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Poetry: Love Between Women

Poetic works or authors of works that feature depictions of romantic love or desire between women.

LHMP entry

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

In a future entry, I will be covering Traub's magnum opus ( The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England) where she traces changes in the rhetoric around relations between women during the 17th century. The present article is adapted from one chapter of that work that looks at concept of "Nature" and the theme of love between women as being an "impossibility".

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.

While Bogin was primarly an edition of the texts of the works of the Trobairitz, this is a collection of scholarly papers by various authors. Rieger considers the question of the relationship of the text of “Na Maria, pretz e fina valors” to the nature of the relationship between the text's author and addressee. While there are other troubadour lyrics addressed from a woman to a woman, these either fall in the conversational genre of the “tenso” or are explicitly framed as a woman speaking as a go-between for an absent male lover.

Skinner examines the relationship between female poetic inspiration and the homoerotic implications of a female poet with a female muse. Although the article opens with a consideration of modern discussions of the concept of poetic muse and the implications of gendering this imagined relationship, the heart of her paper concerns the Greek poets Sappho and Nossis and the ways they portray their relationship to inspiration in the form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and secondarily to the nine Muses.

The increasing divide between the derided image of erotic sapphic relations and the praiseworthy image of female domesticity, epitomized by non-erotic woman+woman couples, is played out in attitudes toward certain couples. The “Ladies of Llangollen” (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were firmly established in the popular imagination as the model of non-sexual romantic friendship.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

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