Deciphering Ideologies of Feminine Sex
and Gender in Elizabethan Love Poetry
Kate Beaton, http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=282
Although this presentation does not extensively
address rape or sexual violence in Elizabethan
“love” poetry or contemporary culture, these topics
do come up in the presentation, and there are
references to rape and non-consensual sex in the
material being shared and discussed.
Elizabethan love poetry represents a
specific social moment and ideology but
does not exist in a bubble.
We can draw a line from Sappho to
Spenser as writers of epithalamions
(Wheeler 207) and from Ovid to
Whitney as writers of female complaint
poems (Stapleton 492). We can also
draw a line from Spenser to Stephanie
Meyer as writers of passive loved
women, and from Whitney to Erma
Bombeck (Berlant PAGE) as subversive
writers of the female complaint. The
specific Elizabethan moment exists
within a long history of literature-as-
Sappho's recently discovered
poem on old age (lines 9–20),
assigned to Book IV based on its
meter. 3rd-century BC papyrus
(P.Köln XI 429), from a 2007
exhibit of the Altes Museum.
Why we’re here
What is poetry for?
Like all media, poetry is for the negotiation of power.
What are its aims and purposes?
To reinforce or subvert hegemonic norms and existing
systems of power, privilege, and marginalization.
Are they stable and universal?
The hegemonic norms? Will we ever smash the
patriarchy? My heart says yes, history says maybe not.
The purpose of poetry being to negotiate power? Yes.
“For who would once dare to oppose himself against so
many Alexanders, Caesars, Scipios (to omit infinite other
princes)… I think I say truly, that there are many good
lessons to be learned out of [poetry], many good
examples to be found in it, many good uses to be had of
it, and that therefore it is not, nor ought not to be,
despised by the wiser sort, but so to be studied and
employed as was intended by the first writers and
devisers thereof, which is to soften and polish the hard
and rough dispositions of men, and make them capable
of virtue and good discipline.”
Sir John Harington, A Brief Apology of Poetry (1591) (404)
Those “infinite other princes”…
Patriarchal culture reinforces and perpetuates
patriarchy, and patriarchy supports and creates
patriarchal culture. Regardless of which came first, they
are a self-perpetuating cycle now (and have been for a
Ovid echoes in Elizabethan poetry, Elizabethan poetry
echoes in contemporary culture.
As long as patriarchy has been oppressing women,
women have been resisting. The invisibility of women in
Harington’s apology does not mean that women were
not relevant or present within Elizabethan poetic
[P]atriarchy [is] a social structure in which men are the dominant
group and are benefactors of many privileges in all fields of life by
sole virtue of being gendered as men… it reflects a social
structure in which men have both material and symbolic control
over every sphere in life.
…Patriarchy means men controlling women and their bodies…;
patriarchy means men controlling women’s reproduction…;
patriarchy means that masculine language is the rule and
feminine language the exception (“mankind”, “he”, etc.);
patriarchy means that men are encouraged to express
themselves while women are encouraged to be silent; patriarchy
means male control and validation above all else, at the direct
expense and on the backs of women, in all of these ways and in
Shiri Eisner, radicalbi.wordpress.com
Kyriarchy (when patriarchy isn’t enough!)
[P]atriarchy specifically refers to control held and
wielded by a very particular group of men over all
others. This particular group consists of white,
native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender,
heterosexual, monogamous, middle and upper-class,
nondisabled men of ages usually ranging between 30
and 50. … In feminist terminology, this is also sometimes
called kyriarchy, referring to the complex and
intersectional character of oppression wherein a person
who is oppressed in one context might be privileged in
Shiri Eisner, radicalbi.wordpress.com
Genre: Female Complaint
“[T]he “female” complaint is a uniquely gendered
sub-genre... that announces the dissatisfaction of
dishonored women in a patriarchal social context. …
[T]he complaint tradition frequently addresses
issues of gender, particularly in the complaints
voiced by women and written by men” (Diaz 15).
Standard elements: praise of the bride and groom,
good wishes and/or predictions for the future,
jesting, hope for offspring, and a stylized poet-
speaker... All of these generic markers were
inherited from the Greek and Roman traditions”
Shared cultural understandings about marriage and
its relationship to the nation-state… provide the
ideological framework for the epithalamic form
To Her Unconstant Lover
One part of Isabella Whitney’s
Copy of a Letter (1567), a four-
part verse polylogue wherein
“the four epistles together
establish a resonance based on
thematic images and opposing
ideological concerns [regarding
gender]” (Marquis 317). Two by
Isabella Whitney, two by male
One part of the two-part
Amoretti and Epithalamion,
published by Edmund
Spenser in 1595 to celebrate
his marriage to Elizabeth
Boyle in 1594.
Deciphering Ideology in Poetry
Harington gives us a lens through which to view multiple
meanings in the poems.
“[S]o young men… do like best that philosophy that is
not philosophy, or that is not delivered as philosophy –
and such are the pleasant writings of learned poets, that
are the popular philosopher and the popular divines”
“[F]or the weaker capacities will feed themselves with
the pleasantness of the history and sweetness of the
verse, some that have stronger stomachs will… take a
further taste of the moral sense; a third sort… will digest
the allegory” (Harington 409).
Agency in theText
Both poems present a vision of active masculinity
and passive femininity, of men who act and women
who are acted upon.
Both concern marriage, during which “[t]he
wedding ceremony initiated men and women into a
patriarchal social order in which they would be
expected to become responsible and productive
members of their communities, and their country”
Taken together, these two poems demonstrate clearly
the “distinction… between being a subject of and being
subject to an authority. That is, "subject of signifies only
subjectivity ” while subject to suggests subjection (ie.
servility). The [male] poet-lovers create discourses of
which the beloved seems to be the subject. As a
captivating woman, she ensnares and subjects him to
her authority and desires. In fact, the woman is
subjected to (and consequently constructed by) the
poet-lover's desires while he himself is the actual
subject of the sonnets” (Aspinall 3).
Subject to (but resisting/subverting)
patriarchal expectations of femininity
The active “you” – the masculine
audience and the passive “me” – the
“take me to your wife” (24)
“Wed whom you list, I am content, /
Your refuse for to be.” (83-4)
Although the feminine narrator is
passive, she speaks, acts and makes
choices throughout the poem
Subject of love’s
(echoes of chivalric/courtly love)
The bride is asleep for the first 6
stanzas, never speaks, is acted upon
“And the chast wombe informe with
timely seed” (386)
The groom/narrator gives directions,
speaks and acts throughout
“lende me leave to come unto my
BUT! (More on agency…)
Though Whitney remains in the hegemonic mode of
“active man, passive woman” in one sense, her poem
also makes an extremely subversive demand when she
suggests that the lover leave his current fiancée/wife in
order to be with the narrator.
“As close as you your weding kept
yet now the trueth I here:
And if you cannot be content
to lead a single lyfe?
(Although the same right quiet be)
then take me to your wife.” (1-2 & 21-4)
BUT! (More on agency…)
This suggestion puts the lover in the position of
Jason (Marquis 318), who “two ladies did begile”
(42), and whose “falsenes is/made manyfest in
time” (65-6), and who deserves perpetual shame.
There is no way for the lover to emerge from the
situation without breaking a vow, and the (female)
narrator is the one who presents this dilemma and
lays the blame at the lover’s feet. She claims agency
and action outside the normal scope by aligning
herself with the god Neptune as a worthy judge of
Still more on agency
As Paul Marquis points out, “[t]he remarkable
public interrogation of the duplicitous lover…
establishes the subversive nature of the epistle in
relation to sixteenth-century texts which insist that
women remain silent about the abuse inflicted
upon them by men” (315).
That Whitney is published, during her lifetime, at
her own urging (Marquis 314), challenges the idea
of “men who act, women who are acted upon,” and
the existence of her text deconstructs hegemonic
power dynamics simply by existing.
Although Whitney is working within a male-
dominated literary tradition and is influenced by
male authors such as Ovid and his Heroides,
“Whitney provides an example of a thinking,
feeling, emoting woman, a Tudor herois” (Stapleton
Authorial Agency: Spenser
“In Spenser’s amatory poetry, [the epithalamic]
progression dovetails with issues of authorship,
assuring Spenser’s place as privileged poet and
patriarch, if not courtier” (Eastwood 174).
“Spenser, in a move that is perhaps more politically
radical than has been previously thought, presents
in his Epithalamion a model of authority that
privileges the private, Protestant patriarch above
even the monarchal authority of the queen”
Feminine desire, expressed
by the female narrator, is
entirely desexualized. The
only reference to sexual
contact is to rape in line 76.
Feminine desire is presented
as a desire for integrity,
stability, home, separate
from physical lust.
Tension between Protestant
rejection of sexual desire
and matrimonial necessity of
sex. “[T]he relationship
between poet and lady is
defined by male sensuality
and female innocence, not
mutual need and
Chastity, Modesty, Fertility
The tension between female innocence and male
sensuality in the Epithalamion is resolved by
keeping the beloved passive and asleep, though this
results in the implication of sexual coercion,
especially in stanza 20, lines 353-371.
The beloved is impregnated through a divine act,
Cinthia is asked that “the chast wombe informe
with timely seed” (386).
Throughout the poem, the beloved’s modesty and
chastity are praised.
Feminine Sexual Consent
An allusion to sex in the
discussion of Jason:
For when he by MEDEAS arte,
had got the Fleece of Gold
And also had of her that time,
al kynd of things he wolde.
Reference to the “Grecian
Rape” in line 76.
No active consent, but
implied consent through
passivity. References to gods
and women, given the
frequency of rape in those
contexts, hint at divinely
granted permission to sexual
Whitney’s classical references
The narrator hopes her betraying lover’s wife will
have the face of Helen, chastity of Penelope,
constancy of Lucrece, integrity of Thisbe.
Lucrece is raped, and both she and Thisbe both die
by suicide. Helen is abducted and raped.
If the lover is to be constant, then “…unto me a
Troylus be” (77).
Troylus, lovesick and “forsaken” dies. There is no
happy ending available in this poem.
Aspinall, Elizabeth. Creating the Beloved. Thesis. University of Calgary, 1988. U of C Repository.
Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Beaton, Kate. Song of Love. 2010. Webcomic. Hark, A Vagrant!. Hark, A Vagrant!, 2010, 282.
Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
Diaz, Joanne Teresa. Grief as Medicine for Grief: Complaint Poetry in Early Modern England,
1559-1609. Ann Arbour: ProQuest, 2008. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Eastwood, Adrienne L. “Before the threshold: The Elizabethan epithalamium and negotiations
of power.” Diss. University of California, San Diego, 2004. ProQuest, UMI Dissertations
Publishing. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
Eisner, Shiri. “Feminism 101: Patriarchy and the Single Standard.” radicalbi. RadicalBi, 13 Mar.
2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.
Harington, John. “A Brief Apology of Poetry.” Sidney’s ‘The Defense of Poesy’ and Selected
Renaissance Literary Criticism. Ed. Gavin Alexander. London: Penguin, 2004. 401-415. Google
Works Cited (con’t)
Marquis, Paul. “Oppositional Ideologies of Gender in Isabella Whitney's "Copy of a Letter.”” The
Modern Language Review 90:2 (1995): 314-324. JStor. 10 Mar. 2014. Web.
Sanchez, Melissa E. “"Modesty or comeliness": the Predicament of Reform Theology in
Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 65.1 (2012):
5+. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Spenser, Edmund. “Epithalamion.” Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Ed. H.R.
Woodhuysen. London: Penguin, 1992. 234-237. Print.
Stapleton, M.L. “Edmund Spenser, George Turberville, and Isabella Whitney Read Ovid's
Heroides.” Studies in Philology 105:4 (2008): 487-519. Project Muse. Web. 1 Mar. 2014
Wheeler, Arthur Leslie. “Tradition in the Epithalamium.” The American Journal of Philology 51:3
(1930): 205-223. JStor. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.
Whitney, Isabella. “To Her Unconstant Lover.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-
1659. Ed. H.R. Woodhuysen. London: Penguin, 1992. 187-191. Print.