Barbara Estrin. Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994. xiii+345 pp. Paper ISBN 0-8223-1499-1.
Nathan P. Tinker
Fordham University

Tinker, Nathan P. "Review of Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 7.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_tin1.html>.

  1. The common critical heritage of the Petrarchan mode is the female as an object consumed by the authorial ego of the male poet as he formally, linguistically and poetically dismembers the body and identity of the pursued, but constantly refusing, woman. The female subject, in other words, does not fare well. Barbara L. Estrin's book, however, seeks to reconceptualize the Petrarchan tradition in terms of the subjectivity of the imagined woman. In attempting to construct the female subject of Renaissance love verse, she continually asks of Petrarch, Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell, "what about the girl?" This question elicits some surprising answers as Estrin posits three female identities that subjectify themselves through the poetry: Laura-Daphne, the traditional Petrarchan woman who denies sexuality; Laura-Eve, the woman who returns sexuality; and Laura-Mercury, "the woman who invents her own life by escaping configuration altogether" (9).

  2. Estrin explains these three Lauras by an analysis of Paris Bordone's mid-sixteenth-century painting "A Pair of Lovers," a full-color print of which appears on the cover of the paperback edition of her book. In the painting, Daphnis and Chloë sit in a bower, their heads together. Daphnis's left arm is behind Chloë's back; his right hand, upon which lies Chloë's left hand, appears to be pulling up her skirts. Cupid, laying a laurel wreath on Daphnis's head, flies above and slightly to the right of the lovers. For Estrin, the problem of this painting, ostensibly about love's victory, lies first in Cupid's wreath: "Why does the winged boy place a laurel wreath around Daphnis's head, when laurels are the consolation prize for thwarted love?" (1) This however is far less important than the configuration of the lovers' hands. If Chloë is pushing Daphnis's hand away, denying sexuality, she is the traditional Petrarchan female. However, if she is pulling Daphnis's hand, drawing it "toward her sexual center" she is Laura-Eve who unwaveringly returns the lover's gaze or Laura-Mercury who initiates the sexual act and thus threatens the stability of the Petrarchan mode (7). By assessing the "multiplicities of gender position," "A Pair of Lovers," suggests Estrin, problematizes the genre of the painting, and thus the poetry she analyzes (5). As Estrin puts it, "something about the iconography is off" (5).

  3. With this in mind, Estrin then moves into what can only be called a "close reading" of her male poets. I enquote "close reading" because, while her analysis is formalist and non-historical, it relies heavily upon the genre theory of Jean-François Lyotard and the gender theory of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray with forays into Lacan, Greenblatt, and a host of other postmodern theorists and critics (this should come as no surprise as the book is part of the "Post-Contemporary Interventions" series edited by Stanley Fish and Frederic Jameson). Estrin begins with Petrarch, finding a "Laura who subverts Petrarchism" (41), one who eventually is able to speak for herself, the Laura-Mercury, and say "I am perhaps not who you think I am" (89), an espousal which engenders an "identity crisis that subverts the origin and forms of Petrarchan invention to make the poet appear as [Laura-Mercury's] invention" (89). For better or worse, Estrin assumes an enormous amount of knowledge of Petrarch on the part of her reader--keep a well-annotated copy of Rime Sparse nearby as you read.

  4. The first two chapters of Laura on Petrarch and Wyatt reveal a certain sense of urgency as they lay the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the book, an urgency which occasionally manifests itself in somewhat awkward analogies. In completing her analysis of Wyatt's Psalms, for instance, Estrin says that "like the revisionist historians who deny Auschwitz, David makes sure there are no Lauras around to testify to his annexations" (122). Equating the imagined silencing of a poetic persona with the systematic revision of holocaust history seems, well, strained, to say the least. This is admittedly an extreme example but it does suggest the linguistic gymnastics Estrin occasionally employs. On the other hand, Estrin's prose often flows with an almost poetic lilt, evoking a self-referentiality that enlivens her complex and intricately reasoned argument. Of Donne's "Change," for instance, Estrin says:
    When [Donne] redefines change, the "I" calls it a sequence rather than a conversion. The woman, who in the opening sections was the single sea, here is numerous waters, and he, one of many banks. Earlier, the god fixation insisted on oneness; here the human opportunity is manifold: many waters; many banks; and, finally, many kisses. At first there was a clear barrier between land and sea. Here the borderline between sea and land is uncertain (217).
    Indeed it is in Estrin's reading of Donne that Laura is at its strongest. For Estrin, Donne essentially opposes Petrarchism as he "yield[s] up the culturally inscribed body and imagin[es] an Eve who frees both herself and the poet to 'do' the undefined 'rest.' When he imagines a poetic of satisfaction, the Donne of 'The Dreame' reinvents the dynamic of desire" (199).

  5. Laura is a book that will no doubt raise the hackles of readers habitually bothered by postmodern criticism. However, the intellectual joy and energy with which Estrin leaps into her subject opens this text to its reader. It is a complex book, deeply infused with a sense of purpose: nothing less than the re-visioning (or "uncovering" to use her term, which she puns upon frequently throughout the book), of the Petrarchan tradition. As such, it is an important, perhaps essential, piece of scholarship in the current reassessment of Renaissance Petrarchism.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 21, 1996)