The Other-ness of the woman and the colonial subject in patriarchal, imperialist England was a power-equation that offered itself as a metaphorical trope in Donne’s time. However, it was not the subjectivity of womanhood and the colonized that this trope used, but was marked by a colonising desire to materially possess the Other. This need to control the Other derives from a perceived threat by it to the dominant (white, male) identity. Donne’s poems of sexual and imperial desire are what Arthur Marotti describes as fantasies of control.

In praise of colonial expeditions, most often by Protestant writers of the period, the justification for conquest was that Protestant England was the savior of pagan lands or lands that Catholic Spain, England’s rival in the imperialist project, had ravished. Parmenius’ De Navigatione, for example, has America portrayed as a sexually desirable woman in need of succour, thus establishing her as submissive and powerless. The New World, therefore, was figuratively pictured as the virginal woman in distress. The occupation of its land and acquisition of its treasures are, by implication, sexual possession of the woman’s body. The racial Other was metaphorically figured as the sexual Other.

In Donne, however, the signifier-signified relationship of this trope is inverted. It is the body of the woman which is now a land to be explored and possessed rather than vice-versa. Thus, “She’s all States, and all Princes, I”, and  “kingdom safeliest when with one man, manned.”  The woman’s body becomes the territory for dominion by an aggressive, commanding male, to be exploited for his own aggrandizement (“My mine of precious stones, my empery”): what John Carey refers to as the “strongly economic flavour” of the eroticism, creating an explicit parallel between sex on the  one hand and  money/gold, and power on the other. This aggression also takes on militaristic overtones in what Catherine Belsey identifies as a mock-epic bedroom encounter: “The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,/ Is tired with standing, though he never fight.” The absurdity of this scene deriving from metaphors from the public sphere being used to describe sexual frustration is, however, only Donne’s conflation of public and private taken to its logical extreme. His poetry consistently casts the narrator (an individual seeking private sexual fulfillment) in the role of an explorer (a public, imperialist figure), eager to dis-cover (in the sense of explore and uncover) the body of his mistress.

In Lacanian terms, the discovery of her biological Otherness also affirms to him his own male-ness and her feminine submission, his masculinity. There is a constant anxiety of what this discovery will reveal. He commands his mistress to “show thyself”, and Elegy to His Mistris Going to Bed has a constant play on revelation and concealment. (“Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals” “What needst thou have more covering than a man.”) The play on covering and dis-covering creates a linguistic parallel between the sexual act (What needst thou have more covering than a man.”) which requires the –un-covering of the woman’s body and the imperial quest to dis-cover new lands, which are also figuratively represented as female bodies. The imperialist gaze coincides fully with the male gaze in constructing the colony as woman, and in Donne, vice-versa.

Like an imperial conquest, control over the subject is gotten both by force: “all rest my powers defy” and through treaties and agreements: “license my roving hands”, reminiscent of the policies of the East India Trading Companies. The diminishing sovereignty of the Other contributes directly to the growing control of the man in the private and the colonizer in the public realm.

Donne in his sonnets and hymns repeatedly uses metaphors from the public, masculine world of military conquest and administration to describe encounters in the private, feminine world of love. On the other hand, he also posits this private realm as a preserving one, away from the vagaries of public life – of political changes and dependence on patronage and desire for advancement and preferment. In the Sun Rising,  for example, love transcends the boundaries of Time and Space: “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are rags of time.” It is an intensely private relation where “this bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere”, a conscious and firm rejection of the public life.

This withdrawal from the public realm ties up with an anxiety of Donne the courtier.  Achsah Guibbory, talks at length about his feeling of repulsion to women, a conscious de-idealising of the mistress (paradoxically, along with the desire to possess them sexually). This withdrawal and repulsion, according to Guibbory, derive from a sense of  disempowerment of the male in circles of power by the presence of a female monarch – an anomaly in a patriarchal society in which women were confined to the domain of the domestic and had no role to play in public positions of power. She thus combined representatives of the public and private in one individual through her contradictory identities of gender and social position – the private realm of women and the public one of men. She is therefore a somewhat ambiguous figure as far as gender is concerned – the androgynous Queen or the“fair hermaphrodite”. Donne is uncomfortable in the position of submission to the Queen, unlike Sidney and Spenser. His move away from the Petrarchan convention was also an explicit political statement in his circles of influence as Elizabeth favoured the construction of her as the unattainable, ideal Petrarchan mistress who drove the lover-poet to despair with longing. His desire to possess the body of a woman (any woman, and not a specific mistress like Petrarch’s Laura, Sidney’s Stella or Spenser’s Elizabeth) through the trope of imperialist conquest is his way of reversing the power roles which he as a courtier played vis-à-vis the Queen.

His second phase of writing, where he switches from writing love sonnets to religious hymns is no less politically motivated. James I favoured religious poetry (and he himself authors some). While the subject of the poetry changes, the hymns are still informed by imperialist ideology and imagery – the underlying notion is that of the kingdom of God. In “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”, for example, the poet-narrator likens himself to “an usurpt town”, using militaristic vocabulary like “…o’erthrow me, and bend/ Your force, to breake, blowe, burn”. Just as the theme of the poetry changes, so too does the position of the narrator. In relation to God, he is now in a position of supplication. While his anxiety of being one of God’s elect is the explicit matter of the poetry, it is also the supplication of a courtier for political favour and that of a poet for patronage. Through the use of “Reason your viceroy”, Donne draws a parallel between God (who imparts Reason to rational beings) and the King, James I (under whom the viceroy functioned as a figure of deputed authority in England’s colonies). Despite the explicit content of the hymns being that of God and spiritual matters, the tropes used to describe it are very worldly – those of kingship and conquest.

It was during Donne’s time that interest in cartography developed as a serious discipline in light of numerous sea-expeditions financed by the crown. Donne uses numerous metaphors of seafaring, navigation and cartography. “Hymn to God, my God in Sickness” is laden with these metaphors. The poet-narrator likens himself to a map, and his doctors to cosmographers. He speaks of his “South-west discovery”, and says “I see my West” and then: “Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are/The Eastern riches? Is Jerusalem? / Anyan, and Magellan and Gibraltar..” The limitlessness of his exploration, which continues beyond this life, is informed by contemporary imperial expansion.

Thus, in Donne’s poetry, there is a complex juxtaposition of various realms of desire: the political desire for preferment and advancement, the religious desire of being one of the Elect, as well as the private desire of sexual fulfillment, all of which are conveyed by means of imperialist metaphors.


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