Lanyer and Wroth: Early Modern Feminist Poets

        When reading Lanyer and Wroth, keep in mind the fact that you are reading small portions of larger works.  Wroth's courtly sonnet cycle is one of the last to follow the "story in sonnets" form pioneered by her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney.  Her innovation is rewriting the sonnet tradition from the "Beloved"'s position, as if Stella had held the pen.  Lanyer's complete work, Salve Deus Rex Judeorum, is a complex and radically innovative multi-genre work.  It begins with a sequence of dedicatory poems to powerful noblewomen to construct the innermost circle of her intended audience.  Then it shifts to a narrative that rewrites the role of women's authority in the received biblical history of her culture.  Finally, it ends in the praise of the country house (i.e., grand rural estate) of the Countess of Cumberland, her benefactor, where she was able to read and write and grow as a poet among a group of women protected by the countess.  Because the estate has been lost to male relatives in a bitter legal proceeding, it becomes for Lanyer a kind of intellectual, feminist Eden which she yearns for but to which she can never return.  Note that in doing this she not only challenges the tacit social prohibition on women publishing their work, but she also reinterprets Genesis and rewrites the Gospels.  Consider this as a radical extension of Mary Sidney Herbert translating the Psalms from Hebrew to Early Modern English.

        If you are like me, buried under piles of work, but still want to prepare properly for class, concentrate on only one lyric from Wroth and the speech Lanyer invents for Pilate's wife.  Read them carefully, several times, including the footnotes.  After paying attention to the poems' form and content, look for the ways each poem operates in gender-aware fashions by shifting to female the poem's point-of-view, primacy of speaking voice, and real world references.  The effect is almost like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up in Technicolor.   Gender was there all the time in the works of male poets, but their mutual unconscious conspiracy with their presumed male audiences exercises an hypnotic effect on most readers, causing them not to ask "where's the woman in this work and what does she think about this?"  Women are more than their exterior appearance, more than the object of male desire and gaze, more than the temptation or frustration of that desire--they have their own agency!  Imagine, as Virginia Woolf urged, Shakespeare's sister "Judith" as a playwright, perhaps giving us Lear seen from Regan's or Goneril's point of view.  Imagine, a generation sooner, an independent poet named Mary Sidney, responding to her brother's sonnet cycle with sonnets that imagined Stella's reaction to Astrophil's ceaseless attempts to seduce her into an adulterous relationship.

Introductory Bibliography on a Cluster of Early Women Who Were Lyric Poets

Bennett, Lyn.  Women writing of divinest things : rhetoric and the poetry of Pembroke, Wroth and Lanyer.  Pittsburgh : Duquesne UP, c2004  821.9 B4719w 2004

Miller, Naomi J. Changing the subject : Mary Wroth and figurations of gender in early modern England.  Lexington, KY : UP of Kentucky, 1996 826.3 W958Sc

Reading Mary Wroth : representing alternatives in early modern England / edited by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller
Knoxville : U of Tennessee P, 1991.
 826.3 W958Sm

Roberts, Josephine A. The Life of Lady Mary Wroth and The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.   826.3 W958Hp

[If you re-order these books in order of publication date, you can detect the emergent force of feminist literary scholarship in reshaping the canon, and Roberts' crucial role in equipping Wroth's work with the apparatus necessary for further serious scholarly study: a scholarly biography that establishes her cultural context and literary associations; and an edition of her poems from their earliest print editions, together with publication histories and substantive print "variants."  Until an author has those two pieces of scholarly apparatus, graduate students cannot easily study her, and they cannot teach undergraduates to study her.  That is the cultural work of literary crtiicism in alliance with the authors, themselves, who produce the works.  Those are our jobs as English majors.]