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
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
, 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
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
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
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
, 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
, 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
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
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 ģtherial 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
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 Tomás 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.
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.
John Donne: The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 133.
The Later Renaissance in England (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), p. 228.
Ms. Johnson clearly alludes to the affinity between Carew's poem and Donne's, a perception I share.
"Carew's 'A Rapture': The Dynamics of Fantasy," Studies in English Literature, Vol. 16 (1976), pp. 152-53.
Lovelace, Poems, ed. C. H. Wilkinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930), p. 146.
On Sanazar's Being Honoured with Six Hundred Duckets, in Poems, p. 199.
Randolph, Poetical and Dramatic Works, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (NewYork: Benjamin Blom, 1966), II, 613.
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.
Marc-Antoine Gérard, Sieur de Saint-Amant; Oeuvres, ed. Jacques BailbĀE(Paris: Didier, 1971), I, 167-68. This poem was first published in 1629.
Poems, ed. Rhodes Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), p. 51.
In Poems, ed. Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), p. 48.
The Complement, ll. 49?50, in Poems, p. 101.
Poems, p. 58.
Poems, p. 98.
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.
Poems, p. 146.
Poems, p. 12.
Poems, p. 21.
Upon My Lady Carliles Walking in Hampton-Court Garden, ll. 42-45, in Suckling, Works, ed. Thomas Clayton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), I, 31.
Carew, Poems, p. 25.
Thanks are gratefully rendered to James DeLano, Jr., M.D., for his assistance with the technical details of this paragraph.
Donne, Poems, ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: U.P., 1912), I, 117-18.
John R. Mulder, The Temple of the Mind (New York: Pegasus, 1969), p. 43.
". . . 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.
"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
"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
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
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