Sex and the 16th Century: How John Donne Learned To Write Love Poetry
Katherine Rundell on Love and Literature in the Elizabethan Era
John Donne was born (b. 1572) into a moment in which sex was comedy and scandal, sacrosanct and commonplace: a time in which extramarital sex could be prosecuted by law, but where the law was transgressed so frequently that the consistory courts came to be known as “bawdy courts.” Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna appeared before one, bringing a furious slander case against a man who had claimed she “had the running of the reins and had been naughty with Rafe Smith at John Palmer’s.”
Puritans denounced children cavorting around maypoles as frivoling in the presence of phallic symbols and “stinking idols,” but no sooner were you a boy born in the sixteenth century than the world began to plot for your sexual prowess. The French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau recorded the general belief that the length of umbilical cord left uncut on the male baby would determine the length of both his tongue and his penis.
The navel must be tied longer or shorter, according to the difference of the sex, allowing more measure to the males: because this length doth make their tongue, and privy members the longer, whereby they may both speak the plainer and be more serviceable to ladies…the gossips commonly say merrily to the midwife; if it be a boy, make him good measure; but if it be a wench, tie it short.
You barely tasted air before your midwife was vexing over you like a genital sommelier. On the female side—in refutation of those who believe that female pleasure was not considered until Clark Gable cracked his first half-smile—it was widely believed that female orgasm was necessary for conception.
Was, then, the young Donne a great tumultuous lover: a conqueror of swathes of women? After so much time and so much entropy, we can only guess: but, almost certainly, not. Women of his class would have been hard to seduce—they were fiercely and carefully protected. Make a mistake, they knew, and you could be punished for life. For instance: when beautiful eighteen-year-old Mary Fitton was sent in 1595 to wait on Queen Elizabeth, she found herself captivated by William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. She was reported “proved with child, and the Earl of Pembroke being examined confesseth a fact but utterly renounceth all marriage.” Mary and the earl were both threatened with the Tower; in the end Herbert was thrown in the Fleet prison and Mary banished from court.
She had two further illegitimate children with a naval officer, and then married twice over, but was never forgiven by her family. It would have been better, her mother wrote to Mary’s sister, if she had died at birth: “if it had pleased god when I did bear her that she and I had been buried [together], it had saved me a great deal of sorrow… Write no more to me of her.”
Of course, there were those who risked it—women who calculated their fertile moments, who practiced coitus interruptus or gambled on prophylactic penis baths made of ginger and vinegar. Some women tried pessaries of blanched almonds inserted into the vagina; others used castoreum (from a beaver’s secretions) mixed with ground lily roots and rue—all of which sound painful and extremely likely to provoke yeast infections. There were those, moreover, who were independent and established enough for it not to destroy them. The poet Lady Mary Wroth was one, who lost her drunkard of a husband to gangrene in her late twenties and went on to have two illegitimate children with her cousin—the very same William Herbert. But by and large, the risk wasn’t worth the gain.
There were, too, the brothels lining the river; in the liberties of Whitefriars to the west, and along Petticoat Lane to the east, set among the taverns and alehouses of Billingsgate and in Ave Maria Alley—now office blocks—close by St Paul’s Cathedral. But that came with its own dangers, and even high prices weren’t a guarantee of safety; in the pamphlet Look on Me London (1613) “the young novice payeth 40 shillings or better”—a huge amount—for “a bottle or two of wine, the embracement of a painted strumpet and the French welcome:” that is, syphilis.
Syphilis was rife, and could only be treated with mercury rubbed on the skin, or eaten in chunks which could cause whole mouthfuls of teeth to drop out. At its worst, the disease caused disfigurement and nasal collapse, and artificial noses—some made of plated metal, some of ivory—were marketed to replace them. A twenty-one-year-old Donne wrote with scorn and disgust about men who paid for sex: those who “in rank, itchy lust, desire and love/The nakedness and bareness to enjoy/Of thy plump, muddy whore.”
The idea that Donne’s poetry would give you, of a beautiful young man cutting through swathes of London’s finest female population, would have been difficult—though not impossible—to pull off. It’s more likely that Donne had many flirtations and dalliances (he was, after all, “a great visitor of ladies”), and occasional intimate brushes with women—but that he wrote the early swaggering erotic poetry for which he is so famous for a small coterie of male friends, Henry Wotton and Samuel Brooke among them.
Donne’s early lusting verse is part of an epistolary and literary merry-go-round in which poems changed hands over and over. Donne was almost certainly an exhausted over-sexed lover in the imagination only, but he caught that voice of the libertine and exploded it, made it his own. There’s a lot of poetry, from around this period, in which Donne gleefully takes on the pose of the rake. If you are looking for a masterclass in how to look and sound like a womanizer, he offers it.Donne was almost certainly an exhausted over-sexed lover in the imagination only, but he caught that voice of the libertine and exploded it, made it his own.
For instance: you could appear to be so sated and overwhelmed by your own exploits that you are exhausted: caught somewhere between the suggestive eyebrow and the yawn. In “Community,” the poet takes on the rueful pose of the exhausted conqueror, one who has to only think of love to wither with ennui: “changed loves are but changed sorts of meat,/And when he hath the kernel eat,/who doth not fling away the shell?” Women, strange hybrids that they were, were to be seized and then discarded:
If then at first wise Nature had,
Made women either good or bad,
Then some we might hate, and some choose,
But since she did them so create
That we may neither love nor hate
Only this rests: all all may use.
Or, alternatively, if you were seeking to appear wise in the ways of women, you might, like Donne, write about being battered by excess of love. Love, he proclaims, is only for those who are willing to be eaten alive. In “The Broken Heart,” he writes:
All other griefs allow a part
To other griefs, and ask themselves but some;
They come to us, but us Love draws;
He swallows us, and never chaws.
The man is chewed, like meat, while the heart is smashed like tableware: “Love, alas/At one first blow did shiver it as glass.” One step further, he casts himself as so swamped in desire that he has dropped dead, a love-corpse—thirty-two of Donne’s fifty-four Songs and Sonnets make some reference to death. In the opening lines of “The Damp,” he imagines that those who come to find his dead body, on seeing his lover’s likeness, die too: a domino stack of lust-struck bodies:
When I am dead, and doctors know not why,
And my friends’ curiosity
Will have me cut up to survey each part,
When they shall find your picture in my heart,
You think a sudden damp of love
Will thorough all their senses move,
And work on them as me, and so prefer
Your murder to the name of massacre.
Donne, ever stretching, ever extravagant, takes the pose to the furthest possible extreme: in “The Apparition” he imagines his ghost taking revenge on a lover whose coldness tormented him into the grave. The poem, gleefully excessive, ends with a hope the woman “bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie/A verier ghost than I:” “since my love is spent,/ I’d rather thou should’st painfully repent.”Even when he is working in the same tradition as his allies, offering up imagined conquests for his friends, his verse is different.
But, because he is Donne, even the poetry which seems straightforwardly about world-weary out-loved lovers twists out of your hands. “Farewell to Love” begins in the well-trodden tradition of poetry about disillusionment with romantic courtly striving. It appears to end with a resolve to renounce all love:
I’ll no more dote and run
To pursue things which, had, endamage me;
And when I come where moving beauties be,
As men do when the summer’s sun Grows great,
Though I admire their greatness, shun their heat:
Each place can afford shadows. If all fail,
’Tis but applying worm-seed to the tail.
Donne’s poems have fault-lines—they slip away from you. Worm-seed was a concoction made of flower heads, an anti-aphrodisiac. The “tail” is a Latin dick joke (because the Ciceronian Latin for “tail” is penis). The lines are Donneanly ambiguous: they could mean, if all else fails, the speaker can simply apply worm-seed to the penis to cool their ardor. But it could be the opposite. Worm-seed only worked when taken orally, a fact which Donne, the stepson of a physician, would have known.
The meaning could be, it’s as useless to make such resolutions against love as putting wormseed in the wrong place: passion overwhelms. Even when he is working in the same tradition as his allies, offering up imagined conquests for his friends, his verse is different. His poetry will not hold still. It tussles and shifts, the way desire does.
Excerpted from Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell. Copyright © 2022. Available in the United States from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan.