Mosaic (Winnipeg), Dec 1996 v29 n4 p41(17)
Depicting lesbian desire: contexts for John Donne's 'Sapho to Philaenis.'
Grise, C. Annette.
Abstract: The contextual dynamics of the poem 'Sapho to Philaenis' written by poet John Donne are analyzed to illustrate views towards female sexuality and lesbianism during the Renaissance period. By comparatively examining Donne's poem with similar works written, it can be seen that verses were popular during the period as a medium for male poetic activity. However, it does not provide clear insights into the concepts of gender and sexuality in Early Modern England.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Michel Foucault's groundbreaking History of Sexuality paved the way for numerous studies of the politics informing attitudes toward gender and sexual issues. The Early Modern period has particularly attracted investigations of this kind, as well as debates about what should serve as "evidence" and how it should be interpreted. For example, focusing largely on medical treatises, Thomas Laqueur outlined what he saw as Early Modern assumptions about women's sexual inferiority (and, by extension, physical, emotional and mental inferiority). Patricia Parker, however, argues that it is necessary to adopt a more flexible and nuanced approach, and she is critical not only of Laqueur but also of the influential New Historicist critic Stephen Greenblatt for simplifying Renaissance representations of gender and sexuality. She advocates a critical model that is "less inclined to put forward certain anecdotes and not others as representative and one that rather than privileging the medical literature, or a selection from it, also tests it against other texts and contexts, including literary ones in which the teleology appears" (340-41). By urging scholars to pay more careful attention to the dialogue between and among different perspectives and literary representations of female sexuality, Parker argues for a more complex understanding of historical attitudes toward sexuality and gender.
As a way of contributing to this debate, I would like to look closely at the contextual dynamics operating in a Renaissance poem which has recently engaged critics concerned with depictions of lesbianism: John Donne's "Sapho to Philaenis." What makes this poem such a provocative site for cultural (sexual) historians is not merely that it focuses on the classical Greek lesbian poet, but also the way that Donne presents her as speaking in her own voice and as mourning the loss of her female lover "Philaenis" - in contrast to the prevailing view of Sappho promulgated by the Ovidian tradition, wherein Sappho was seen as having killed herself out of unrequited passion for a male lover. The poem thus raises a series of culturally significant questions, of which the major ones would seem to be: should Donne's apparent endorsement of lesbianism be regarded as an anomaly, or as a sign of the need to rethink the attitudes of his time; should Donne's use of Sappho as a persona be regarded as indicative of his respect for her otherness or as an example of appropriation; should Donne's speaking in Sappho's voice be examined as an opportunity for Donne to align himself with (and also oppose himself to) other poets who adopt Sappho's persona, namely, Ovid?
My strategy for dealing with these questions - and their multiple implications - will take the following form: first, I will survey Renaissance representations of Sappho and of lesbian love in general; next, I will discuss how the concept of the "sister" Muses is employed to celebrate male poetic activity in two verse letters exchanged by Donne and his male coterie; within this framing context, I will then look carefully at "Sapho to Philaenis" with a view to exploring the complex factors that might have motivated Donne to depart from tradition in his depiction of Sappho; in doing so I will also try to assess the extent to which his project fails, and the way that this poem's shortcomings do not hinder - and, in fact, may help to determine - Donne's representation of his poetic relationship with Ovid.
Although in the Middle Ages, Sappho was considered a learned poet who, as the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan asserts, "kept company with the Muses" (67) and was celebrated for her poetic art and skill, this picture of Sappho was a sanitized one, devoid of any mention of her lesbianism. In the light of this situation, it is also not surprising that most of Sappho's poetry was lost during this period, reputedly burned by the Church in 380 and again in 1073. This ecclesiastical suppression of Sappho's homosexuality was essentially maintained until Ovid's Heroides was rediscovered in the 15th century. In Ovid's book of epistles, cast in the personae of legendary women writing to their lost lovers, "Sappho to Phaon" details her unrequited passion for a young man (Phaon) and her desire to plunge to her death from the cliffs of Leucas for love of him. By focusing on an aging Sappho who is repenting her former lesbianism and who meets a tragic end because of unfulfilled heterosexual love, Ovid's elegy confronts Sappho's sexuality head on, at the same time that the focus eliminates any uneasiness about her sexual orientation. It is this impulse to invoke and then to explain away Sappho's lesbianism by producing a teleological progression toward a heterosexual norm that is Ovid's contribution to the representations of Sappho in the Early Modern period.
The Heroides held great sway over the Renaissance perception of Sappho, her poetry and her sexuality. For example, John Lyly's Sapho and Phao, a play performed for Queen Elizabeth and then printed in 1584, takes Ovid's direction to an extreme and suppresses Sappho's lesbianism completely. R. Warwick Bond, in his introduction to the play, establishes Ovid as Lyly's "chief authority" (364) but also cites the classical author Aelian as an important source, for which he gives the following passage from Abraham Fleming's 1576 translation of Aelian's Varia Historia: "Plato the sonne of Aristo, numbreth Sapho the Versifyer, and daughter of Scamandronymus among such as were wise, lerned and skilful. I heare also, that there was another Sapho in Lesbus: which was a stronge whore, and an arrant strumpet" (365). The doubled figure of Sappho was another of the many strategies employed in Renaissance depictions of Sappho, enabling Lyly greatly to revise the Sappho and Phaon story. In Lyly's version she is not the sexually confused, celebrated poet, but rather Princess of Syracuse, a chaste, heterosexual maiden who overcomes Venus through the course of the play and becomes foster-mother to Cupid, abandoning Phao who then leaves the city, sighing still for his beloved. Different also to a certain extent from the Aelian pattern, Lyly's Sappho is not a "Versifyer" at all but rather a female ruler. Witness the courtier Trachinus's description: "Sapho, faire by nature, by birth royall, learned by education, by gouernment politike, rich by peace: insomuch as it is hard to iudge, whether she be more beautifull or wise, vertuous or fortunate" (375). Lyly's Sappho is the epitome of female perfection and while fit to rule Syracuse, according to Trachinus, at the same time she is susceptible to Venus's control. Lyly thus eliminates what he considers to be inappropriate from the Renaissance Sapphic tradition, choosing instead to depict only one half of the doubled figure of Sappho. Yet it is difficult to believe that invoking one half would not evoke the other, even though Lyly's portrayal of Sappho seems to ignore that other side.
In this context, in turn, we might consider the implications of Theodora A. Jankowski's view that Lyly's Sappho is an analogue for Queen Elizabeth: "the mere choice of this particular historical-mythical figure as a 'type' for Elizabeth is not a happy one, for contained within the discourse of 'Sappho,' as indicated in Fleming's comment [i.e., the quotation from Aelian's Varia Historia], is the notion of a renegade of dubious sexuality, which reaffirms the dubious nature of Elizabeth's political anomaly" (84-85n19). Jankowski locates the rationale for Lyly's practice in the analogy that can be drawn between female sexual behavior and female political behavior, suggesting that for Lyly Sappho's lesbianism parallels Elizabeth's virgin rule of England: they are both the proverbial "women on top." To press this point further, we can see that both historical figures are outside the most traditional of female roles, that of mother: Sappho's lesbianism and Elizabeth's virginity both produce no offspring.
A further parallel between Elizabeth and Sappho is that the epithet attached to Sappho's name by Horace, "mascula Sappho," is comparable to Elizabeth's reversal of the political hierarchy of gender. This gender hierarchy, as Ian Maclean explains, drew support from the medical treatises of the time:
It is clear that psychological limitations must have a bearing on the ethical status of woman; her assumed frailty of body, which best befits her for the care of the young and makes her unsuited to exposure to the dangers of the outside world, is accompanied by mental and emotional weaknesses which are the natural justification for her exclusion from public life, responsibility and moral fulfilment. (43-44)
Elizabeth's quite public role thus necessitated a denial of the "mental and emotional weaknesses" associated with the female body. In her "Golden Speech," delivered in 1601, she effected just such a denial, stating, "Shall I ascribe anything to myself and my sexly weakness? I were not worthy to live then; and, of all, most unworthy of the mercies I have had from God, who hath given me a heart that yet never feared any foreign or home enemy" (qtd. in Ashley 315). Elizabeth quite subtly replaces her "sexly weakness" with a fearless, masculine and public "heart," effecting a disjunction between her outward appearance and the reputed inward physiological and mental effects of this sexed exterior. And just as Elizabeth endows herself with masculine attributes, so masculine attributes were bestowed upon Sappho: for Sappho, these attributes were seen to result from her sexual orientation toward women and her poetic talent; for Elizabeth these attributes arise from her masculine political role as ruler of England.
Implicit in Lyly's portrayal of Sappho, then, is an equation of female homosexuality with female political power. This equation suggests that any and all female behavior deviating from the norm is suspect and, in fact, that one form is easily substituted for another. By depicting Sappho as a female ruler rather than as a lesbian poet, Lyly transfers Sappho's transgression of the bounds of sexual norms (i.e., her lesbianism) onto the bounds of gender norms (i.e., of the hierarchy of gender). Thus, Lyly's choice of Sappho as a "type" for Elizabeth is far from just an unhappy one, as Jankowski would have it. Sappho indeed comes to stand for the transgressing woman, transgressing bounds that, as far as Lyly is concerned, are interchangeable.
Pierre Bayle's entry on Sappho in his Dictionary Historical and Critical (1697) follows closely the Ovidian narrative of Sappho's love of Phao and her subsequent death. Yet in contrast to Lyly, Bayle, like Ovid, does not suppress Sappho's homosexuality, for he finds it too noticeable to disregard:
I cannot blame the charity of Mrs le Fevre, who has endeavoured, for the honour of Sappho, to render the fact [of her amorous passion for women] uncertain; but I think her too reasonable to be angry with us for believing our own eyes. The ode [by Sappho] which Longinus has mentioned, is not in the stile [sic] of one female friend writing to another: it savours of love all over, and not of friendship. (45)
Bayle's disapproving acknowledgment of Sappho's homosexuality is representative of the discomfort with which Renaissance Europe regarded Sappho; this discomfort resulted in various strategies for talking about her. The primary strategy was, of course, to see Sappho through Ovid's eyes. Bayle spends much of the five-page biographical entry on the relation of Sappho and Phao, even quoting from Ovid's epistle and prefacing the quotation as follows: "Consider what [Sappho] herself writes to [Phao] by the pen of Ovid" (47). Clearly, for the Early Modern period, Ovid's epistle was considered biographical in its content, a belief which supported the transformation of Sappho's lesbianism into heterosexuality, to the extent that Bayle conjectures wildly that Sappho and the classical poet Anacreon would have married if they had been of the same generation (44).
The above examples illustrate the ubiquity of the Ovidian tradition in Renaissance portrayals of Sappho and its tendency to invoke and then explain away her lesbianism. Following Ovid's example, literary representations of Sappho employed strategies of appropriation and cooption as viable means of considering female homosexuality. In accounts of actual, contemporary cases of lesbianism the consequences were harsher: punishment and death could be the result if rehabilitation was impossible, or if lesbianism challenged the distinctions between gender roles.
An intriguing French example of the treatment of homosexuality in the period can be found in Henri Estienne's 1566 Apologie pour Herodote. In this text, which is a detailed account of the classical period written to foster a greater appreciation of that age, Estienne devotes one (short) chapter to the issue of homosexuality and what he terms "peche contre nature." In fact, he concludes this chapter with an account of a lesbian couple and the consequences of their discovery by the authorities. This example comes after several accounts of male homosexuality and of bestiality, and is introduced as "un forfaict merveilleusement estrange," involving crossdressing, lesbianism, discovery, punishment and death:
C'est qu'une fille native de Fontaines, qui est entre Blois et Rommorantin, s'estant desguisee en homme, servit de valet d'estable environ sept ansen une hostelerie du faux-bourg du Foye, puis se maria a une fille du lieu, avec laquelle elle fut environ deux ans, exerceant le mestier de vigneron. Apres lequel temps estant descouverte la meschancete de laquelle elle usoit pour contrefaire l'office de mari, fut prise, et ayant confesse fut la brulee toute vive. (178)
This account is similar to one in Montaigne's travel journals, discussed by Stephen Greenblatt and Patricia Parker, about Mary the weaver who "fell in love with a woman, whom he [Mary] married and with whom he lived for four or five months, to her satisfaction, so they say." The outcomes of these tales are quite similar, for just as Mary "was hanged for using illicit devices to supply her defect in sex" (870) so the young "husband" from Fontaines was discovered and denounced by "his" wife (two years after their wedding) and then burned.
The distinction between sexual activity between two women and between a woman and another woman posing as a man makes the former activity difficult to trace, for clearly such homoeroticism was not perceived in the same way that it is today. Lillian Faderman argues that because love-making in the Early Modern period was defined as penile penetration, "women were allowed to demonstrate the most sensual behavior toward one another without suffering the stigma associated with such behavior in more recent times"(32). This "sensual behavior" was invisible: outside of the frame of heterosexual relations such behavior cannot be understood; inside the frame, such behavior is perceived as an inferior imitation of heterosexuality. Furthermore, female homosexual activity involving cross-dressing and/or the use of dildoes is represented in terms of the transgression and reversal of gender roles, rather than as lesbianism; thus it is the differences between the sexes, not sexual orientation, that becomes the key issue. What results, then, is the conception of female homosexuality in terms of a heterosexual framework, in which it is seen either to imitate or to transgress the gender roles of heterosexual lovers. In the first instance, lesbianism can be easily appropriated into a heterosexual framework, but in the second, it is not as easily coopted: because she attempted to perform a masculine role, the young woman in Estienne's Apologie was burned.
While continental accounts of Renaissance lesbians reveal anxieties about gender role subversion and often culminate in disclosure and death, the situation in England appears to have been different. Derrick Sherwin Bailey's 1955 pronouncement on the invisibility of lesbianism in the eyes of medieval and Renaissance law, has been dismissed by Louis Crompton in his influential article "The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791." Nevertheless, Crompton concedes that "[i]t is true that England's traditional 'buggery' statute, first enacted in 1533 under Henry VIII, used terminology (still in force until 1967) that was not interpreted as criminalizing relations between women" (11). In contrast to continental death penalties, then, lesbian acts in England by and large went unpunished, if we can judge by extant legal evidence. Yet this lack of legal evidence also makes it difficult for scholars to uncover anything like a clear picture of how female homosexuality was lived and experienced in Early Modern England.
If we turn again to literary representations of lesbianism, it may appear that something akin to tolerance was at work in Renaissance England. In a study of lesbian desire in the period, Valerie Traub theorizes that for female characters in Renaissance drama the fixation upon the opposite sex is not as pronounced as it is for our time. Traub goes on to argue, however, that this absence of fixation produced anxieties stemming from the integral role of female heterosexuality in reproduction. While the heterosexual woman functions within a framework which emphasizes her reproductive value, the lesbian - Traub identifies specifically the English "tribade," the French "sodomite" and the theatrical "femme" (150) - challenges this framework.
Traub's analysis accords with Luce Irigaray's argument that "[w]oman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men, including the competition for the possession of mother earth" (31-32); similarly, Traub's theory accords with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's work on Victorian writers which examines the heterosexist assumptions underlying a social system based upon bonds "between men" that are at once homophobic (that is, predicated upon a refusal to acknowledge homosexuality) and homosocial (that is, predicated upon men's fixation on men in the social realm of, for example, friendship and business relations). As Traub sees it, however, although the masculine framework elaborated by Irigaray and Sedgwick is present, it functions in a different way in the Early Modern period. While it would appear that female homosexuality disrupts this homosocial system - as if these women had anticipated Irigaray's suggestion that women should refuse to go to market (196) - for Traub, lesbianism represents only one phase in the everchanging sexuality of women which nevertheless comes to rest in a heterosexual orientation. In Traub's reading, then, the supposed tolerance for lesbians in England, as suggested by Crompton's findings, can be more accurately attributed to the invisibility of female homosexuality; that is, lesbianism was tolerated because it was seen as just another phase in woman's sexuality rather than a distinct orientation, and thus it could be easily coopted into a heterosexual, reproductive framework.
While we have seen that in the Early Modern period, lesbianism was typically silenced or coopted as an inferior version of homosexuality, in the literary imagination of the time lesbianism was also considered, in another light, as fruitful territory for the discussion of poetic creativity. If we turn now to Donne and his circle of acquaintances, we see that lesbianism is often used as a symbol for poetic fraternity in their writings. For example, in Donne's verse letter to R. W., "Zealously my Muse," female homosexuality characterizes a scene of erotic excess and doubleness involving two heterosexual couples (one poet and Muse conjoined with another poet and Muse). This scene suggests that lesbianism may ultimately be used to support a masculine poetic fraternity, for the two Muses stand in for the poets' meeting of minds. Donne's letter to R. W. begins with a salute from his Muse to "that mistique trinitee" (2) of R. W.'s "body, mind, and Muse" (4). Donne confronts R. W.'s separation from him by meditating on the three members of this "trinitee":
Dost thou recover sicknes, or prevent? Or is thy Mind travail'd with discontent? Or art thou parted from the world and mee In a good skorn of the worlds vanitee? Or is thy devout Muse retyr'd to sing Upon her tender Elegiaque string? (5-10)
This meditation signals through its many interrogatives Donne's apprehension about his separation from his friend, an apprehension which is dismissed in the final couplet and its imperative:
Our Minds part not, joyne then thy Muse with myne, For myne is barren thus devorc'd from thyne. (11-12)
Donne here likens the union of their poetic intellects (contrasted with their physical separation) to a union of their Muses, a union which will transform the "sterility" of his own poetic activity.
This imaging of lesbianism as arising out of and reflecting their intellectual enterprises links poetic activity with (homo)sexual activity in an interesting way. Literally, the Muses' lovemaking would not produce offspring; however, because this "homotextuality" represents the bonding of two male poetic minds, it is not important that lesbian lovemaking be depicted realistically. While the fertility of the Muse is traditionally characterized as the result of the intercourse of Muse and male poet - i.e., a heterosexualized visualization of poetic activity - here it is opened up to include another couple. The use of these Muses thus produces and symbolizes male poetic bonding; the homoerotic desire between Donne and his friend is projected onto the Muses, so that their lovemaking represents the intellectual relationship these men share.
In a verse letter written to Donne by another member of his circle (a man identified as "T. W."), we find a more explicit use of this paradigm. Entitled "Thou sendst me prose & rimes," the poem takes up the theme of lesbian Muses in its second half, wherein their lovemaking is described in some detail:
Have mercy on me and my sinfull Muse Which rub'd and tickled with thyne could not chuse But spend some of her pithe and yeild to bee One in that chaste and mistique tribadree. Bassaes adultery no fruit did leave, Nor theirs which their swolne thighs did nimbly weave, And with new armes and mouthes embrace and kis Though they had issue was not like to this. Thy Muse, Oh strange and holy Lecheree Beeing a Mayd still, gott this Song on mee. (11-20)(1)
To understand how the intercourse of the Muses leads to the ejaculation of seed ("pithe" 13), it is helpful to recall how the Early Modern period perceived the concept of female semen:
The commonly accepted view is that expressed by Galen in the De Semine (II.2), which states that woman has semen which is colder and less active than that of the male. The question remains whether it is efficient both formally and materially, or simply materially, or simply formally. The Galenic position, that it contributes to both the form and the matter of the embryo, is that which is most commonly adopted; it helps to explain the resemblance of children to their parents, which Aristotle attributes rather unsatisfactorily to menstrual blood.
Such a belief in the necessity of female seed for procreation enables the poet "T. W." to visualize lesbian lovemaking between the Muses as analogous to procreation. Also invoked is the concept of the Immaculate Conception, in this case with the Muse conceiving upon the poet, whereby he becomes the passive receptacle of the word and will of the female "Spirit." By taking on this passive role, the poet receives the song from the Muses and by extension effects a poetic union with his friend, despite their physical distance.
In an analysis of the association of poetic activity with procreativity, Katharine Eisaman Maus argues that male poets in the Early Modem period often likened the process of poetic creation to that of procreation, at the same time that procreation was depicted as necessarily inferior to the poetic process: "[t]he very similarity between thinking and childbirth clarifies their differences, excluding women...by a principle that seems as natural as the principle that precludes men from giving birth" (269). In the site of union of the minds in the verse letters, the female bodies are characterized in terms of a procreativity - complicated by their lesbianism - that reflects the poetic activity resulting from the two poets' intellectual intercourse. Textual homoeroticism thus displaces intellectual attraction between men into the lesbianism of the Muses. By equating poetic activity with procreativity, the poet interprets the Muses and their female homosexuality from within a heterosexual, reproductive framework. Lesbianism here thus functions within a poetic system of production that normalizes female homosexuality as a creative role, rather than a failed procreative one.
While the use of lesbianism in verse letters appears to be a straightforward instance of lesbian activity being presented as a voyeuristic fantasy legitimating the male poetic project, the scenario in "Sapho to Philaenis" is quite different, for in this poem Donne speaks in the voice of Sappho, who is lamenting the loss of her female lover, Philaenis. Yet, "Sapho to Philaenis" is not completely incompatible with the project of the verse letters. For example, the analogy in the verse letters between procreativity and poetic activity, which is integral to the depiction of lesbianism, may account for Donne's use of a woman, Philaenis, rather than Phao as Sappho's love object in this poem. In addition, in the opening lines of "Sapho to Philaenis" Donne makes clear the link between female homosexuality and poetic activity:
Where is that holy fire, which Verse is said To have, is that inchanting force decai'd? Verse that drawes Natures workes, from Natures law, Thee, her best worke, to her worke cannot draw. Have my teares quench'd my old Poetique fire; Why quench'd they not as well, that of desire? Thoughts, my mindes creatures, often are with thee, But I, their maker, want their libertie. (1-8)
Donne's depiction of lesbianism here is quite different from that of the verse letters, for there the Muses acted as intermediaries between male poets, while here Donne assumes the lesbian voice, that of Sappho. In this case he must give Sappho herself a voice with which to speak of lesbian love, and the first way he does so is by portraying a speaker whose poetic activity is obstructed by an excess of desire. In fact, Sappho's opening lament for her poetic barrenness results from her love for Philaenis and her physical separation from her.
While in the verse letters the male poets were able to capitalize on physical distance to effect an intellectual and poetic bonding through their poetry, for Sappho there is no way of relating besides the present erotic relationship, an actual not imagined same-sex relationship. It is, in turn, this absence that prevents Sappho's poetic activity: "Onely thine image, in my heart, doth sit, / But that is waxe, and fires environ it" (9-10). The need for an actual lesbian relationship breaks down the link between procreativity and poetic creation, for Sappho's homoeroticism constitutes a place outside the kind of poetic fraternity envisioned in the verse letters. That fraternity, as we have seen, is a masculine, heterosexualized one, based on (re)production: in spite of the rubbing and tickling of the Muses, in T. W.'s poem lesbianism is evoked for the purposes of male poetic bonding. In "Sapho to Philaenis," in contrast, this homosocial context breaks down, and at the start of the poem Donne makes Sappho feel at a loss for a means to express her love for another woman: she has no appropriate framework from which to speak.
Donne then moves on to envision an alternate poetic space, constituting a poetics of lesbian erotics outside of the context of male poetic bonding. First, Sappho moves from loss into an anti-Petrarchan stance of negation:
Thou art not soft, and cleare, and strait, and faire, As Down, as Stars, Cedars, and Lillies are, But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye. (21-24)
Sappho calls for the breakdown of metaphor and simile, replacing them with a word-for-word equivalence of hand and hand, cheek and cheek, eye and eye: tenor and vehicle are conflated into sameness. Sappho cannot speak in Petrarchan conceits but rather she must find expression in sameness, as in the second half of the poem:
My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two, But so, as thine from one another doe; And, oh, no more; the likenesse being such, Why should they not alike in all parts touch? Hand to strange hand, lippe to lippe none denies; Why should they brest to brest, or thighs to thighs? Likenesse begets such strange selfe flatterie, That touching my selfe, all seemes done to thee. My selfe I'embrace, and mine owne hands I kisse, And amorously thanke my selfe for this. Me in my glasse, I call thee; But, alas, When I would kisse, teares dimme mine eyes, and glasse. O cure this loving madnesse, and restore Me to mee; thee, my halfe, my all, my more. (45-58)
In this long passage the equivalence, or "likenesse" (47, 51), extends to the repetition of phrases and words, so that the text becomes a rhythmic doubling speech, echoing not only the autoerotic symmetry of her body but also the likeness of two female bodies involved in lesbian lovemaking.
In her recent analysis of Donne's use of comparisons in this poem, Paula Blank argues that "Sappho's effort to assimilate autoerotism and her desire for Philaenis is one more comparison that fails in the poem, another apparent identity revealed as difference" (363). Where Blank sees failure, however, I see doubleness, an equivalence and sameness that resists the heterosexual framework in favor of excess. Sappho explores alternative methods of loving (both autoerotic and homoerotic), and it is the doubleness that forms the basis of the expression of pleasure in the poem. Sappho's desire for doubleness, likeness - of self, of self in mirror, of self and lover - propels the poem and presents lesbianism as something more than an imitation of heterosexual love predicated on sexual difference. To this point, Donne's imaginative foray into a lesbian poetics results in an assertion of doubleness and likeness that goes beyond the emphasis on appropriation and punishment in Renaissance representations of female homosexuality.
Nevertheless, this lesbian poetics cannot be sustained in the poem, and Sappho's love for Philaenis is ultimately reconnected with Sappho's earlier misgivings that Philaenis has found a "soft boy" (31) with whom to play:
So may thy cheekes red outweare scarlet dye, And their white, whitenesse of the Galaxy, So may thy mighty,' amazing beauty move Envy'in all women, and in all men, love, And so be change, and sicknesse, farre from thee, As thou by comming neere, keep'st them from me. (59-64)
Philaenis here is coopted back into a heterosexual framework, for it is her capacity to attract the love of men and the envy of women that will define her value. Such a move suggests that Sappho's homosexuality is unsustainable and transitory, and hence Donne's depiction is not finally dissimilar to Ovid's portrayal of Sappho as having abandoned female homosexuality in favor of an unrequited heterosexual love. Sappho's conversion to a heterosexual framework of thought fits within contemporary medical discourses which resort to notions of female fickleness as the source of woman's enigma, a fickleness that allows a space for lesbianism but places it within a continuum of female sexuality which inevitably leads to heterosexual fulfilment.
"Sapho to Philaenis" is thus a poem which ambivalently resists and participates in contemporary representations of lesbianism. The poem constitutes Donne's sustained use of Sappho as what Maus terms a "[site] of gender disorientation" (275) - that is, the use of the female body as analogous to the poet's own; and it is this strategy that allows Donne to write such a poem as "Sapho to Philaenis." It is in this difference, in this "gender disorientation," that Donne's own poetic voice comes through and joins with the other Renaissance literary depictions of female homosexuality and Sappho.
In "Sapho to Philaenis," the lesbian poetics functions on two levels. On one level, Donne inquires into how gender and sexuality affect desire and poetic creativity by means of the symbol of Sappho as lesbian poet. He succeeds in acknowledging that there may be a place for female homoeroticism outside the poetic relationship of the male coterie such as is found in the verse letters, yet Donne cannot acknowledge that this place is capable of being sustained: that lesbianism, and by extension a female homosexual poetics, can be anything but temporary and transitory. On the second level, Donne explores the way that desire and poetic creativity in the male poet are affected by the relationship with Sappho as poetic foremother and with the Ovidian tradition of Sappho. In the verse letters, the lesbian muses are clearly analogous to the relationship between two male poets; transposing this paradigm into "Sapho to Philaenis" leads us to consider whether Donne is using Sappho and her lover as a means of representing his relationship with Ovid - as poetic forefather.
In Fictions of Sappho: 1546-1937, Joan DeJean argues there are two poetic relationships which poets can employ when writing about Sappho. In the first, Sappho is used as a "mere accessory to a double act of male poetic bonding, with other members of the literary collective and with the male precursor." In the second pattern, the poet acquires "an individual empowerment through a blending of a personal fiction of female desire and Sappho's expression of that desire" which De Jean argues is a more complex relationship between poet and precursor than is found in the first pattern. Because implicit in the first pattern she delineates for these male poets is a "violent hostility" toward Sappho, it is clear that Donne's elegy does not fit into this camp. Where Donne does seem to fit is in the second pattern, in which the writing project consists "of poetic doubling, of impersonation or ventriloquism rather than mere transvestism" (7).
Consequently, although DeJean's focus is on French literature and she thus does not consider Donne's elegy in any depth, I would set Donne beside the names she lists who achieve this poetic doubleness: Ovid, Catullus, Racine and Baudelaire. What is of crucial value in the use of this pattern is that it enables us to see the way that Donne is creating this "personal fiction" from within the literary tradition of Sappho and from within the context of contemporary representations of female sexuality circulating in England. By presenting Sappho as lesbian, that is, as actively pursuing sexual relations with a woman, Donne challenges the Ovidian tradition and faces squarely the discomfort which Sappho's sexuality produced in the Early Modern period.
From this perspective, Donne's project is quite exciting and original. By writing a lesbian elegy and hence showing Sappho with a different erotic focus from Ovid's "Sappho to Phao," he seeks to create an even more authentically Sapphic voice. As lesbian muse, Sappho unites Ovid with Donne in the act of writing; in other words, by employing the Ovidian tradition of the Sapphic love elegy, Donne aligns himself with Ovid and, in turn, attempts to become (like Ovid) the poet through whose poem the Renaissance understands Sappho. Nevertheless, Donne's investment in using Sappho and lesbian eroticism in this elegy is a double-edged sword. While writing as Sappho functions as a means of poetic legitimization and intervention into the Ovidian tradition, this voice of exotic otherness is represented ambivalently. Although Donne begins to assert a lesbian poetics, at the same time he is uneasy with presenting a lesbian poet as a forerunner to Ovid - and by extension - as a forerunner to himself. In this way, Donne's Sappho ultimately does not set him apart from other Renaissance representations of her and, more generally, of lesbianism, which typically silence female homosexuality, or assume it to be either an inferior imitation of heterosexuality or a brief phase in the everchanging sexuality of women.
Early Modern portrayals of Sappho were various and changing: Sappho was two different people, Sappho was a poet, Sappho was not a poet but a ruler, Sappho was sexually oriented toward men, toward women, toward women and men. What all these depictions have in common is that Sappho was seen as a woman who was controlled by her passions and whose excessive desire spilled over into "unnatural" activities, be they poetic, political or sexual. Donne does not stray too far from this generalized pattern. Where he does differ is in his attempt to speak not just about Sappho, but in her place.
Recent critics have tended to view this question of Donne's writing in Sappho's voice, or as Stella Revard terms it, the "Sapphic voice," as a key issue for the poem. While James Holstun argues that Donne contains the possible threat of lesbianism through "periodization," that is, by writing about a legendary person from the classical past, Elizabeth Harvey's examination of the intertextual relations between Ovid and Donne focuses on Donne's act of "ventriloquizing Sappho," that is, his use of the feminine voice as a means to act out his poetic rivalry with Ovid. Taking issue with both, Janel Mueller argues that Donne's successful adoption of a persona that is radically other from his own identity as a male, heterosexual, Renaissance poet establishes his poetic merit. As Mueller sees it, the positions of Holstun and Harvey constitute an argument against the appropriation of voice, a critical stance which she dismisses as irrelevant: "Is the sole proper domain of a male dramatist or novelist the portrayal of male characters? Can love lyrics and verse epistles adopt only the gender perspective that matches that of the poet writing?" (204n5). My argument, in turn, calls Mueller's into question, for whereas she (like Paula Blank) sees Donne's use of the lesbian voice and Sappho as "positive" (Blank 359), I do not see Donne's blurring of voices between poet and persona as ultimately successful. Rather, I have argued that, in the end, Donne does not produce a depiction of Sappho and her lesbianism that is in any way radically different from the views of his time.
Donne's depiction of Sappho and lesbianism is more complex than may be perceived at first glance, and it is only when his poem is placed in the context of other Renaissance depictions of female homosexuality that we can both appreciate his achievement and see that his putatively pro-lesbian love elegy reconfirms the message of the verse letters as a celebration of male poetic activity. Donne's poem perhaps ironically illustrates that lesbianism was not entirely an invisible entity in Early Modern England, for it served as an important analogue for the Renaissance male poet's relation to his literary contemporaries and predecessors.
Donne's ambivalence toward his subject in "Sapho to Philaenis" should also caution us against seeking easy answers to issues of gender and sexuality in the Early Modern period. Furthermore, we should cultivate a healthy suspicion about applying current debates about gender and sexuality carelessly to the context of Early Modern England. What I mean by "healthy suspicion" is an engagement with the projects of contemporary scholars which looks for not just the similarities but also the differences between their projects and those of Renaissance scholars. Obviously, I am not advocating that we do not make use of theoretical insights gained by scholars of other periods (and my own engagement with such insights in this essay stands as proof). Instead I am suggesting that it is precisely in circumstances where current understandings of gender and sexuality do not seem entirely sufficient that the most difficult and rewarding work on gender and sexuality in the Early Modern period can be done.
Concomitant with this commitment to engage with current debates on gender and sexuality is the necessity to produce more detailed pictures of the cultural contexts of the Early Modern period. As I hope my essay has illustrated, by providing a more detailed cultural context for "Sapho to Philaenis," we can obtain a better understanding of how this poem spoke to, for, and against Renaissance perceptions of female homosexuality. To produce a more balanced, broader understanding of Renaissance cultural contexts, it is important to continue to develop approaches that will make use of many and various perspectives on gender and sexuality, so that we can take into account the larger frameworks from which literary representations arise.(*)
* I am grateful to Dr. Elizabeth D. Harvey for her generous and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
1/ See the "Notes" to Milgate's edition of Donne's Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters (212) for a complete copy of T. W.'s verse letter to Donne.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C. ANNETTE GRISE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Ontario where she is writing a thesis on devotional literature, gender and the vernacular in late medieval England. Her previous publications include an essay on Daphne Marlatt. She currently holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship.