Sexual Desire – Early Modern Literature

‘[T]o me it’s ease / Since in these flames I can Aeneas please’ (Wharton, A Paraphrase on the last Speech of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneis). Discuss the representation of sexual desire in two of your module text. There is no denying we all have sexual urges and desires. We also have gender typical views on the desire of both sexes. In this essay I am going to look at the representation of sexual desire within the digressional world of Tristram Shandy and within the Sexual Difference poetry, to see how sexuality is depicted as well as dire and how gender impacts our perception of it.

In Thomas Wyatt’s ‘whoso list to hunt’ we see a stereotypical representation of male and female desire. The male portrayed as the hunter and the female and the prey. Controversially, the female figure is represented by a deer. While a deer represents nature, gentleness, grace, it also can be seen as degrading, being represented by an animal; as weak and feeble. I do not believe this to be the case. Throughout the poem, the roles seem to be very much reversed. What begins as an optimistic opening, ‘…

I know where is an hind’ (1) by line two becomes a lamenting sentiment, which ends at the cliche that is ‘but’, ‘But as for me, alas, I may no more’ (2). The deer appears to have the upper hand and the control. The brutal hunter we expect cannot be found within this poem, rather a stumbling, love sick man, seeking to tame the untameable. Rather than the image of a hunter seeking prey being negative, can this not represent his struggle and strife with his emotions.

The deer is irresistible to the hunter, it is his instinct to go after her, he cannot help himself, although it is against his better judgement and against his bodies’ capacity: The vain travail hath wearied me so sore I am of them that farthest cometh behind. Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore Fainting I follow … (3-7) The word fainting suggests that he is entranced by her, The repetition of the opening phrase in line nine, is an evaluation of his situation and position with this female he so desires.

The piece changes once more, to no longer a self lament, but rather a piece of advice for fellow ‘hunters’ if you will. We also learn a lot about the way in which female desire is perceived with this poem. Is it the deer’s desire to be hunted? Every time the hunter draws closer she flees only to wait for him to draw closer once more. It is important also to recognise that the woman is passive within the poem. She remains mute throughout. Even the necklace around her neck speaks on her behalf, ‘… for Caesar’s I am’ (13).

While she appears at first free, in fact she is still very much restricted under the ownership of Caesar, be this a literal man or a representation of a man of power and wealth, by being owned she is forbidden to the hunter. Maybe in fact the poem draws on ideas of the forbidden, that she appeals to him because of the fact he cannot have her. Wyatt plays on our perceptions of relationships through the visual image of Caesar’s hinds. Each hind was encrypted with: Noli me tangere quia Caesaris sum (Touch me not for I am Caesar’s) on their collars and were then set free and presumed to be safe from prying hunters.

Wyatt parallels this with the idea that if a woman is spoken for she is presumed safe from other men. There is the issue of her freedom within this poem. The idea of being ‘owned’ by a man. Caesar’s hinds were set free, collared so they are not killed. The final part of the encryption in the poem reads, ‘And wild for to hold, though I seem tame’ (14). This Final line suggests that while she’s is collared she is not to be owned by anyone, she is wild, wild with desire, and desire cannot be tamed. This is suggested earlier in the poem ‘Since in a net seek to hold the wind’ (8)

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