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Birthing and Mining in John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”

DOI: 10.4236/als.2017.54006, PP. 57-83

Keywords: Medicine in Literature, John Donne, Caesarean Section, History of Obstetrics, Mining Metaphors, To His Mistress Going to Bed, Early Modern Childbirth

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Abstract:

This paper uncovers an aspect of “To His Mistress Going to Bed” that has largely been ignored by critics of the poem, namely, the poem’s interest in the interrelationship between power, geological exploration, and childbirth. Over the past twenty years, social historians and historians of medicine have explored early modern accounts of childbirth, making it possible for scholars to recover the historical context framing Donne’s depictions of childbirth. Placing “To His Mistress” within this historical context forces us to rethink a number of critical assumptions about the poem: in particular that the poem concerns sex but not procreation. In this paper, I explore the implications that medical beliefs about reproduction and the medical politics of childbirth had for Donne as he set about trying to dramatize male desire and uncover the hidden interior of the female body. My historical analysis reveals how the poem fits within the early modern conversation about women’s reproductive power and artificial birth. By illuminating interwoven references to childbirth with references to mining, I situate Donne’s poem within the larger early modern conversation about women’s reproductive power and artificial birth. This repositioning has important implications for Donne’s sexual politics and the medical context informing his work.

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