Global Utilities

Mary Wroth's Poetry: An Electronic Edition

Hermaphrodite Introduction

Amongst a number of thinly veiled depictions of Jacobean court scandals in Urania, Wroth gave an account of the violent responses of Edward Denny to accusations that his daughter Honora, married to James Hay, Viscount Carlisle, had committed adultery. In the romance, Denny, who is called Seralius, reacts even more furiously to such a suspicion (not justified, as the romance has it) than his son-in-law. Wroth writes:

her father a phantasicall thing, vaine as Courtiers, rash as mad-men, & ignorant as women, would needs (out of folly, ill nature, and waywardnesse, which hee cald care of his honour, and his friends quiet) kill his daughter, and so cut off the blame, or spot, this her offence might lay vpon his noble bloud, as he termed it, which by any other men must with much curiositie haue been sought for, and as rarely found, as Pearles in ordinary Oysters (Iii3)[1]

Denny's response to this confirmed the accuracy of Wroth's analysis of his character. The image of his honour being as rare as pearls in ordinary oysters especially piqued his imagination; he wrote a poem attacking Wroth in the style of misogynistic libel which had become quite a popular genre, sliding from the almost respectable slurs of some of Donne's love poetry through to the scurrilous attacks on Frances Howard's sex life provoked by her divorce from the Earl of Essex and marriage to the King's favourite Robert Carr.[2] The poem sets up an image of Wroth as a monster, a 'hermophradite in show', who has produced an 'idell book' and struck at 'some mans noble bloud'.[3] In an image that is so often turned against women, especially women artists, Denny links sexual laxity with pretensions to authorship, creating an extremely nasty reworking of the oyster image: 'Yet common oysters such as thine gape wide/And take in pearles or worse at euery tide'. Denny also uses the image of drunkenness against Wroth and concludes by demanding she return to more seemly feminine pursuits than authorship: 'Work o th' Workes leave idle bookes alone/For wise and worthyer women have writte none'.

Far from being cowed by this attack, initially Wroth responded in kind, writing a fierce letter to Denny stating that his verses must have been written by a 'drunken poet', claiming disingenuously that she did not 'intend one word of that book to his Lordships person or disgrace' (237), but also enclosing a reply poem, with, as she puts it, Denny's own lines 'reversed' (237). She pities Denny's 'rash folly' and, like all smart writers of satire, says her response has only been 'a mornings work' (237). Wroth does indeed reverse Denny's poem, line by line. Denny becomes the 'Hirmophradite in sense, in Art a monster', who has produced 'railing rimes. . . against a harmless booke'.[4] He is an 'ass', and his revised oyster image is revised again:

Can such comparisons seme ye want of witt
    When oysters haue enflamed your blood wth it
But it appears your guiltiness gapt wide
    And filld wth Dirty doubt your brayns swolne tide

From February 15 1621/2 Wroth and Denny exchanged two letters each, and their two poems, before the correspondence seems to have come to an end, and Denny's attack on Wroth was curtailed after she rallied some powerful friends to her cause, labelled by Denny, in his last extant letter to her, as her 'noble allies'. These included those to whom Wroth evidently sent the correspondence: William Cecil, Second Earl of Salisbury, and Buckingham's brother-in-law, William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh. On 9 March 1622 (the date is significant because it indicates how quickly the ripples of this exchange began to spread) John Chamberlain wrote to Dudley Carleton as follows:

The other paper are certain bitter verses of the Lord Dennies upon the Lady Marie Wroth, for that in her booke of Urania she doth palpablie and grossely play upon him and his late daughter the Lady Hayes, besides many others she makes bold with, and they say takes great libertie or rather licence to traduce whom she please and thincks she daunces in a net: I have seen an answer of hers to these rimes, but I thought yt not worth the writing out.[5]

This is a significant moment in any attempt to understand how Wroth's poetic scope was circumscribed by at least some of her contemporaries, so that Denny's demand that she not write 'lascivious tales and amorous toyes'[6] was in a sense imposed upon her by the way that the poetic exchange with him was played out in the manuscript circulation of poetry that was so vibrant in the 1620s, 30s, and 40s. Denny's poem is sent by Chamberlain to Carleton, but Wroth's is not worth writing out, let alone circulating. So as it turned out, Wroth's poem survives in a single exemplar, while Denny's was not only passed on with the exchange of letters but also circulated separately within the manuscript poetry miscellanies and commonplace books of the 1620s to 50s. 


[1] I quote directly from Urania; but see Josephine Roberts, ed., The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania by Lady Mary Wroth (Binghmpton: MRTS, 1995), 516.

[2] See the analysis in Joshua Eckhardt, Manuscript Verse Collectors and the Politics of Anti-Courtly Love Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chap. 3.

[3] The poetic exchange is in Josephine Roberts, ed., The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 32-5; at this point I quote directly from the copies and letters sent to Sir Gervase Clifton, Hervey Jukes Lloyd Bruce Manuscripts preserved at Clifton Hall, Nottingham University Library MSS CL LM 85/1-5).

[4] In her use of the term 'railing rimes', which was common currency for rough and by implication at this stage satirical/derisive verse (possibly with origins in Skelton, 'Colin Cloute', with Skelton derided by Puttenham as a 'rude railing rimer' -- thanks to Andrew Zurcher for this reference), Wroth's phrase echoes King James's attack on libels, 'O stay your tears, you who complain': 'That Kings designes darr thus deride/By railing rymes and vaunting verse' (quoted from Early Stuart Libels, ed. Andrew McRae and Alastair Bellany,

[5] N E McClure, ed., The Letters of John Chamberlain (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), ii.427; it is worth noting here that Wroth had close ties with Dudley Carleton, as did her aunt Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; two letters of Wroth to Carleton -- who was at the Hague and a strong supporter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, as was Wroth and the rest of the Sidney family -- from 1619 are extant, written with considerable affection; in one of them Wroth notes that she has presented Carleton with 'some rude lines', which casts an ironic light on Chamberlain's failure to send Carleton a copy of the Wroth's hermaphrodite poem; for the letters see Roberts, ed., Poems, 235-6.

[6] Roberts, ed., Poems, 239.

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