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  • Symbolic Economies and Zero-Sum Erotics: Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis”
  • Barbara Correll

By children’s birth, and death, I am become So dry, that I am now made my own tomb.

(“Niobe”) 1

Such is the world, which is nothing but a shop of all change. 2


If one thing seems to characterize Donne’s poetic speaker in his secular poetry, it is that he is a man who knows what to do with a woman. Helen Gardner, whose notions of what belongs in the Donne canon are based on the criterion of what is clearly characteristic, states unequivocably, “Donne is never abject before his mistress.” 3 Indeed, examples in the Songs and Sonets to support Gardner’s (characteristically) confident assertion are not lacking. In “The Sun Rising,” the male lover speaks from an amorous bed-world that eclipses the sun, “contracts” and capsulates the political world from which the lovers would seal themselves: “Thou sun art half as happy as we, / In that the world’s contracted thus....” The speaker’s chiastic, “She is all states; all princes I,” forecloses erotic reciprocity and circumscribes the woman as legislated domain within a political and masculinist geography. Whatever the outcome, the opening “Come, Madam, come,” of Elegy 19 (“To his Mistress Going to Bed”) begins a lengthy imperative and imperialist itinerary, the goal of which figurative action is to disrobe the mistress and claim her naked body as personal and politicized treasure, territory of the speaker’s specular vision:

O my America, my new found land, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned. [End Page 487] My mine of precious stones, my empery, How blessed am I in this discovering thee!


The Pygmalian Elegy 7 (“Tutelage”) with its opening, “Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love,” presents a speaker who shapes the woman’s apparently nonsensical fragments of speech into meaningful amatory discourse with him. Such examples, found throughout the Songs and Sonets, are indeed utterly characteristic of Donne’s speaker’s “masculine persuasive force,” marking the voice as absolutist, monarchical, exclusionary. 4 This is particularly so for The Elegies, until we come to the one that I would include among them as Elegy 21: “Sapho to Philaenis.” 5 Aside from that poem, for the most part, the erotic poems (even more than their Ovidian models) are predicated on the woman’s silence, her specularized subordination in sexual-political scenes in which, as lover and ruler, the male speaker knows what to do, knows what to say. 6

Presumably he knows, too, how to make good on the loss that is, for him, constitutive of masculine heteroerotic experience. Donne’s speaker may claim a reciprocity that the monological poetic voice disallows; but while the silenced woman may be left out, the speaker may not come out much further ahead. 7 Even in claiming reciprocity, as in “The Canonization,” when the speaker moves from the “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” (1), and the “So you will let me love” (9), to the “Call us what you will, we are made such by love” (19) of the third stanza, he knows that “two being one” in the social text of love-making do not “die and rise the same” (26). The incorporation of the two lovers “to one neutral thing” gives its readers a problematic, albeit familiar consensus rhetoric: “We can die by it, if not live by love” (28). In the heterosexual linguistic economy, the “little death” that would figure shared sexual consummation finally tropes a rather locally gendered detumescence; the amatory poem reanimates the guilty member in language. 8 The project of the poems, then, is to make good on loss by memorializing or canonizing it in masterful verse. In Elegy 20 (“Love’s Warre”), for example, the speaker who exploits the conceit of acts of love as acts of war offers an iterative scene of arousal and re-arousal, a masterful way of managing loss:

Yea they [sex acts, martial actions] are deaths; is’t not all   one to fly [End Page 488] Into another world, as ‘tis to die? Here let me war; in these arms...

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pp. 487-507
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