Is Donne insincere in his treatment of women? We will discuss this question in the light of his poems.
Before Donne started writing his love poems, his predecessors were involved in the theme of woman worship. It was replete with allusions to gods and goddesses of mythology. The Elizabethan love poetry was based purely on a patriarchal style. The later poets, who struck to this mythology and style, were artificial and they lacked in passion. But when we come to Donne, we feel a great change. He is found rebelling against the prevailing traditions and thus he broke the new ground.
So, he adopts new traditions to deal with women. He abstains to depict them as goddesses rather he unveils their faithlessness as well as fickleness of mind. There is no doubt that she is capable of love, but she is also quite proficient by nature to deceive and be inconstant.
In the song, for example, “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” Donne tries to prove a woman’s infidelity and inability to remain faithful:
If thou best borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand dates and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’s, with tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee
And Swear Nowhere
Lives a woman true and fair
In these lines, Donne’s treatment of women is at its height. He tells his readers that if a man rides ten thousand days and nights and travels all over the earth till his hair turns grey. And if he on return tells me all the wonderful things and happenings, he will not be able to swear on oath that he ever found a fair and faithful woman. If by chance, he finds both fair and true, the poet says that he would go to her, as if on a pilgrimage to some Holy place.
Similarly, in the poem the Apparition, he calls the woman he loves, a murderness:
Goes, and if that word has not quite killed thee
Ease me with death by bidding me goes too
Or, fit have, let my word work on me
And a just office on a murderer die
Except it is too late, to kill me so,
Being double deaf goign and bidding, goes
The word “Go” if uttered by a lover to his beloved means death. In fact, both want to die simultaneously so that they can go together to the next world. In case, he is alive after his beloved’s death, he will utter the word “Go” to himself and thus die. This will be a sort of punishment for him for devising the instant murder of his beloved. When both of them are dead, their souls will mingle and love together in heaven.
In one of his Elegies to his Mistress Going to Bed, Donne does not hesitate to let hand move on every part of the beloved’s body:
Full nakedness: All joys are due to thee,
As souls embodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joy
Donne, in many of his poems, expresses the joy of mutual passion. He describes such a mutual delight, which he enjoys in mutual lovemaking without reference to outside interference. In his poem “The Sunne Rising”, he says:
Basic old fooled, unruly Sunne,
Why dot thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us
Must to thy motions lovers season run?
Sawyer pad antique wretch goes chide
Late schoolboys, and swore prentices
Goes tell Court huntsmen, that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices
This poem is one of the most interesting poems in which Donne becomes extremely realistic. He does call the sun a busy old fool and asks why does he send its rays through windows and curtain to the bed of lovers? Also, he asks the sun further, should the lovers adjust their loving seasons according to its movements? He suggests to the sun that instead of disturbing the lovers in their lovemaking to go to the schoolboys and wake them up, or go and inform the courtier hunters that the king would go for hunting that morning.
The poem is no doubt remarkable, but at the same time, the language is realistic. His style has been condemned for its harshness. His poetry is the poetry in which his insincerity in his treatment of women has been highlighted. He mocks the woman for their forced fashions and false passions. He believes in “frailty thy name is a woman”. His concept and hatred for women are more than compensated by his respect for conjugal love. The two-fold attitude to the woman as butterfly, as woman as an angel depends on the situation and the mood of the poet.