Noam Flinker: "John Donne and the Anthropomorphic Map"


The first couplet deals with male sexual desire as experienced through observing the woman ("in sight") in terms of standing that is simultaneously military and phallic. The multiple meanings for "sight" and "standing" establish the ludic tone at once, but in the couplet that follows, the comparison of the woman's girdle with the belt in the constellation Orion ("Heavens Zone") leads to the conclusion that she is far more beautiful than the world of heaven and earth ("a far fairer world"). But the poetic technique here is more complicated than Wittgenstein's "duck-rabbit" since the sexuality of the first couplet is never really absent from the second, despite the fact that the language emphasizes the aesthetic aspect of sight ("far fairer") rather than the phallic response of the male viewer to his "foe."

This implicit juxtaposition between earthly sexuality and heavenly beauty continues throughout the poem. The woman's undressing stimulates responses that are first phallic but then aesthetic:

Off with that happy busk, which I envie,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beautious state reveals,
As when from flowry meads th'hills shadowe steales. (1968: 11-14)

The uncovering of the woman is like the illumination of a landscape in the early morning. The speaker's response to his sexual excitement as he anticipates her undressing is conflated with the sun's sudden revelation of the beauties of a colourful meadow. The shift in focus from microcosm to macrocosm connects sexual desire to the emotional intensity generated by the universal appeal of the landscape.

On another level, her nakedness is a kind of truth that must be revealed or uncovered. The moment of undressing is associated with the way in which the light of the sun removes the shadows from the landscape. Although this aspect of truth is established playfully, the intensity of the feeling goes well beyond the phallicism of the first of these couplets. Once again, sexual desire takes on larger significance by comparisons between the lady and the implicitly anthropomorphic landscape.

The crowning geographical image of the elegy likewise occurs immediately after a playful version of sexual exploration. The tradition of the sexual Mediterranean is extended to the new world:

Licence my roaving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd. (1968: 25-28)

Here the ludic sexuality is expressed by a list of prepositions, each of which becomes a sexual reference in the context of the "roaving hands." The subsequent identification of the woman with "America" and "new-found-land" carries with it a quality of wonder not unlike that of "heavens Zone" and the "flowry meads." Like those other geographic references, part of the point here is that the sexuality of the anthropomorphic map tradition makes it possible to have America and Newfoundland connote discovery that is spiritual and emotional on the one hand, but implicitly sexual on the other. Donne's "Elegie" thus finds an analogue to the speaker's erotic desire in what he perceives as a parallel or model for that desire in the geographic macrocosm.

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 7 : Page 4 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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