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Donne, John (1572-1631)  

John Donne ranks among the greatest poets in English literature. Founder of the so-called Metaphysical school, he helped revolutionize English poetry in the late sixteenth-century by creating an intellectual, tough-minded verse characterized by "strong lines," colloquial language, natural rhythms, and surprising conceits.

In Donne's poetry, an eccentric and often egocentric sensibility is explored and expressed in a unique voice and often in extreme terms. Donne's canon is large, comprising a great deal of prose as well as satires, love elegies, epigrams, epithalamions, epicedes and obsequies, verse letters, holy sonnets and other divine poems.

His most famous grouping is the "Songs and Sonets," which includes most of his love lyrics. In "Songs and Sonets," idealistic and cynical attitudes toward love are juxtaposed, both within individual works and in the collection as a whole. Donne characteristically rejects neoplatonic asceticism, but he sometimes expresses disgust with carnality.

The witty and passionate Donne is justly recognized as the late Renaissance's supreme poet of heterosexual love. Known in his youth as a ladies' man, he caused a scandal in 1601 by secretly marrying the niece of his employer, Lord Keeper Egerton, an indiscretion that led to his dismissal and brief imprisonment and that ruined his prospects for a career in public service. He fathered twelve children and eventually took holy orders in the Church of England. When he died in 1631, he had become Dr. Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, and the most famous preacher in the land.

Donne's contribution to the gay and lesbian literary heritage resides principally in a series of verse letters that he wrote as a young man and in a remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice, "Sapho to Philaenis." Homosexuality recurs in his satires and his epigrams, though usually as an object of scorn or humor. In "The Jughler," for example, he playfully deconstructs the ambiguous Renaissance word effeminate to poke fun at the sodomite: "Thou call'st me effeminat, for I love womens joyes; / I call not thee manly, though thou follow boyes." In the verse letters to "T.W." and in "Sapho to Philaenis," however, Donne takes seriously.

The four poems to "T.W." were probably written when Donne was eighteen years old and were likely addressed to Thomas Woodward, the sixteen-year-old brother of his friend and frequent correspondent Rowland Woodward. As George Klawitter has shown, the verse letters constitute a sequence that records, first, the poet's infatuation for his friend and, then, his severe disappointment when the youth fails to respond with a like ardor. The poems, including Woodward's response, are full of sexual puns and a highly charged homoeroticism.

"Sapho to Philaenis" is among the earliest positive portrayals of lesbian love in English. In it, the languishing Sapho celebrates the body of her absent lover as "a naturall Paradise, / In whose selfe, unmanur'd, all pleasure lies" (ll. 35-36). Donne challenges his culture's negative attitude toward homosexuality by figuring lesbianism as a utopian trope: "betweene us," Sapho tells Philaenis, "all sweetnesse may be had, / All, all that Nature yields, or Art can adde" (ll. 43-44). Indeed, as Janel Mueller observes, the poem "undertakes to imagine the pleasures, sustenance, and ideological implications by which lesbianism, as a mode of loving and being, resists patriarchal disposition and diminution of women."

Claude J. Summers


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Empson, William. "'There Is No Penance Due to Innocence'--An Exchange on Donne." New York Review of Books 29.3 (March 4, 1982): 42-50.

Harvey, Elizabeth D. "Ventriloquizing Sappho: Ovid, Donne, and the Erotics of the Feminine Voice." Criticism 31.2 (1989): 115-138.

Holstun, James. "'Will you rent our ancient love asunder?': Lesbian Elegy in Donne, Marvell, and Milton." ELH 54 (1987): 835-867.

Klawitter, George. "Verse Letters to T.W. from John Donne: 'By You My Love Is Sent.'" Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Claude J. Summers, ed. New York: Haworth, 1992. 85-102.

Mueller, Janel. "Lesbian Erotics: The Utopian Trope of Donne's 'Sapho to Philaenis.'" Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Claude J. Summers, ed. New York: Haworth, 1992. 103-134.

Revard, Stella P. "The Sapphic Voice in Donne's 'Sapho to Philaenis.'" Renaissance Discourses of Desire. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. 63-76.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Donne, John  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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