The depiction of desire in Wroth's "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" and Donne's poems "The Flea" and "The Ecstasy"

A comparison

Essay, 2015

6 Pages


The Renaissance was a cultural movement that began in the 14th century in Italy and gradually affected other western European countries up to the 17th century. The beginning of the Renaissance in England was approximately around 1500 and ended in 1642 when the English Civil War started. Several genres made the most of all written literature of that time to all of the head sonnets and sonnet cycles. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus a sonnet cycle of 103 poems and a few songs was written by Lady Mary Wroth and one of the first poems written by an English woman in history. It was first published as a part of Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomeries Urania in 1621. Wroth’s sonnets deal partly with desire but she hides it behind metaphors or innuendos. In contrast to her prudish style of writing John Donne’s poems are much more provocative. He is not afraid of talking about desire and physical proximity. He wrote several poems but not linked to each other like in a sonnet sequence. This essay will focus on the poems 15, 31, 33, 46 and 47 of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus by Wroth and on The Flea and The Ecstasy by Donne. Donne’s poems were only published after his death in 1631 hence the exact composing date is unknown.

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus deals with an unfulfilled love where Pamphilia, the speaker of the poems, tries to resists her feeling for Amphilanthus her beloved. Wroth was the niece of Sir Philip Sidney the author of the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella with which Wroth’s sonnet cycle is often compared to because of the many parallels. It is obvious that Wroth was inspired of Sidney’s work which was published 40 years earlier. Poem 15 of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus deals with Pamphilia’s desire for Amphilanthus. She disclaims that she desires Amphilanthus physically “Your sight is all the food I do desire” (v.9). She says that seeing him is enough for her and that she therefore needs no corporal interaction.

Wroth is no different, such that even when a speaker is professing that she can live by sight alone, the nutritive metaphor underlines how much, for human beings, this is impossible (Hecht, 104).

Thus, she says that she can live without physical proximity but in her heart she knows that this is not true. Furthermore, she says that their love could be destroyed by that and that she does not want that. “Destroy not what your glory is to save:| Kill not that soul to which you spirit gave” (v. 2- 3). In the end of the poem she talks about eating air like a chameleon and that she can live by that (cf. v. 13- 14).

Pamphilia does not want to fall in love with anybody because is afraid of the society. When she falls in love with someone she has the feeling of being addicted to this person. Moreover, women had a difficult role in Renaissance because they did not have any rights were totally dependent on the male persons in their lives like husband, father or brother. Additionally, Pamphilia worries about being seen as a female object when she gives her heart away to Amphilanthus. “Wroth further alters generic conventions in order to present the problematic of female subjectivity through the voice of a woman” (Miller, 154). In poem 31 she complains about her love and that she does not want it. “In embers of that fire which ruin’d me” (v. 11) shows that love is destroying her because love is the fire. Furthermore, she cannot rely on hope anymore because it does not help her. She claims hope to be false and that only keeping her liberty is true (cf. v. 12- 14).

The speaker is so far in her experience of love suffering that hope itself has become a familiar and fatiguing arrival, because she knows (1) that it will raise her spirits and give fuel to her passion, and (2) it does not herald an end to her suffering, but merely a phase in its endless and cyclical unfolding (Hecht, 105).

In poem 33 one can clearly see the hidden desire of Pamphilia. The first verse “Fly hence O! Joy, no longer here abide” shows that she is alone and gaining for the joy she had have previously. A man is depicted as the sun in verse nine and without the sun that Pamphilia enjoyed times ago everything is dark and sad for her. While she enjoyed the sun she thought that this will never end but that was a false assumption but she denied it too late. The word “enjoyed” sounds like using someone instead of being equal and having the same feelings.

Although this sonnet sequence is often compared with Astrophil and Stella there is one major difference: Astrophil is gaining for Stella’s love even though he knows that he will never get it and Pamphelia is not talking about getting her beloved’s love because she is too occupied with her own role in the relationship. “Pamphilia, must endure the isolation of several ‘enchantments’ in the process of defining her identity within the courtship relation” (Miller, 154). In Hecht’s opinion the most important poem about the positive aspects of love that Pamphelia mentions is poem 46 (cf. 101). In this poem Pamphelia talks about the positive parts of being in love like “kissing” (v. 3). Here she is no longer only talking about unphysical contact. By saying that “in the soul true love in safety lies” (v. 14) she combines the physical and unphysical features of love. She uses the word “toying” (v. 3) that is usually used for children playing with a toy. It suggests that Pamphilia does not take love seriously and that she is only playing with her beloved whom she can put away like a toy when she is done with him.

Finally, in poem 47 she says that if she sees her beloved her love for him grows (cf. v. 4) and that he is so handsome that one has to love him (cf. v. 5). Moreover, she does not only love him she also desires him and portrays him as brilliant. She admits that her soul is in love with him (cf. v. 8) although she tried to resist this love from the beginning of the sonnet cycle.

As Hecht says it, that “there is nothing, either, in poetry more contemporary to Wroth, such as John Donne” (91). In contrast to Wroth Donne expresses desire and sex in his poems more directly because in his opinion love is linked to sex and the body. Furthermore, love can only be expressed through bodies and therefore, through sex what makes this combination inseparable (cf. Martin, 145).

Donne’s poem The Flea deals with a couple that is bitten by a flea and the lover likes the idea that their blood is mixed together within the flea. “[O]ne blood made of two” (v. 8) is normally a baby of two persons because these two people give life to a new one. Thus, the lover sees the flea as their baby. “Where we almost, yea, more than married are” (v. 11) supports this because a marriage can be divorced but a baby will always connect two people for their entire life. Moreover, the flea is seen as their “marriage bed” and “marriage temple” (v. 13) because in the Renaissance it was not allowed to have sex with someone one is not married to. The flea was able to suck from the lover and the beloved hence they have to be close together because otherwise the flea would not be able to suck blood from both of them within a short period of time. Hence, they have to be already close to each other. Additionally, the lover does not want to kill the flea because killing the flea would kill their love as well because it is mixed within the flea (cf. v. 16- 18). In the end of the poem the beloved kills the flea and the lover is disappointed about this cruelty. “[ The Flea offers] a variety of attitudes ranging from the self- consciously libidinous to the bitter to the solemn” (Smith).

Donne tends to eroticize [...] in works such as “The Canonization” and “The Extasie”, but in the latter, the lovers’ newly united soul actually fulfils the potential promised to Adam and Eve- they become so airy that they may either ascend to new heights or descend to enjoy carnal pleasure (Martin, 145).

Donne’s poem The Ecstasy is more erotically than The Flea. The poem starts with eroticized metaphors like “pillow on a bed” (v. 2) and “pregnant bank swell'd up” (v. 3). A bed in this context is associated with a couple lying in bed what is enforced by the use of the word “pregnant”. In the next two quatrains the eyes are very important because the lover and the beloved see each other’s image in the eyes of the other (cf. v. 11). The eyes are supposed to be the mirror of one’s soul or the gate to it and hence the souls of the two come out of their bodies to communicate as it is said in the third quatrain. While the souls are interacting the bodies are standing still. Verses 19 to 20 “[a]ll day, the same our postures were,
[a]nd we said nothing, all the day” evoke the idea that if two people are lying in bed the whole day without talking that they have sex. The poem goes on with explaining which things are better now in the presence of the beloved and that both enjoy the unity of their souls. Although love is expressed through their interacting souls out of their body the lover also desires physical proximity. In the thirteenth quatrain the souls think about their bodies and come to the conclusion that they are part of them. When they are really in love they have to use their bodies as well because one cannot be in love without the body. “Our bodies why do we forbear?“ (v. 50). Therefore, the souls return to their bodies in quatrain number 18 and the bodies take over control or as Hecht describes it: “an ecstasy that, as in Donne’s sight-looking poem by that name, ends in a coupling of bodies” (104).

All in all, Donne depicts his desire in combination with love. Thus, the body which expresses the desire and the soul which expresses love are directly linked with each other and inseparable. People who love each other can express their love through their bodies and their souls. Furthermore, he questions “traditional views of love and marriage” (Martin, 148). To express desire and love he often makes use of erotic metaphors or representativeness. In contrast to him Wroth’s poems do not deal with desire and love in that way. Her sonnet sequence Pamphelia to Amphilanthus is more about the confession of being in love of Pamphelia. In some sonnets one can see that she also desires Amphilanthus proximity but it is not the main part of the poems. Wroth hides the passages about physical closeness behind other topics and sentences in her poems like femininity or objectivity. Moreover, sex and love are not directly linked in her poems because she says that Pamphelie can even live by air or sight alone. Therefore, desire and love are easier to detect in Donne’s than in Wroth’s poems.

Works Cited

Hecht, Paul J. “Distortion, Aggression, and Sex in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets”. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500- 1900. 53.1 (2013): 91- 115. Print.

Martin, Catherine Gimelli. “Milton’s and Donne’s Stargazing Lovers, Sex, and the New Astronomy”. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500- 1900. 54.1 (2013): 143- 171. Print.

Miller, Naomi J. “Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania”. A companion to early modern women's writing. Ed. Anita Pacheco. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002. Chapter 10. Print.

Smith, Christopher B. "Absence, Desire, and Love in John Donne and Roland Barthes."CONCEPT [Online], 26 (2003): n. pag. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.


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The depiction of desire in Wroth's "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" and Donne's poems "The Flea" and "The Ecstasy"
A comparison
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Laura Commer (Author), 2015, The depiction of desire in Wroth's "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" and Donne's poems "The Flea" and "The Ecstasy", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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