- Masculinity, Gender and Identity in the English Renaissance Lyric
Catherine Bates's book is a theoretically nuanced and engaging study that takes as its focal point the pervasive early modern trope, in male-authored poetry, of the male lover or poet who is portrayed not as ultimately masterful and invincible, but rather as defeated and abandoned. Renaissance lyric poetry is replete with male figures who are obsessed with their own sense of suffering, failure, and powerlessness, an obsession expressed in the voice of feminine abjection. Bates approaches the lyric tradition through the lens of psychoanalytic and feminist theories of subjectivity, deftly arguing that through a systematically "gendered discontent" the poems counter the early modern ideal of "a phallic, masterly masculinity" with an alternative, "perverse" masculinity through which the male figures "abrogate the powers and privileges that might otherwise have been deemed their due" (1). The struggle for all of these figures ends in their surrender of both "sexual and textual mastery" (101), effecting a profound sense of loss against which they have no desire to prevail. Bates's argument goes beyond new historicist and Foucauldian approaches, which, in their focus on power and resistance as the crucial markers of male agency, have proven "incapable of theorizing . . . the 'perverse' position," in which "enslavement is positively cultivated, defeat sought out, and a state of dissatisfaction indefinitely prolonged" (5). These theories have tended to recuperate, as have more traditional or "ethical" interpretations, the hyper-competent masculine writing subject (38). Central to Bates's argument is that the trope of male abjection in the Renaissance lyric radically redefines masculinity by challenging the myth of "the masterly writing subject, whether that subject be the poet, the narrator, or the critic (39).
Although the rejection of the "phallic inheritance" (5) informs a great deal of male-authored Renaissance lyric poetry, the aim of the book is not an exhaustive exploration; rather, Bates focuses on five texts: Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (the first sonnet sequence written in English); Sidney's prose romance the New Arcadia and its lyric figuration of the blazon; Ralegh's elegy The Ocean to Cynthia; Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint (a subgenre of the conventional complaint); and Donne's epistle Sapho to Philaenis. Bates's rationale for her selections is their generic diversity and "the extremity" they share in their negation of phallogocentrism (2).
In the introductory chapter, Bates sets out her methodology, noting her departure from the critical tradition that has "rendered invisible and inaccessible" the Renaissance lyric's emphasis on "the perverseness" of male desire and identification (3), and outlining her debt to contemporary feminist and psychoanalytic paradigms of subjectivity. Her subsequent deconstructive analyses of the texts are rendered through original and often trenchant close readings. In chapter 2, she argues that Sidney's poetics of "instructional 'delight'" (as articulated, albeit ambivalently, in his Apology for Poetry), in which the reader is to be pleasingly moved to virtue, is rendered inoperable in Astrophil and Stella by Astrophil's "thoroughly [End Page 1384] ill-disciplined" and uncorrected masculinity (29). Countering the longstanding interpretation of Astrophil's "general failure and ultimate despair" as illustrative of Sidney's "overarching moral aim" (34), Bates demonstrates Astrophil's peremptory commitment to the Petrarchan lover's masochistic pleasure in endlessly deferred gratification, and the sequence's disavowal of the "restoration of 'normal' heterosexual object relations" in favor of "the perverse alternative" (32).
In chapter 3, Bates explores how in the New Arcadia Sidney recasts the traditional blazon, a literary form that best illustrates "the circulations of male homosocial desire" (105-06). Pyrocles, dressed in Amazon disguise, gazes upon Philoclea and recites his blazon "What tongue can her perfections tell?" Sidney's "'lesbianizing'" of the traditional catalogue of beauties implies a radical reconstruction of masculine subjectivity as fundamentally "alienated and de-centred" (90, 97). The trope of fragmented masculinity is more explicitly developed in Ralegh's The Ocean to Cynthia (the subject of chapter 4), a generically elusive text in which the narrator's experience...