WILLA Review Logo
The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 7
Fall 1998


DLA Ejournal Home | WILLA Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search WILLA and other ejournals


Using Sexism to Enlighten:
Robert Herrick and Other 'Wanton Amblers'

Lillian Schanfield, Barry University


I have come to claim Marilyn Monroe's body
hubba. hubba. hubba . .
the reporters are furious
...
What right does a woman have
To Marilyn Monroe's body?

Judy Grahn, The Marilyn Monroe Poem, 1971

As teachers in the 1990's, how are we supposed to deal with misogyny or overt sexism in our canonized writers? Should we avoid those works that express politically incorrect attitudes? Given our current climate of canon re-examination and democratization, should we replace them in our curricula with the many excellent authors waiting in the wings of anthological stages? This paper will suggest ways in which these very attitudes can be used pedagogically and will do so by specific reference to the work of Robert Herrick, the English poet who gave us the most popular poem of the 17th century "Gather Ye Rosebuds." It will argue that the poetry in question can actually empower students in reading and living by providing them with insight into the nature of sexism, its strategies and the subtleties of its influence.

Herrick 's work consists of some 1200 poems, an extraordinary number of discrete poems by a single author. And although there are several personae in the text, the one under consideration dominates this poetic panorama He is, to use Herrick's own words, a "wanton ambler," a voyeur who spies on women in their daily activities, whom he safely distances from himself as pagan nymphs with mythological names or as "wanton wenches." Thus, "tickled with desire," he fantasizes about undressing or performing various sexual acts on "his girls," discloses his erotic fantasies and proclivities (occasionally bondage), and in conventional Renaissance fashion, waxes lyrical about various anatomical parts-legs, bellies, "fleshie principalities," "hills" where "smiling Love" sit-demonstrating an especially keen interest in breasts and nipples:' Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me Behold that circummortall purity:

Between whose glories, there my lips Ile lay...
Ravisht, in that faire Via lactea
("Upon Julia's Breasts" 96)

When I was introduced to Herrick's poetry, misogyny had not been clearly articulated, and pedestals and gutters were not yet corollaries of each other. Herrick's women were merely part of the landscape-most of them lovely, charming or idealized. The traditional anthologized gems of the Herrick canon sent us, as many still do, into discussions of the quaintness of rural folklore and fertility celebrations, elegant compliments to great families and self-sustaining country houses, carpe diem, city life versus country life, and so on.

Literary Imitation

The sexism in the poetry can, of course, be explained away socio-historically by regarding the literature, non-judgmentally, as the articulation of accepted seventeenth century cultural and literary values. In fact, the most lucrative vein mined in Herrick scholarship has been the venerable Renaissance doctrine of literary imitation, which rationalizes the sexual politics as "imitative" of classical models. Over the years his debts to various literary mentors and traditions have been enthusiastically tracked: Anacreon, Martial, Horace, Catullus, Juvenal, Ovid and others. Broadly speaking, the imitation argument suggests that if Herrick's narrator calls women "in-laid garbage" or describes whipping a struggling woman into "obedience" with myrtle rods, we achieve a kind of readerly pleasure in recognizing the rod as a classical symbol of love and in seeing the poems as echoic and witty imitations of Anacreon or in the epigrammatic 'tradition.'

If she struggle still
I have Mirtle rods, (at will
For to tame, though not to kill.
(To the Rose. Song" 98)

Women and the Male Gaze

Going beyond the question of narrator accountability, we can use the attitudes toward women to explore some basic gender concepts. In the Herrick terrain it means starting with some discussion of the patriarchal artistic gaze, a major aesthetic strategy that reduces women to objects:

Trust me I will not hurt ye,
This I may do (perhaps) as I glide by,
Cast on my Girles a glance, and loving eye.
(To his lovely Mistresses" 222)

What should strike a reader of the collected poems is the sheer number of women addressed or described- -mostly farm girls and women assigned classical pseudonyms such as Perilla, Electra, Anthea, Dianeme, Perenna, Biancha, Irene, Lucia, Silvia, Phyllis, Oenone, and most prominently Julia, who was worthy of over fifty poems. All are silenced and forced into passivity, many reduced to their body parts and violated.

Discussions of "the politics of looking" are predicated on a premise of binarism: the one who looks, the gazer is active and subjective; the one looked at, the "gazes," is passive and objectified (Mulvey 11; Pollock 87). Invariably, the one is male; the other female. The patriarchal "gaze" assumes the male prerogative of exploring, commenting on and dissecting the female body for appraisal-in short, exercising domination over the unsuspecting, powerless female. The unimpeded male gaze-whether belonging to poet, artist, or man on the street-has received increasing feminist scrutiny, with a myriad of adjectives ascribed to it: vigilant, dominating, violent, subjecting, transfixing, penetrating, possessing, powerful, desiring, mastering, judgmental (punishing or forgiving), appraising, and eroticized (c.f. Miles, Mulvey, Pollock, Young). Most radically, its "phallc thrust" rapes, holding "the others "at the table of consummations (Caws (270). Some of these ideas may seem too radical for students to accept but can certainly generate thoughtful discussion.

One scholar has identified the figure of an 1mpassive stroller" or "flaneur" in Impressionist art, a man in the crowd who symbolized the freedom to move about the city, observing, never reacting, consuming the sights "through a controlling but rarely acknowledged gaze" (Pollock 67). Given women's lack of freedom at the time to travel about incognito, looking, staring and scrutinizing, a female flaneur would have been an oxymoron (7 1). Another scholar has even tried to make the subtle distinction between the gaze and the glance, the glance being subversive and random (Bryson 93) and inflicting a "momentary; violence" (saws 270). Young even contrasts two aspects of looking--- voyeuristic and fetishistic (146). According to her, voyeuristic looking takes a distance from the object of its gaze; the object cannot return gaze, and the look is judgmental, offering punishment or forgiveness.

As teachers, we can use this kind of theorizing to suggest the sad irony-for women anyway-of this mammoth artistic investment in their bodies. That irony is their own "ubiquitous presence"; according to one scholar, 'We are dealing with the sign 'woman,' emptied of its original content and refilled with masculine anxieties and desires .... (Tickner 24).

Our students would do well to consider the extent to which our own society is strewn with women's body parts-in advertising billboards, magazines, art, MTV-and the effect the onslaught of these images has on young women's self-conceptualizations. Psychoanalytic terms such as "voyeurism" and "fetish" have been coopted by feminist discussions of such fragmented images. Thus, women's bodies are said to be "fetishized" (Tickner 236, 249; Miles 76). Fashions "fetishize" the female body, Skirt slits and cuts direct[ing] attention to the fetishized neck, breasts, stomach ' genitals, thighs, calves, and ankles" (Turim 13, cited by Young 47). Clearly such fragmentation delivers the message that if we are seen only in part, the "all of us" is ignored (saws 272) -- an understatement worthy of some elaboration. Poetry, of course, provides us with equivalent figurative strategies such as metonymy, wherein objects such as flowers or fruit come to represent the complete woman; and synecdoche, by which the whole woman can be represented by one of her parts (in Herrick's case- -petticoats, hair, or bathing). In the context of a vast cultural canvas covered with female body parts, hopefully our students might see the irony of the Philadelphia Civic Center's curious refusal to show an artistic work by a female artist because it was "simply a penis without redeeming social value" (Tickner 249).

Revising and Revisiting

Students may benefit from or be puzzled by remembrance of past complicity with authors like Hemingway, Lawrence and Donne -- a woman who found the Renaissance seducers clever and amusing, harbored condescending attitudes toward their bimbo seducers, misogynistically condemned Mrs. Macomber and Mrs. Chatterly, and even found humorous the attempted rape of Celia by Volpone. It is difficult to recreate my mindset; it is hard to rationalize my blindness. In this retrospective sweep, one may take some small comfort in Kolodny's observation that as New Criticism devotees we may have confused our pleasure in critical analysis with our delight in specific literary texts (154). But we also now can see that our responses were molded by male professors and male scholarship -- the "gendered critical discourse"-- a masculinist filter of teaching and critical writings that over the years managed to render the sexual politics of the literature as harmless, as con-ventional or, most insidiously, as normal.

The process of "re-vising" is healing-that is, literally re-seeing the poetry-in the terms suggested by Adrienne Rich back in 1972 - "to re-read, to look again-to see "with fresh eyes," to enter "an old text from a new critical direction." Hopefully this " revisionary imperative" can result in the transmutation of both reader and text (Gilbert 32).

This is not to say that male perceptions have not been "re-vised" as well. The story is told about Wayne C. Booth's re-reading of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and in particular a passage he chose to read aloud to his wife. It was a scene that he remembered as being absolutely hilarious when he was younger -- Panurge taking revenge on a lady who had spurned him by sprinkling her gown with pulverized genitals of a bitch in heat (Nancy Miller 355). Perhaps it was his wife who dampened his enthusiasm (I believe she was ironing at the time), but more likely the reading brought him face to face with his youthful, obliviously misogynistic worldview. From then on, we are told, the novel became for him "a somewhat diminished text." Before experiences are assigned names, they remain dangerously invisible because they pass for usual and ordinary behavior, sexual harassment being a case in point. Showalter has named the position that women readers used to be forced to take 1ntellectual neutrality." We may raise the question with our students whether it is indeed possible to be "intellectual neutral," a strategy that many women try to adopt in the world of work. One of the most relevant considerations for young women is the process by which they can unconsciously become advocates of patriarchal structures by becoming invested in the system.

There are more vigorous and negative conceptualizations of the experience of female readers than "intellectual neutrality." "Immasculation" is Fetterley's coinage for the process by which the female reader, by being taught to identify with a male point of view, is steered into an "apprenticeship in negative capability." Although sexually female, she "is forced to be intellectually male," in fact to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her." Her conclusion is that she is "in effect no one, nowhere, immasculated" (xx-xxii). One female art historian has called such women viewers "nominal transvestites" and has described their peculiar dilemma as the choice between masochistic enjoyment of women's humiliation and the assumption of a masculine position (Pollock 85). In Virginia Woolf's words, the female reader, co-opted by the male sexist ideology, is actually "a woman at strife against herself' (52).

Beyond the question of immasculated readers, we can also look at the co-optation of female scholars who are invested in patriarchal systems and who in turn contribute to masculinist discourse. Many would vigorously reject any challenge to their complete gender objectivity or neutrality. We can ponder, for example, the female art historian who as late as the 1970's adrocentrically described poetic blazons as "catalogues of charms" (Hollander 20607). To her, the nipples on sixteenth-century nudes looked like cherries or jewels and were, harmlessly, just Another set of female double adornments like lips and eyes, although, she added, they "are obviously idealized." Breasts, she concluded, have much more complex meaning and observable charm than do women's legs (218), though students may rightly wonder whether she believed that women readers also found the breasts of Herrick's ladies "charming and complex Still more disturbingly, she found "a piquant quality in clothing ... disarranged by violence or mistake" [emphasis added] (Hollander 185).

Teaching Strategies

Attempting to reverse gender in certain literary genres may demonstrate the extent to which we have internalized the ground rules of some of the androcentric literary conventions.3 Ask students to try, for example, imagining (or possibly writing) a poetic compliment to a male in which a female narrator itemizes and praises twenty or thirty of his anatomical parts as well as his breath, gums, veins, and skin. She would move slowly down from the top of his head, arriving at last with the help of a ferriale scout or muse at the "portal!" of his "bowre of blisse," where she would linger for at least ten lines. This is actually what Herrick's narrator does in 'The Description of a Woman" (404). Why does this seem ludicrous when applied to a man's body? The answer to this question, far from being rhetorical, may encourage discussion of the extraordinary complexity of achieving so-called equality in our society. Nude or semi-nude female dancing, for example, represents a host of cultural attitudes toward women's bodies, gender roles, women's collusion in those very attitudes, and a myriad of cultural realities involving status, economics, and power. Male stripping may look like role reversal but does not reflect analogous sexist issues.

Another teaching strategy might examine the sexist metamessages encoded in some of the poems. Consider, for example, the subliminal premise in the whimsical poem 'Noberons Palace," in which sex, violence and pain as experienced by women in rape are casually mixed. Thus, in what is intended as a charming account of the fairy king's bedding of his bride, we are told that the cobweb bed curtains are made of "threads" broken Hat the Losse of Maiden-heads, that the pearls decorating the bed are tears shed by writhing, panting brides in the act of succumbing to "Love, or by Ravished girls," and that the music consists of female cries uttered at the moment of their 1oss of virginity," cries which further excite the appetite of the elves (presumably male elves) (165-68. 11.106-13). The reader dynamics are analogous to an audience's taking Shylock's horrible fate lightly or, worse still, not at all because it is concentrating on the success of the love plot. It is not a vast leap from this to the way humiliation, rape, and even murder have been used as commonplace metatexts in many current advertisements featuring women. Presented in a certain light, violence can be rendered banal.

Gendered Criticism

The literary criticism itself affords us ways to lead students to insights about gender. Scholarship about Herrick's erotic or sexually explicit poems has often extended from the most naive or diversionary to the most salacious. Those who try not to deal with the sexuality have found instead mischievousness, innocent playfulness and even allegory. For example, Herrick's popular poem about the erotic stimulation that is created by disarray and looseness in women's clothing (Delight in Disorders) has been interpreted as "a statement of anti- Puritanism, " a plea for disorder in manners, morals and dress (Scholes 57). Context can apparently account for "daintiness and babyishness" in Herrick, which 1n other contexts seem perverted" (Broadbent 248).

At the other end of the continuum some have managed to project their own fantasies onto the poetry. Herrick's poem about the persona's fascination with Julia's petticoat which pants, sighs and heaves carries enough of its own erotic freight ("Julia's Petticoat 66-67). But what are we to make of the scholar who thinks that the lines comparing Julia's undergarment to a "celestial canopy (presumably because it is decorated with stars) mean that the skirt is flung over the lover's head? ("And pounc't with Stars, it shew'd to me/ Like a Celestiall Canopie"). Aptly, he dubs this an "amatory reading" (Edmund Miller 89).

Still another critic, through a prudent, adolescent wrenching of meaning, tries solving Herrick's poetic "riddle": What looks like a cherry placed in the center of a lily, like a red rose peeping through a white rose, or like a strawberry half drowned in cream? The obvious answer lies in the title, "Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast (164) and is bad enough, but our scholar has more fun playfully withholding the title, and then announcing: "Casual readers . . . think at first that it's a poem about the clitoris; but with a faint giggle they turn away" (Broadbent 246). Are we included as his casual readers?"

The Pedagogic Process

The process of re-vision, as suggested earlier, can lead to greater reading empowerment and even to what has been called a Feminist resistance to the text (Fetterley). Some students may even advance the argument that the act of reading and writing about such poems in fact re-violates Herrick's women who are, like the fleeing maidens on Keats' urn, condemned to be forever silent, forever fair and forever violated. In a larger sense it reaffirms patriarchal privilege and reinforces attitudes that continue in our own culture to reduce women to sexual objects, marginalization or "otherness." On the other hand, this very position may elicit discomfort with theoretical literary analysis-the reality check many of our students bring to the literature classroom. After all, these are literary beings, not actual women in an ethnography which describes real lives in a concrete world. Is not feminist discussion of reappropriation from male fantasy, de-eroticization, emancipation, and de-colonization (Tickner 239) mere theoretical argumentation that keeps a lot of postcolonial literary scholars in business, so to speak? I would welcome such contrary views as indicators of students' awareness of the complex issues: we will indeed have gone beyond 'Herrick for Herrick's sake."

As vaccines contain elements of the disease they paradoxically stave off, here is the pedagogic paradox. By embracing the literature suffused in masculinist assumptions, we provide a platform for engaging students in examining sexist behavior produced by these prerogatives. If a major goal of teaching is not simply to interpret the world but to change it by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what they read (Fetterley viii), then I would suggest that we will have contributed to that noble effort, following Polonius' advice, "by indirections find[ing] directions out."

Note 1. In "Tickled with Desire: A View of Eroticism in Herrick's Poetry, Literature and Psychology 39 (nos. I & 2) in 1993, I explored the absence of conflict between the religious calling of this celibate poet/priest and his proclivity for eroticism as well as the nature of his erotic interests as reflected in the poetry, ultimately identifying the persona with Herrick himself and concluding that these poems demonstrated signs of sexual immaturity and possibly sexual dysfunction. In my conclusion I alluded to "oblivious" females who were victims of a "prowling visitor from a world of repressed fantasies and sublimated sexual energies. " It was in thinking about these women that I came to write the current paper.

Note 2. All citations of the poems in the Hesperideses. Noble Numbers and miscellaneous poetry are from The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick edited by L. C. Martin (1956).

Note 3. For gender/genre discussion, see, for example, Ruthven (7).

Works Cited

Ardener. Shirley. "Introduction." Perceiving women. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Lid., 1975.

Broadbent, John Barclay. Poetic Love. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964.

Bryson, Norman. Vision & Painting: The Logic of the Gaze. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Caws, Mary Ann. Ladies Shot and Painted: Female Embodiment in Surrealist Art." The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Harvard UP, 1986.

Chute. Marehette. Two Gentle Men: The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1959.

Coiro, Ann Baynes. Robert Herrick's Hesperides and the Epigram Book Tradition. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Fetterly, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Amroach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1978.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "What Do Feminist Critics Want? A Postcard from the Volcano. " The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. Rutgers: Princeton UP, 1986.

Herrick, Robert. The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. Ed. L. C. Martin. London: Oxford UP, 1956.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. York: Avon, 1975.

Kolodny. Annette. "Dancing Through the Mine Field: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice. and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism. 'Me New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women. Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. Rutgers: Princeton UP, 1986.

______"A Map for Reading: Gender and the Interpretation of Texts." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women. Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. Rutgers: Princeton UP, 1986.

Michie, Helena. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies. Oxford UP 1987.

Miles, Margaret R. Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. Boston: Beacon Press. 1999.

Miller, Edmund. "Under Julia's Petticoat." College Literature (198 1) 85-92.

Miller, Nancy. "Rereading as a Woman: The Body in Practice." The Female Bode in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Harvard UP, 1986.

Mulvey, Laura "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Screen 16 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

Pollock- Griselda Vision and Difference: Femininity. Feminism and the Histories of Art. London: Routledge, 1988.

Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." In 'Me Norton Anthology of Literature BV Women (1971). Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985.

Ruthven, K. K. Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Scholes. Robert, Nancy R. Comley, and Gregory L. Ulmer. Textbook: An Introduction to Literary Language. New York: St. Martin's Press 1988.

Showalter, Elaine. Women and the Literary Curriculums College English 32 (1971).

Tickner, Lisa. "The Body Politic: Female Sexuality and Women Artists Since 1970. Art History, 1978 (1), 236-281

Turim, Maureen. 'Tashion Shapes: Film, the Fashion Industry and the Image of Women." Socialist Review, 13 (Sept. 1983), 86.

Woolf, Virginia A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1929.

Young, Iris Marion. "Women Recovering Our Clothes, Perhaps." Postmodernism and Continental Philosophy. Ed. Hugh Silverman and Donn Welton. State University of New York P. 1988.

 

Reference Citation: Schanfield, L. (1998). "Using Sexism to Enlighten: Robert Herrick and Other "Wanton Amblers." WILLA, Vol. VII, p. 3-7.


DLA Ejournal Home | WILLA Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search WILLA and other ejournals