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Mary Wroth's Poetry: An Electronic Edition

Critical Introduction

In recent years Mary Wroth has moved from comparative obscurity to something approaching a secure place in the canon of Renaissance poetry. She is a unique poetic voice, and as her writing has been studied more intensively in recent years, there has been a growing appreciation of her skill as a poet, so that Ben Jonson's compliment -- 'Since I exscribe [ie write out] your sonnets [I] am become/A better lover and much better Poet' -- may now be seen as genuine, rather than just flattery of a patron. [1]

Wroth's songs, sonnets and lyrics have to be seen in the general context of Petrarchan imitation and the popularity of song and sonnet sequences in England in the 1590s and beyond. [2] Petrarch's songs and sonnets to Laura were written in Italian in the fourteenth century, and they became popular throughout Europe and were much imitated. [3] Petrarch's influence in England began to increase when a series of Tudor poets/courtiers, notably Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, translated and imitated his sonnets. There have been numerous studies of the way the sonnet as a poetic form became increasingly fashionable in England through to its high point in the 1590s and very early 1600s. It was not long before a native sonnet tradition, or perhaps 'fashion' would be a better term, overtook any direct influence of Petrarch on English writers, although they often continued to imitate specific Petrarch sonnets. Petrarch did play a significant role in the family poetic tradition for Mary Wroth, because her aunt Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, translated Petrarch's Trionfo della morte in 1599 -- although this was a very different poem from the sonnets and it might be seen to symbolise the difference between Mary Sidney's general interest in pious/religious poetry, in contrast with her niece's interest in secular/erotic poetry.

Over the past twenty years these English sonnet sequences have come to seem increasingly multifaceted, as scholars have examined them in particular from the perspectives of politics and gender. So the interrogation of inequalities of power has been seen not simply as part of an erotics of desire and refusal, but also as part of a general political situation. [4] Similarly, as we have become aware of a considerable number of European and some English women who wrote sonnets, the notion of an inherent male perspective embedded in the sonnet form, not to say misogyny, has been undermined. By the time Mary Wroth began writing her sonnets, probably some time between 1610 and 1613, sonnet sequences were multiply inflected. The two most obvious aspects that characterise a sequence like Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus can be crudely seen as 'poetic form' and 'theme' - I would argue that these two defining features of the sequence allowed it to be placed in a poetic context by its early readers. [5] So the songs and sonnets in Wroth's sequence are formally very similar to a number of precedents, most notably her famous uncle Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophil and Stella. The sequencing of the poems around a named (albeit disguised) love object is clearly Petrarchan in origin. Where Philip Sidney's sequence has Astrophil meditating on his love for Stella, Wroth's has Pamphilia meditating on her love for Amphilanthus. But this central situation allows for a considerable variety of poems and themes, not all of them concentrated on the specific love relationship at the centre of the sequence. The combination of poetic forms in sonnet sequences again originates in Petrarch, who mixed sonnets with other lyric forms, notably song forms: ballads, sestinas, madrigals and the general song (canzone). And thematically, Petrarch's sequence also allowed for a very wide range of concerns, including poems with political implications.

So Wroth's sequence of sonnets, songs and lyrics headed 'Pamphilia to Amphilantus' fits neatly into this tradition. But it is also important to note that Wroth wrote far more poetry than just the sequence, and that the sequence itself exists in two distinct forms, as I have noted in the textual introduction: as a manuscript collection of poems, and also as part of the 1621 printed text of Urania. As part of the autograph Folger manuscript, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a sonnet sequence within a compilation of her poems which Wroth had put together, either so that she could assess her output as a whole, or possibly to present them to someone. [6] Within the manuscript there do seem to be distinct groupings of poems, although no critical consensus has been reached about exactly how the groupings are constituted. [7] When Wroth wrote her prose romance The Countess of Montgomey's Urania, she used a number of poems from the manuscript within the romance narrative , 'giving' them to characters within the romance, not just to Pamphilia. But the published part of Urania ends with what seems to be presented as a final arrangement of a sonnet sequence, again labelled Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and having a rather more straightforward narrative of the kind characteristic of sonnet sequences. The poems, as represented in both the manuscript and Urania, mimic Philip Sidney's bravura display of multiple poetic forms. Wroth, like Sidney, writes songs in a variety of metres, pastoral dialogues and monologues, as well as using both the 'English' sonnet form (which rhymes ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG) and the Italian sonnet form. The Italian form breaks into an octave, which rhymes ABBA/ABBA, and a sestet, which can have a number of rhymes, but which for Wroth is generally CCDEED. As Josephine Roberts points out, Wroth produced far more variations on this Italian sonnet form than Philip Sidney, using all the sestet variations (CDCDEE, CDDCEE, CCDEED and CDCDEE) that were available. [8] Even more ambitious was Wroth's inclusion of a corona: a series of fourteen interlinked sonnets where the last line of one becomes the first line of the next, forming a complete circle with the last line of the last poem being the first line of the first poem. This form was attempted by Wroth's father in his manuscript collection of poems but he clearly found it too daunting a task and only produced four poems in the sequence. [9]

This extensive formal variety demonstrates Wroth's skill as a poet. [10] Single poems clearly circulated at the time Wroth was writing (although no individual manuscript copies have survived), but when Wroth collected poems together and grouped them as she did in the Folger manuscript she was, I think, taking two approaches to them. First, like many early modern poets, she was assembling a testimony to her skill and following through the possibility of thematic linkings between sonnets and lyrics. This in turn connected with her eventual production of a romance, Urania, which would take the poems and use them as part of a narrative in which the poems play a variety of parts - as poems did in Sidney's Arcadia, but to an even greater extent in Urania because of the way that Pamphilia, Wroth's alter ego, plays a central role as a poet and 'author' of the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, which is included at the end of the printed Urania. The complex treatment of gender, desire, and politics in Urania is already reflected in the thematic complexity of the poetry as collected in the Folger manuscript, and I want now to look at how Wroth treats those themes.

The most obvious starting point is Wroth's treatment of Petrarchan desire from the perspective of a woman, rather than from the male perspective that formed the default Petarchan position. [11] Wroth's opening sonnet proclaims the speaker to be conquered by Venus and Cupid: shot with Cupid's arrow in an apparent dream, she wakes from sleep to find that she was not dreaming: 'Yet since, O me, a lover I have been'. Many poems in the collection play with the idea of the speaker as an involuntary subject of desire: a desire that is frequently seen through the metaphor of Cupid. But even this image is complicated by other accounts of Cupid (which all have their origins in classical depictions by authors like Ovid) as a wanton boy who cannot be taken seriously. So by sonnet 7 (P8) Cupid is teased: 'Yet this, Sir God, your boyship I despise'. By the time we reach the corona, Cupid and love have become intertwined with spiritual as well as sexual desire, and the corona moves between a settled resignation (and resistance to the wiles of Cupid), and a more conflicted sense of the power of desire. [12] The poetry is constantly shifting, not simply in its depiction of desire, but also in its gradual encapsulation of themes that move well beyond desire and its effects. There is something inherently provisional in many of the poems; the opening of the third sonnet is characteristic: 'Yet is there hope'. The 'yet' points to a kind of narrative which is typical of these sorts of sonnets -- Wroth is similar to Philip Sidney in her use of the sonnet as a miniature drama -- in which the speaker wittily meditates on the different possibilities open to her, while decrying her treatment at the hands of desire in the abstract, and at the hands of the fickle Amphilanthus in particular. Many of the songs are also dramatic, spoken not by Pamphilia, nor by Wroth, but by characters who might be characteristic of the pastoral form, but who are given a clear and distinct voice by Wroth. Again this can be illustrated by the first song, in which a shepherdess laments that the coming of Spring is not reflected in her state of mind: 'No sign of Spring we know'. Indeed the shepherdess, like many of Wroth's characters later developed in Urania, pictures herself as a writer:

The bark my book shall be
Where daily I will write
This tale of hapless me.

At the end of the song the shepherdess actually provides her own epitaph. She is a kind of avatar for Pamphilia at her most despairing, so that in this song Wroth can imagine someone dying for love, while Pamphilia is made of considerably sterner stuff.

Part of the story being told through this account of desire involves Wroth's careful consideration of places that might be occupied by an aristocratic woman who is negotiating family obligations, a role in the court, a political position, and a growing self-consciousness as a writer. While the biographical introduction details Wroth's personal position in relation to these issues, we see in her poetry something like an intellectualisation of an individual dilemma, and a treatment of Wroth's own experience as exemplary of a number of wider issues that involve gender, writing, and politics. This becomes clear in a sonnet which has received a considerable amount of critical attention, although there is no real consensus about its meaning:

When every one to pleasing pastime hies
Some hunt, some hawk, some play, while some delight
In sweet discourse, and music shows joy's might
Yet I my thoughts do far above these prize

The joy which I take, is that free from eyes
I sit, and wonder at this day-like night
So to dispose themselves, as void of right;
And leave true pleasure for poor vanities

When others hunt, my thoughts I have in chase;
If hawk, my mind at wished end doth fly,
Discourse, I, with my spirit talk, and cry
While others, music is their greatest grace.

O God, say I, can these fond pleasures move?
Or music be but in dear thoughts of love? (F23)

This sonnet is set in the court world that Wroth knew so well. Again it is a dramatic piece of writing, concerned with the way the speaker/writer might set herself against the activities that seem empty in comparison to her introspection. Hunting and hawking were especially popular activities of King James and also of Wroth's husband Robert Wroth; both were considered to be noble pursuits, but James's passion for hunting was seen by some at least as excessive and self-indulgent. The gambling implied in 'some play' (ie probably play cards) was again a popular activity at James's court and when wagers were high could cause considerable problems for impecunious courtiers. (A good example is Anne Clifford's husband Richard Sackville, earl of Dorset, whose profligacy causes his wife to lament at one point in her diary: 'my Lord played at Dice in the Court & won nine hundred twenty shilling pieces and gave me but twenty'). [13] 'Music' and 'sweet discourse' seem far more innocent, and it is perhaps part of the balanced nature of the sonnet that Wroth is not necessarily condemning all court pleasures out of hand, but rather contrasting them with the introspection that the speaker requires to assert her sense of self. So these activities, in the artificially lit, 'day-like night' of the court, seem like 'poor vanities', because the speaker looks inwards for pleasure. As noted in the biographical introduction, Wroth herself initially took part in many glittering court activities, including playing a prominent part in masques that in the mood evoked by this poem might seem to be 'fond pleasures' compared to the self-scrutiny brought about by desire. The general condemnation of the court in this poem has, at least potentially, a wider political significance, given the increasing disquiet James's behaviour was causing. On the other hand, Wroth's father was Queen Ann's Lord Chamberlain and in 1615 William Herbert became James's Lord Chamberlain. This sonnet therefore offers a nuanced view of a court where there is in a sense no room for talking with one's spirit -- and for a woman who desires such talk, the court's superficial pleasures would seem especially vain.

This sonnet also establishes an image of a specifically female self which is not just separate from the court, but perhaps under threat from it -- an idea that is expanded further in later sonnets. The most distinctive (and most discussed) of those is P 39:

Take heed mine eyes, how you your looks do cast
Lest they betray my heart's most secret thought;
Be true unto your selves for nothing's bought
More dear than doubt which brings a lover's fast.

Catch you all watching eyes, ere they be past,
Or take yours fixed where your best love hath sought
The pride of your desires; let them be taught
Their faults with shame, they could no truer last.

Then look, and look with joy for conquest won
Of those that searched your hurt in double kind;
So you kept safe, let them themselves look blind
Watch, gaze, and mark till they to madness run,

While you, my eyes, enjoy full sight of love
Contented that such happinesses move.

This sonnet is a kind of rewriting of the male perspective of Petrarchan sonnets like Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 42:

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move;
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love;
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity:
O eyes, where humble looks most glorious prove,
Only lov'd Tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not, from poor me remove:
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me;
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites,
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays!

As a counter to the male gaze and the objectifying of the woman's eyes in a sonnet like Sidney's, Wroth offers, initially, an admonition of caution to herself. But while Sidney's sonnet is addressed to Stella's eyes in the context of his desire, the context for Wroth's sonnet is the court world of watchers, who subject a woman to constant scrutiny that is, one could say, political as well as personal, in so far as, within the court, all behaviour has political consequences. A good example of this process, again using the image of eyes as potential 'weak spots' in the defence of one's integrity, is a poem by Thomas Wyatt:

Take heed betime lest ye be spied,
Your loving eye ye cannot hide;
At last the truth will sure be tried.
Therefore take heed!

For some there be of crafty kind:
Though you show no part of your mind,
Surely their eyes ye cannot blind.
Therefore take heed! [14]

As if written in answer to Wyatt, Wroth's sonnet grants power to the woman because by the end she has not only cautiously resisted the gaze of those who try to find out her secrets, she has actually retaliated by making the watchers blind and driving them mad. Many of Wroth's sonnets surrounding this one are concerned with the image of eyes, but this sonnet in particular seems to continue some of the themes of 'When everyone to pleasing pastime hies', as it too considers how to preserve a self that is under constant scrutiny. In her admonition to her eyes to 'take heed', Wroth suggests that there is a need to be true to oneself that militates against any public display of interest. The sonnet also contains an elaborated image of vulnerability with sexual overtones, for the eyes that the speaker resists have searched her 'hurt in double kind'. To search a wound means to probe it, and at the same time this suggests an exquisitely painful image of having what one wishes to be hidden opened up and searched through. The sexual implications of this image verge upon a kind of rape, especially given that 'wound' can, when Wroth was writing, be an analogy for female genitals. While the speaker's wound has been searched, she has kept safe and, in the end, conquered, so that this is a sonnet that celebrates resistance to the male gaze that formed such a key part, not just of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, but of the court world within which Wroth had to negotiate a space for herself. As can be seen from the biographical introduction, that world was particularly fraught for Wroth, but so it was for many aristocratic women. However, the sonnet also underlines how Wroth's poetry is at certain moments an intervention in that world, or at least a critique of it.

Another important aspect of this sonnet that is characteristic of a number of Wroth's poems is its difficult and at times even opaque syntax. While the general meaning of the sonnet seems clear, there are a number of moments when the syntax is especially knotty and even at some points indeterminable. What exactly does Wroth mean by 'nothing's bought/more dear than doubt which brings a lover's fast'? This could mean that if one doubts (presumably doubts one's lover's faithfulness, or even love itself) one pays dearly because this brings on a kind of dearth of love (a fast). But it could, grammatically, also mean that doubt ties a lover 'fast' (ie inextricably) to a doomed love. In the second stanza again there is considerable uncertainty over what exactly is meant by 'take yours fixed where your best love hath sought/the pride of your desires'. Assuming 'yours' means 'your eyes', as opposed to the watching eyes, then the idea here is that the speaker should fix her eyes - but where exactly? It is hard to know because the best love's seeking out the pride of the speaker's desires sounds disturbingly similar to the searching of her wound. An opposition seems intended, in which case Wroth must mean something like 'keep your eyes fixed (still), looking inwards, where true love has looked carefully to see exactly what it is that makes you proud of your love'. But the central point here, I think, is that the reader cannot really be certain what Wroth means, and this, I would argue, is not because she was a clumsy poet, but because this sonnet, and a number of others, intentionally clouds meaning, or at least makes it difficult to determine, because such a process is a protection similar to that urged on the speaker/lover. The resistance to interpretation is therefore part of this sonnet's theme, and it can be seen elsewhere in the sequence, although there are also many poems (especially songs) which are written in a lucid, plain style, which again underlines the fact that where Wroth is obscure she intends to be. Indeed the songs also illustrate Wroth's dexterity as a poet capable of a variety of styles. A good example is the song which can be compared to Donne's 'Sweetest Love I do not go':

Sweetest love return again
make not too long stay.
killing mirth, and forcing pain
sorrow leading way:
let us not thus parted be
love, and absence ne'er agree;

But since you must needs depart,
and me hapless leave,
in your journey take my heart
which will not deceive
yours it is, to you it flies
joying in those loved eyes,

So in part, we shall not part
though we absent be;
time, nor place, nor greatest smart
shall my bands make free
tied I am, yet think it gain;
in such knots I feel no pain.

But can I live having lost
chiefest part of me
heart is fled, and sight is crossed
these my fortunes be
yet dear heart go, soon return
as good there, as here to burn.

This is not quite as witty as Donne's poem, which it answers, whether intentionally or not, by once again expressing the woman's perspective on desire and male absence/untrustworthiness. The poem turns on the increasing dramatisation of the gift of the heart, twinned with the lover as her heart, which may be a Petrarchan commonplace, but which gains strength through the insouciance of the song's last line. As a lyric this is a good example of how skilled Wroth is at handling desire in a more light-hearted way. A number of Wroth's songs, like this one, may well have been set to music. Gavin Alexander has analysed the close connection the Sidney family had with the musicians John and Robert Dowland, and Alfonso Ferrabosco. [15] Alexander notes that the beginning of Wroth's pastoral narrative 'A shepherd who no care did take' can be related to a song from a book of lute songs by Robert Jones which was dedicated to Wroth in 1610, and that a stanza of a song from the second manuscript part of Urania, 'Was I to blame', was set by Ferrabosco. [16] While these are fairly limited examples, and not all lyrics labelled 'Song' in the period implied that they were set to music, the musical quality of Wroth's songs as we have them is certainly evident.

The cumulative effect of the interspersed songs and sonnets in Wroth's sequence is an important part of the experience of reading her poetry. Wroth's grouping, both in the manuscript and in the altered arrangement of the printed text, is quite different to Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, where the songs seem interspersed with the sonnets in a fairly random way, the first song not appearing until after sonnet 63. [17] Wroth seems more influenced by her father's intermingling of songs and sonnets, although his manuscript is clearly a work in progress. In this part of my discussion I do not want to enter into the complex arguments raised by Heather Dubrow about the intended divisions within the manuscript marked by things like the slashed S, but it is clear that Wroth was carefully (and perhaps variously) moving between groups of sonnets, pastorals, and songs throughout her manuscript and that she changed this ordering for Urania, and also placed some songs and lyrics within the narrative of the prose romance. [18] For the reader, in both cases, though with some differences, this means that there is far less of a sense of a linear movement from sonnet to sonnet, as there is, say, in the volume of Shakespeare's sonnets (however much in dispute the arrangement of that volume might be), and far more of a sense of poetic variation upon themes and forms simultaneously. So in the manuscript we move from a dramatic opening picture of Venus and Cupid striking Pamphilia with desire, through a number of sonnets which consider variations on the theme of desire, including the dramatic 'Yet is there hope. Then Love but play thy part'. But then this thematic movement alters with Song 1, 'The Spring now come at last', which, as I have already noted, is elegiac, and has a quite different voice to the sonnets (which themselves do not, in my view, have a single voice). I think it can be argued that this shifting set of styles and themes and voices is a deliberate strategy on Wroth's part, and perhaps one can also see her testing out possibilities for what would become an enormous and again greatly varied set of characters and narratives in Urania.

The pastoral is a particularly interesting admixture in Wroth's poetry, because it allows for what had become, at the time she was writing, a significant vehicle for political, or politically inflected, commentary. At first glance, Wroth's pastoral verse may not appear to have the political weight of writers in the so-called Spenserian pastoral tradition, who used the form to further the militant Protestant cause with which the Sidney/Herbert families were closely aligned. As King James seemed to be favouring the Catholic Howard faction and edged away from European religious conflict, this oppositional poetry became even more significant. [19] This general political use of pastoral was combined, for Wroth, with the gender implications of appropriating the mode; as Ann Rosalind Jones explains: 'Women poets' appropriation of the pastoral heroine as speaker gave them access both to the prestige of bucolic convention and to its veiled critique of social relations'. [20] Jones goes on to note that 'Under its surface of simplicity and pathos, feminine pastoral questions masculine power and establishes a vigorous virtue for the woman who writes'. [21] This can be illustrated by Song 1, discussed above, in which a shepherdess laments her abandonment and writes her own epitaph. In her discussion of this pastoral song, Ann Rosalind Jones sees it as an example of Wroth's caution, given that the shepherdess's epitaph is to be read only after she has died from grief. But as I have already noted, this is surely an intentional paradox on Wroth's part, as neither Wroth nor Pamphilia really acceded to such a fate. Rather, I see the shepherdess as demonstrating how Wroth's power as a poet could allow her to draw the reader into an imagined shepherdess's lament, death and epitaph, while at the same time keeping us fully aware of the fact that this is ventriloquism, not 'truth'. As well, the shepherdess may bewail the fact that 'all true love is dead' and proclaim that she is 'wailing', but in actual fact she isn't wailing, she is writing: 'these lines will I leave'. So the idea that these lines may end up being her epitaph is balanced by the fact that she, like Pamphilia, and like Wroth, is producing a pastoral song as an indictment of what has been done to her. As a pastoral figure she may be seen as an image of withdrawal from court to country, but within the Jacobean version of that mode, she is, by implication, offering pastoral as a critique of the imbalance between female vulnerability, male desire as purportedly established within Petrarchan discourse, and a more assertive account of female desire. This reading of the song is enhanced by seeing it in the context of the sonnets discussed above which offer a much more vigorous critique of the court, its pursuits, and the position available for a woman like Wroth, who seems even as early as in her poetry to be re-establishing a position of power for herself. [22] In Maureen Quilligan's suggestive phrase, 'erotic desire is another language for the nuanced flux of hierarchically organised power relations'. [23] With the publication of Urania Wroth offers an active and fully public account of her own complex relationship with the Court, its machinations, and her personal difficulties in relation both to her marriage to Robert Wroth, and her lover William Herbert. When a pastoral like Song 1 appears in print at the end of Urania as part of the revised Pamphilia to Amphilanthus sequence, it becomes an even stronger affirmation than that achieved in the manuscript of Wroth's self-determination as a writer who analyses desire within a political as well as personal context.

Rosalind Smith points out that Wroth's choice of poetic genre, as well as some association of Pamphilia with the figure of Queen Elizabeth, also helps to reinforce the political implications of Wroth's poetry. [24] Smith notes that 'the sequence formally inscribes a nostalgia for the Elizabethan period while reinforcing the speaker's withdrawal from the court of her own time'. [25] At the same time, Wroth's poetry, together with Urania, also represents a kind of imaginative re-entry into the court world, but in her own terms. In other words, Wroth's depiction of the court and its scandals is balanced by the way that the Pamphilia of the poems becomes a powerful figure in her own right in the romance, the ruler of a kingdom, and participator in affairs of state that shadow the growing European conflict that became the Thirty Years' War. The poems, Smith cautions, are less powerfully engaged: 'The focus of the sequence upon love, and its consistent use of erotic diction and metaphor, dilutes its political engagement by embedding its criticism in erotic discourse'. [26] However, Smith is here referring to the printed sequence, rather than to Wroth's poetry as a whole. And even within the sequence the use of different genres, such as pastoral, takes the emphasis away from simply Pamphilia's account of her love and its ramifications.

This tension between succumbing to the force of desire, and rejecting its effects and accordingly paving the way for what we might call a more social/political engagement, is explored in an especially accomplished song. The form of the song, a patterned set of quatrains which use the same words at the end of each line ('love', 'move', 'pretty' and 'pity') and which has only subtle variations for every third and fourth line, further enhances the theme of balancing between competing alternatives:

Being past the pains of love
Freedom gladly seeks to move,
Says that love's delights were pretty
But to dwell in them 'twere pity.

And yet truly says that love
Must of force in all hearts move,
But though his delights are pretty
To dwell in them were a pity.

Let love slightly pass like love
Never let it too deep move,
For though love's delights are pretty
To dwell in them were great pity.

Love no pity hath of love
Rather griefs than pleasures move,
So though his delights are pretty
To dwell in them would be pity.

Those that like the smart of love
In them let it freely move,
Else though his delights are pretty
Do not dwell in them for pity.

In this song there is both a statement that the speaker is past the pains of love and a statement that love moves all hearts. In a kind of double-bind, the speaker recognises the problems caused by the power of desire and seems to be free of it, yet she is not, or is not able to avoid the 'pity' that arises from dwelling within love's 'delights'. This shuttling is repeated throughout the poetry, including within the corona, where love seems to be renounced, yet also captures Pamphilia within a labyrinth. The most interesting example of this process is the sonnet which ends the sequence as it exists in print at the end of the published Urania, but not at the end of the manuscript:

My Muse, now happy, lay thyself to rest,
Sleep in the quiet of a faithful love,
Write you no more, but let these fancies move
Some other hearts; wake not to new unrest,

But if you study, be those thoughts addressed
To truth, which shall eternal goodness prove;
Enjoying of true joy, the most, and best,
The endless gain which never will remove.

Leave the discourse of Venus and her son
To young beginners, and their brains inspire
With stories of great love, and from that fire
Get heat to write the fortunes they have won,

And thus leave off: what's past shows you can love,
Now let your constancy your honour prove.

As it is placed at the end of Urania (albeit an unfinished Urania which was continued in manuscript), this does seem to be a plain statement that Pamphilia is now going to give up writing about love and pass that theme on to 'young beginners'. It is true that here Pamphilia is renouncing not love itself, but love as a poetic theme - she herself has demonstrated that she can love and will now rest in constancy. And yet, while this may be how the printed Urania ends, in the continuation, which Wroth wrote but did not publish, Pamphilia's trials and her writing about love continue, aligning the situation more with the manuscript collection, where after the sequence might be thought to end, the poems treating of love continue. The manuscript ends with a Complaint, a poetic form popular with a number of early modern poets, including Shakespeare, whose 'A Lover's Complaint' is appended to the edition of his sonnets published in 1609. [27] Wroth's Complaint offers a fascinating insight into the process she went through when transferring poems from the manuscript to Urania. In the manuscript, the Complaint does form something like a conclusion to the theme of desire and its effects. The speaker laments the way she is abandoned and grief-stricken:

I, who do feel the highest part of grief,
Shall I be left without relief?
I, who for you my torments patient bear,
Now do not leave me in my fear

At one point the poem implies that the speaker has been seduced: 'The greatest fault which I committed have/Is you did ask, I freely gave'. The result is that she has been scorned and is 'lost since you have me obtained'. Her sense of wrong is acute. As a whole, in the manuscript, the poem returns to the sense of anger at being a victim of desire which is expressed in a number of earlier lyrics. But when Wroth placed this poem in Urania, she revised it and gave it, not to Pamphilia, but to Pamphilia's rival Antissia, a woman who seems to represent a negative image of the female poet in contrast to Pamphilia's positive representation of that possibility. In Book Two of the published part of Urania, when Antissia composes this poem, she realises that Pamphilia is her rival for Amphilanthus' love. While Antissia conceals her feelings from Pamphilia, she is actually driven into a rage. She then composes 'I who do feel the highest part of love'. In the version Wroth revises for Antissia, there is, as Josephine Roberts notes, a greater sense of wildness and anger, in keeping with Antissia's nature. [28] So, for example, 'my torments patient bear' in the manuscript becomes, in Antissia's version, 'cruel torments'. The manuscript Complaint that may be seen either as a further example of Pamphilia's despair at the vicissitudes of desire, or as a poem in yet another mode by Wroth, is transformed into an example of Antissia's (mis)use of poetry as a vehicle for rage and despair. When she finishes writing it, Antissia repents and throws it into the fire. It is therefore transformed into a Complaint that is simultaneously an example of a poetic form that allows for the expression of female suffering and desire, and a revelation of the disturbed nature of a character in Urania who seems to be there to allow Wroth to express her anxiety and even misgivings about writing as a woman in early modern England.

But with the exception of Antissia, the women in Urania who write poetry are treated with respect, none more so than the wholly admirable Pamphilia. And when criticised by Edward Denny for depicting his family scandal in Urania and made the subject of his vituperative poem, Wroth took up the cudgels and responded with an elaborate and equally vituperative answer poem, so that she was far from confined to modesty when it came to defending her right to be an author. [29] Again the answer poem allowed Wroth to demonstrate her skills in yet another poetic form, so that, for example, where Denny writes of Wroth's monstrousness, using a vicious sexual metaphor comparing her to a gaping oyster, Wroth neatly reverses all the images and trumps Denny, even having the skills to match his rhyme words. [30] Denny writes:

Hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster,
As by thy words and works all men may conster,
Thy wrathful spite conceived an idle book,
Brought forth a fool which like the dam doth look,
Wherein thou strikes at some man's noble blood
Of kin to thine, if thine be counted god,
Whose vain comparison for want of wit
Takes up the oyster-shell to play with it,
Yet common oysters such as thine gape wide
And take up pearls, or worse, at every tide

Wroth replies:

Hermaphrodite in sense, in art a monster
As by your railing rhymes the world may conster,
Your spiteful words against a harmless book
Shows that an ass much like the sire doth look.
Men truly noble fear no touch of blood,
Nor question make of others much more good.
Can such comparisons seem the want of wit
When oysters have enflamed your blood with it.
But it appears your guiltiness gaped wide,
And filled with dirty doubt your brain's swollen tide. [31]

This bravura style of satire, or libel, is certainly unique in Wroth's surviving oeuvre, but it offers us a glimpse of a writer who, as Mary Ellen Lamb has speculated, may well have taken part in the witty and at times bawdy literary games played by men like William Herbert. [32] This is the most extreme example of Wroth's ability to write across a range of poetic styles and also, one can speculate, of her desire to establish herself as a formidable writer with a range that in the end exceeds that of her uncle, Philip Sidney. Recent work on the Sidney family has started to emphasise how much Mary Sidney was involved in the way that her brother Philip's work was circulated after his death, and it is important to see Wroth as following in her aunt's footsteps, as well as those of her uncle and father. In his fine study of responses to the literary influence of Philip Sidney, Gavin Alexander describes Wroth's work as 'revisionist'. [33] Despite this stress on her revisionism, Alexander does see Pamphilia to Amphilanthus in particular (and therefore not all of Wroth's poetry) as inextricably bound up with 'Astrophil and Stella'. [34] It is certainly true that, as indicated in many of the annotations to this edition, a number of Wroth's poems do take poems by Philip or Robert as their starting points - but, as Alexander again notes, they tend to end up somewhere completely different. [35]

I have been arguing that the apparent tensions in Wroth's poetry are productive and even testimony to her interest in stretching formal and thematic boundaries. This idea is supported by a number of critics who have placed the poems in contexts outside the Sidney family inheritance. Heather Dubrow, for example, in her account of English Petrarchism and what she terms its 'counterdiscourses', sees the sonnets in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus as working within a range of responses to Petrarchism. Dubrow in particular argues that Wroth's sonnets need to be seen as working through contradictions within the genre in a manner similar in some ways to Shakespeare. [36] In what remains one of the most wide-ranging and suggestive studies of Wroth, Naomi J Miller places her work in the wider context of gender in the early modern period. In her account of the poetry, Miller stresses 'Wroth's juxtaposition of dominant and subversive ideologies of gendered subjectivity in relation to the discourses of her culture'. [37] Miller explores the notion of female agency within the poems, although her focus is on the 'voice' of Pamphilia, rather than the multi-valences I have been noting. This another example of a response to what critics now see as the richness and complexity of Wroth's poetry, so that she is no longer regarded as being a kind of counter-example to male writers. This on-line edition is intended to further the academic discussion of Wroth's poetry, but also to make the poetry accessible to a wide audience of scholars, students, and interested readers in a way that provides the opportunity to see it in its original manuscript and published state as well as offering the assistance of modernised versions and extensive annotation.


1 Ben Jonson, Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988).

2 See the discussion of Wroth's treatment of jealousy and constancy in relation to the male Petrarchan conventions in Clare R. Kinney, 'Mary Wroth's Guilty "secret art": the Poetics of Jealousy in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus', in Barbara Smith and Ursula Appelt, Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 69-85.

3 For a subtle and authoritative account of how Petrarch influenced European poets see William J Kennedy, Authorizing Petrarch (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

4 These political readings culminate in Christopher Warley's fascinating if contentious notion that the sequences play out an elaborate re-examination of class, as well as power, relationships; see his Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

5 Here I disagree with Warley's notion that much of the characterization of the sonnet sequence is a product of the nineteenth century; that may be true of some limited notions of its formal characteristics, but a reference like Jonson's quoted above surely indicates that the 'Petrarchan' line of love sonnet runs through the period and reaches Wroth most strongly through the fact that both her uncle and her father produced such sequences. On the other hand, Worley offers a particularly illuminating, if brief, account of Wroth's sequence as being less about the reversal of gender roles and more about Wroth's exploitation of her aristocratic position in order to produce Pamphilia as a 'noble imaginary' (178). I would argue that when Wroth wrote her poetry she was exploring a much more tenuous social position for herself than the one posited by Warley.

6 While it is impossible to tell for certain what the purpose of the Folger manuscript may have been, it has some features that point towards it being intended to be read by someone other than Wroth herself, most notably the generally clean and infrequently amended text, which can be compared to Robert Sidney's manuscript, especially given its similar structure to Folger: it is full of the blots and corrections/revisions that mark it as Sidney's private collection containing poems he was working on over a period of time.

7 For more on these possible groupings, see the textual introduction.

8 See Josephine Roberts, ed., The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), p. 47.

9 See Robert Croft, ed., The Poems of Robert Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 174-181.

10 For an extensive account of the corona as an example of Wroth's rhetorical dexterity see Lyn Bennett, Women Writing of Divinest Things: Rhetoric and the Poetry of Pembroke, Wroth and Lanyer (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2004); Bennett specifically links Wroth's poetic skill with that shown by her aunt in her psalm translations.

11 This is the case even though by the time Wroth wrote a number of European women had written sonnets, most notably Vittoria Colona, Veronica Gambara, and Gaspara Stampa in Italy, and Louise Labé in France. For a particularly sophisticated account of women writers in the Petrarchan tradition, including Wroth, see Mary Moore, Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000); see also two pioneering books which place Wroth's poetry in the European Petrarchan (and anti-Petrarchan) tradition: Ann Rosalind Jones, The Currency of Eros: women's love lyric in Europe, 1540-1620 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); and Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petarchism and its Counter Discourses (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1995).

12 The corona is treated at length in Moore and in Bennett.

13 The Diary of Anne Clifford, ed. Katherine O. Acheson (New York: Garland, 1995), p. 39.

14 Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, ed. Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thompson (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1969), p. 189.

15 Gavin Alexander, 'The Musical Sidneys', John Donne Journal 25 (2006), 65-105.

16 Ibid., pp. 93-102.

17 While there are many manuscripts containing Sidney's sonnets, as well as early printed texts, the manuscript ordering generally bears out my account, though there are different arrangements and none of them have complete authority. In the 1598 Arcadia, authorised by Mary Sidney, seen by Ringler as establishing a secure ordering, the eleven songs come after sonnets 63, 72, 83, 85, 86 (5 songs), 92 and 104. See William Ringler, ed., The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 449.

18 See the discussion of ordering in the textual introduction; Heather Dubrow, '"And Thus Leave Off": Reevaluating Mary Wroth's Folger Manuscript , V.a.104', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 22 (2003), 273-91; and Gavin Alexander, 'Constant Works: A Framework for Reading Mary Wroth', Sidney Journal 14 (1996-7), 5-32

19 A pioneering account of this may be found in David Norbrook's Poetry and Politics in the English renaissance (London: Routledge: 1984, rev. edn., Oxford: OUP, 2002); and see especially Michelle O'Callaghan, 'The shepheard's nation':Jacobean Spenserians and early Stuart political culture, 1612-25 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000); in chapter 1, O'Callaghan considers how this group of poets revived pastoral satire as a critique of the Jacobean Court.

20 Jones, p. 125.

21 Ibid.

22 In an interesting political reading based on the corona, Linda L Dove suggests that Wroth challenges the patriarchal model of government/analogy with the family being reinforced by King James, through a counter-analogy based around Wroth's treatment of Cupid and his 'court' in the corona, and the realignment of Cupid and Pamphilia, with Cupid as King and Pamphilia as the body politic. This does depend upon stabilising what seems to me to be a sequence that is always in flux, even within the corona itself, but it builds an interesting case for taking seriously Wroth's treatment of an alternative analogy for rule to King James's; Linda L. Dove, 'Mary Wroth and the Politics of the Household in "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" ', in Mary E Burke, et al., Women Writing and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

23 Maureen Quilligan, 'The Constant Subject: Instability and Authority in Wroth's Urania Poems', in Elizabeth D Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds., Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 325.

24 Rosalind Smith, Sonnets and the English Woman Writer, 160-1621: the politics of absence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

25 Ibid., p. 95.

26 Ibid., p. 102.

27 While this has led Jonathan Gibson to claim that the structure of Wroth's manuscript is similar to Shakespeare's printed sonnets, in so far as both end with a complaint, this seems an unlikely comparison to me, as the Shakespeare volume consists of a sequence of 154 sonnets and the complaint, while Wroth's manuscript follows a pattern very similar to her father's volume of interspersed songs and sonnets, which gives her volume an entirely different feel to the Shakespeare book; see 'Cherchez la femme', TLS 13 August, 2004; it isn't relevant to this discussion but perhaps worth noting that the authorship of 'A Lover's Complaint' has been disputed. Heather Dubrow offers a more useful thematic comparison of Wroth's sonnets and Shakeseare's, exploring some fascinating intersections; see Dubrow, 145-7

28 Roberts, p. 164.

29 There is a good account of the quarrel with Denny in Roberts, pp. 31-5.

30 See the account of the poems in Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. 156-9.

31 Ibid., pp. 32-4, my modernisation.

32 Mary Ellen Lamb, 'Forms of Sociality in Poems by William Herbert and Mary Wroth', paper delivered at 'Early Modern Women and Poetry' conference, London, July 2009; there is an excellent on-line edition of libels from the period edited by Andrew McRae and Alastair Bellany at

33 Gavin Alexander, Writing After Sidney: The literary response to Sir Philip Sidney1586-1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 290.

34 Ibid., 291-3, which includes a detailed account of Wroth's response to 'Astrophil and Stella' 47 (in P16).

35 Alexander's approach is complemented by Elizabeth Mazzola's psychoanalytic account of something more like a struggle with Sidney's influence and the complex family relationships that went along with it in Favorite Sons: The Politics and Poetics of the Sidney Family (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Gary Waller's fascinating study, The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the early Modern Construction of Gender (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), also places Wroth in the context of the Sidney/Herbert families, with a helpful concentration on detailed readings of Wroth's writing and a suggestive account of how Wroth worked through her relationship with Herbert in her work. In a more complex way, Maureen Quilligan's study, Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), argues in general that 'incest' could be a productive concept for early modern women authors, and in a chapter focused on Urania she examines how the romance reanimates Wroth's agency through the playing out of her relationship with her cousin; some similar points are made in William J Kennedy's The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern national Sentiment in Italy, France, and England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), as part of a wide-ranging account of Petrarchan poetry, including that of Philip, Robert and Mary Sidney, as well as Wroth. Marion Wynne-Davies's recent study Women Writers and Familial Discourse in the English Renaissance: Relative Values (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), in a chapter focused in particular on Love's Victory, also analyses what she terms Wroth's attempts 'to free herself from the constraints of a powerful family tradition of cultural productivity' (p. 90). In the end, I agree that it is more useful to see the strengths of Wroth's rewriting (and to a similar degree that of her aunt) as something that moves away from homage to Philip Sidney and, as I have stressed when looking at the range of her poetry, towards a voice that is strong and original; this approach is at the heart of Barbara Lewalski's wide-ranging chapter on Wroth in her Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 1993), chap. 9.

36 See Dubrow, esp. pp. 145-7; a similarly fruitful comparison with Donne may be found in Maureen Quilligan, 'Completing the Conversation', Shakespeare Studies 25 (1997), 42-9 and Naomi Miller, Changing the Subject: Mary Wroth and the Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), chap. 2.

37 Miller, p. 39.

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