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In 1967, Christiaan Barnard performed the first human to human heart transplant. The donor, Denise Darvall, was left brain dead after a car crash. The recipient was the Cape Town grocer Louis Washkansky. With the help of immunosuppressive drugs, Washkansky’s body accepted the heart. The drugs also affected his immune system. Eighteen days later, he contracted double pneumonia and died. The first heart transplant is a tragic story on many levels. The very idea of surrendering your heart to another person has passionate and spiritual associations, especially in the English Renaissance. 

The early modern physician Jacques Ferrand noted how falling in love afflicted the heart with melancholy. In particular, the man’s heart causes melancholy by transforming the woman’s beauty into an unkept promise of feverish lovemaking. The liver and genitals are also responsible for causing ‘love’ or erotic love that is linked to melancholic symptoms (Ferrand 257). The ideal cure is making corporeal love. However, the liver and genitals are not as poetically aesthetic as the passionate heart. A sensibility shared by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. He reveals in sonnet XVII of the Amoretti (1595) the foolishness of falling in love: ‘The sweet eye-glaunces, that like arrows glide,/the charming smiles, that rob sence from the hart’ (xvii, lines 9-10). The Lady’s alluring glances and smiles fill the Lover with excessive passion, which overcomes his normally rational ‘hart’ indicated by the noun ‘sence’. Therefore, the heart, not the brain, is responsible for rational thinking. It is vulnerable to the Lady’s alluring beauty that can make the restrained Lover suffer from melancholia.

Sacred Heart of Jesus by Antonius Wierix (1558-86)

It is worth noting that Spenser is working in a tradition started by the 14th Century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch who mastered the sonnet form. He portrays himself as suffering from unrequited love for his beloved, Laura. Despite being a willing audience, she is impossible to woo. Yet the traditional Petrarchan Lover is mainly in love with his own poetic wit and erotic prowess.  He realises that if he doesn’t properly mask his narcissistic intentions, then he risks losing the Lady altogether by boring her with his masturbatory fantasies.

Petrarch’s Canzionere or Song Book, a collection of three hundred and sixty-six sonnets and other poetic forms that became known as rime sparse or scattered rhymes, set the benchmark for  English Renaissance sonnet sequences. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, published posthumously in 1591, is the first proper sonnet sequence written in the English language. It also contains the first kinky eye and heart swapping fetish: ‘We change eyes, and heart for heart/Each to other do impart,/Joying, till joy makes us languish’ (10, lines 41-43). The simple exchange of eyes and heart denotes narcissistic excess, as the lovers are captivated by their own beauty – though it is worth mentioning that Astrophil, the poetic speaker, presumes that Stella derives the same joy as he does through swapping body parts. 

Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroth, uses a metaphoric heart transplant to emphasise spiritual purity in Sonnet 26 {P30} of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621):

Butt if you will bee kind, and just indeed,

Send mee your hart which in mines place shall feed

On faithfull love to your devotion bound;

Ther shall itt see the sacrifises made

Of pure, and spottles love which shall nott vade

While soule, and body are together found. (26, lines 9-14). 

In a departure from the Petrarchan tradition, Wroth’s long suffering Lover is female rather than male. Pamphilia’s plea to her beloved to ‘bee kind, and just’ appears to relate to typical narcissistic gratification, as Amphilanthus’ heart ‘shall feed/On faithfull love to your devotion bound’ so he can clearly ‘see the sacrifises made’. Pamphilia’s purpose here is not simply to impress Amphilanthus, but to make a plea for him to enjoy a ‘pure, and spottles love’; just like her name that means ‘all-loving’ to indicate her altruistic nature.

Lady Mary Wroth

Pamphilia transforms the Petrarchan Lady from a perverse love object mirroring the male Lover’s erotic narcissistic desires to an emotional subject who suffers herself. Through self sacrifice, she creates a divine space where she and her beloved can express their incorporeal love. My reading is contrary to Jeff Masten’s who argues that, ‘[t]he heart transplant…signifies…a withdrawal into an interiorised corporeal space’.The ‘withdrawal into an interiorised corporeal space’  is actually Pamphilia’s plea for Amphilanthus to subjugate himself to her chaste ideals where a ‘pure, and spottles love…shall nott vade’, because incorporeal love is not possible within Amphilanthus’ one-track mind; despite his name signifying ‘the lover of two’ to infer that Amphilanthus should not be the typical narcissistic Petrarchan Lover who his obsessed with suffering. Instead, he should love Pamphilia as much as himself. Pamphilia expands the ‘interiorised corporeal space’ into an external incorporeal one to incorporate both soul and body. However, her gamble relies on Amphilanthus’ transforming his heart into a space where a ‘pure, and spottles love’ (26, line 13) can flourish rather than languish. Otherwise, like the first heart donor Denise Darvall, Pamphilia’s sacrifice would have been in vain.


Ferrand, Jacques. A Treatise on Lovesickness. 1623. Eds. Donald A. Beecher & Massimo Ciavolella. New York:Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Long, Tony.’Dec. 3, 1967: Patient Dies, but First Heart Transplant a Success’, http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2007/12/dayintech_1203, accessed 24/08/11.

Masten, Jeff . ‘“Shall I turne blabb?”: Circulation, Gender, and Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets’. Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England. Ed. Naomi J. Miller & Gary Waller. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991, 70.


Sidney, Sir Philip. Astrophil and Stella. 1591. Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Spenser, Edmund. Amoretti. (1595). The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Eds. William A. Oram et al. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989.


Wroth, Mary. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. 1621. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Ed. Josephine A. Roberts. Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.


Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, http://www.sacredheartofjesusbook.com/illustration03-text.html, date accessed 25/08/11.

Luminarium: Lady Mary Wroth, 1587?-1651.