08 November - Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (1586-1629) May 16, 2008 19:10:13 GMT 2
Post by moira on May 16, 2008 19:10:13 GMT 2
Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth
Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (1586-1629)
Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford (1556-88)
I've just returned from the MLA conference where I went to three different sessions on Renaissance women and Renaissance women poets. Marguerite de Navarre, and a group of Italian women poets were the subjects. I listened to a paper by a woman (Victoria Kirkham) who has spent at least 15 years (probably much more) working on an edition of the poetry of Laura Battiferra, a 16th century Italian women poet. Battiferra left something like 500 poems (mostly sonnets), only 2 slender collections of which were published in her lifetime. She (Battiferra) is now a brand-new poet . For me it was stirring to hear Professor Kirkham talk about her work.
So I thought for this week I would choose a Renaissance women poet, an English woman whose work came back into print after a few hundred years' disappearance: Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth. From her sonnet sequence and very long novel-rmance partly based on her real-life liaison with her cousin, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (who also wrote poetry):
When night's black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleep death's Image did my senses hire
From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftness need require:
In sleep, a Chariot drawn by wing'd desire
I saw: where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,
And at her feet her son, still adding fire
To burning hearts which she did hold above,
But one heart flaming more then all the rest
The goddess held, and put it to my breast,
Dear son, now shut said she: thus must we win;
He her obey'd, and martyr'd my poor heart,
I, waking hoped as dreams it would depart
Yet since: Oh me, a lover I have been.
Oh strive not still to heap disdain on me,
Nor pleasure take your cruelty to show
On hapless me, on whom all sorrows flow,
And biding make, as given, and lost, by thee:
Alas, even grief is grown to pity me;
Scorn cries out gainst itself, such ill to show,
And would give lease for joy's delights to flow;
Yet wretched I all tortures bear from thee,
Long have I suffered, and esteemed it dear,
Since such thy will; yet grew my pain more near;
Wish you my end? Say so, you shall it have;
For all the depth of my heart-held despair
Is that for you I feel not death for care;
But now I'll seek it, since you will not save.
Like to the Indians, scorched with the sun,
The sun which thy do as their god adore,
So am I used by love: for evermore
I worship him: less favours have I won;
Better are they who thus to blackness run,
And so can only whiteness' want deplore,
Than I who pale and white am with grief's store,
Nor can have hope, but to see hopes undone.
Besides, their sacrifice received's in sight
Of their chose saint, mine hid as worthless rite.
Grant me to see where I my offerings give;
Then let me wear the mark of Cupid's might
In heart, as they in skin of Phoebus' light
Not ceasing offerings to love while I live.
Late in the Forest I did Cupid see
Cold, wet, and crying he had lost his way,
And being blind was farther like to stray:
Which sight a kind compassion bred in me,
I kindly took, and dried him, while that he
Poor child complain'd hee starved was with stay.
And pined for want of his accustom'd prey,
For none in that wild place his host would be,
I glad was of his finding, thinking sure
This service should my freedom still procure,
And in my arms I took him then unharmd,
Carrying him safe unto a Myrtle bower
But in the way he made me feel his power,
Burning my heart who had him so kindly warmed. (1621)
She's a past mistress at rhymes, no? And her poetry does not emerge as woolly in the way of Spenser (who also uses the Italian form of sonnet with few rhymes).[/blockquote][/font]
Mary Wroth was the daughter of Sir Robert Sidney and Lady Barbara Gamage; her family played a prominent role in the politics of the court of Elizabeth I; they were strongly "Protestant" and anti-Spanish, although when the war came they sided with the King (and their property rights). The family was also literary and intellectual. She was niece to a famous Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sidney; Sir Philip's sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, translated the psalms; her father, Sir Robert, wrote a sonnet sequence (superb, superb -- as good as many of the famous metaphysicals). In 1604 she was married to Sir Robert Wroth. Lady Mary herself wrote a masque, Love's Victorie, and a long novel, The Countesse of Montgomery's Urania, which basically imitated her uncle Sir Philip Sidney's famous novel, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (the lady's name in both cases is the dedicatee). To this novel was attached a sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, also an imitation of her uncle's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella (star-gazer and star). As Sir Philip's sonnets are partly autobiographical (based on his love affair with Penelope Rich); so Mary Wroth's are partly autobiographical and based on her love affair with her cousin, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (he was the son of Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Worth's aunt and Philip's sister who was herself a poet). Pembroke is sometimes also said to have been the male lover in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence (he got around); he was an important courtier in the courts of James I and Charles I and wrote cavalier poetry, some to Mary Wroth. The two had two children. Mary Wroth was not a "public" person and little is known about her beyond what can be surmized from the external documents and her literary works. Although her sonnet sequence was written during Donne's period, it resembles the poetry of Shakespeare's sonnets (and those of her uncle) as much as it does that of Donne and his cavalier. It is simpler, the metaphors are slowly worked out; I's say they are characteristically Elizabethan, apt and feminine, rather than startling or striving for originality. The tone is just drenched in reverie and anguish. You have to remember how transgressive it was for a woman to write poetry about her love affair in this way. She means to make visible what the erotic double standard inflicts on women.
A few days later:
Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford
In defense of this kind of poetry, I think we have to into account this very different era from our own. Among other things, it was acceptable to beat your wife, by doctrine absolute submission of the wife was demanded, and if the first was not as probable to be done to a woman connected to a powerful family, and it's clear Mary Wroth did not adhere to the second, ruthless behavior was practiced to ensure forced marriages. She did what she could in private -- no children by Wroth and apparently she lived more or less (and quietly) with Herbert.
His poems include some to her. For me hers witness the intense religious guilt these women had inflicted on them; she was part of a family strongly influenced by the Calvinistic protestant reformation, and the same kinds of plangency occur in her uncle Philip's, her father Robert's original sardonically depressed poetry (which I like almost as much as Philip's) and her aunt's free recreative translations of the psalms. I do admire Wroth's poetry for its technique. I've also read into her romance and find it fascinating -- for psychology of women. Her imagery in both the romance and verse, the tropes, and much else are all richly rewarding to study from all sorts of points of view. And I like her and recognize aspects of myself in her. And to put her in context, I assume she wrote depressed poetry because she was jjustifiably) often depressed. So did and do many other women. Nothing wrong with that either. In my view it's the cheerful people who need to justify themselves (only half a joke).
These thoughts are partly also brought on because I've been asked to evaluate an article (to recommend publication or not) for a Renaissance journal. The article takes me back to an essay I published more than 15 years ago -- on a sonnet sequence I still think was written by Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford. After her death, one of her daughters married into the iinterlocking Sidney clan. Without bothering people for details of the controversy, nor why I still incline on the side of attribution, here's my essay if anyone is interested:
I concluded it with a detail from the story of Wroth's suppression of her romance, done under duress and with intense or a kind of semi-hysteria since she was being driven to do what she didn't want to do. Women owned no property in their own right (nor their children) and it was easy to pressure them; jointure rights depended on your family members going to court for you (very often). I'll copy and paste just that closure (as I don't expect anyone will get that far):
"I conclude this reprint of the first sonnet sequence in English attributed to an Englishwoman with a passage from a letter by a sixteenth-century Englishwoman whom we know wrote a sonnet sequence in English, Mary Sidney Lady Wroth. Her partly autobiographical romance, The Countess of Montgomeries Urania and its appended sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (both printed 1621), were almost as successfully suppressed as Pandora, and until the eighth decade of this century Lady Wroth was almost as forgotten as Anne Cecil.35 Lady Wroth's letter to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (dated 15 December 1621) documents the response -- one of humiliation and desperation -- of a nearly contemporary woman sonneteer, a member of the same milieu as Anne, and the kinds of steps Lady Wroth was personally prepared to take to hunt out and destroy her work:
'I have with all care caused the sale of [Urania] to bee forbidden, and the books left to bee shut up, for those that are abroad, I will likewise doe my best to gett them in, if itt will please your Lordship to procure mee the kings warrant to that effect, without which non will deliver them to mee, besids that your Lordship wilbe plesed to lett mee have that which I sent you, the example of which will without question make the others the willinger to obay . . . what I ame able to doe for the getting in of books (which from the first were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published) I will with all care and diligence parforme (Wroth 236).'"
So many great women poets of this era take the abject stance: Gaspara Stampa is such another as Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth. Were it not for Gaspara's sister, Cassandra, who bravely published her sister's poetry, we would not have Stampa's remarkable beautiful sequence and the candidly told story of her life.
Maybe by sheer happenstance, but probably not (as it's a matter of temperament), I today on my blog told the story of another woman who died in childbirth (forced on her more or less) at age 31, and there I quoted Angela Carter whose thoughts on early modern women are worth reading in her Shaking a Leg:
"To sleep among my paintings is beautiful"