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The Problem of Sexual Reference in George Herbert's Verse by Alan Rudrum This paper begins with a critique of some recent sexualizing interpretations of Herbert and other "metaphysical" poets, then proceeds to a discussion of a poem that most will agree does include sexual reference, that is, Herbert's "Vanitie" (I). As the work of other scholars is criticized, indebtedness to them should be acknowledged. Blake's saying that "opposition is true friendship" is apposite, since the disagreement they provoked sent me back to my teaching notes on this poem. We live in an age in which few literary phenomena are taken for granted and at face value. Those of us raised in a simpler time naively thought that such followers of Donne as Herbert and Vaughan imitated the master in his religious rather than his erotic mode. Now it is all otherwise. Moreover, the insights of intellectual masters these poets had not heard of, such as Freud, tend to be drawn upon, while the insights of those they had certainly read, and thought of themselves as following, such as Plato, tend to be downplayed. Ann Baynes Coirò, for example, has things to say about sexual reference in all three poets in her contribution to the MLA's collection of essays on teaching the metaphysical poets.1 She tells us that in "Batter my heart" Donne "place[s] himself before God as a woman, a woman begging to be raped." This is to discount the insight of Michael Steig, who found in the poem a sado-masochistic invitation to homosexual rape. Steig's title tells all that most of us will want to know about his argument: "Donne's Divine Rapist: Unconscious Fantasy in Holy Sonnet XIV."2 To return to Professor Coirò, she tells us that "In 'Churchmonuments ' part of Herbert's dissolution of human pretensions is the dissolution of gender division" (p. 86) and that Vaughan's " 'The Retreat' offers proof that we are all sexual beings from infancy on: the poem ends with a powerful wish to conflate tomb and womb, beginning and end, God and Mother" (p. 87). To the first of these three comments by Professor Coirò it might be replied that within the Christian tradition, the soul, like the church itself, is represented as feminine to God. What Donne does within that tradition may have the power to startle, for us as for his contemporaries; but we may question whether a formulation can be 20Alan Rudrum quite satisfactory which points to the "strong lines" while ignoring the intellectual context which made them meaningful for readers of Donne's own historical moment. As to the second, the apparent oscillation between neuter and masculine gender in such lines as "Therefore I gladly trust / My bodie to this school, that it may learn / To spell his elements, and find his birth / Written in dustie heraldrie and lines" ("Church-monuments," 11. 6-9)3 was, presumably, what provoked Ann Coiro's remarks on "the dissolution of gender division" and the dissolution of "the traditional dialectic of female soul and male body"in "Church-monuments" (p. 86). This is an odd formulation, since the apparent change of gender is from neuter to masculine, hardly signalling a dissolution of gender division; it is additionally inaccurate, because it fails to take into account the philological tradition, documented in the OED, that "his" as a neuter singular persisted almost until the end of the seventeenth century. Consider "his moist womb" in Vaughan's "Isaac's Marriage."4 As to Professor Coiro's third comment, on Vaughan's "powerful wish to conflate tomb and womb, beginning and end, God and Mother," the importation of a modern psychological formulation while ignoring the Platonic myth of pre-existence, and while failing to note the political context (in the Laudian Anglicans' unremitting hostility to the Presbyterians) of the poem's clear anti-Calvinism, represents a privileging of the work's "significance" in a modern feminist classroom over what the poet intended as its "meaning."5 In the case of Herbert, the locus classicus of sexualizing interpretation is probably Michael Schoenfeldt's chapter, " 'That Ancient Heat': Sexuality and Spirituality in The Temple, in Prayer and Power...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 19-32
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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