Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sexism in Poetry

Poetry emerged in western society as language matured and intellectuals rose above the laity of everyday life. Poetry was originally used to describe beauty and utilized elaborate rhyme schemes and poetic devises to achieve such a goal. At this point in history poets were men, and as such the subject of their poems tended to be women or love as was seen in sonnets from 17th and 18th centuries. Later as metaphysical poems gained popularity, the tone of the poems shifted from love to lust as men used beautiful conceits to try to attract the attention and sexual favors of women. However the sweet sentiment of the victorian sonnets did not transfer to the metaphysical poems which have a purpose to seduce rather woo.

This language of seduction is seen in lines like, "My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empire, and more slow" (11-12) from Andrew Marvell's To his Coy Mistress. These are two generic examples of the beautiful examples used by poets to attempt to display the love they hold for certain women. However when this love is unrequited or refuted the tone changes to scrutiny as seen in Marvell's writing, "then worms shall try / That long preserv'd virginity, / And your quaint honor turn to dust, and into ash all my lust" (27-30). This statement is sexist is multiple ways, on the surface because the speaker shames his "love" for not giving her virginity to him, instead of accepting her choice. Additionally he claims that his lust will turn to ash, but he never acknowledges his audiences possible lust or the societal constraints holding his audience back from achieving her love.

There are similar instances of sexism, particularly unrequited love being met with shame and degrading insult, through out metaphysical poetry. One that I find especially interesting is in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by Johne Donne. It exhibits instances of sincere love, "But we by a love so much refined, / That ourselves know not what it is, / Inter-assured of the mind, / Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss." (17-20), however it also has sexist trappings, unlike those seen in most metaphysical poetry. This poem states that sincere love can surpass physical distances, however it simply accepts that the man must travel while the woman is left at home to pin for her absent partner.

Both of these poems demonstrate sexist ideas from the time they were written, some more bluntly than others, however this does not mean the poems should be avoided or their ideas danced around. It is important to read such works of literature to better understand the history of the time periods they are from. And although they're meanings or phrases can be offensive it does not make the language any less beautiful or sincere. I believe writings such as these should continue to be taught with the asterisks of the time period they are from and the time period we are in.

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