Throughout history, the attempt of one person to convince another person to sleep with them is a theme that has never ceased to amuse and offend and in classic British literature, the form is called the Carpe Diem poem: the seize the d poem… seize the day… obviously. Both John Donne’s “The Flea” and Sir Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which were written not more than 70 years apart, are examples of this kind of poetry written by men attempting to convince a woman to seize the day by consenting to sex. If someone were to simply read and understand these poems simply through the lense of today’s understanding of what the words on the page mean, the reaction would be most likely that these men were pressuring women into having sex when the women were objecting, otherwise why were these men doing their best to convince, and were obviously disinterested, which means their “no” is not being respected, which I am sure would be similar to the reaction some people have listening to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for the first time with an ear to #metoo and believing victims of sexual trauma, which is why they are the perfect example of understanding what deconstruction means.
Both Donne and Marvell wrote these carpe diem poems as men trying to get some action, obviously, but that isn’t the only thing at play here. We have to remember that in our society today, women have the right to choose whether they have sexual liaisons with someone or not both inside and outside of marriage and relationships. In the time of Donne and Marvell, while men may have found it acceptable within society to sleep with other women outside of their marriages, women were still, for all intents and purposes, property of men. They were expected to be virgins when they married and to never have sex outside of that relationship, so while both Donne and Marvell’s arguments are about the fact that they want to have liaisons with these women they are also arguing past the beliefs of the time and arguing for women to have the right to choose for themselves to indulge their own desires or not.
Donne speaks directly to the belief that sex is sacred between a man and a woman in marriage because of the then very widely accepted “scientific fact” that they believed semen and vaginal fluid were blood in it’s purest form and therefore a blood covenant is made in sex, arguing that they had technically already entered into a blood covenant because the flea had already bitten both of them and mingled their blood in its belly. He then specifically attacks the idea that sin is in and of itself a sin, something to feel shame over wanting or enjoying, and that a woman’s virginity is all that is important prior to her marriage as if it is the only thing that makes her desirable. Everything he is doing to convince her to have sex is attacking not only the beliefs of the day saying that according to the same rules that are keeping her from being able to choose what she wants, they’re already married if the flea has bitten them both because their blood has mixed, but also in completely attacking the idea that sex is a sin, that people should feel shame for wanting it and enjoying it, and especially that the woman’s only value is in her virginity. Knowing about and applying understanding about who the person was who was speaking and what time he was speaking tells us something very different than just the knee-jerk reaction of seeing him as a man who just wants to get laid.
Marvell takes an somewhat different but not unrelated approach by avoiding the arguments that his companion would encounter from her father, her brothers, and society as a whole about the importance of her remaining a virgin until the day of her marriage regardless of the fact that virginity and monogamy were expected for women, who were still chattel in a sense, but not for men. In the time these poems were written, men could have a wife and a mistress, both of whom could be raising his children, while also enjoying the company of others whose ends were met when men’s ends were, um, met. (Zero judgment: women need to eat and they often had absolutely no choice in the matter other than choosing to starve to death instead.) Let’s not forget (but also not get entirely into) the fact that marriages were transactions that transferred power, money, and property from the hands of one man to the hands of another. Queen Elizabeth had the option to never get married and had no one to force her to marry so she never did because she knew that if she did, he could take her power; she was one woman, the rest had no choices in the matter. Women married whomever might propose and with the permission of the men in her family, regardless of whether they were kind or loving or caring. Their job was to make babies and keep a house, regardless of whether they wanted to be there, regardless of whether their husbands were good to them or loved them. They didn’t get to choose to say no. Look at how wedding vows today still reflect those beliefs: “Who gives this woman to this man…” Oh… A man does because even though in the last century, the choice to have autonomy over their life and body finally rests with women (sort of), women are still held to a completely different standard when it comes things happening between her legs and to her body. Marvel doesn’t even begin to look at any of those expectations and the obvious objections and societal dangers a woman would face for making that choice even though the men would face little or no actual consequence. Instead he does the most remarkable thing I think he could do when he puts the choice in the hands of the one person whose choice it should be whether a woman has sex and with whom: the woman. He even refers to women having had sex as something akin to a phoenix rising again and again from the ashes to burn over and over, which is a pretty remarkable thing to comment on (please don’t make me birds and bees you).
These two carpe diem poems and their authors were challenging the thinking of the day, but the same battles are still being fought even if they have changed over time in some ways. Yes, women have autonomy over their bodies sort of but not if they want or need to have a procedure that will take away their ability to bear children, at which point they will be told that they might change their mind and that they need their husband’s permission, even if they don’t have one; it happened to me on a procedure I needed even with it being documented in my medical chart that my spouse was abusive and I wasn’t safe. Women get to choose who they will marry and what they will do with whom whether or not they are married, unless they grow up in a purity culture that teaches them that their pleasure is secondary to the man they are to marry or they grow up in a culture or belief system that will subject them to the forcible removal of all or part of their outer genitalia in order to keep them from enjoying sex; women are still rejected by their families when they choose who to love instead of bowing down to the demands of their families. And women do get to choose their partners, but in a society where women are blamed when they are raped, when women aren’t believed when they ask for help, and when a woman chooses to have “too many” partners (as defined by whomever is being judgy) she is slut shamed but if a man does the exact same thing, people shrug and say “boys will be boys” or that it’s different for men. No, women are not usually married off as a part of a transaction between two men anymore, but women still will be in relationships or marry men they don’t like or who are abusive for the sake of security because every Disney movie up until recently told them that they need a prince to save them and take care of them and in the absence of a prince, any attention is better than none because while an unmarried man is still viewed as a bachelor, an unmarried woman is still viewed as a spinster type, damaged, unworthy or undesirable if she is past a certain age. Does it really matter if the age is changed if the beliefs still exist even if the laws that supported them don’t? No. And equally as important as this question is the reason I sat down to write this:
If a poem written in English can be very misunderstood by native English speakers just a couple hundred years later when looked at only through the lense of the understanding and beliefs of one’s own time, it is very easy to understand how we can misunderstand not only other viewpoints on what is just, what is moral, what is good and ethical in recent decades and centuries, but also on other viewpoints of what was really meant when a religious text was written and whether you take it completely literally or whether you find the wisdom contained inside even when that wisdom might be wrapped up in events and stories that in today’s world would never be acceptable.
Thanks, Lizzy, for making me think about deconstruction!
To His Coy Mistress
By Andrew Marvel
Had we but world enough and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime. We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day. Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide Of Humber would complain. I would Love you ten years before the flood, And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews. My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires and more slow; An hundred years should go to praise Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; Two hundred to adore each breast, But thirty thousand to the rest; An age at least to every part, And the last age should show your heart. For, lady, you deserve this state, Nor would I love at lower rate. But at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found; Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song; then worms shall try That long-preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust, And into ashes all my lust; The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace. Now therefore, while the youthful hue Sits on thy skin like morning dew, And while thy willing soul transpires At every pore with instant fires, Now let us sport us while we may, And now, like amorous birds of prey, Rather at once our time devour Than languish in his slow-chapped power. Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball, And tear our pleasures with rough strife Through the iron gates of life: Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run.
By John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know’st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, Yet this enjoys before it woo, And pampered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do. Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, nay more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet. Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to that, self-murder added be, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three. Cruel and sudden, hast thou since Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence? Wherein could this flea guilty be, Except in that drop which it sucked from thee? Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now; ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be: Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.