Oral Sex: A Theme in Donne and Some Cavalier Poets

Three journals have rejected the following essay, invariably on the grounds that its main contention -- that lines 63-78 of Thomas Carew's A Rapture and the entirety of John Donne's Love's Progress are about cunnilingus -- is common knowledge. A typical editorial comment is: "I have always assumed everyone took [A Rapture and Love's Progress] to be about oral sex." Consequently, I find myself forced onto the defensive about my hypothesis before I even begin to explain it. No critic or scholar who ever published on A Rapture or Love's Progress has mentioned cunnilingus by using either the word itself or circumlocutions to the same effect.1 On the contrary, many have published statements that are clearly wrong if my hypothesis is right. Helen Gardner states that Love's Progress is "a paradox, arguing that since the beauty in a woman is not what a lover desires in her the foot should be studied rather than the face."2 But I maintain that the poem advises the lover not to study the foot, but to kiss it, and then the ankle, then the calf and so upwards till he reaches his mistress's vulva. Herschel Baker, in a note to line 64 of A Rapture, glosses the word knots as "clusters,"3 presumably meaning of flowers, leaving it unexplained to what part of the female anatomy this floral metaphor alludes; but I deny that the word is metaphoric, and affirm that it literally means labia minora. Paula Johnson responds to the passage following line 63 of A Rapture:

One can visualize the metaphoric vehicles, and one can visualize the woman's alluring nakedness, but the relation between them is problematical. In his excitement the lover calls up one delicious metaphor after another, regardless of whether a less heated imagination can combine them intelligibly or not. With the "ripned Cherry" he evidently begins a love's progress4 downward along the route of the blazon, but seems to lose and recover his way in phantasmagoria of flowers, geography, and partial glimpses of female anatomy. . . . The code in this passage seems oddly vague and inconsistent . . . "Elixar" is best taken as the potency that intimate contact with his mistress' body awakens in the lover.5

The route of the blazon is downward from the face, so Ms. Johnson apparently locates the "ripned Cherry" somewhere on Celia's face, and if so, no wonder she thinks Carew became delirious. The "ripned Cherry" is Celia's clitoris; the "Elixar" is neither potency nor any other other abstraction, but a mixture of vaginal fluids, sweat, and saliva; and in general, the fault of this verse-paragraph, if it has one, is not committed by its being vague, inconsistent, or phantasmagorical, but by its proceeding through the details of Celia's pelvic region in a manner more appropriate to a textbook than to a genuine lyrical outburst. I personally made many false starts before I finally figured out what these poems are about, and I write for my peers, that is, for readers who may have experienced, or may yet experience, difficulty reaching the conclusion announced. If it has always been obvious to you, reader, you might better employ your time reading some other essay.

We may have underestimated the sexual inventiveness of the aristocracy of seventeenth-century England. A society in which the marriage bed could be seen as the theater of exertions so complicated that a poet compared it to a maze; in which this poet could exhort a newly married couple to treat lovemaking as a mystery and a hieroglyph to be interpreted, and bid them "do it to the full"; in which he could urge them to ransack their imaginations for some sexual act hitherto unknown either to Nature or to Art; and, finally, a society in which all these sentiments, publicly uttered, could be considered to grace the occasion of a wedding--such a society may be said to have attained an enthusiasm and candor regarding sexual foreplay that many people fall short of even today. But Robert Herrick did say all these things in his Nuptial Song, or Epithalamie, on Sir Clipsby Crew and His Lady (1625), Stanza 13.

Moreover, the taste, smell, and appearance of the exudates of a woman's body were celebrated in the love-lyrics of the period in a manner seldom or never paralleled before or since. Consider, for example, the practice of a lover's sucking milk from the nipples of his mistress's breasts. Shakespeare's Venus is an early case in point when she bids Adonis "Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie" (lines 233?34). The prose meaning is clearly: if the moisture of my lips is insufficient, try the nipples of my breasts. When Richard Lovelace celebrates the sexual promiscuity of the Golden Age in his Love Made in the First Age, he specifically emphasizes:
         Then unconfined each did Tipple
         Wine from the Bunch, Milk from the Nipple,
         Paps tractable as Udders were . . .6
or, in prose, for a lover to suck milk from the breast of a woman -- any woman he might chance to meet -- was an act as routine as milking his cow. The word tractable suggests manual stimulation of the breast (as of the udder) to produce the desired milk, an idea glanced at in one of Lovelace's occasional poems: "the Fair Barmaid stroaks the Muses teat, For milk to make the Posset up compleat."7Steve Schwartzman of Austin, Texas, points out that the Latin tractarebecomes the Frenchtraire,"to milk," strengthening my milky connection. In Thomas Randolph's A Pastoral Courtship, the shepherd proposes to induce lactation by a more elaborate scheme:

Come, let me touch those breasts . . .
But stay (my love) a fault I spy:
Why are those two fair mountains dry?
Which if they run, no Muse would please
To taste of any spring but these.
And Ganymede employ'd should be
To fetch his Jove nectar from thee.
Thou shalt be nurse, fair Venus swears
To the next Cupid that she bears.
Were it not then discreetly done
To ope one spring to let two run?8
That is, the shepherd will deflower and impregnate the nymph, opening the metaphoric spring of her vagina, to release the milk from her breasts. Though Piet Hanema sucks milk from Foxy Whitman's breast in John Updike's Couples,9 I cannot elsewhere find any enthusiasm for this technique of foreplay in either the erotic prose or the erotic verse of our own century. (Since I wrote this sentence, the Internet has released a flood of pornography and within it, a flood of what is called lactation.) Yet Randolph makes coitus itself a mere precondition of the banquet of milk.

Next consider the taste of the mistress's saliva, and her enjoyment of that of the lover. Saint-Amant savors it as wine and becomes drunk; so does his shepherdess.

La sur sa bouche a demy close,
Je beuvais, baisant nuict et jour,
A la sante de nostre amour
Dedans une couppe de rose:
Ma Bergere en toute saison,
Ardente a me faire raison,
     S'enyvroit de la mesme sorte:
Et dans ce doux exces nos sens quasi perclus,
     Sous une contenance morte,
Confessoient par nos yeux que nous n'en pouvions plus.10

In Carew's Rapture, Celia's saliva has a distinct odor which the poet imagines ascending to heaven like that of Noah's sacrifice:

Then shall thy circling armes, embrace and clip
My willing bodie, and thy balmie lip
Bathe me in juyce of kisses, whose perfume
Like a religious incense shall consume
And send up holy vapours, to those powres
That blesse our loves . . . 11
In his Prayer to the Wind, three aromas are contrasted: those of the woman's mouth, her breasts, and her vulva, and the wind is specifically implored to bring the poet all three. In John Cleveland's The Senses' Festival, only the tongue that has tasted the saliva of his mistress can adequately praise it:
Now to the melting kiss that sips
The jelly'd Philtre of her lips;
So sweet, there is no tongue can phras't
Till transubstantiate with a taste.12
Another fluid evoking this ardor is the lady's sweat. Indeed, we might introduce our undergraduates to this poetry by telling them to forget everything they have learned from the deodorant ads of the twentieth century. The earliest praise of sweat I can find is in Donne's mention of the "fast balm" that cements the couple's hands in The Ecstasy (line 6). As the OED entry shows, balm or balsamum is, first of all, a powerful perfume; it is not the tactile sensation of sweating but the smell of the sweat that delights Donne, and once he has coined this metaphor, the cavaliers take it up eagerly. Carew protests: "I love thee not for thy moist palme, Though the dew thereof be balme."13 Cleveland echoes both the conceit and the rhyme as he constructs a blazon out of the various parts of Fuscara's body touched by a bee: "The next he preys on is her Palm, That Alm'ner of transpiringbalm."14 In Carew's Upon a Mole in Celia's Bosom, the sweat from a specific place on Celia's body, namely the cleft between her breasts, is "ambrosial," that is, superlatively delightful not only to the smell but to the taste. In Lovelace's Fair Beggar the principal joy to be derived from nakedness consists of the opportunities it offers to taste the desired woman's sweat:
Yet happy he that can but tast
This whiter skin who thirsty is,
Fooles dote on sattin motions lac'd,
The Gods go naked in their blisse,
At th' Barrell's head there shines the Vine,
There only relishes the Wine.15
After the poet has moistened his mouth, his kiss will enable the mistress to taste her own sweat:
There quench my heat, and thou shalt sup
Worthy the lips that it must touch:
NECTAR from out the starry Cup,
I beg thy breath not half so much . . . 16
A veritable cloud of precious perspiration ascends from seventeenth-century lyrics, from the "pearle carcanetts" of Donne's Comparison to the mower's sweat that smells as good as Alexander's in Upon Appleton House (Comparison, ll. 1-14; Appleton House, l. 428).

Lastly, the secretions of the vagina were valued for their odor and taste. To return to Lovelace's vision of the Golden Age, the stanza continues:

Paps tractable as Udders were;
Then equally the wholesome Jellies
Were squeez'd from Olive-Trees, and Bellies,
Nor suits of Trespasse did they fear.17
The parallelism of two conceits about two fluids, exuded by the breast and the belly (in OED sense 7, "the womb, the uterus"), is clear. A man might obtain the first fluid (milk) as routinely as if he were milking his cow; he might obtain the second (vaginal secretions) as routinely as if he were operating an olive-press (olive oil is meant to be eaten as milk is to be drunk). As already noted, Carew prays the wind to bring him aromas from three parts of the mistress's body: her mouth, her breasts, and lastly some place "Downe" from them (line 12), presumably her vulva, whose rewards are symbolized by "Amber deaw . . . spices . . . pure streames of Nectar."18 In Lovelace's To Amarantha, That She Would Dishevel Her Hair, the poet, having arrived in a shadowy bower, proposes to his lady the following scheme of pleasure:
Heere wee'l strippe and coole our fire
In Creame below, in milke-baths higher:
And when all Well's are drawne dry,
I'll drink a teare out of thine eye.19
Proceeding from the known to the unknown, from the literal to the metaphoric, we must go backwards through this quatrain from its plain fourth verse to its obscure second. The one bodily fluid that is simply called by its name is the tear; the one source so named, the eye. This explains "all Well's" in the preceding verse: all your sources of bodily fluids; and not both wells, hence at least three such sources. This in turn explains the distinction between the milk-baths above (milk from the breasts) and the cream below (moisture in the vulva).

Sir John Suckling compares the Countess of Carlisle's vulva to a fountain.20

To such an extent is lovemaking imagined in terms of the enjoyment of these fluids, that a ruined maiden can be thought of as dried out, as if she had been wrung like a rag:

So shalt thou be despis'd, faire Maid,
When by the sated lover tasted;
What first he did with teares invade,
Shall afterwards with scorne be wasted;
When all thy Virgin-springs grow dry,
When no streames shall be left, but in thine eye.21
In the seventeenth century, all "superfluous matter thrown off by the bodily organs" (OED) -- including sweat, milk, and saliva -- was called excrement, and this usage continued into the eighteenth century along with the more familiar meaning. Perhaps Swift's notorious verses on Celia were inspired by a fastidious man's revulsion at all this glorification of women's excrements.

Some such overview of the conventions of the love-poetry seems necessary as a preface to the main contention of my essay: that Donne is discussing cunnilingus in Love's Progress, and that Carew is elaborately describing it in the obscurest passage of A Rapture, the poem for which Love's Progress and its companion piece Going to Bed served as models. I shall begin with the lesser poem.

55 Then, as the empty Bee, that lately bore,
     Into the common treasure, all her store,
     Flyes 'bout the painted field with nimble wing,
     Deflowring the fresh virgins of the Spring;
     So will I rifle all the sweets, that dwell
60 In my delicious Paradise, and swell
     My bagge with honey, drawne forth by the power
     Of fervent kisses, from each spicie flower.
     I'le seize the Rose-buds in their perfum'd bed,
     The Violet knots, like curious Mazes spread
65 O're all the Garden, taste the ripned Cherry,
     The warme, firme Apple, tipt with corall berry:
     Then will I visit, with a wandring kisse,
     The vale of Lillies, and the Bower of blisse:
     And where the beauteous Region doth divide
70 Into two milkie wayes, my lips shall slide
     Downe those smooth Allies, wearing as I goe
     A tract for lovers in the printed snow;
     Thence climbing o're the swelling Appenine,
     Retire into thy grove of Eglantine;
75 Where I will all those ravisht sweets distill
     Through Loves Alimbique, and with Chimmique skill
     From the mixt masse, one soveraigne Balme derive,
     Then bring that great Elixar to thy hive.
     Now in more subtile wreathes I will entwine
80 My sinowie thighes, my legs and armes with thine . . . 22
That Carew, from lines 55 to 62, is performing a serial osculation of Celia's lips, nipples, and vulva such as we have already seen in Lovelace's wooing of Amarantha, should be sufficiently clear to the reader who has followed me thus far. But the poem suddenly goes out of focus when we reach the "Rose-buds," the "violet knots" that spread like mazes in lines 64?65. What might these be? Lips again? Nipples again? The poem never really comes back into focus until the poet commences coitus in the missionary position at line 79. To decipher this bewildering performance, we must realize that at line 63, the poet's mouth is in medias res, already between Celia's vulvae, and that in the succeeding lines it moves outwards and downwards laterally, then up. The crucial word knots, among so many metaphors, is literal: the OED entry for knot, paragraph 13, reads: "a hard lump in an animal body, either in a softer tissue, or on a smooth surface; a swelling or protruberance in a muscle, nerve, gland, etc." The violet knots are Celia's labia minora, organs which in fact are violet when engorged by sexual arousal; which spread when the thighs are strenuously divaricated; and whose characteristic pleats, folds, wrinkles, or indentations make them the most complex-appearing structure in this part of the female anatomy, and hence like a maze. This point once granted, the "ripned Cherry," the apple tipped with a coral-red berry, becomes of course Celia's clitoris. The poet's lips now leave the interior of the vulvae, the so-called vestibule of the vagina, where the reddish mucous membrane forms the surface, cross the labia majora, and obtrude themselves into either of two crescent-shaped concavities which constitute the innermost aspect of the thigh, between the labia majora and the convexity overlying the sartorius muscle. The epithelium here is sensitive and resembles an alley (line 71) or a vale (line 68); it is whiter than the skin of the thighs and genitals and justifies the poet's comparison of its hue to that of lilies (line 68), milk (line 70), and snow (line 72). After the poet has made repeated vertical movements in these concavities, which he hyperbolically compares to beating a path in them, he begins a movement upwards away from the posterior and towards the anterior parts of Celia's groin, ascending her mons Veneris, which, borrowing a metaphor from the Latin, he calls a mountain, a "swelling Appenine." Here he buries his lips in the pubic hairs, likened to a shrub of eglantine or sweetbrier whose twisted stems (compare Milton's "twisted eglantine," L'Allegro, line 48) resemble curling strands of pubic hair.23 Here Carew encounters sweat -- and small wonder, considering the vigor of the couple's activities so far-and in an elaborated variation on what I must call the mingled-fluids theme, this sweat mixes with the saliva and vaginal fluids already on his lips to become a compound as labored and as precious as the contents of an alchemist's retort. Moving upwards until he can apply his lips to Celia's, the poet brings this great elixir (line 78) to her mouth, likened to a hive because his mouth, the bee of line 55, brings it all the nectar gathered from her various flowers (line 62). The foreplay ended, the couple are at last ready to begin the coitus described in less difficult verse at lines 79ff.

Turning now -- and, I grant, with a certain relief -- to Donne's less explicit poem, we find that after much outrageous praise of the vagina, calling it the right true end of love, and the center of the microcosm as the earth is of the macrocosm, two ways are mapped for the journey to this goal: from the head downwards, and from the feet upwards. The head-downwards journey is an epic voyage of thrilling beauty:

41 The hair a Forest is of Ambushes,
     Of springes, snares, fetters, and manacles:
     The brow becalms us when 'tis smooth and plain,
     And when 'tis wrinckled, shipwracks us again.
45 Smooth, 'tis a Paradice, where we would have
     Immortal stay, and wrinkled 'tis our grave.
     The Nose (like to the first Meridian) runs
     Not 'twixt an East and West, but 'twixt two suns;
     It leaves a Cheek, a rosie Hemisphere
50 On either side, and then directs us where
     Upon the Islands fortunate we fall,
     Not faynte Canaries, but Ambrosiall,
     Her swelling lips; To which when wee are come,
     We anchor there, and think our selves at home,
55 For they seem all: there Syrens songs, and there
     Wise Delphick Oracles do fill the ear;
     There in a Creek where chosen pearls do swell,
     The Remora, her cleaving tongue doth dwell.
     These, and the glorious Promontory, her Chin
60 Ore past; and the streight Hellespont betweene
     The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts,
     (Not of two Lovers, but two Loves the neasts)
     Succeeds a boundless sea, but yet thine eye
     Some Island moles may scattered there descry;
65 And Sailing towards her India, in that way
     Shall at her fair Atlantick Navell stay;
     Though thence the Current be thy Pilot made,
     Yet ere thou be where thou wouldst be embay'd,
     Thou shalt upon another Forest set,
70 Where many Shipwrack, and no further get.24
Strangely enough, this homeric voyage is described in such dazzling detail only to be condemned; it was misconceived from the start, says Donne, exclaiming "How much they erre" who launch themselves on it. Yet the itinerary he recommends, beginning at the foot, is perfunctory and seems to be over in only about six verses, the rest being taken up with praise of the starting place:
Some Symetry the foot hath with that part
Which thou dost seek, and is thy Map for that
Lovely enough to stop, but not stay at . . .
. . . as free Spheres move faster far than can
Birds, whom the air resists, so may that man
Which goes this empty and Ūtherial way,
Then if at beauties elements he stay (ll. 74-76, 87-90).
The critics have tried to explain this as an inverse blazon, transforming the traditional procedure of the blazon by moving upwards from the foot; and lacking any motive for such a notion other than sheer love of paradox, they have searched for similar inverse blazons and found two: Thomas Nashe's Choice of Valentines and the Song of Solomon. But we need not hunt sources. Donne writes like a pioneer: "practice my Art." Also, supposing the head-downwards journey to be no literal movement of a physical thing, but the movement of the poet's and the reader's focus of attention from one detail of the blazon to the next -- in this case, from the lady's hair to her groin -- there is no reason why the pubic hairs should be regarded as a menacing forest and an obstacle that stops many who "no further get."

One critic has noticed that in his praise of the foot, Donne is recommending, not merely gazing at the foot, but kissing it.25 Why not generalize this to the whole poem, and conceive both voyages as being tantamount to the peregrinations of Carew's "wandring kisse" -- tantamount, that is, to the movement of the lover's mouth along these two routes, head-downwards and foot-upwards? If one does, all becomes clear. A lover lying on his mistress in the missionary position may easily kiss her hair, forehead, nose, mouth (lines 49-58). At that point he is likely to end the foreplay, engaging simultaneously in interplay of his lips and tongue with hers and in genital union; so, if cunnilingus is the goal, her tongue is a remora that hinders the ship from going farther. But if the voyager escapes this remora, the other adventures follow. Descending to the torso, with his eyes very close to it, he perceives it as a huge expanse, like a sea, in which moles loom like islands. The woman's navel, the only sensitive spot below the breasts and hence the only one to be lingered at, resembles an island in the Atlantic at which the voyager stops for supplies. This brings us to the crux of the pubic hairs.

Suppose the mistress to be squeamish and uncertain whether she wants to engage in novel sexual practices. Women in London in the 1590's apparently regarded cunnilingus as a threat of which they had to be wary, or a degradation conflicting with their self-respect and sense of decency. Evidence on this point is indeed rare; but a bit of Shakespearean dialogue deserves mention. In The Taming of the Shrew, II.i, while Petruchio, with gigantic effrontery, courts Katherine and she wittily informs him that she despises him, the two trade a series of puns on tongue in the double sense of language or the organ of speech, and on tale/tail. At last, when Katherine says, "and so farewell," implying that Petruchio must leave, he retorts, "What? With my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, good Kate; I am a gentleman." The connection between these sentences is clearly that Kate has responded with a shocked silence, giving Petruchio such an outraged look as to imply that what he has just said goes far beyond the offensiveness of his previous puns; and he is forced to back-pedal, protesting that she should continue the dialogue because his language is not inconsistent with his high rank in society. Not in the least appeased, Kate cries, "That I'll try," meaning that she will test whether he is aware of the rule that a gentleman never strikes a lady, and she hits him; the most violent act of the play except for her tying up and beating of Bianca. Now fully aware that he has gone too far, Petruchio has to abandon his pretense of a racy dialogue between two well-bred persons and splutter that if she does that again he will cuff her (lines 214-217). We are left to infer that of all the outrageous things Petruchio does in Kate's presence through four acts of this play, the most outrageous is to imply that she would submit to cunnilingus.

Returning to the voyage down the torso, one can expect the mistress to be pleased, but increasingly bewildered as her lover's mouth moves lower on her torso and hence his whole body becomes less aligned for the coitus she had expected to follow the kisses on her own mouth. When the lover buries his lips in her pubic bush, leaving no possible further doubt as to his intent, and alarming her by his apparent lack of any sense of shame,26 she presses her thighs together to stop him. The voyage ends in a shipwreck.

"Rather set out below; practice my Art." By beginning with a kiss on the foot, the lover finesses the whole issue of shame. The gesture is so abject that by offering it, he proposes to offer anything his mistress can accept; accepting it, she proposes to accept anything he can offer.Some lovers, as is well known, become so enraptured wit pedal osculation that they suck the toes, enjoy an orgasm, and never reach the vagina. Donne has a warning for such esthetes: the foot is "Lovely enough to stop, but not stay at." (Line 76) As he moves higher, he can keep his head between her legs, separating them so that by the time his mouth is near her groin, any qualms she may suffer will come too late. There is only one recommendation for this procedure: it is faster (line 87).

A visual effect in Donne's and Carew's poems deserves note. In the first, we have the vast sea of the mistress's torso with its island moles; in the second, the knots of her labia minora, spread like a maze, seeming to cover the whole garden of her vulva. Both images are appropriate to the viewpoint of a man with his face pressed against a woman's body; small things become huge, filling his whole field of vision. Donne's image is a stunning achievement, since rivalled by many great photographs, but Carew's image is a victim of subsequent history. That way of looking at a woman's genitals later became confined to gynecological diagrams and what we have since learned to call hard-core pornography.

At length the question must be faced: where on earth did Donne get the idea that cunnilingus was an activity worthy to be celebrated in verse? Certainly not from the classics (see note 26). Not from the Modi of Marcantonio Raimondi, or the Sonetti Lussuriosi of Pietro Aretino accompanying them, for the former only display various acrobatic ways of accomplishing vaginal coitus and the latter only discuss the rival merits of vaginal and anal coitus; neither mentions cunnilingus. Amour courtoise shuns the physical details of foreplay. Sappho's poetry is rich in emotion but lacking in specifics as to what genital acts may be involved; in fact, Ovid's Sappho to Phaon, whose persona embarrasses herself and the Renaissance humanists by confessing to masturbation, is bolder in this physical detail than is Sappho to Philaenis, the poem Donne wrote in imitation of it. By a process of elimination, then, I conclude: Donne probably got the idea of both Going to Bed and Love's Progress from some Jesuit manual of moral theology or casuistry and most likely from the first edition (Genoa, 1594) of the Three Volumes of Debate on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony by Tom‡s Sanchez, S.J. (1550-1610).

The Jesuits, as is well known, found ways to justify many morally dubious acts by referring them to the purpose for which they were performed (the art of "directing the intention," of which Pascal made savage fun in the Provincial Letters). According to the Aristotelian physiology still current in the sixteenth century, and for long afterwards, both the husband and the wife had to experience sexual arousal and orgasm in order to conceive a child, the end for which marriage was ordained. Thus many kinds of behavior in the marriage bed, generally condemned as abnormal (enormis) and shameless (impudicus) could be, and were, justified by Jesuit canonists on the grounds that they rendered either the husband or the wife readier (aptior) to conceive. Sanchez's words on some of these acts are worth quoting:

Question Two. Whether caresses (tactus), voyeurism (aspectus) and foul talk between spouses are permitted, absent the danger of premature ejaculation? Certain conclusions are reasonable; the first is: When the caress is not engaged in for pleasure sake, but to prepare the spouses for marital intercourse, it is innocent. For one may excite Nature to a lawful act. . . .
     The same is to be said, if a spouse employs these caresses to repress fleshly temptations, thus preventing adultery in himself or the other. For the end proposed is good, and marriage itself was established therefor. . . .
     If these caresses serve the purpose of producing greater delight in coitus, the sin is venial. For the coitus itself is venial when engaged in for that purpose. . . .
     Related to this is a difficult point, whether caresses between spouses, for the sole purpose of procuring delight, with no intent to finish with coitus, are a mortal sin. Some say, "Yes, for all erotic behavior not related to coitus is mortal." . . . Sylvester attributes this doctrine to Paludanus, but without warrant, for Paludanus is speaking of cases in which the danger of premature ejaculation exists. And these caresses, when they are clearly shameless and abnormal, are a mortal sin according to Alexander, in the chapter where he talks of shameless caresses. . . .
     But beyond doubt we must conclude that the sin is merely venial. For the erotic delight is sought, not outside of marriage, but in the act ordained by Nature to serve matrimony. . . .
     You may ask what kind (mortal or venial) is the sin if the husband, intending to engage in lawful coitus with his wife, to arouse himself thereto, or procure to himself greater pleasure, sodomizes her without ejaculating in her rectum, not intending to complete the act unless in her vagina, and with no danger of ejaculation outside it. Navarrus discussed this question . . . and solved it easily, saying that all such unlawful tactus is sinful, but the husband is not obliged to confess the circumstance of sodomy. Whence, clearly, he recognizes only a venial sin in the act, adducing no proof. And Ovando seems to favor this opinion . . . when he says that "all erotically delightful coupling is permitted to spouses, provided there is no danger of extra-vaginal ejaculation. And this can be proven. For whatever the married couple do, provided they use the vagina, does not exceed the venial level of guilt . . . the vagina is said to be used when no semen is spilt outside it, as in this present instance. Secondly, because this tactus (of the penis in the rectum), analogously to the wife's taking the penis in her hands or between her thighs or other parts of her body, can be referred to conjugal coitus, it is no wonder, for the husband is aroused to that delight that makes him the readier for such coitus; and were it intended only for delight, the sin would be venial, as are other forms of tactus intended for delight."
     The other learned men I have consulted say that inchoate sodomy is a mortal sin. . . .
     What is to be concluded of that form of tactus, by means of which the husband puts his penis into his wife's mouth, or her rectum, or touches its superficies without intending to ejaculate there, I have related in Disputation 17, paragraphs 4 and 5.27

From Spenser, Donne had acquired the notion that one could be the lover, in the amour courtoise manner, to one's own wife, as in fact Spenser doubtless was to Elizabeth Boyle and Donne to Anne More. Here, in Sanchez, and his even more permissive author Juan de Ovando, Donne was supplied with the information that husband and wife could engage in manual stimulation of the sexual organs, in fellatio, in intercrural masturbation or stimulation of the penis by "other parts" of the wife's body, and in sodomy, either with God's blessing or at least without his curse. The poet was entitled to infer: if all these things, why not cunnilingus as well? Thus, as so often, scholasticism gave him an idea which no one before had ever expressed in a poem.


1 The one apparent exception to this statement actually proves the rule. Prof. John Shawcross says that lines 4-6 of Love's Progress -- "Love is a bear-whelp born, if we o're lick/Our love, and force it new strange shapes to take,/We erre, and of a lump a monster make" -- "refer to an unnatural inverted sexual position." -- The Complete Poetry of John Donne (New York U.P., N.Y., 1968), p. 65, n. 6. Shawcross, however, fails to specify what this inverted position-which Donne, in passing, rejects before proceeding to eulogize another position-is; from his vague term one might infer either anal intercourse, fellatio, or simultaneous fellatio and cunnilingus. Shawcross's other notes show that he misses the whole point of Love's Progress by interpreting the "end" of love (line 2) as "intercourse" (loc.cit., n. 2), by which he presumably means insertion of the penis into the vagina.

2 John Donne: The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 133.

3 The Later Renaissance in England (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), p. 228.

4 Ms. Johnson clearly alludes to the affinity between Carew's poem and Donne's, a perception I share.

5 "Carew's 'A Rapture': The Dynamics of Fantasy," Studies in English Literature, Vol. 16 (1976), pp. 152-53.

6 Lovelace, Poems, ed. C. H. Wilkinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930), p. 146.

7 On Sanazar's Being Honoured with Six Hundred Duckets, in Poems, p. 199.

8 Randolph, Poetical and Dramatic Works, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (NewYork: Benjamin Blom, 1966), II, 613.

9 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, p. 313. And Leopold Bloom tries to milk Molly into his tea, Ulysses (n.p.: Random House, 1961), p. 754.

10 Marc-Antoine GŽrard, Sieur de Saint-Amant; Oeuvres, ed. Jacques BailbE(Paris: Didier, 1971), I, 167-68. This poem was first published in 1629.

11 Poems, ed. Rhodes Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), p. 51.

12 In Poems, ed. Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), p. 48.

13 The Complement, ll. 49?50, in Poems, p. 101.

14 Poems, p. 58.

15 Poems, p. 98.

16 Loc.cit. The theme of a woman's narcissistic pleasure in tasting her own fluids on her lover's lips occurs in the novel Powdered Eggs by Charles Simmons. "Well, I drank my chambermaiden, I ate the rose . . . she put her hands under my arms and lifted me up . . . I bent down and kissed her, and she tasted herself in my mouth" (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 207.

17 Poems, p. 146.

18 Poems, p. 12.

19 Poems, p. 21.

20 Upon My Lady Carliles Walking in Hampton-Court Garden, ll. 42-45, in Suckling, Works, ed. Thomas Clayton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), I, 31.

21 Carew, Poems, p. 25.

22 Pages 50-51.

23 Thanks are gratefully rendered to James DeLano, Jr., M.D., for his assistance with the technical details of this paragraph.

24 Donne, Poems, ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: U.P., 1912), I, 117-18.

25 John R. Mulder, The Temple of the Mind (New York: Pegasus, 1969), p. 43.

26 ". . . it is far more common for the masochist [in a sadomasochistic couple] to be giving than receiving oral sex. In my sample, submissives were three times more likely to be performing oral sex than to be receiving it." -- Roy F. Baumeister, Masochism and the Self (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989), p. 80. All references to cunnilingus in classical authors such as Martial, Galen, Suetonius, Cicero, Aristophanes, and Ausonius attack it with loathing and contempt. -- Friedrich Karl Forberg, Manual of Classical Erotology, facs. ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1966), Vol. II, Chap. 5.

27 "Quaestio II. An tactus, aspectus, & verba turpia inter conjuges licita sunt, secluso pollutionis periculo? Aliquae conclusiones sunt certiores. Prima conclusio sit. Quando tactus non quaeruntur propter voluptatem, sed ad proeparandum se ad copulam conjugalem, vacant culpa. Quia licitum est juvare naturam ad actum concessum. . . .
     "Idem dicendum est, si conjux hic tactibus utatur ad sedandam carnis tentationem, vitandamque fornicationem in se vel in socio. Quia finis est bunus, & adipsum ordinatur matrim. . . .
     "Se tactus illi referantur ad majorem voluptatem in ipsa copula captandam, sunt culpa venialis. Quia et copula ipsa conjugalis ob eum finem exercita venialis est. . . .
     "Punctus autem difficultatis es pertinet, an tactus inter conjuges ob solam voluptatem in ipsis captandam, absque animo perveniendi ad copulam, sint mortale peccatum? Affirmant quid am. Quoniam omnis actus venereus non relatus ad copulam est mortalis. . . . Sylvester id tribuit paludano: sed immerito, quia Palud. n. 8 relatus loquitur quando est pollutionis periculum. Et hos tactus quando valde sunt impudici & enormes, esse mortales asserit Alexand. in suo Enchirid, praecept. 6. ubi de tactibus impudicis. . . .
     "At procul dubio dicendum est, solam esse culpam venialem. Quia voluptas illa venerea non quaeritur extramatrimonium, sed in actu suapte natura ordinato, ad matrimonii actum.
     "Rogabis forsan, qualis culpa sit, si vir volens legitime uxori copulari, quo se excitet, vel majoris voluptatis captandae gratia, inchoet copulam cum sa sodomiticam, non animo consummandi, nisi intra vas legitimum, nec cum periculo effusionis extra illud. Quaestionem hanc tetigit Navar. l. 5 . . . & facile se abea expedivit, dicens tantum reperiri peccatum tactus cuiusdam illiciti, nec teneri virum confiteri circumstantiam sodomiae. Quare apertesolam venialem culpam in eo actu agnoscit: nullamque reddit rationem. Et huic sent. favere videtur Ovandus 4.d.31. qu . . . ubi ait omnem coitum libidinosum excusari inter conjuges, modo non sit periculum extraordinariae pollutionis. Atque probari potest. Quia quid quid conjuges efficiunt servato vase legitimo, non excedit veniale crimen . . . vas autem servare dicitur, quoties extra illud non effunditur semen: ut contingit in praesenti. Secundo quia tactus hic, instar tacturum membri virilis cum manibus, aut uxoris cruribus, reliquisque partibus, potest ad copulam conjugalem referri, nimirum, ut vir ea delectatione excitetur, aptiorque ad eam efficitur, & esto ad solam voluptatum referretur, esset culpa venialis, qualis sunt caeteri tactus ita relati ad voluptatem.
     "Coeterum viris doctissimis me consultis visum est culpam esse lethalem sodomiae inchoatae. . . .
     "Quid autem dicendum sit de tactu, quo coniux membrum virile in os feminae, aut in vas praeposterum intromittit, vel superficiem illius vasis tangit, non animo ibi consummandi, dixi disp. 17, nu. 4. & 5." -- Disputationum de Sancto Matrimonii Sacramento Tomi Tres Auctore Thoma Sanchez . . . Antverpiae apud Martinum Nutium, 1626, Vol. III, p. 302, col. 2; p. 217, cols. 1-2; p. 303, col. 1. The Genoa 1594 edition of this book, the only one that is unexpurgated, is unfortunately unavailable in the United States.

Letter from English Literary Renaissance:
"I read this essay with pleasure and profit; it would be nice to think that it might be published somewhere, in some form or other. But I can see why three journals have already rejected it, or rather I can imagine why they may have. For one thing, it is of necessity a note, albeit one that is developed at great length for reasons that seem to me justified. For another, there is a certain crassness to the style that seems indecorous in a serious literary journal, though it might fit better in a journal of popular culture (i.e., treating cunnilingus -- the thing itself -- in the Renaissance). And even to think about possible revisions opens up questions as to generic parameters here. For instance, I would think that Dr. DeLano gave the author rather more information about the physiology of cunnilingus than was necessary for explicating Carew's poems -- the state of our knowledge today is indebted, I think, to the marvelous transparent dildo-cum-camera eye of Masters and Johnson; and though it is interesting to know how prophetic Carew's imagination seems to have been, we should probably emphasize the imaginative work in the poem. And for another, I think the final footnote on "shame" both introduces a question of sadomasochistic motivation which the poets would not admit and leaves the reader with the great unaddressed question: if oral sex of either sort is treated with loathing and contempt by classical authors, how has it emerged like Venus fresh from the waves, and in a country famous for its cold climate and absence of bidets? Is there a source for this libertine motif that would account for its presence in a culture where sweet crotches are no more likely a part of the natural landscape than draughts of March or lions threatening shepherdesses? I am sorry we are unable to publish this contribution, but I copy out these remarks hoping they will help you to reflect more on this work before sending it elsewhere."

My correspondent knows something I don't know about why the essay can't be published, but he leaves me to guess what it might be. There's something fishy here, and I daresay the subject of that pun has heard it many times. The quoted letter first blames the crassness of my style, and then employs the phrase "sweet crotches." It is as if the letter had been written by two men very unlike each other, so that it fails to cohere, or as if it were a self-annihilating construct, I mean, a self-destroying confection... oh, blast it, I don't quite know what I mean.

Copyright 2002-2004 by David Renaker. All rights reserved.