Lady Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (including "Pamphilia to Amphialanthus") (1621)

Genre: a pastoral romance containing significant allusions to contemporary court scandals; a sonnet sequence of 103 sonnets and songs.

Form: prose with inset songs, including sonnets of the "English" form, and a song in trochaic tetrameter (trochees are reversed iambs [Da-dum, rather than da-Dum], and tetrameter; "PtoA" contains sonnets and songs with wildly varying rhyme schemes.

Characters and Summary: The foundling shepherdess, Urania, laments her ignorance of her parents (she's the daughter of the King of Naples, natch!), and in typical pastoral fashion, she and the shepherds sing and dance their way to a resolution of that problem; "All-loving" Pam-philia protests the perfidy of her lover with dual affections, Am-phialanthus, and the accused one responds, both speaking in sonnets.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Though Wroth is the young niece of Mary Herbert, she writes in genres that are already becoming passť in the Jacobean court--sonnet sequences, the pastoral romance, etc.  How might you explain her sense of poetic kinship with Sir Philip Sidney or Edmund Spenser, two poets who lived before her and also wrote in those two genres?
    • How does her treatment of the matter in these forms set up some challenges to the older sonnet sequences and pastorals we have seen?
    • For instance, how would you compare the sonnets' dual voices with the voice of Stella or Elizabeth Boyle in Sidney's or Spenser's sonnets?
    • What other genre might also be applied to explain the references to contemporary Jacobean court scandals in the "Urania"?
  2. Wroth lived a life that suggests some of the radical changes which were occurring at court after the death of Elizabeth.   By her cousin and lover, the earl of Pembroke, she had  two illegitimate children after the death of her husband, and she published her dangerously allusive pastoral romance under her own name despite its shocking effect.
    • How do you think the Jacobean (and later Caroline) court must have altered from the strictness of Elizabeth's day, and what changes would you expect to see in the poetry as a result?

    Keep in mind that the Puritans are extremely active.  Wroth's last years were lived during the Civil War, and the king's prosecution and execution occurred only two years before her death.

    • How did the world seem to Lady Mary Wroth, from her youth to her adult life, and into her old age (she lived to be the Beatles' canonical 64)?
  3. Wroth's sonnets' speakers position themselves often as the victims of desire, and as secret lovers whose passions are spied upon by others.  Most notably in Sonnet 39 ("Take heed mine eyes"), the speaker fears her eyes will "betray" her "heart's most secret thought" to watching "them," presumably other courtiers.  How does this game of erotic espionage work?  How does one "win" and "lose"?  For a modern evocation of this state of mind among secret lovers, see the Go-Gos' "Our Lips Are Sealed."
  4. Our ability to read Wroth depends upon the work of Twentieth-Century scholars who brought Wroth into the canon of English literature (and the Norton) by writing articles and books arguing for the literary importance of Wroth's work.  They also had to edit scholarly editions of Wroth to make her available to those unable to get access to the small number of surviving C17 editions of her work, and the few manuscripts in her own hand that survived.  For Samuel Hughes' "Strange Labyrinth," a (University of) Pennsylvania Gazette feature on Josephine Roberts, one of Wroth's scholarly editors who championed her work and brought it into the canon of English literature (and the Norton), including an image of a printed copy of the "Urania" with annotations in Wroth's own hand, click here.
  5. For the Luminarium page containing four more sonnets from "Urania" and the complete text of "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus," click here
  6. Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include the Women Writers Project, and the Emory Women Writers Resource Project at Emory University's Lewis H. Beck Center.  The Brown site has an exceptionally large text base of edited Renaissance women writers, and the Emory site's strength is its unedited (as in previously unpublished) texts.  These are being used as part of Emory's graduate program to teach editing practices.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here

        To see a good, 1990s-era bibliography of primary source editions and scholarly research on Wroth, see Ron Cooley's University of Saskatchewan web page: (Note that Josephine Roberts' edition of Wroth's poetry, listed as "Forthcoming?" in the bibliography, was published in 1992 [826.3 W958Hp]).  Further information on Wroth, and on Lanyer, Cavendish, and Philips, is available at Ron Cooley's As One Phoenix web site.

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