Genre: Salve Deus Rex JudŠorum works in several genres, including political essay, polemic, religious tract, and a poem suing for court preference on behalf of a courtier, interlaced with personal memoir. The concluding "coda," "To Cooke-ham," may be the first "country house poem" in English, a genre made popluar as a way for poets to celebrate their patrons' country estates and to comment upon the proper aesthetic use of riches. (Ben Jonson's "Penshurst" used to be thought of as the first of this genre before Lanyer's work was rediscovered.)
Characters: Lanyer, herself, as well as her dedicatory poems' sequence of patrons, the most important of which are the Queen, Anne Clifford and her mother, Lady Margaret, Dowager Countess of Montgomery, but her construction of "the Virtuous Reader" also is included in the Norton. Other significant biblical characters include Eve, Pontius Pilate's wife, and a sequence of female heroines who at various times save the Jewish people from oppression. (Note that the Norton anthology has excerpted 96 lines from the center of the poem, and in doing so, has removed all but two of the sequence of dedicatory poems by which Lanyer assembles her "Muses" to safeguard reception of the poem which follows. To see all of those dedicatory poems, which are available on the Brown Women Writers Project site, click here.
Plot Summary: Lanyer engages her powerful aristocratic women-patrons in a dialogue about women's historical reputation and capacity for creative excellence that reaches from Genesis to her own recent farewell to the estate (Cookham or "Cooke-ham") where she learned to think of herself as a poet with world-class aspirations. She is not unmarked by her past, and it shows in her insistent appeals to aristocratic authority in terms we might compare to Sappho's invocation of the gods. Their generosity and protection rescued Lanyer's avid, curious, sensitive mind from a difficult life serving as wife to a minor courtier in a loveless marriage. For more on Lanyer's biography, click here. Unless you understand her background, her motivation for writing the poem may seem hard to understand.
The body of the poem is divided into sections corresponding to the stages of the Passion, interspersed with Lanyer's comments to her primary patron, Margaret, Countess Dowager of Cumberland. For students who find the Elizabethan spelling and complex stanza structure slow going, please concentrate on her most daring attempts to reinterpret the male-authored views of women. For a list of key passages and some help navigating the archive text, click here. (STRONGLY RECOMMENDED FOR ENGLISH MAJORS CONSIDERING GRADUATE SCHOOL!)
Issues and general research sources: (Note, these notes refer to the whole of "SDRJ," but the 96 lines excerpted in the Norton are addressed in notes 11 and 12 below. Her "Description of Cooke-ham" actually is part of "SDRJ," a poetic coda lamenting the dispersal of the household of the Countess of Cumberland from that estate.)
1) Early in the poem, Lanyer swerves between praise of the Countess of Cumberland as beautiful and wise woman, and praise of Jesus as a fair and powerful ruler. She even asks "Pardon" (l. 145) for slipping from one purpose to another, but is this accidental? Remember shes a literate poet and has plenty of time to edit her work should she lose her train of thought. What is the effect of this kind of slippage and do you see it elsewhere in her work serving the same purpose?
2) When returning to the Countesss current situation, Lanyer points out that she is "from the Court to the Countre . . . retird" and has left "the world," "That great Enchantresse of weake mindes admird" (ll. 161-3). This is not the first time weve seen "retired" women, like Julian of Norwich in her cell or Sappho in exile from Lesbos, but their circumstances were not entirely self-willed. The intellectual retirement from the world becomes a great theme among women writers for the next hundred years or more, and among a few of the males, as well. What is this "world" which is left behind (i.e., not "Earth" so much as a society) and why is it dangerous? What are the ideal features of the "retirement place" according to Lanyers view of it, and how might it have affected John Gouchers decision to move the Baltimore Womens College to the hillside farmlands of Towson? What is gained and what is lost by that kind of choice?
3) When using the popular trope of "Beauty" to praise the Countess, Lanyer rejects the popular use of Beauty to measure external qualities and advocates "faire Virtues" (l. 189) instead. How does this affect women readers raised on a diet of Maries Breton lais and the sonnets of male poets? As in the case of her advice about retirement, Lanyers advice is both practical and impractical. What do you think about the "beauty code" of her time or our own? Can we reject it? Note especially how this affects Lanyers reading of the "Helen" themehow would you compare it to Sapphos (in Rayor #8) and what does that mean?
4) This topic begins one of Lanyers typical renaissance humanist compositional strategies, the list of biblical and classical figures whose deeds are reinterpreted in the context of her argument about beautys dangers and powers (ll. 209-48). Any of these cases would reward investigation to see how unusual Lanyers treatment of the tale really is, but for a well-known example, take Shakespeares version of Antony and Cleopatra, probably Lanyers referent for ll. 213-224. If you know the play, how does Lanyer read Antonys passion and Cleopatras death in ways which suggest she has womens position in mind? Think about the "title" issue in Marie de France's lais and compare how Lanyer alters the dramatic emphasis of her analysis of these famous tales by shifting our attention from one character to another.
5) Lanyers return to the Countesss dedication in two stanzas performs a gymnastic feat that could support a decent critical articles analysis. She moves from Lucifers fall through Adam and Eves, through a 5-line summation of the Passion which takes Jesus life, and sets up a view of the Countess soul married to God and "Dowager" heiress after the Crucifixion. The strategy prefigures what shes about to attempt in the rest of the poem, nothing less than re-writing biblical history from a womans point of view. How does this mini-dedication situate her patron in the audience for this performance?
6) In lines 265-328, Lanyer invokes her Muse in a fashion we havent seen since Sappho and her sisters in pagan times. The "flight" of the muse beyond previous poets limits metaphorically describes the poems anticipated scope and goals. Compare the introduction of John Miltons Paradise Lost, Book 1, for what might be the male answer to and adaptation of Lanyers strategy. Does the similar language support the argument Milton knew of and was attempting to overcome Lanyers poem? (Could anything else account for the similarities?) Also see the canceled introduction to Anne Finchs Miscellany for what is undoubtedly the post-Miltonic reaction of the next generation of women poets. What are they fighting over here and what are the stakes?
7) How does Lanyers invocation of divine inspiration differ from Julians description of it, and what does this do to the relationship among poet, subject, and audience? Do male English poets before Lanyer ever do the same thing?
8) Lanyers story of the Passion begins the night before Jesus betrayal by Judas and follows him through his denunciation before Pilates court. Given Lanyers previous statements about "the world" and its tendencies, how does this treatment shape the story to make her readers view of their own court? Think of the disciples responses as becoming "types" of courtly friends, the one who protests he never could betray you, the inner circle to whom you reveal your worst fears, and the ultimate isolation of the accused before the "Will" of the sovereigns absolute power, before which all those friends fall away. How does this affect her readers understanding of this ancient story?
9) A historian has argued that Lanyers father, Baptist Bassano, was descended from Italian Jews from the silk-making eastern Italian town of Bassano del Grappo (Roger Prior, "More (Moor? Moro?) Light on the Dark Lady," Financial Times, October 10, 1987, 17). Her fathers given name is a common symbolic recognition of ones conversion from another religion to Christianity by baptism. Apart from the articles attempt to support the now largely discredited A. L. Rowse thesis that Lanyer is the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeares sonnets, this evidence raises a far more important issue for a woman writing a poem about the Crucifixion of Jesus. Renaissance Christian poets tended to follow medieval poets in portraying the Jews as proud, foolish, corrupt, cruel, and even demonic in their treatment of Jesus. Meditation on the Passions suffering was central to many medieval peoples meditative practices.
How does Lanyers poem give you insight to her personal feelings about being a woman of Jewish descent writing for a Christian audience about events which draw upon both Jewish and Christian tradition? Especially, when she names "our Saviour" and addresses "these Jewes" whose "learned ignorance" gives them control of "Zeale, Lawes, Religion," how might she understand her identification with the "Saviour"s passive humility in the presence of the power structure that condemned him (ll. 546, 548)? See also ll. 681-88. What kind of Jewish identity might be represented for Lanyer by Caiphas, head of the Sanhedrin and first judge of Jesus?
10) Lanyer emphasizes that night is the time when dangerous betrayals are most possible (ll. 561-84). Why might that seem so to her?
11) The transition to the court of Pontius Pilate, the Roman administrator, (ll. 721-28 / Norton lines 1-4 give you a shorter version of that shift) changes the terms of the trial from a doctrinal dispute among the Jewish community to an issue of sedition in a Roman province. The death penalty becomes possible because the Roman emperors authority is at stake. How does this further explain Lanyers attitude toward authority, especially interpretive authority over peoples words and deeds? (Think about herself and her poem being read and judged by her readers.)
12) At ll. 745-52 (Norton ll. 1-8), Lanyers voice shifts to take on the persona of Pilates wife (l. 751 / 7) who argues in defense of Jesus. This is the only portion of the work to be excerpted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, so clearly it has struck a sympathetic chord in the interpretive establishment of our own era. Based on a single verse in the Gospel of Matthew (27:19), Lanyers "Pilates wife" draws her husbands attention to the unfair tradition by which Eve has been accused of primary responsibility for the fall. This develops into a kind of legal defense of all women and a parallel accusation of men's abuse or neglect of their powers. In doing this, Lanyer unites within the entire poems focus her patrons embattled defense of her daughters inheritance rights, the defense of Jesus from false accusations and betrayal, and the "Ur-betrayal" of Eve by Satan. By inference, the defense of women also extends to a defense against all subsequent interpreters of her own work. What is the reasoning behind Lanyer's "defense"? How does Eves story relate to Helens in the classical world, and how do their interpreters (Lanyer and Sappho) resemble each other?
13) One of Lanyer's crucial logical arguments involves Adam's first-hand contact with God regarding the prohibition on the Tree. Is she right? Perhaps if you consulted Genesis 2 you could test her reading. If you thought Eve was around for the prohibition lecture from God, why might you have thought so? Could another, later poet's version of Genesis have gotten into your mind somehow?
14) The sorrowing women of Jerusalem are both witnesses/readers of his death and poets singing of the event. How does Lanyer describe their actions' importance? Similarly, Mary, Jesus' mother, is made a kind of Muse in that the poem suddenly recalls the angel Gabriel's hymn of annunciation to her at the moment of conception ("He thus beganne, Haile Mary full of grace"). How do these women's roles contrast with the behavior of the males in the crowd, and what is Lanyer doing to the Passion story as she retells it?
15) Cook-ham was the estate where the Countess of Pembroke and her daughter stayed while they fought for Lady Anne Clifford's inheritance, and apparently a place in which they shared many happy hours with Ameilia Lanyer. The Countess specifically asked Lanyer to write a poem about the place (see the dedicatory poem to Margaret), and at the time Lanyer said she could not, offering "SDRJ" instead. The poem "To Cooke-ham" appears here as a coda, somehow completing the entire poem's intentions. How does it relate to the dedicatory poems and to Lanyer's retelling of the Passion? Especially, how does it revisit and reconfigure the issues of learned women, poets, and class? How does the estate, now lost, appear differently to a woman like Lanyer as opposed to the way it is given to the memory of her mighty patrons? In the late eighteenth century, the grounds of the estate were turned into a "workhouse" to "rehabilitate" the poor and homeless who had been displaced by the Industrial Revolution. You may draw your own conclusions about what that meant for women and women's education.
16) Publishing like a woman: Click here for some bibliographic evidence showing that Lanyer intended to publish SDJR for all of London to read, not just her aristocratic patrons. It's not conclusive, but it will help you to think about forensic analysis of actual books as an aid interpreting literature.
For a good 1990s-era bibliography of editions and scholarly publications on Lanyer, see Ron Cooley's University of Saskatchewan page at: http://www.usask.ca/english/phoenix/lanyerbib.htm. Further information on Lanyer, and on Wroth, Cavendish, and Philips, is available at Ron Cooley's As One Phoenix web site.
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