Discuss the treatment of imperialism in Donne’s songs and sonnets.

The colonial project of imperialism in John Donne’s songs and sonnets is a complex play of the politics of desire, power and possession articulated in a discourse of  control of feminine sexuality and identity in a socio-economic background of both anxiety and excitement of transition to a acquisitive capitalist market orientated economy and an atmosphere of political tensions and contradictions.

Elegie XIX   “To His Mistress going to Bed”, “The Sun is Rising” and “The Good Morrow” are some of Donne’s poem were the imperialist discourse is most clearly evident. In these sonnets, especially in Elegie XIX has been conventionally discussed in terms of its outright masculine qualities, its untransformed male sexual drive, its absence of commitment to the female object, its absence of commitment to the female object of its desire whose seduction its progress describes. Donne’s masculinity, paraded in an act of love, inscribes a personal confrontation between two natural antagonists in which one overcomes and conquers the other. However, these descriptions of the sexual act metamorphose into complex allegories of the quest for new territory. In the shift from bodyscape to landscape, women’s bodies solicit a spontaneous identification with the colonial form of imperialism. Gerald Docherty discusses colonialism as essentially entailing a specific notion of territory, the conception of public space, whether house, institution or state, which becomes the site of takeover or occupation through which imperial power is discharged building on Edward Said’s definition of imperialism being a “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory and colonialism being the implanting of settlements in the distant territory”. In the dynamics of the sexual exchange, the woman’s body thematises these relations of power, configuring the contours of an “Emperie” that incites male desire to enter and possess it.

From the start, British colonialism was thus an erotic activity metaphorized as a form of heterosexual penetration and conquest. While the initial striptease uncovers the contours of an, as yet, distant and desirable territory, (“Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals/ As when from flowry meads the hill’s shadow steals.”), the foreplay maps out its more erogenous zones. The orgasm finalizes the contract, imposing the stamp of possession on the riches displayed (“Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be”) The sexual act and the imperial mission abroad share the same tropological ground. The colonization of far-flung domains is the ‘natural’ metaphor for flaunting of male sexual prowess. Domestic acts (like Donne’s) are already fuelled by entrepreneurial fantasies of exotic domains to be penetrated, occupied and annexed.

In its evocation of the newly discovered paradise ripe for exploitation, Elegie XIX is historically coded. It describes something of the excitement and provocation of the original “innocent” discovery – what Peter Hulme calls “the novelty of the New World”. The urge to dominate in Donne’s Elegies also has a “strong economic flavour” and in its metaphor of imperialism serves as a guise for its covert politically transgressive intimations. During the 1580s and 1590s there was, among the more militantly Protestant faction in and around the English Court, a concerned effort to encourage Queen Elizabeth to compete directly with the Spanish for the control of the New World. This campaign was carried out through prose texts as well as poetry celebrating the achievements of English explorers. There was an ambivalence in the motives involved, as on one hand, it was projected as an idealistic mission for disrupting the exploitation of the New World by the rapacious Spaniards and spreading the True Protestant Faith, while on the other hand, it was quite evidently the desire merely to displace Spain so that England could indulge in its own rapacity. America is repeatedly figured as a Woman either already violated by the Spanish and in need of rescue or inviolate and virginal ready to yield up her treasures to triumphant England possession. That England’s Sovereign was a virgin Queen creates certain confusions, but also metaphoric opportunities willingly exploited by poet protagonists. John Donne, with his internal conflict of religious identity and his recusant background could have only resented this literary celebration of England’s ostentatiously honorable intentions of missionary rescue operations towards the New World. A complete rhetorical refutation of the motives of these ardent supporters of  aggressive colonization in the guise of pious intentions, who were also the Queen’s favourites, would have been politically devastating. Donne, thus, as R.V. Young argues dismantles the metaphorical structure of various literary celebrations of English explorers by using this troupe of representation in cynically erotic poems of unbridled desire, as in the Elegies. In this way, Donne never says what he means, but the concealed meaning is available to interpretation. In his sonnets, Donne is inverting the central conceit of Imperialist poems, i.e. the conceit is turned inside out. While in these poems, the New World is pictured as the desirable woman with the occupation of that world and acquisition of its treasures being by implication; Donne inverts the conceit in making the desirable women the like the New World and enjoying her sexuality is like possessing the gold mines of America as in his sonnet “Loves Progress”. Just as Donne’s Elegy gives back a mirror image of this contemporary conceit of the popular discourse of the 16th century, even so the tone is inverted, the idealized picture of imperialistic motives mocked , as if it were by coarse cynicism of Donne’s poems. The intrinsic qualities of gold are no longer of any account, “…..if I love it, ‘tis because ‘tis made/ By our new nature the soul of trade.” The lover’s exploration of the women’s body is figured as “sailing towards her India”, the crude equation of vaginal orifice and mine shaft can be read as savage ridicule of piously veiled lust for America’s buried wealth. The sexually aggressive speaker of “Going to Bed” and the submission of the mistress allude to England’s virgin Queen’s patriarchal dominance over the ‘submissive’ populations of the colony of Guiana. England and its sovereign Queen, have Guiana in precisely the situation desired by the speaker of Elegie XIX. The latter yearns for his mistress to “license my roving hands” that he might be “free” with her: “To enter in these bonds, is to be free/ Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.” The lover wants the same possession of the woman that the colonizers have provided Queen Elizabeth in Guiana, as expressed by Laurence Keymis at that time, “To conclude your lordship hath payd for the discoverie…..You have framed it and moulded it ready for her Majestie, to set on her seale.”

RV Young in his essay “Porno and Imperial Politics in Elegies” theorizes that in Donne’s Elegies the signifier/signified relationship of the imperialist troupe is inverted and the contradiction between missionary piety and lust for gain and conquest is exposed. The procedure even works generically as the Elegy is traditionally the mocking shadow of epic pretensions. The effect of  this ambiguity is to render all together problematic the ‘persona’ of the Elegies, we never know who is speaking: whether it is a cynical adulterer or the rapacious conqueror. However, his later poems which deploy the same troupe of inversion evoke a different tone. In “The Sun is Rising”, the irony is at once rueful and defiant; “If her eyes have not blinded thine/ Looke, and to morrow late, tell me,/ Whether both the Indias of spice and Myne/ Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.” The lover here is not the parodic shadow of the conqueror, he defies himself  to the brokers of worldly wealth and power, “Prince doe but play us; compar’d to this,/ All honor’s mimique; All wealth alchemy,” Finally till his end sonnets a ultimate transformation can be observed in the metaphor of discovery, like in the “Hymne to God my God, in my Sicknesse”, where the poet’s “South-west discoverie” is death, but a death that will “touch” the “Eastern riches” of the “Resurrection” as surely as the Orient can be reached by sailing west across the globe. The poem hence, throws up “a semantic space between tenor and vehicle, between signifier and signified.” In the end, we are not sure when Donne is talking about a lover or a colonizer, about desire for a woman or a territory, about sex or gold, lust or avarice.

However, the use of the woman’s body and her sexuality to signify a realm of control and possession and as a strategy of debasement to mock the pretentiousness of noble motives of early British colonialism as in the inversion of the imperialist troupe is what remains highly problematic. In Elegie XIX as the speaker commands his mistress to undress, Donne transfers power from the woman, desired and praised, to the man who hopes to posses her and colonize her body. In the beginning the woman is the monarch providing a license, but the moment she gives this license she loses her sovereignty. The man becomes not only explorer but conqueror and she becomes his land and kingdom, “O my America, my new found lande”.

In terms of the sexual politics in the imperialist metaphor too, Donne’s songs and sonnets have been subject to varied readings. Anthony Easthope refers “To His Mistress Going to Bed” as an instance of scopophilic male narcissism where the female object is desexualized and the female body is distanced rather than invoked by Utopian allusions of heaven, paradise and the ‘New World’, while the male body of the speaker is repeatedly made visible by the text “standing” “upright” and finally naked and “covering” the woman. Thomas Docherty sees this as the annihilation of the Other, seeking a reaffirmation of the Self where the woman becomes another space demanding by virtue of her alterity to be incorporated, assimilated and controlled by the ‘inner space’ of the self speaking. In Docherty’s words, “What is being sought by the poet is recognition of his maleness, recognition of his phallus and an acknowledgement of the power which its potency is supposed to give to him.” Catherine Belsey tries to analyze the sexual politics in terms of politics of desire itself and the inscription of a power. She seeks to identify the colonial project in the concept of the Third Party in language being the “differentiation practice of signification” deriving from Julia Kristeva’s notion of “the lover” being “a narcissist with an object.” This concept of the Third Party, it offers up the indigenous culture to an Idea: civilization….salvation…God. Its aim is to be able to say to others of the colonial subject, who comes to reflect back the image of the colonizer, “I am proud of you”. Donne’s Elegy is also addressed to a Third Party. “Isn’t she beautiful?” it wants to be able to say, and we are almost convinced she is, would be, will be, must be. But the text does not prove it. On the contrary, it explicitly withholds the moment of substantiation. The ultimate object of desire is the unmediated, unimagined, unimaginable I Am. Donne thus, presents an intricate, knotty, difficult dazzling formulation of desire.

In “The Sun is Rising” the ideal and the erotic are united, if indeed there was ever a separation between them: love transcends time and place, but it also takes place in bed. In the Utopian proposition of the poem, the earth is contracted to the nuclear couple. The lovers’ bed, which like a map, systematically corresponds to the larger world, is to be the centre of the sun’s daily revolution, and this moment of reciprocal passion is to have the astonishing effect of putting an end to history. In such a scenario of exaggerated hyperbole of claims of the strengths of love, Belsey sees no way of dissolving these uncertainties. It is precisely the indeterminacy of the text, its lack of closure which sustains the desire of the reader. What emerges on the basis of each of the poems considered is the uncertainty of the lover, registered above all in the indeterminacies of the texts. This relates back to Young’s point of uncertainty seen even in the political significance of imperialism in Donne’s Sonnets. The object of desire is unsure: a woman; a self-image, writing? Its condition is ambiguous: exaltation, absurdity; self mockery? And its realization in the subject is indefinite, to the degree that the transcendent union lovers seek is incompatible with sexual satisfaction. No wonder the worlds which were gradually opening up to a gaze of Renaissance explorers and cartographers seemed the appropriate emblem of desire. They were vast, these territories, perhaps limitless, and enticing, rich and beautiful. They were also dangerous, to the degree that they were uncharted both geographically and anthropologically. Desire in Donne’s love poetry is a world that remains to some degrees unknown and that elicits a corresponding anxiety in the subject of the enunciation. The privileged intimate world of “The Sun is Rising” and “the Good Morrow” is in the process of becoming the foundation of conjugal partnership, where love and consent ensure harmony of the family and the proper inculcation of consensual assumptions, beliefs and meanings. But these texts also suggest that there is an anxiety at the heart of love itself. True love is a mode of policing the gaze, excluding errant desires, bringing the subject into line. As property, as possession, the beloved promises to fill the absence at the heart of the subject, making a totality in the place of lack. The territorial imagery of the poems is thus not incidental. The nuclear family precisely makes one little room an every where, takes possession of a space to create and populate a microcosmic private world, designed to keep at bay the public world of politics, economics and history.

Thus, in conclusion, it can be said the imperialist discourse in Donne’s songs and sonnets articulates varied complex anxieties in terms of political atmosphere, socio-economic condition and cultural and familial values in the rhetoric of passion and desire through the highly problematic and patriarchal troupe of the women’s body.


  1. John Donne, Undone: Thomas Dochery
  2. The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies: Achsah Guibbory
  3. Porno and Imperial Politics in Elegies: RV Young
  4. Sexual Transgression in Donne’s Elegies: Dianna Bennet
  5. Worlds of Desire in Donne’s Lyric Poetry: Catherine Belsey
  6. Imperialism and the Rhetoric of Sexuality: Gerald Docherty
  7. Culture and Imperialism: Edward Said
  8. Colonial Encounters: Europe and Native Caribbean : Peter Hulme

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