Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne and Marvell

Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne and Marvell

by Barbara L. Estrin

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How do men imagine women? In the poetry of Petrarch and his English successors—Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell—the male poet persistently imagines pursuing a woman, Laura, whom he pursues even as she continues to deny his affections. Critics have long held that, in objectifying Laura, these male-authored texts deny the imaginative, intellectual, and physical…  See more details below


How do men imagine women? In the poetry of Petrarch and his English successors—Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell—the male poet persistently imagines pursuing a woman, Laura, whom he pursues even as she continues to deny his affections. Critics have long held that, in objectifying Laura, these male-authored texts deny the imaginative, intellectual, and physical life of the woman they idealize. In Laura, Barbara L. Estrin counters this traditional view by focusing not on the generative powers of the male poet, but on the subjectivity of the imagined woman and the imaginative space of the poems she occupies.
Through close readings of the Rime sparse and the works of Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell, Estrin uncovers three Lauras: Laura-Daphne, who denies sexuality; Laura-Eve, who returns the poet’s love; and Laura-Mercury, who reinvents her own life. Estrin claims that in these three guises Laura subverts both genre and gender, thereby introducing multiple desires into the many layers of the poems. Drawing upon genre and gender theories advanced by Jean-François Lyotard and Judith Butler to situate female desire in the poem’s framework, Estrin shows how genre and gender in the Petrarchan tradition work together to undermine the stability of these very concepts.
Estrin’s Laura constitutes a fundamental reconceptualization of the Petrarchan tradition and contributes greatly to the postmodern reassessment of the Renaissance period. In its descriptions of how early modern poets formulate questions about sexuality, society and poetry, Laura will appeal to scholars of the English and Italian Renaissance, of gender studies, and of literary criticism and theory generally.

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Editorial Reviews

In emphasizing the resignifying moments within the reigning discourse of love, this study acknowledges the tyranny to women that most Petrarchan poems impose. But it also searches out of cultural intelligibility in some Petrarchan poems to ask why Petrarch, Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell locate their questions about sexuality, society, and poetry in the woman they imagine for the construct. Paper edition (unseen), $18.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
This bold and provocative study presents a systematic and wholesale revaluation of Petrarch's love poetry and of the movement called Petrarchism, especially with reference to selected lyric poems in 16th- and 17th-century England. . . . Rarely has the alignment between postmodern theory and textual analysis been so well enacted. . . Very highly recommended.
Renaissance Quarterly
Estrin often demonstrates beautifully how lyric subjectivity grapples with questions of gender. . . . Laura contributes vividly to the current project of examining our assumptions about the representations of women in lyric poetry; for this reason, and for its generous, intelligent readings of poems, the book will prove valuable to scholars of gender studies, genre studies, and English and continental early modern poetry.
Early Modern Literary Studies
[T]he intellectual joy and energy with which Estrin leaps into her subject opens this text to its reader. It is a complex book, deeply infused with a sense of purpose: nothing less than the re-visioning . . . of the Petrarchan tradition. As such, it is an important, perhaps essential, piece of scholarship in the current reassessment of Renaissance Petrarchism.
Studies in English Literature
In its most original achievement . . . Estrin's book preempts feminist narratives about the construction of the woman by the male poet, suggesting instead how the male poet is constructed by the woman who is 'always already' part of his identity. . . . This is an argument whose import lies deeply in the realm of the imaginary and really concerns the poet's "muse."
Comparative Literature Studies
[A] fascinating tour of complex and compelling texts from an 'anamorphic' perspective where the male protagonists' gender and the Petrarchan poem's genre come to seem something other.
From the Publisher

"Laura is an extraordinarily sustained, compelling, and critically resourceful reading of the lyric Petrarch and three of his major English successors. This book counts as a major revision of the critical discourse of ‘Petrarchanism.’ Estrin not only produces this critique, however; she clinches it with readings so concentrated, well-founded, and fully argued that her successors will have to meet a new standard of proof."—Jonathan Crewe, Dartmouth College

"Estrin’s readings are intricate and persuasive, and revealing. Her writing, at once deeply poetic and nuanced, is extremely clear. She argues for a kind of fluidity of the poetic subject that allows for gender crossings and transgressions; the resulting exploration of male subjectivity and feminine representations is immensely suggestive and potentially provocative."—Elizabeth D. Harvey, University of Western Ontario

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wjatt, Donne, and Marvell

By Barbara L. Estrin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8225-6



In this plenty, the poem makes meanings of the rock
Of such mixed motion and such imagery
That its barrenness becomes a thousand things
And so exists no more.



Laura as Eve to Petrarch's Adam

With Laura-Eve, Petrarch recasts the lyric formula, turning from the driven Daphne to a woman who, however fleetingly, returns the poet's gaze and corroborates, by feeling it, the poet's desire. Laura-Eve is Mieke Bal's Genesis 2 woman. As "the 'other character' indispensable for [Adam] to be character at all," she complicates the dyad and suggests that there is another text—the one in which the woman is the conscious subject of her own imaginative return. When she opens up the realm of the imagined woman's desires, Laura-Eve presents what Goldberg calls an "alternative possibility in the writing of gender" (Sodometries, p. 61). A reading of Petrarch and Petrarchism that neither elides gender differences (Petrarch simply turning himself into a Laura who reflects him) nor makes too much of them (Petrarch imagining Laura as another species, a goddess who defeats him) establishes a middle ground with a Laura who seems both like Petrarch and separate. That invention is different from the mirroring Giuseppe Mazzotta writes about where Petrarch "casts himself in the role of Apollo and, in the same breath, casts Laura as the sun." Such comparisons threaten the self because they create parallels that can never meet, an irony Andrew Marvell calls "The Definition of [Petrarchan] Love."

A Laura who shares Petrarch's desire loosens the mold of her monumental idealization and annihilating negativity. Engaged in the same pursuit, Laura-Eve wants what Petrarch wants, returning gaze for gaze and restoring, with that eye, the "I" canceled by static mirroring. Within the parameters of that vision, Petrarch finds a Laura who subverts Petrarchism. Laura is both other and fellow. Like Eve who pulls away from Adam in Genesis 3, this Laura only temporarily suggests the sexual responsiveness that unhinges her conventional representation. But those rare moments complicate Petrarchan dynamics.

The Genesis story that fleshes out these complications inverts that of Aristophanes' twins in The Symposium. In Aristophanes' allegory, the once united sexes long for a return to their originating union. In Genesis 2, Adam begins lonely and then has a brief moment, acknowledged in the exultant now of his awakening, when his desire is met. The now reflects backward to a then, a union already realized in his dream, and projects forward to a sequence, a separation predicted by the implied later. But for the moment of Genesis 2.23, the now fleshes out the then, its union, in bone of bone, a substantiated version of the dream. While, as recent critics have shown, Genesis 2 is usually seen as the text that establishes woman's second place, it can also be seen as what Bal calls the text that establishes woman's necessarily identical place. The exhilaration of Adam's exultant now expresses his happiness at discovering an external double who knows his internal secrets. Imagining back, the Eve of Genesis 2 gives desire a mutual context. She is, as Bai also argues, the other who makes possible Adam's sexual self. As that other, Laura-Eve counters Laura-Daphne to suggest—in her momentary response—that sublimation is unnecessary. In meeting the poet's desire, she renders the poem excessive. Laura-Eve can be found in Petrarch-Adam by a process of anamnesis. She represents what he, earlier, dreamed. Laura-Eve can be seen apart from Petrarch-Adam by a process of anamorphosis. Like the implied second woman in the Bordone painting, she revives a latent image and contests the original dyad.

The momentary possible of that latent image subverts the perennially impossible of conventional Petrarchism. As a moment distilled in the course of events, the communion signals a rebuttal against time; as a moment repeated and embedded in poetic discourse, it stands as a bulwark against disintegration. Its sustaining power lies in the inversion its consolidation implies. The once realized union (Petrarch imagining a Laura who wants what he wants) presumes a mutuality of desire and commonality of understanding that makes poetic discourse feasible: it gives it a point.

With a Laura whose existence reflects an implicit understanding, Petrarch shares Adam's excitement at discovering Eve. What he sees is an other whose origin is identical to his own and who understands, because she felt it too, what he wants. Laura-Eve contravenes the exclusivity of what John Freccero calls Petrarch's "self-referentiality." Marianne Shapiro speaks of how such a contravention might work in terms of time: of the presence of "adynata—impossibility—figures," she argues that Petrarch utilizes the "impossibilia—a daylight filled with stars, breezes gathered in a net—to affirm the fixity of desire over and above external obstacles (the cruelty of Laura).... The end [of the world] will be survived by the stasis of desire and the constancy of the lover.... The adynaton invokes the realization of the impossible." If, as Shapiro maintains, the impossibility itself posits its own plausibility, there are thus moments when Laura unlaurelizes herself and naturalizes the sexual possibility. Opposing the disintegration of mere mirroring, Laura-Eve faces the "I" with a simultaneous sameness and difference. As self, Laura-Eve evokes a mutuality of origin, a resemblance represented by her understanding of Petrarch-Adam's desire. As other, Laura-Eve suggests the mystery of creation, a mystery contained in Adam's deep sleep. Adam wakes to claim that he made her, but the fact is that the source of Eve's sleep-induced being, like the origin of her sleep-induced sexuality, is obscure. Petrarch seems overcome by that mystery in the poems where Laura-Eve appears. The unconscious Adam brings forth an Eve whose awakening in fact precedes his. Laura-Eve counters the formulative and confident Petrarch who creates—out of his own resources—the woman he covets. A Laura whose beginning is unexplainable is a Laura who may have a libido of her own. The Laura who undermines Petrarchism also undermines Augustine.

Dreaming Love

When, in The Secretum, Petrarch answers St. Augustine's accusation that his love for Laura has "detached [his] mind from the love of heavenly things," he maintains "the love which I feel for her has most certainly led me to love God" (p. 124); in his answer Petrarch has already arrived at the Augustinian purpose: the depreciation of the earthly. At the end of the Secretum, he prays to be led "safe and whole out of so many crooked ways" (p. 192). But it is Augustine's countercharge to Petrarch's defense that is relevant to the Rime sparse: "[Your love] has inverted the true order" (p. 124). To invert the order is, as Petrarch's Augustine argues, to worship the divine through the earthly and therefore to put the means over the end. But inverting the order is also to turn around to the beginning, to get at the place before the disintegrating present, which makes discovery possible. It is to arrive at the moment of detachment in which the other both mirrors the self and has a life that is different. It is to invent an Eve whose gaze seems to figure forth and so invent Adam. In The Secretum, Augustine turns the other into the self. All await the next stage. In Rime Sparse 237, Petrarch changes himself into the other and thereby reimagines beginnings. The poem does end by acknowledging an Augustinian afterward (as the Rime sparse will in poem 366), but for a brief moment in the sixth stanza it restages a "before" that stops time. In that moment Laura-Eve appears, heralding the double subversion: that of Petrarch and Augustine. The Laura who appears in 237 comes while Petrarch-Adam is asleep.

The subversion begins in stanza two where the "I," speaking of an Augustinian "afterward" in line 1, reverts instantly to a Genesis 2 "before" in line 3: "Di dì in dì spero omai l'ultima sera / che scevri in me dal vivo terren l'onde / et mi lasci dormire in qualche piaggia" [From day to day I hope now for the last evening, / which will separate in me the living earth from the waves / And let me sleep in some meadow]. Petrarch invokes Augustine in the first two lines when he speculates that the separation that created the world in Genesis 1 anticipates the division to be enacted in the self at the end of time. As the firmament was set apart from the waters, so the body will dissolve into its elements. The Augustinian universe is based on differences that fade. It presupposes that the human being, like the earth before God set about to separate it, is chaotic. But when Petrarch inverts the order in the third line, he suspends the ordinary flow of time by praying for sleep. Just as the Genesis 2 Adam moves backward in sleep to await another beginning, so Petrarch moves inward. His desire to sleep in the meadow is a wish to repeat the experience of the dreaming Adam in Eden. In stanza 2, Petrarch prepares the ground he will consolidate in stanza 6. In 2, he is Adam asleep, awaiting Eve, looking forward to the first morning of consolidation. In stanza 6, he doubles the possibility, invoking an Adam-Endymion who stimulates an Eve-Selene. In Selene, he mirrors the desiring Adam. In Endymion, he imagines a successful Adam. As object of Eve-Selene's dream, he represents achieved desire.

Precipitating the end of time partly by incorporating the beginning in the separation of the earth from the waves of Genesis 1, Petrarch leaps to Genesis 2 when he asks to become Adam asleep in the meadow. Petrarch's defense to Augustine "that the Love which I feel for [Laura] has led me to love God" (Secretum, p. 124) accounts for the Augustinian process of the poem. Laura prods Petrarch into despising the worldly. Petrarchism dissolves the world in this poem. But the Laura-Eve-Selene of stanza 6 suggests something else: the possibility of circumventing the dissolution. To invent a Laura who is free—one whose autonomous existence is premised on her being both like the poet in pursuit (Laura-Eve) and unlike him in her success (Laura-Selene)—is to subvert The Secretum's Augustine and Petrarch. The poem unwinds the way the whole Rime sparse ends: in a confirmation of something richer afterward. But in the dream sequences of the sixth stanza, the poem picks up on the third line of stanza 2. When he prays to sleep in the meadow, the "I" seeks an origination that stops the flow of the annihilative future. The pattern of world destruction leads to a sequence of self-consumption until the dreamer remembers the dream that cancels time: Endymion's. The speaker dreams of dreaming, and so becoming, the lover of stanza 6. That dream and its enactment reverse the progress toward dissolution, which is the ostensible story of the poem. The dream's viability approximates the same Genesis 2 euphoria Petrarch alludes to in 181, 188, and 354. The possibility for such joy counterbalances the burden of "cares" which initiates the disintegrating cycle of the sestina. In 181, 188, and 354, the joy fades quickly, as Laura-Eve regresses to the dark moments of Genesis 3. But in 237, it is sustained as dream: Adam doubled into Endymion; Eve consolidated with Selene.

The poem begins by aggrandizing the "caring" self. It is larger than sea, sky, night, woods, or meadows because its suffering contains them. The progress from stanza 1 to stanza 6 includes a recession. The "I," who begins as the larger-than-life generator of the world, ends—smaller than life—diminished by the world he earlier fathered. First he is progenitor; then he is mothered by—nested in—nature's sanctuary. As the sea is filled by waves, so the "I" is engrossed by "cares." In stanza 1, internal "cares" are more capacious than external stars, birds, and grass and the "I" is represented in a figure that renders him the Ur-generator. He is central because he suffers more, his enduring self magnified into a gigantic vessel:

Non à tanti animali il mar fra l'onde,
né lassù sopra '1 cerchio de 1a luna
vide mai tante stelle alcuna notte,
né tanti augelli albergan per li boschi,
né tant' erbe ebbe mai campo né piaggia
quant' à '1 mio cor pensier ciascuna sera. (p. 395)
The sea has not so many creatures among its waves,
nor up there beyond the circle of the moon
were so many stars ever seen by any night,
nor do so many birds dwell in the woods,
nor did any field ever have so much grass, or any meadow,
as I have cares in my heart every evening, (p. 394)

Like God alluding to the children Abraham will father (Genesis 14.14–16; Genesis 15.5), Petrarch numbers the world in terms of infinite fish, stars, birds, and blades of grass, the multiplying vista reduced by what Petrarch fathers: cares. His capacity to contain them makes him larger than the world itself, even as the world is generated by that paternity. His cares emerge as the consciousness through which the expanding universe comes into being. But, if Petrarch is Abraham, he is also Cronos: the father who eats the children he fathers. The desire to reduce cares, and so erase the elements that constitute awareness, leads to a desire to destroy the world. A "careful" self, exploding with world wonders, seeks to make the world less wonderful. The self-reduction that occurs in the course of the poem results in a domino movement. The circular pattern of the sestina—encompassing elements of space (waves, wood, meadow) and time (evening, moon, night)—is self-destructive. The elements are consumed as they circulate. But the "I" whose cares produced the world is also self-reductive. And, in 237, that reductiveness works in his favor. Shrinking himself, he doubles Laura. She is both Eve and Selene.

The bruised "I" bruises the world by caving in. The wished-for world destruction, culminating in the separation of living earth from waves, coincides with the wished-for self-destruction. The only way to stop the process is to stop the "I": "mi lasci dormire in qualche piaggia" (p. 395) [let me sleep in some meadow] (p. 394). A poet who begins with the self as expansive originator of the world finally arrests—by begging for sleep—the self that feels the cares. Once the "I" ceases to think of himself as the father of the world, he creates an aura that brings on the world's separate life. That life unfolds as the "I" wishes away man's makings (the cities he constructs) to be unmade in the pastoralized meadow. Civilization is raised to be razed. The flowers of April lead to the grassy meadows; the sun makes way for the moon; the wet grass evolves into the empty woods and clears the way for the cities. When the thinking "I" subsides, the world returns to its nonhuman origins. Other is other. Another picture surfaces—one where the woman is the founding figure.

The evolution into pastoral that causes division is a nostalgia that leads into the sixth stanza vision. "Cities are hateful to me, friendly the woods." Augustinian division presupposes a future disintegration. Progress within that frame leads to the chaos that destroys it: the tower of Babel. When, in the fifth stanza, Petrarch evokes the idea of locus amoenus by personifying cities and woods, he demystifies progress and sets the stage for the dream vision. The cities that he hates are converted into cities that hate him, pushing him into the friendly, more receptive, woods. But the division goes deeper. Earlier in the poem, the thinking "I" contained the woods by virtue of the immensity of his thoughts. Now, by virtue of their friendliness, their compatibility and receptivity to those thoughts, the woods contain him. They become womblike. The father needs a mother and so he sets about inventing one, bringing the sea with him to the woods. The watery afterbirth is sucked back into the wavy origin. To herald the maternity he needs, the "1" imitates the life-giving ocean. His song mimics the murmuring waves now contained by the night. Before he enclosed the world; now the world encloses him. Like Adam in the garden, the "I" befriends the world. Earlier his "eye waves" blew the world down. Here he awaits the orderly departure of the sun. If the world is spatially parceled out into woods and cities, so time is subdivided into day and night. The sun makes way for the moon. Apollo yields to Selene. The "I" who made the world now is made by the world. The "I" who pursued the woman now is pursued by her. The creative "I" in this poem decreates himself so that he can, in sleeping, be mothered by nature and loved by Selene. Petrarchism acquires another originary myth.


Excerpted from Laura by Barbara L. Estrin. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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