much shorter than those passed during the reign of Henry VIII, and usually forbade the wearing of only one special fabric or article of dress."(15) Nevertheless, while Elizabeth, like her Tudor predecessors, enacted sumptuary laws to maintain class distinctions and boost the domestic economy, she restricted her edicts to outer wear, that is, to what could be seen: whether ruffs or caps, velvet or furs.(16) Despite the moralists' outrage regarding various articles of underwear, including the busk, no law or proclamation or edict was ever made to restrict the production of these articles, nor were any limits placed as to who could or could not wear such articles of clothing.(17) Such laws were not unheard of either. The French kings, Charles IX and Henri III, for example, specifically made such articles as corsets and busks the object of their sumptuary laws, and this, "despite the fact that the latter king, an occasional transvestite, himself wore the female basquine and busk to enhance his slender figure."(18) As we shall see, it is not surprising that the king may have wished to limit the wearing of busks to himself; for rather than reinforce his effeminacy, it may have served to assert who, if not naturally, then legally, controlled the body.
Fashion was the order of the day, as is apparent from the lush costume books that began appearing in the sixteenth century. Twelve elegant costume books were published from 1562 to 1601, no fewer than five in several editions.(19) These books highlighted the latest men's and women's fashion across the Continent and what had never been seen was often vividly imagined.(20) By the seventeenth century, as if paralleling the decline of sumptuary legislation, interest in such books apparently waned, for only one costume book was published in that century.(21)
Costume books, like English sumptuary laws, focused only on what could be seen. But what specifically concerns us with regard to Donne's "Elegy 19" is what cannot be seen until the Lady disrobes, or at least offers to display it. While exacting notice from Donne and his contemporaries, up to this point the busk has escaped notice by modern scholars. This item is what the narrator demands when he commands "Off with that happy busk, which I envie,/That still can be, and still can stand so nigh."(22) The "happy busk" has been glossed in modern editions as "corset."(23) This gloss is doubly troublesome: one, for its imprecision, if not inaccuracy; two, for the problems of association resulting from the difference between Renaissance and modern corsets. The latter problem might have the modern reader envisioning a girdle for the waist and hips rather than a device to flatten the chest as well as the stomach.(24) In either case, what Donne would seem to "envy," is the overall closeness to the Lady's body, a circular wrapping rather general than particular. But Donne's usage has less to do with the whole than the part. For, it is the part that "stands" erect, yet which also somehow manages to be "still," a pun that draws attention to the device's ability to be "still" while "standing," despite its proximity to the Lady's body. The busk, along with the bodice, was one of the primary means to create the stiff, erect, masculine visual effect that was achieved by flattening the chest and stomach and elongating the waist. In an early but informative history of corsets, Crawford describes the busk inserted in Renaissance corsets as
an ancestor of the stay of today and itself a descendant of the la coche of the fifteenth century, |which~ is of Italian origin. The earliest one known is made of iron and dated 1556. Previously it had been made of cardboard or wood, and, later, whalebone was used. The busk was placed in the lining of the Basquine (tight fitting bodice), in the busk pocket running the full length of the front, and could be removed at will. Some were highly prized possessions, elaborately decorated, made of ivory, carved wood or chased silver and still others appear to have been daggers in sheathes. In society, women often removed them as a fan.(25)
Although stiffeners for the bodice clearly predate Elizabeth's reign, the use of the busk for this purpose in England does not. Unlike the busk, the fifteenth-century "coche," was inseparable from the bodice, and rather than being made of hard wood, whalebone, or ivory, it was made of more pliable cardboard and paste. While it achieved a similar effect as the busk, namely a rigid stiff figure, the effect itself was neither as radical, nor the object that created the effect, the "coche," so pointedly provocative. The busk so superseded the "coche" that the latter word has disappeared from modern English and even French dictionaries. The later and more popular busk, or "busc" in French, is thought to have been brought from Spain to Italy and then into France by Henri II's bride Catherine de Medici.(26) In 1550, the busk had still not reached England, so bodices at least until then had to be stiffened by other means.(27)
Busks, while unfamiliar to many today, became very popular in Elizabeth's time, in England as throughout Europe. As can be seen from costume books of the period as well as from those representing the period in later centuries, ladies all over the Continent are apparently wearing busks in their bodices.(28)
In French, the word "busc" first appears in the sixteenth century.(29) It appears in a French poem of 1563 as "ces busqs infames."(30) In English, references to busks tend to be later in the century, for example, in Albion's England by William Warner in 1589 and in an Elizabethan journal of 1597.(31) Busks are also listed in sixteenth-century household accounts, such as those kept in 1592 for the half-brother of Francis Bacon, Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey.(32) References to busks appear in Marston's satiric plays as well. In Antonio and Mellida, one of the characters, Forobosco, is told by Alberto how he must act his part: "Sirrah, you must seem now as glib and straight in outward semblance as a lady's busk, though inwardly as cross as a pair of tailor's legs."(33) In The Malcontent, the "pandress" Maquerelle warns the ladies Emilia and Biancha to "look to your busk points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted."(34) Barnaby Rich, Thomas Nashe, Arthur Dent, and Philip Stubbes all mention busks, usually by way of complaining about them.(35) Perhaps the most extended contemporary treatment of the device is by Stephen Gosson (1596) who rails:
The baudie buske that keepes downe flat The bed wherein the babe should breed, What doth it els but point at that Which faine would have somewhat to feede: Where bellie want might shaddow vale, The buske sets bellie all to sale.
Where buskes to them as stakes to gappes, |were in 1st ed.~ To barre the beastes from breaking in Or were they shields to beare off flaps, |wear in 1st ed.~ When friend or foe would fray begin, Who would the buskers first assaile? Against their sconce who could prevaile?
But seeing such as whome they arme Of all the rest do soonest yeeld, And that by shot they take most harme, When lusty gamesters come in field, I guesse buskes are but signes to tell Where Launderers for the campe do dwell.
These privie coates, by art made strong With bones, with past, with such like ware, Whereby their backe and sides grow long And now they harnest gallants are; Were they for use against the foe Our dames for Amazones might goe.
But seeing they do only stay The course that nature doth intend, And mothers often by them slay Their daughters yoong, and worke their end, What are they els but armours stout, Wherein like gyants Jove they flout.(36)
So far as Gosson was concerned, they were the enemy of morality and family. As the "signes to tell/Where Launderers for the campe do dwell," they identified the prostitutes that followed soldiers to war and serviced both their clothes and their bodies.(37) Although they might appear as protective armor, guarding virginity as a chastity belt once did, they not only attract men but, worse, they interfere with procreation by deforming the body.
Gosson was not the only writer of the period who held the devices responsible for causing abortion.(38) Clearly they were perceived by others as a health hazard, flattening stomachs that were meant to bear children. As one historian of Renaissance dress points out, "Many writers were concerned that the stomacher, with its whalebone busks and stiffening, could impair a woman's child-bearing potential."(39) So while busks may have been associated with sex appeal, and, at least to Gosson, with prostitution, it was apparently also feared that they enabled women not only to look like "gallants" but act like them as well: that is, women might have felt freer to have sex if they thought they could guard against pregnancy. At any rate, they evidently were not worn to further the expected function of woman, to bear children. In this light, corsets in general, and busks in particular, were feared by some as one way women actually controlled their bodies. One aspect of control the pamphleteers might actually have approved would likely have been the use of the devices as weapons to ward off unwanted advances from importunate suitors.(40) Out of "harness," busks resemble daggers. Therefore, as a potential weapon, they may also have provided women with a sense of security, if not power.
Although the word in French referred solely to a fashion accoutrement, in English the word "busk" already had a variety of meanings before it entered the language of fashion. Indeed, these earlier meanings no doubt contributed to the wealth of quibbles and double entendres when the word was used as a noun presumably to describe a contemporary object of fashion. From 1300, the word "busk" was used as a verb to mean "to prepare oneself," to "get ready," and "to dress." One might not only "busk" oneself but also "busk" or "dress" a fishing hook. To "busk" could also refer to a specific action, namely to "move about restlessly or uneasily."(41) Even without these other associations, the busk of fashion was clearly suggestive, a point not lost on Gosson who refers to it as "baudie," as apt a modifier as there is for anyone who has ever seen a busk.
What is probably not clear from the contemporary references, Donne's included, is that "fastidious men, as well as ladies, wore these 'whalebone bodyes for the better grace.'"(42) Although both men and women were known to wear busks and the necessary and very similar bodice to hold the busk, a woman's bodice came to be known as "'a pair of bodys,' sometimes just 'body,' though 'body' was more usually applied to the upper part of the outer robe."(43) The French, too, identified the bodice by using a word that emphasized the physical; they used the word "corps."(44) The men's garment was known as a doublet, which as has been noted, "with its contours stiffened by buckram or bombast, becomes by degrees virtually a corset; busks being used increasingly from the 'eighties.'"(45) Notably, in this fashion, men followed women when they took to wearing busks. One can only guess at the motivation. Perhaps men reacted to what one author argues as the motivation for women.
The corset as a protective device embodies masculine associations; morally in danger of man, it is as if woman puts on the man over her vulnerable womanhood, which is, however, preserved--indeed exaggerated--beneath. The very act of hardening and stiffening herself, which is on one level defensive, becomes a militant form of transference to herself of masculine eroticism.(46)
Though the corset has been seen in our time as a sign of woman's constriction and oppression, in the sixteenth century at least, it may have been seen as heralding the very opposite, a woman's control over her body, if not sexuality.
It is in these various contexts and traditions that we must see Donne's reference to the "busk" in "Elegy 19." In his poem, moreover, the word "busk" is particularly rich in meaning. Donne uses the word as a noun, referring specifically to the article of fashion that so worried Gosson. Even so, the potential puns may have suggested themselves to Donne, considering the poem is concerned with "getting ready" and that it acts as "bait" to catch the Lady--or vice versa, the Lady's bait to catch him.
In "Elegy 19" the significance of the busk is manifold. On the one hand, and most obviously, it introduces Donne's running pun and theme of "erection," a preoccupation that might be said to culminate in the witty "flesh upright" of line 24. Busks are straight, erect, and hard, being constructed of wood or whalebone. As the three illustrations show, they are phallic. That the busk comes between "two bodies" (the bodice) is precisely what the narrator hopes to achieve. For the Lady's protective attire, he would substitute himself, one "body," and join the other "body"--the Lady--with his own "busk." The bodice as "breastplate" in line 7 might recall the iconic images of Minerva, goddess of war, an image that is appropriated by the queen in the painting Queen Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses (1569); and even after her death, as represented in the painting, Truth Presents the Queen with a Lance (1625), Elizabeth is shown wearing a woman warrior's breastplate.(47) Donne's narrator would have the Lady "unpin that spangled breastplate" (line 7), the "bodies" that protects her own body from "invasion"; this reference may also be a contemporary allusion to the iron corsets popular at the time. In short, the narrator would have her relinquish her seemingly armorial defense; then, joined to him, he and she would be a new "pair of bodies"--for which his own fleshly busk would be ready to serve. Perhaps, too, Donne knew the bawdy toast, "To both ends of the busk," explained by David Kunzle as a reference to the "two points of sexual interest which seemed all the more vulnerable, the heavier the armor in between."(48)
The narrator's "envie" might not be surprising since the busk is "ever hard" and "ever ready" as well as "nigh" to where he would gladly be. Donne explicitly says, it "still can be," unlike the less constant reality of male virility. The busk is "omni-potent," while the narrator is not. The narrator is dependent on what Thomas M. Greene refers to as "the other," against which he argues the poet defines himself.(49) The "busk," on the other hand, is not dependent on an "other" to be "still" or "stand," that is "to be," but it is dependent on another to fulfill its function, to create an erect and flattened torso. It is "happy" not only for its situation but for its literally infinite control; it makes no effort to be what it is or where it is. And not even the Lady can weaken its state and power, and though it clearly can be discarded, it suffers not at all from rejection.
But Donne is doing more than toying with a bawdy image: the busk may also be a metaphor for power as well as for its contraries, powerlessness and impotence. The envied busk provides, then, a counterpoint to the narrator's imperious commanding voice, a voice whose bravado disguises its owner's physical insufficiency. As such, it may also function partly as sexual challenge to assumptions about power--whether in appearances or in the body, in rule or in role, in who commands and who obeys.
It has been said that "undergarments" play not only an obvious "private" role, but "a very public role as well."(50) Therefore, the "public" function of the busk should not be surprising, namely that while on the one hand it contributes to the punning innuendo of the poem--its "private" jokes regarding sexual precocity--it should also serve to comment on the limitations of male "powers." This reading would contradict Carey's assumption that the "elegy expresses his superiority to other men as well."(51) While it may well express what Carey calls "the urge to dominate" and Achsah Guibbory calls "the male speaker's power and control,"(52) it does so with a witty metaphor that might be undercutting the presumption of desire, if not power.
Critics have argued about the masculine narcissism and phallocentricity of this poem.(53) Although, as is usual in Donne's poetry, the woman is given no voice, she is here given a challenging presence, albeit one of haute couture. Indeed, this is a poem that begs the reader to locate its phallocentricity not merely in voice but in image as well. Curiously enough, critics have had difficulty locating the phallus in this poem. What has served for the phallic locus of the poem is the "seal."(54) In this argument, the seal belongs to the male narrator. But in the poem it is the male narrator who explicitly expresses his penis envy--though as "busk envie." Locating the phallus is especially important in "Elegy 19" because what we find is that an anatomical image identified exclusively with men no longer belongs solely to men; that is, the question is no longer one of mere physical "difference." The Lady of the poem with her "happy busk" would seem to have appropriated the male prerogative.
In a probing discussion on fetishism and fashion, Kunzle explains the relationship between power and desire that objects such as corsets and busks manifest:
The fetish-object serves both as a symbol of union and as symbolic obstacle. It separates the lovers, and yet incorporates emotions of conquest and surrender, resistance and yielding. To the female, it is the armor of virtue (like the chastity-belt, but avoiding or denying its technical function), to the male, it is a symbol of his dominance and desire. . . . 'Tight' and 'stiff' |the look created by the busk~ are words and concepts to which fetishists attribute quasi-magical powers, and which embody ancient hierarchical associations with control, duty, morality, rank, etc. . . . Fetishists extrapolate from the material stiffness and tightness of the fetish object a moral posture of stiff determination and tight control vis-a-vis the object, themselves, and others.(55)
While I would not argue that "Elegy 19" is about fetishism, it is about "dominance and desire," or who controls whom. Asking for the "envied busk" to be removed or taken "off," as the narrator commands, may imply castration or emasculation, that the woman "dephallicize herself and leave only one of the couple equipped with a long pointy object."(56) On the one hand, the busk points to what differentiates women from men and in turn points to what the speaker desires. On the other, removing the busk does emasculate the Lady by leaving her "defenseless" and, in so doing, returns her to her "natural" shape and passive, receiving role.
Donne's phallocentricity, then, may be of a different nature than has to this point been argued; for in this poem, it is the Lady who has potential, suggestive power in her fashionable armor of "breastplate" and "busk." The poet remarks the Lady's "busk" that "still can be, and still can stand so nigh," noting a physical capacity that implies absolute self-sufficiency, at least so far as the narrator is concerned. This reading supports another critic's argument that
The Elegies suggest that Donne was deeply disturbed by the sense that the old hierarchical order was threatened by a blurring of gender and sex distinctions . . . and by rule of a female monarch which seemingly enabled these other disruptions. . . . But even if Queen Elizabeth's reign actually reinforced the existing hierarchies, Donne's Elegies are striking evidence that he may have perceived in it a threat to patriarchy, with its assumptions of stable, permanent hierarchies.(57)
The potential for irony, of course, always remains a possibility with a poet such as Donne.
Part of the irony may in part derive from yet another source: Donne could hardly be unaware of the sermonizing indictments not only of busks but of all ostentatious apparel, what Thomas Nashe called the "second Daughter of Pryde" as well as "Vaineglorie."(58) In Teares over Ierusalem published in 1594 and reprinted in 1595, Nashe remarked the immodest effects of the busk, which to his mind had less to do with creating a rigid, stiff form, or with flattening in general, but rather with accentuating "Theyr breasts" |sic~ that "they embuske vp on hie, and theyr round Roseate buds immodestly lay foorth, to shew at theyr handes there is fruite to be hoped."(59) His argument against "embusking" and other high-fashion flourishes is not simply one of offended morality; after all, he seems rather taken in by those "Roseate buds." His argument also expresses his fear of a diluted native identity. Like the sumptuary laws that for economic reasons address themselves to clothing made in other countries, Nashe warns against these
newfangles from other Countries; you |woman~ haue corrupted them |men~, you have tempted them. . . . No Nation hath any excesse but they have made it theirs. Certaine glasses there are, wherein a man seeth the image of another, & not his owne: those glasses are their eyes, for in the they see the image of other Countries, and not their owne. Other Countries fashions they see, but neuer looke backe to the attyre of their fore-fathers, or consider what shape their own Country shold giue them.(60)
Donne's response would seem to be simple: eliminate the clothes, foreign or otherwise. Perhaps this, too, is one part of the joke behind the "license" he requests for his "roving hands"--one needed a license to be exempt from the sumptuary laws, which covered purchase of foreign apparel and fabrics.(61) Once licensed, however, the speaker imagines discovering a new country without compromising trade with his own: "O my America! my newfoundland" (line 27). Donne manages to undermine Nashe's argument on both scores: he offers his alternative to ostentation as well as an alternative to foreign trade--all by simply undressing and thus going "native" and natural.
The poem may then suggest that it is the vainglorious body of sexual, and perhaps even economic, politics that Donne would strip as he would a lover. The last question posed by the narrator is therefore provocative and telling: "What needst thou have more covering than a man." As I have been arguing, it was in part the "covering" that enabled women to assert their presence, that blurred distinctions, however artificially, however temporarily, however superficially. The irony of this "covering" is exploited by Donne who may at once suggest the high and low end of the hierarchy of male and female control, or lack of control, when it comes to sexuality. On the one hand, the "covering" could be the appropriation of masculine eroticism by women made possible by devices such as busks and breastplates, devices that enabled a woman to control her body's shape, function, and even access. On the other hand, the "covering" may remind the reader that men and women are little different from animals whose instincts drive the male to "cover," or mate with, the female, and the female to let him. The horse, for whom the term "cover" specifically applies in animal husbandry, represented "carnal nature, passion, and irrationality of appetite" in emblematic and allegorical literature.(62) Donne may have been more than a little aware of the implicit antitheses of the questions. Though in the end the narrator may be the only one we know for sure is naked, it is a nakedness that dresses itself in questions about the body and the part it plays in defining the sexual roles of men and women--questions that are left as unanswered and provoking as the one that finally closes the poem.(63)
1 John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), p. 106, mentions that "emphasis is placed on the richness of the woman's clothes." His consideration of attire is used primarily to establish the woman's economic class in order to conclude that the situation of the poem "gratifies not only his sexual but also his social and financial ambitions". William Kerrigan, "What Was Donne Doing," South Central Review 4, 2 (Summer 1987): 2-15, also remarks "This obsession with adornment," and like Carey, he sees it as "either the substitution of courtship for consummation or, what may be the same thing, the metamorphosis of sexual desire into greed". Roma Gill, "Musa Iocosa Mea: Thoughts on the Elegies," in John Donne: Essays in Celebration, ed. A.J. Smith (London: Methuen, 1972), p. 47-72, dismisses the motif in a sentence when she remarks that after the first line, the poem "becomes a slow titillation as each Elizabethan garment is removed with deliberation and relish". Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p. 54, mentions that clothing serves as "metaphoric distractions" and "occasions for witty metaphors," though he never goes into detail as to how the clothes serve wit. Milton Allan Rugoff, Donne's Imagery (New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), pp. 120-22, glances at the significance of clothes in Donne's poetry in general and never mentions "Elegy 19."
2 Harold Love, "Donne's 'To His Mistris Going to Bed, 45'" Explicator 26, 4 (December 1967): Item 33, discusses the "innocent white linen" as a reference to penance robes worn by accused prostitutes. Clay Hunt, Donne's Poetry (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954), p. 28, also discusses this image, comparing it "to the ecclesiastical garb of virgins and religious penitents"; Carey, p. 107, too, dwells on the image, suggesting it is a bedsheet. Regarding whether the Lady is actually left without her clothes, Marotti, p. 54, has the Lady removing them, though hesitating in removing the last piece; Thomas M. Greene, "The Poetics of Discovery: A Reading of Donne's Elegy 19," Yale Journal of Criticism 2, 2 (Spring 1989): 129-43, 140, argues that the lady remains clothed, while it is the narrator who is "stripped" or experiences "self-discovery" (emphasis omitted); and Hunt, p. 19, who waffles, implies she probably does not strip, anticipating Greene when he writes that "when we have finished the poem, the dramatic situation which it presents appears to be less an actuality than a vividly imagined fiction."
3 The date of this poem has generally been accepted as the late sixteenth century. See, for example, the latest edition of Donne's poetry, edited by John Carey, who repeats what has long been established, that Donne began to write the love elegies in 1593 (John Donne |Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990~, p.xx).
4 See, for example, Jane Ashelford, Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988); Roy Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), especially pp. 20-21, where he reminds us that "Dress played an important part in sixteenth-century life, and its significance in the portraits should not be overlooked".
5 Frances Elizabeth Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1926), p. 192.
6 David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 1.
7 Kunzle, p. 1.
8 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), p. 563, asserts that "The pace was set by the monarchs themselves, even Elizabeth regarding her wardrobe as an exception to her normal rules of parsimony--and being caricatured for her pains as a strutting bird of fantastic plumage." For an early discussion of Elizabeth's dresses and a copy of the caricature, see Francis M. Kelly, "Queen Elizabeth and Her Dresses," Connoisseur 113 (June 1944): 71-79; see also the popular account by Carrolly Erickson, The First Elizabethan (New York: Summit, 1983), p. 231, who remarks in his discussion of clothes that Elizabeth "was herself the most conspicuous exemplar of splendid excess."
9 See, for example, Elizabeth W. Pomeroy, Reading the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1989), p. 72, who writes that "the Queen understood the language of clothing perfectly well, and used its powers of communication."
10 Muriel Baldwin, Costume, 1400-1600 (New York: New York Public Library, 1937), p. 17.
11 Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (Houston: Elsevier Press, 1952), p. 200, cites this quotation from Barnaby Rich; see also Philip Stubbes, Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakspeare's Youth, A.D. 1583, Part 1, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (London: New Shakspere Society, 1877-79), p. 73, who while not specifically railing against the busk, nevertheless complained of women's appropriation of male fashion: "The Women also there haue dublets & Ierkins, as men haue heer, buttoned vp the brest, and made with wings, welts, and pinions on the shoulder points, as mans apparel is for all the world; & though this be a kinde of attire appropriate onely to man, yet they blush not to wear it; and if they could as wel chaunge their sex, & put on the kinde of man, as they can weare apparel assigned onely to man, I think they would as verely become men indeed, as now they degenerat from godly, sober women, in wearing this wanton lewd kinde of attire, proper onely to man."
12 Pomeroy, p. 66.
13 F.W. Fairholt, Costume in England: A History of Dress (London: Chapman and Hall, 1846), p. 259.
14 Mary Margaret Stanley Egerton, Countess of Wilton, The Book of Costume: or, Annals of Fashion from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (London, 1846), p. 4.
15 Frances Baldwin, p. 245. Throughout her discussion Baldwin is careful to list all the laws, statutes, and proclamations on apparel in support of her conclusions; by contrast, see B.L. Joseph, Shakespeare's Eden (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), p. 90, who without presenting any evidence writes, "Elizabeth issued ten proclamations insisting on the enforcement of the Sumptuary Act of 1533, chiefly to perpetuate social distinctions rather than as economic policy." Whatever the reason for these laws, both authors agree they were never strictly enforced.
16 Frances Baldwin, pp. 192-248.
17 See, for example, Frances Baldwin, pp. 194, 201, and 204 on the moralists' response to "extravagant dress in general" and for specific instances of their indictment of undergarments in particular.
18 Kunzle, p. 72.
19 Karl Kup, Costume, Gothic and Renaissance: Some Early Costume Books (New York: New York Public Library, 1937), p. 3.
20 Mrs. Dwight E. Minnich, Four Centuries of Fashion (Minneapolis: University Gallery, Univ. of Minnesota, 1939), "historical note."
21 Kup, p. 3, on costume books; Francis Baldwin, pp. 248-49, on the decline of sumptuary legislation.
22 John Donne, "Elegie |XIX~," in The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C.A. Patrides (London and Melbourne: J.M. Dent, 1985), pp. 183-85, lines 11-12. All quotations are from this edition.
23 Patrides, p. 183. See also, The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (New York: Anchor, 1967), p. 57, in "Elegie: Going to Bed," numbered as 15; John Carey, in "Elegy 2: To His Mistress Going to Bed" (p. 422n); Robert Adams, ed., "Elegy XIX. Going to Bed" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 3rd edn. (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 1200.
24 Unabridged dictionaries such as the OED and the Random House Dictionary of the English Language offer a range of definitions for corset, but most pocket dictionaries such as those used by students have limited definitions. See, for example, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1974 edn., which has by its own admission "more definitions than any other pocket dictionary." Were a student to flip to this dictionary's definition for "corset," a word I suspect most would assume they knew, they would find the following: "a stiffened undergarment worn by women to give shape to the waist and hips."
25 M.D.C. Crawford and Elizabeth A. Guernsey, The History of Corsets in Pictures (New York: Fairchild, 1951), p. 9.
26 See, for example, Ernest Leoty, Le Corsage a Travers les Ages (Paris, 1893), p. 48; Kunzle, pp. 71 and 320-22; Muriel Baldwin, n. 5; for a rather different opinion on the route the busk took in getting to England, see Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., Harrison's Description of England in Shakspeare's Youth (London: New Shakspere Society, 1878), p. 34: "Womens Maskes, Buskes, Mufs, Fanns, Perewigs, and Bodkins, were first deuised and vsed in Italy by Curtezans, and from thence brought into France, and there received of the best sort for gallant ornaments, & from thence they came into England, about the time of the Massacar in Paris |St. Bartholomews, 24 Aug. 1572~."
27 See Kunzle, p. 75; also, Cunnington C. Willett, Phyllis Cunnington, and Charles Beard, A Dictionary of English Costume (1960; rprt. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1972).
28 The problem of course is that you cannot see the busk, only the effect of the busk in creating a particular form. This form can be seen in contemporary costume books such as Cesare Vecellio, De Gli Habiti Antichi, et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo (Venice, 1590), p. 369, in the dress of the "Donna Nobile Inglese"; and in Jean Jacques Boissard, Habitus Variarum Orbis Gentium (1581), plate 92, a noble girl; see also later costume books, especially Albert Kretschmer, The Costumes of All Nations from the Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century: Exhibiting the Dresses and Habits of all Classes, Regal, Ecclesiastical, Noble, Military, Judicial, and Civil (London, 1882), plate 72; and M.A. Racinet, Le Costume Historique (Paris, 1888), vol. 1, p. 132, who refers to the "Busc apparent--Busc adapte sur le devant du corsage; mode feminine du seizieme siecle"--the plate is in volume 4, item 273.
29 Leoty, p. 33.
30 Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinoline (London: B.T. Batsford, 1954), p. 27, quotes this poem.
31 Waugh, p. 28, cites this reference; for the specific journal entry, see G.B. Harrison, A Second Elizabethan Journal (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931), pp. 177-78, which describes a girl possessed by the devil as requesting of it, "a French body, not of whalebone for that is not stiff enough, but of horn for that will hold it out; it shall come low before to keep in my belly. . . . My lad, I will have a busk of whalebone, it shall be tied with two silk points, and I will have a drawn wrought stomacher embossed with gold, finer than thine."
32 Elizabeth Stern, "Peckover and Gallyard, Two Sixteenth-Century Norfolk Tailors," Costume 15 (1981): 19; see also Janet Arnold, ed., Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (Leeds: Maney, 1988), pp. 146 and 231, who identifies at least two of Queen Elizabeth's household accounts that include the purchase of busks, one in 1581, the other in 1586.
33 John Marston, Antonio and Mellida, ed. G.K. Hunter (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), Induction, lines 52-54. G.K. Hunter offers no gloss for "busk," though he offers one for the "tailor's legs". The sense implied of the busk here is perfect for an actor, especially for one playing "the parasite," who must suggest an appearance of something other than what he is. In another edition, The Selected Plays of John Marston, Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neill, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 13 (the word appears here in line 62), the editors gloss the word as "corset-bone," which might be more helpful if one knew what exactly they meant.
34 In John Marston, The Malcontent, IV.i.21-23, ed. M.L. Wine (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1964), p. 75, "busk-points" are glossed as "stays, laces." The image here is a particularly naughty one, especially with characters such as these; "busk-points" were given to lovers as keepsakes; they are laces that hold the busk in place in the bodice. The gloss in Jackson and Neill, p. 250, as "laces on stays" is more specific and therefore better than Wine's, though the function of "busk-points" and their more romantic associations are unclear in both glosses.
35 Camden, pp. 195-96, cites allusions to these writers. My personal favorite, unmentioned in any collection, is a seventeenth-century poem by Aphra Behn, "On A Juniper-Tree, Cut Down to Make Busks" in Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn, ed. Robert Phelps (New York: Grove Press, 1950), pp. 234-36. The poem takes the point of view of a tree which rejoices in first having attracted two lovers to romance beneath its branches; the juniper is fulfilled at last when "My body into busks was turned:/Where I still guard the sacred store,/And of Love's temple keep the door".
36 Stephen Gosson, Pleasant Quippes for Upstart New Fangled Gentlewomen, in Early English Poetry, Ballads, and Popular Literature of the Middle Ages, vol. 30 (New York: Johnson Reprint, 1965). The reference books on costume that cite this poem, usually quote only a stanza. I have chosen to quote all the pertinent stanzas on the busk to emphasize Gosson's particular fears, which may be thought to mirror the fears of the moralists in general.
37 For this reading I am indebted to Anne Lake Prescott.
38 Kunzle, pp. 72-73, citing Ambroise Pare and Henri Estienne.
39 Ashelford, p. 40.
40 Elizabeth Ewing, Dress and Undress (New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1978), p. 29.
41 These definitions are all from the OED, 1971 edn.
42 Channing M. Linthicum, Costume in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Oxford: Clarendon, 1936), p. 178.
43 Waugh, p. 19.
45 Francis M. Kelly and Randolph Schwabe, Historic Costume: A Chronicle of Fashion in Western Europe, 1490-1790 (New York: Scribners, 1925), p. 55.
46 Kunzle, p. 29. There is some disagreement here with the feminist view that these and similar devices represent male oppression. Kunzle's book largely addresses this issue. He points out that it has historically been men who attacked the use of busks and corsets for the reasons I have cited, reasons which imply that women were to some extent challenging male control over their bodies. Kunzle, however, extends his argument beyond the Renaissance to the Victorian Age, which is where he has met the most resistance from feminist writers on the subject.
47 See Strong, plate 53, p. 66, and plate 185, p. 165.
48 Kunzle, p. 29.
49 Greene, pp. 130-32. Janel Mueller, "Women among the Metaphysicals: A Case, Mostly, of Being Donne For," MP 87, 2 (November 1989): 142-58, also considers the role of the female as other. Most relevant to my argument is Mueller's observation that "this cognizance of specifically sexual attraction impresses a man with his own lack as well as his longing to conjoin to himself all that a given woman has and is".
50 Richard McComb, The Undercover Story (New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, 1982; Kyoto Costume Institute, 1983), p. 4.
51 Carey, Life, Mind; and Art, p. 106.
52 Achsah Guibbory, "Oh, Let Mee Not Serve So': The Politics of Love in Donne's Elegies," ELH 57, 4 (Winter 1990): 811-33, 820.
53 Kerrigan, p. 6, complains that "Today we have critics who speak somewhat ponderously of phallocentric texts and invaginated texts and debate the extent to which readers should be loyal to intention." Yet, even though saying this, his own argument and use of metaphor seem an implicit acceptance of the poem as phallocentric. In explaining the woman as "mystical text," he writes, "Vision becomes at last, as reading, phallic and penetrating rather than frustrated"; Marotti, p. 54, refers to the poem's "phallic narcissism"; and Greene, p. 133, says "Donne's own variations within this tradition can be described as aggressively phallocentric and cheerfully sexist." In all cases, the irony of this "phallocentricity" is lost without knowing what a busk is, how it looks, and how it figures as a telling image in the poem.
54 Hunt, p. 208, n. 16; Greene, p. 139.
55 Kunzle, pp. 10-29.
56 Professor Anne Lake Prescott provided this insight in a very helpful comment on an earlier draft.
57 Guibbory, p. 829.
58 Thomas Nashe, Christs Teares over Ierusalem in The Works of Thomas Nashe, vol. 2, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1910), pp. 136, 108.
59 Nashe, p. 137.
60 Nashe, p. 141.
61 Frances Baldwin, p. 236.
62 See my article, "The Reeve's Tale: About That Horse," Chaucer Review 26, 1 (Summer 1991): 99-106. I am indebted to Anne Lake Prescott for redirecting my attention to the animal aspect of this image. This same reader also made another important point that I cannot take any credit for: namely, that "as a lawyer, Donne knew that a married woman was "femme couverte'--a woman legally 'covered' by her husband and hence with no independent legal existence."
63 I would like to thank the staff of the Pierpont Morgan Library and the staff of the New York Public Library, Art and Architecture Division, for graciously making their collections available to me. I would also like to thank Zack Bowen and the secretarial staff of the University of Miami English Department for their gracious assistance in arranging for temporary faculty status and the attendant library privileges.
Sandy Feinstein, Associate Professor of English at Southwestern College, Winfield, Kansas, is working on the politics of glossing.