The Men Who Wrote Erotic Poetry about God
Leave it to Camille Paglia, contrarian feminist and fearless culture critic, to point out homoerotic fantasies toward God. In “Love Poetry,” which first appeared in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and later in a collection of Paglia’s essays titled Vamps & Tramps, she names two poems from the English Renaissance. Both are open to interpretations worthy of a sexual content warning.
The first is John Donne’s fourteenth holy sonnet, which I quote from The Poems of John Donne, as found on Project Gutenberg, with a few alterations to punctuation for readability:
“Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.”
According to Paglia, this draws on the allegory of Christ as the bridegroom who knocks on the soul’s door, and you know why bridegrooms visit their brides in the small hours. The allegory has roots dating back to at least Song of Solomon, the steamiest book of the Bible, but perhaps the most well-known statement is Revelation 3:20, quoted here from King James Bible Online:
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
Even that raises eyebrows when read with a dirty mind, and it gives a whole new dimension to those paintings of Christ rapping on a door, but Donne makes it hardcore, turning knocking into battering, bending over, penetration and bondage. Not to put too fine a point on it, the final line uses “chast” alongside “ravish,” a word whose connotations historically tend toward rape. Try bringing this up over coffee and donuts at church.
The second poem is George Herbert’s “Love (III),” which I quote from (I’m not making this up) The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, as found on Wikisource:
“Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.”
Here, the positions are reversed, with the Lord welcoming in the narrator. The eroticism is indeed “unmistakable,” as Paglia notes, but how explicit is it intended to be? Does the narrator, in his trepidation, have trouble maintaining an erection? Isn’t there a suggestion of dominance and submission — or, in manga terminology, seme and uke? Does it all end in fellatio? Unsurprisingly, such interpretations are absent from many online analyses of the poem.
Does this mean the authors were gay? Paglia cautions against jumping to conclusions:
“Furthermore, homoerotic images or fantasies in poetry must not be confused with concrete homosexual practice. We may speak of tastes or tendencies in early poets but not of sexual orientation: this is a modern idea.”
It’s currently a modern obsession, but maybe it isn’t all that important. Spicy readings of Donne and Herbert reveal men who were more passionate than we’re accustomed to think, in both this-worldly and other-worldly relations, men whose largesse of human spirit resulted in works that continue like all immortal art to challenge our boundaries.
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