Monday, February 11, 2008

Lovelace the Libertine

When Lovelace's first letter to John Belford breaks into Clarissa's correspondence with Anna Howe and her "friends," Lovelace includes a portion of Dryden's Tyrannic Love: "But raging flames tempestuous souls invade:/A fire, which ev'ry windy passion blows;/With pride it mounts, and with revenge it glows" (p. 144, L 31). Lovelace's correspondence with Belford continues in this section of reading, as does his "Roman style." Not only does he make poetic allusions but he also compares Clarissa to Portia and Calpurnia (p.420, L107) and dares to suggest he can be likened to Caesar: "Was not the great Caesar a great rake as to women?" (p. 429, L110).

We've talked a bit in seminar about Lovelace's style, but I wanted a better sense of the historical and literary context in which he was writing. After an investigation into the half-vengeful, half-enamored tone of Lovelace's professed love, I found two books with helpful commentary:

from James Turner's essay "Lovelace and the paradoxes of libertinism" (from Doody and Sabor's Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays, Cambridge, 1989)
"Libertine sexuality cannot be understood simply as a surrender to spontaneous physicality; it is inseparable from the cerebral triumph over the opposite sex, from mastery exercised through tactical reason. ... It is important to recognize, at this point, that the term 'libertine' referred to an aesthetic as well as a sexual or philosophical stance, a style of writing as well as a mode of behaviour. Lovelace's antecedents tried to align the aesthetic and the erotic, but they do not necessarily coincide. Dryden (a favorite poet of Lovelace's!) and Oldham, for example, use 'libertine' to denote the free mode of translation that Pope would later use in his Imitations of Horace--a form of imitation that is fruitful and energetic rather than 'abortive'. For Pierre Corneille, to abandon the unities in drama is 'libertine'. And Mme de Sevigne--one of the few French authors whom Richardson acknowledges and discusses, precisely because she raised issues of propriety and style--uses the word to denote a delightful improvisatory freedom of style. She refers continually to 'le libertinage de ma plume', and particularly praises those letters written by her daughter 'when you have no subjects', when she is free to write 'lettres toutes libertines'. In this sense, Clarissa herself is 'libertine'. Richardson ... has created for Clarissa a style of penetration and freedom, the aristocratic lady's epistolatory manner that had been brought to perfection by Mme de Sevigne" (71, 75).

and from Margaret Doody's A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson (Oxford, 1974)
"Dryden's dramatic verse becomes part of Richardson's own fictional language, contributing imagery and content, used ironically by the character and ironically about the character. The role Lovelace most often adopts is that of the tragic tyrant-lover. ... Like the tyrant-heroes of the stage, Lovelace seizes upon the 'Vengeance', the 'Rage', which gives him the right to conquer and humiliate the woman, even, if necessary, by sheer force. His threats about Clarissa's fate, his belief that after the act of sexual possession she will lose all personal will and identity in humiliated subjection are totally in keeping with the actions and attitudes of tyrannic lovers" (110, 112).

I found it particularly interesting that while Lovelace is overtly free in his style, even to the point of theatricality, Clarissa's letters might be interpreted as libertine as well in terms of style and structure.

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