John Donne’s Poem to His Mistress Going to Bed

John Donne’s poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (Donne, 1986: 124) fuses imagery of sexual exploration with the global colonialism of the seventeenth century. It is, as George Saintsbury suggests in his essay on Donne “a piece of frank naturalism redeemed from coarseness by passion and poetic completeness.” (Saintsbury, 1961:18), however it also stands, as we shall see, as an example of the ways in which the male literary psychology continually draws parallels between feminine sexuality and the conquering of other worlds.

In Donne’s poem, the exploration of the lover’s hands mirrors the ships and the passages of the adventurer:

“Licence my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above and below. O my America, my new found land, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned.” (Donne, 1986: 124)

The symbolism here becomes not only one of exploration and the pushing of boundaries but of deflowering – the woman’s uncharted territories matching the unmapped landscape of the Americas and Africa, recently discovered and written about with suitably masculine bravado in such books as Walter Raleigh’s The Discovery of Guiana and the Journal of the Second Voyage Thereto (Raleigh, 1887).

For Donne, exploration and conquering becomes a facet of masculinity, we suspect his mistress’ protestation and eventual acquiescence is an integral part of the sexual excitation just as an important part of exploration is the hardships faced on the journey. In the final analysis “To His Mistress Going to Bed” represents the triumph of the male libido over the mysterious, hidden sexuality of the woman:

“Gems which you women use Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views, That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem, His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them… Themselves are like mystic books, which only we Whom their imputed grace will dignify Must see revealed.” (Donne, 1971: 126)

In this essay I would like to develop the theme of the symbolic relationship between discourses of colonialism and female sexuality and the representation of women through exegesis of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (Kipling, 1989) and H. Rider Haggard’s book King Solomon’s Mines (Haggard, 1989). These two novels, not only represent a distinctly colonial socio-political voice (Harris, 1992; Lane, 1995) but also concern themselves with peculiarly masculine worlds that, nevertheless, feature women in many different symbolic and ideological guises.

Kipling’s Kim concerns itself with social and psychosocial taxonomies (Said, 1989: 10), throughout the novel, the author continuously draws dividing lines between white and black, low and high caste, spiritual and body and man and woman. However, to a very large extent the character of Kim blurs such binary categorisation and instead exists on the borders between definitions; questioning the validity of discourses that attempt to assert the primacy of binominal groupings. Even though Edward Said points to Kipling’s use of race logocentricity and privileging in his study Orientalism (Said, 1995) , throughout his novel, Kipling constantly employs the character of Kim as a method to question and blur the boundaries between binaries. He is, for instance, a white boy “burnt black as any native” (Kipling, 1987: 49), he switches turban colour, signifying his ability to slip between social orders and castes and, of course he uses his skill as social chameleon in the employ of the British Empire as a spy.

There is, however, another blurring of boundary present in Kim and that is the sexual and gender boundary of man and woman. His relationship with the Lama becomes a marriage of sorts, the two finding in each other that with is lacking in themselves and having no use of women, as exemplified in this passage from Chapter Four:

“I spoke therefore of the Search, and of the Way, and of matters that were profitable; she deserving only that I should accompany her and make prayer for her second son.” “Aha! “We women” do not think of anything save children” said Kim sleepily” (Kipling, 1987: 120)

Here, the Lama displays an ascetics view of women and Kim, albeit phantasmatically, admits his role as wife in the relationship.

As Vasant Shahane points out in Rudyard Kipling: Artist and Activist (Shahane, 1973), the world of Kim is also totally masculine, whether it be the self enforced male company of the brahamin or the regimental masculinity of the barrack room, women do not feature in the novel to any great extent other than mysterious, barely recognisable characters that flit in and out of the character’s and thus the reader’s consciousness. However, in one respect at least, women appear as both symbol and metonymn and that is as mother figures. Kim, to an extent, can be seen as a search for a missing mother figure, a figure that could only be symbolic of Mother India, who is both distantly remembered and self defining.

At various stages throughout the narrative Kim desperately evokes his own hereditary by assuring himself of his own existence:

“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again. He did not want to cry – had never felt less like crying in his life – but of a sudden easy, stupid tears trickled down his nose, and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew.” (Kipling, 1997:331)