wrothfien Mary Wroth's poetics of the self; Fienberg, Nona
Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900   01-01-2002

In Urania (1621), when Mary Wroth describes one heroine's method of self-definition, she also provides a metaphor for her own poetics of the self:

Then was I to worke my end, having no meanes, save mine owne industrie, and strength of mind busied like a Spider, which being to crosse from one beame to another, must worke by waies, and go fame about, making more webs to catch her selfe into her owne purpose, then if she were to goe an ordinary straight course: and so did I, out of my wit weave a web to deceive all, but mine owne desires.I

Like Arachne of Ovid's Metamorphoses, challenging Minerva's weaving skill, Wroth defied Jacobean constraints upon women as producers of culture. And, like Arachne, Wroth suffered for her bold interventions. But she wove her prose and poetry of strong stuff, attaching it to life at all four corners, and, while not deceiving all, still telling her "owne desires" with skill that readers are only beginning to understand.

So convincing is Wroth's poetic mapping of her interior world that the strong corners attaching Wroth's poetry to her social world have received less attention. I argue, however, that the more profoundly interior our reading of Wroth's poetry, the more her writing reveals its complicity in the negotiations between humanist poetic traditions and the Jacobean social world. This essay accepts Nancy K. Miller's invitation in "Arachnologies," to attend to the "enabling subjectivity of ... a poetics attached to gendered bodies that may have lived in history"2 and is thus part of a larger project to bridge new historicism and feminism in Renaissance studies.3

Because early modern society sought to constrain women's writing and power, Wroth's poetry "worke(s) by wales," by indirection. Reading the contexts and intertexts out of which she weaves her poetic fabric helps to trace her more nuanced use of the Petrarchan tradition than has been fully realized. Not only does she find the discourse of the "I" in Petrarch, but Wroth attaches the poetic "I" to the life of her native Kent and her political interests. Finally, she turns to the work of a family friend, Anne Cecil's sonnets on the death of her son. Not one in that range of discourses, the Petrarchan, the social, or Cecil's poetry of loss, serves alone as the master discourse of Wroth's poetry which, as she tells us, crosses like the spider's web "from one beame to another" to weave its art.

Since Wroth's poetry addresses early modern ambivalence about women's roles as producers, and their involvement in the social life of the age, its strategy of indirection challenges contemporary readers. Feminist cultural readers such as Merry E. Wiesner and Ann Rosalind Jones broadly define the extent of women's economic and social activities.4 In Wroth's circle, where access to royal favors was critical, Wroth exercised power through her skills in dancing, in musical performance, and in writing letters to secure court attention and reward. From her youth, when she gained the notice of Queen Elizabeth for her grace as a dancer,5 to her adulthood when her letters to Queen Anne helped secure money for the repair of the Wroth estate, Loughton Hall, to her widowhood when friends measured her value as a conversationalist at Penshurst in the currency of "a great deal of news from beyond sea," Wroth cultivated the skills that would enhance her own and her family's value in their competitive social environment, skills that constitute strategies of public engagement.6

But if Wroth's contemporaries valued her grace in dancing, beauty in masquing, epistolary eloquence, and access to information, others challenged her claim, like Arachne's, as a producer of culture. Best known is the exchange between Lord Edward Denny and Wroth following the publication of Urania and Denny's guilty identification with an abusive father's tale. His invective, "Hermaphradite in show, in deed a monster" challenges not just Wroth but women who intervened in social issues.7 Wroth's response, embedded in its context, "worked by waies." She first hurled Denny's rhymes back in his face, "Hirmaphradite in sense in Art a monster."8 For a widow, dependent upon the favor of the court, however, such defiance could not serve as her last word. Wroth wrote a series of conciliatory letters: she had meant no offense, had never sought to publish her work, and would withdraw all copies from circulation. Having identified the subversive tenor of Wroth's imagination as well as her method of indirection, of working by ways, Denny invited readers of the Urania to seek the roman a clef references in the long romance. Now that Josephine Roberts's edition of Urania has begun to identify the political issues that inform the prose romance, it is time to attend to the various social contexts of Wroth's poetry, particularly Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.9

Not surprisingly, Wroth's poetry uses the Petrarchan tradition to anchor her art at one corner, but then launches out into politically charged discourses not yet charted by her readers. Since Nancy Vickers delineated the Petrarchan legacy of silenced women, others such as Heather Dubrow and Naomi J. Miller have shown that, while such a search proved problematic, women poets in England found their voices in secular writing in part through Petrarch.10 Not silenced by Petrarch, Wroth interweaves his discourses of love and interiority with her own claim to those emotions ("My paine," "my joyes") and her body ("my grieved brest," "my pleasures"). She also touches upon those cultural markers that affiliate her work and the limning of her subjectivity with fissures in the social world.

Among the most frequently imitated of Petrarch's poems in the English Renaissance is his sonnet "Passa la nave mia" ("my ship passes"), number 189 in the Canzoniere.11 Sir Thomas Wyatt's version, "My galley charged with forgetfulness," is followed by Spenser's "Like as a ship that through the Ocean wyde." When Wroth brings "Passa la nave mia" into her own lyric sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, as sonnet P68, "My paine, still smother'd in my grieved brest," she intervenes in the Petrarchan poetic conversation.

The poem begins not with "a ship" or "my galley," but with "my paine," and ends not with the despair of the port that haunts Petrarch, but with the unexpected outcry of an internal voice:

My paine, still smother'd in my grieved brest,

Seekes for some ease, yett cannott passage finde

To bee discharg'd of this unwellcome ghest;

When most I strive, more fast his burdens bind,

Like to a ship, on Goodwines cast by wind

The more she strives, more deepe in sand is prest

Till she bee lost; so am I, in this kind

Sunk, and devour'd, and swallow d by unrest,

Lost, shipwrackt, spoyl'd, debar'd of smallest hope

Nothing of pleasure left; save thoughts have scope,

Which wander may: Goe then, my thoughts, and cry

Hope's perish'd; Love tempest-beaten; Joy lost

Killing dispaire hath all thes blessings crost

Yett faith still cries, Love will nott falsefy. 12

In the opening quatrain, the speaker withholds Petrarch's ship metaphor. Yet her pain's search for "passage" recalls the passing of Petrarch's ship and anticipates the metaphor in the second quatrain. Unlike Petrarch's ship in a harsh sea, Wroth's speaker seeks to discharge herself of an unwelcome guest. An unwilling host, she binds fast the guest who has become an intruder, a violator of her body. One reading of the relationship between "my paine" and "this unwellcome ghest" might recognize the vocabulary of childbirth, referred to as a "passage" in early modern texts.13 In this poem, the discourse of the female body is interwoven with a vocabulary of imprisonment or freedom: "passage," "unwelcome ghest," and "discharged."

When the second quatrain introduces the ship, it is not navigating Petrarch's Homeric Scylla and Charybdis. Neither lost without the guidance of the stars, nor burdened with forgetfulness, Wroth's ship is "sunk." Every effort presses it more deeply in the "Goodwines," the sandy shoals off the Kentish coast. On the coasts Wroth knows, having grown up as Mary Sidney of Penshurst, shipwreck threatens with a personal, English, familial specificity. Unlike Petrarch's speaker, Wroth's struggles not with the open seas in a classical epic quest, but with the cultural constraints of a family and a social environment in its English history and geography. In her Goodwin Sands poem, Wroth navigates between the Petrarchan tradition and the risky social world of her native Kent.

Wroth's speaker aligns her interior journey with the age's ambivalence about what historian Joan Thirsk has called "scandalous" commerce.14 In early modern England, a pre-consumer value system "[set] a price upon goods whose raw materials were recognized as having a substantial value, while despising those whose value lay principally in the labour conferred upon them."15 But by the mid seventeenth century, Thirsk affirms, the work of productive, busy hands, whose projects were once despised, gained in value. Moreover, in this changing social order women played an active role both as producers and consumers.

The Sidney family distinguished itself as much in its engagement with the exchange in goods as in humanist intellectual intercourse. So, in 1573, Mary Sidney acquired a scarf of green striped silk for sixteen shillings, and from 1575 on Henry Sidney wore only silk stockings. When, in 1603, Robert Sidney was created Baron Sidney of Penshurst, he met the new King James wearing "a suit of satin overlaid with silver lace, with a cloth-of-- silver doublet and a velvet-lined gray cloak. He had a silver-laced saddle made to match," at a cost of 130 pounds.16 When Wroth needs a metaphor for the compassion of one of Urania's heroines, she notes her disdain for "the delicatenesse of her greene Velvet Gowne, the richnesse of her faire carnation imbrodred peticote, her white shoes, and rich laced shooties" (p. 543) as she wept on the wet riverbank. What but love could prompt the waste of those sartorial texts, particularly the women's work of the "carnation imbrodred peticote"?

As for Wroth, a participant in court masques with their extravagant display of costumes and sets, and thus a producer of the illusions of power that defined James's reign, she too entered a high-stakes marketplace. Further, first in circulating through manuscript exchange, then in publishing her writing, the work of her hands, she identifies herself, against the misogynist ideology promoted by James I, as a producer of culture. In defining herself through her writing, she asserts her place in public life.

But she also engages the dangers of those assertions. For example, in her "Passa la nave" sonnet, Wroth suggests conversation at Penshurst about nearby coastal ports. On the shores of Dover and its neighboring towns, Protestant refugees from the Low Countries found safety, Catholic recusants from England sought to flee to the continent, and ships foundered in treacherous sandy shoals. For a young woman in the actively Protestant Sidney household, discussions of Dover coast adventures must have been rich with excitement. In Edward Dering's 1629 letters, written while a Lieutenant of the Cinque Ports, a Kentish friend of the Sidney and Wroth families recounts tales of piracy, of safe passage for Protestants, and of fleeing Catholics, "who were stayed att Deale on Tuesday last for not swearing allegiance unto his Majesty."17 Encoded, then, in the praise of Wroth at Penshurst as a purveyor of "a great deal of news from beyond sea," is the currency of her information about Protestant activity in the Low Countries and on the Dover coast.

In the lexicon of early modern England, the Goodwin Sands connote scandalous trade and religious passion in a changing social order. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Salerio speculates that Antonio's ship is "Wracked on the narrow seas-- the Goodwins I think they call the place" (III.i.3-4). In James Shirley's Peace, a projector undertakes to "build a most strong castle on Goodwin Sands." In Richard Brome's The Damoiselle, a charlatan is unmasked in his plan "to draine the Goodwins to be lord of all the treasure buried in the Sands there." Thomas Campion's Second Book of Ayres, Song 18 (which Wroth might well have sung and played on her archlute) speaks of smothering the beloved in so many kisses that it would be easier to count "the osiers of the Thames, / Or Goodwin's Sands devouring."18

Wroth's contribution to this discourse may also incorporate the family story of Robert Sidney's quest for wardenship of the Cinque Ports. Family letters detail Rowland Whyte's pursuit of the wardenship on Sidney's behalf in Queen Elizabeth's court. When, in 1596, Whyte perceives that the queen's mind is set on Lord Cobham, he reflects, "Your Lordship in your own Wisdome can best judge of these Thinges, and what Good you may expect her, where to be a Noble Man born, is more respected, then to be vertuose and worthy."19 Mary Sidney Wroth's mother and father both sought this position, never to be in their keeping. Both in this foundered Goodwins venture, and in the family's continuing Protestant activism, Wroth locates a metaphor for her own subjectivity, as well as a source for news of Protestant activity "beyond sea."

Reversing the opening quatrain's frustration that her pain is "smother'd" inside of her, the second quatrain's horror is that she is "sunk" inside. The speaker is now "devour'd," and "swallow'd," as though cannibalized, and in the vocabulary of her Kentish home, associated with the Goodwins, called "ship swallower."20 The past participles enjamb to the first tercet: "Lost, shipwrackt, spoyl'd, debar'd of smallest hope / Nothing of pleasure left," a kind of drowning in words. But the sonnet turns in the midst of verse 10, when, instead of drowning, the speaker assumes control, "save thoughts have scope." The speaker finds not just an exception in "save," but a rescue from drowning. "Thoughts" may wander both because they are salvaged from Wroth's "Goodwines" and because they have "scope." Thoughts have, that is, the vision that Petrarchan poets seek in the stars of the night sky.

Unlike previous versions of "Passa la nave mia," in which the speaker's voice is maintained singly throughout, Wroth's sonnet weaves an interplay of voices, ranging from the voice of the oppressed to the voice of agency. The speaker's command,

frees one voice from the struggle of the opening quatrains. But this dialogue within the self is still not resolved. Wroth neither charts a simple course, nor finds the comfort of a port. However unanticipated that cry of "thoughts" may be, the sonnet takes yet another turn, as the voice of authority that speaks a "passage" to selfhood calls out, "Yett faith still cries, Love will nott falsefy."

While my own earlier essay emphasized Wroth's poetry's privacy, its lack of public markers, I now argue that her female poetic subjectivity negotiates the complex territory of both private and public, familial and mythological discourses. In another lyric, "Lovers learne to speake but truthe / Sweare nott, and your othes forgoe" (P94), Wroth broaches religious and political tension. The closing two stanzas find in the laws regulating religious practice in early modern Europe a metaphor for the difficulty of enforcing truth in love:

Butt your choice is, and your love

How most number to deseave,

As if honors claime did move

Like Popish lawe, non safe to leave;

Fly this folly, and returne

Unto truth in love, and try,

None butt Martirs hapy burne

More shamefull ends they have that lye.

(lines 29-36)

As Roberts notes, "the hostile reference to `Popish lawe' is to be expected from a member of the staunchly Protestant Sidney family," but what part does this political/religious intertext play in the love lyric?21 Persuading her beloved to constancy, the speaker argues by analogy to religious faith: "Thinke itt sacrilidg to breake / What you promise shall in love" (lines 5-6). While the interlacing of religious and love persuasion is familiar from John Donne's lyrics, as well as those of Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney, Wroth steps farther into ideological dispute by referring to "Popish lawe." The speaker indicts a lover's false choice to deceive as many as he can, as if his honor resided in sexual conquest, "To intisce, and then deseave" (line 10), much as "Popish lawe" would falsely propose that honor resided in maintaining the deceptive Catholic faith which none are safe to leave. Not merely a lover's quarrel, the speaker proposes that the unfaithful beloved's actions are like those who maintain "Popish lawe" to their martyred death. He, like Catholic martyrs, follows a false creed, while the speaker associates "truth in love" with the Protestantism upon which her family staked their lives.

Like the gesture to the Kentish coast in "Good now bee still," or to "Popish law" in "Lovers learne to speake but truthe," Wroth, in the intimate unfolding of "Forbeare darke night, my joyes now budd againe" (P4), moves outward to a contemporary climatic and social phenomenon, the Great Snow of 1608:

Forbeare darke night, my joyes now budd againe,

Lately growne dead, while cold aspects, did chill

The rote at heart, and my chiefe hope quite kill,

And thunders strooke me in my pleasures waine.

Then I alas with bitter sobs, and paine,

Privately groan'd, my Fortunes present ill;

All light of comfort dimb'd, woes in prides fill,

With strange encrease of griefe, I griev'd in vaine,

And most, when as a memory to good

Molested me, which still as witnes stood,

Of those best dayes, in former time I knew:

Late gone as wonders past, like the great Snow,

Melted and wasted, with what change must know:

Now backe the life comes where as once it grew.

The opening and closing verses explore the present, the "now," while the rest of the sonnet plumbs the past. And the opening verse seems to anticipate an enumeration of budding "joyes." Instead, however, the exhortation, "Forbeare darke night, my joyes now budd again," proves ineffectual until the final verse.

Not only is the past placed in parentheses between the sonnet's opening and closing verses, but that past becomes increasingly particular as it sinks into "memory." Spring's promises of "joyes" and "life" frame the sonnet's twelve interior verses which chronicle a cold that chills "the rote at heart," and dims the "light of comfort." The sestet marks the sonnet's turn inward to an increasingly remote past. From the "now" of the outer layer, to the past of an enclosed layer, and the more remote past of the internal core, what grows is not joy or buds of spring, but "strange encrease of griefe." With the sestet, the speaker recalls a deeper "memory to good ... / Of those best dayes, in former time I knew."

Her deep recollection is prompted by her worst grief: "And most, when as a memory to good / Molested me, which still as witnes stood." In Wroth's lexicon, "molest" gains resonance throughout the Urania, from a woman accosted in her chamber, "I never was more molested in my dayes" (p. 31[7]) to another heroine, "with a greater tempest I was molested falling into the hands of a mad-man" (p. 278), to the tale of an imprisoned woman, "(in a strong Tower, many times to molest her)" (p. 282). In the sonnet, the word picks up the alliterative pattern of "most" and "memory." To communicate the loss of those "best days," the closing tercet moves, as Wroth's Goodwin Sands poem moves, into local memory. Here, the local condition is of a climatic extreme: "Late gone as wonders past, like the great Snow, / Melted and wasted." Once more, Wroth ties the speaker's emotional life to local markers and to a public world where social change in unpredictable directions is marked by women's activity.

In Thomas Dekker's pamphlets of 1608 and 1614, The Great Frost: Cold Doings in London and The Cold Year, 1614, A Deep Snow: in which Men and Cattell have Perished, the snow blankets a world turned topsy-turvy, "For the city by this means is cut off from all commerce." That is, instead of "regular" commerce, a scandalous commerce thrives: "this man pawns his cloak; that man his holiday breeches; this woman sells her brass; that gossip makes away with her linen; and all these streams do suffer shipwrack, and the sea swallows the spoil."22 Dekker's perpetrators of disorder devote themselves to the lottery of 1608. Dekker's metaphor, like Wroth's in her Goodwin Sands sonnet, is shipwreck, where the sea "swallows" all those goods lost to the lottery, much as Wroth's "I" is "swallow'd" in the shipwreck of her pain. On the frozen Thames, when water metamorphoses to ice, as on the Goodwins, when the sea becomes sand, uncertainty and change subvert known values. Gossips enter the marketplace, trading items of known value for speculative returns.

In evoking the ephemeral "great Snow," Wroth uses the expected "melted," but combines it surprisingly with the morally evaluative "wasted." The pairing adds a moral dimension to a physical phenomenon. In addition, "melt" and "waste" gloss the earlier "molest," as if "molested" divided into two verbs, "melted and wasted" through a false etymology but an aural and visual assonance expressing both a physical diminishing and a moral fault. Here, in the most interior portion of the sonnet, the alliterative pattern interweaves "m" ("most," "memory," "molested," 11 melted," "must") and "w" ("when," "which," "witnes," "wonders," "wasted," "with what"), the initials of Mary Wroth. By inscribing herself in the melting snow, the poet locates the selfhood that writes the contingencies of a changing social order.

When the poem returns to "now" in its closing verse, an earned self-knowledge renders its assertion convincing: "Now backe the life comes where as once it grew." The single verses that begin and end the sonnet assume a heavy task of containing the melting, wasting body of memory. Yet the close affirms a poetic subjectivity that finds the pleasures of the self and life itself in writing.

Through Wroth's references to the Great Snow, to Popish law, and to the Goodwin Sands, she identifies the speaker's particular vulnerability. By embedding in her poetry local and familial markers regarding social change in early modern England, Wroth situates herself in her own place and time, when ships were swallowed by the Goodwin Sands, when women and men risked their lives both to flee and to enter Protestant England, and when London turned topsy-turvy because the Thames froze over.

Like those gossips who so worry Dekker, Wroth enters into the public realm where a woman's engaged poetic work still seemed dangerous indeed. In the English tradition, as the male speaker qualified himself for the beloved's "grace," he also asserted his position in court politics. His turn to the interior self is validated through learning and the authority of the classical past. Languages of love and inwardness constituted a rhetoric of power in court circles. While Wroth complains, "What pleasure can a bannish'd creature have / In all the pastimes that invented arr / By witt or learning?" (P44, lines 1-3) she answers her own question in verse lines and in narrative. A fuller recognition of the intricate poetic web she weaves demonstrates the ways she intervenes in the public life of Jacobean society.

Out of what materials would women, ordinarily limited in the humanist education and the public roles that authorized male poets' inward turn, create their verse? Wroth found answers to that humanist challenge by engaging her poetic work in conversation with women writers. While Naomi J. Miller in Changing the Subject has traced a "matrilineal heritage," this essay suggests a differently familial and less familiar poetic tie to Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford, the mother of Susan Vere, Countess of Montgomery, for whom Wroth named The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania.23 In Cecil's poems, Wroth read an Anacreontic discourse that incorporates familial and mythological dimensions. In addition, Cecil's sonnets on the death of her infant son employ a dialogic method for exploring a sense of loss.

In Cecil's four sonnets and two quatrains lamenting her infant son's death, published in 1584 as "Foure Epythaphes" following John Soowthern's Pandora, the bereaved mother expresses her grief by analogy to Venus's love for her son and her lost young Adonis. In these poems, Cecil mapped the sense of loss that is so much Wroth's speaker's subject. Instead of the narcissistic Petrarchan melancholia that had gained heroic stature, a woman poet mourned the loss of her child, and with it a more generalized loss of possibilities. Instead of the single voice through which Ben Jonson, for example, mourns the death of his son and his daughter, Cecil's poetry develops its emotional impact through an exchange of voices, a dialectic. Wroth employed that dialectic method as both poets wove their poetic web through an empowering conversation with a goddess.

Cecil's sonnet begins with the personification of time, the mouth that "glutton(s) up all" in an image of a cruel impersonal devouring beast that Wroth's swallowing Goodwin Sands echoes:

Had with the moorning the Gods left their wille undone,

They had not so soone herited such a soule:

Or if the mouth, tyme did not glotton up all.

Nor I, nor the world, were depriv'd of my Sonne,

Whose brest Venus, with a face dolefull and milde,

Doth washe with golden teares, inveying the skies:

And when the water of the Goddesses eyes,

Makes almost alive, the Marble, of my Childe:

One byds her leave styll, her dollor so extreme,

Telling her it is not, her young sonne Papheme,

To which she makes aunswer with a voice inflamed,

(Feeling therewith her venime, to be more bitter)

As I was of Cupid, even so of it mother:

And a womans last chylde, is the most beloved.24

Cecil's words, like Venus's tears, are metamorphic. She imagines Venus washing her son's breast with her tears, as if, in the Ovidian allusion to Pygmalion, Cecil's elegy could make "almost alive, the Marble, of my Childe." Like Wroth, Cecil strengthens her own voice through placing it in dialogue with others. At the moment when an intrusive voice advises the mourning mother to "leave styli, her dollor so extreme," Cecil displaces the mother's "voice inflamed" with its "venime" "bitter" onto the goddess. In this sonnet, Venus speaks the last two verses, so that her divine fury helps Cecil to express the mother's unsettling dynamic of love and anger.

In Cecil's fourth sonnet, Venus again responds to news of the son's death:

At the brute of it, the Aphroditan Queene,

Caused more silver to distyll fro her eyes:

Then when the droppes of her cheeke raysed Daisyes:

And to die with him, mortall, she would have beene.25

Cecil's mourning is sanctioned by the Ovidian mythologies the humanists used to authorize their own desire. Perhaps Wroth, whose first son James died in 1616 at the age of two, turned for poetic comfort to her friend's mother's poetry.

Wroth's subject, however, is not death, but the engendering of female subjectivity through writing. When Wroth sustains a dialogue between two strong female voices, she does so through a narrative of Juno. Her story recalls those subversive tales of the Olympians that Arachne wove into her fabric:

Juno still jealouse of her husband Jove

Desended from above, on earth to try

Whether she ther could find his chosen love

Which made him from the heavens so often fly;

Close by the place, wher I for shade did ly

She chaseing came; butt when she saw mee move

Have you nott seene this way sayd shee to hy

One, in whom venue never ground did prove,

Hee, in whom love Both breed to stirr more hate,

Courting a wanton Nimph for his delight

His name is Jupiter, my Lord by fate

Who, for her leaves mee, heav'n, his throne, and light,

I saw him nott, sayd I, although heere are

Many in whose harts love hath made like warr.


In this sonnet, the mythological narrative at once distances and reinforces the speaker's emotions. Like Cecil, Wroth explores female poetic subjectivity through the authorizing invocation and intervention of a mythological goddess. Like Cecil, the speaker finds in dialogue with a goddess her ability to express her own emotional state. Wroth here inscribes, however, not a mother's subjectivity in the loss of a child, but a love partner's in the betrayal of her beloved.

The dialogue between a powerful goddess and a knowing woman poses a similar rhetorical problem to that in the hinge-- poem of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, "Good now bee still, and doe nott mee torment" (P52), but resolves it differently. In both poems, the speaker deals with the beloved's absence, perhaps unfaithfulness. In "Juno still jealous of her husband Jove," however, no unknown questioner intrudes on the speaker. Instead, Juno finds her hiding in the shade. Instead of seeking solitude in a pose of possession: "Alas I ame possesst, / And mad folks senceles ar" (P52, lines 10-1), the speaker joins Juno in sophisticated complicity. Juno, cuckolded by a straying Jove, and thus the agent of revenge against him, captures the speaker's imagination through her words. Juno's six verses at the sonnet's heart make her case. In the lofty poise and witty balance between two powerful women's voices, Wroth's speaker triumphs by meeting the goddess on her own terms.

The speaker, initially like an Ovidian nymph who, pursued by Jove, hides in the "shade," is discovered in her retreat by Juno, who might assume she is chiding the very "wanton nymph" with whom her consort has betrayed her. Instead, the speaker, Queen Pamphilia, like Juno, powerful but forsaken, assumes command. Her sprezzatura controls her feelings about the one, herself, who matters among the "Many in whose harts love hath made like warr." Like "Good now bee still," which exhorts, "Spare mee then till I ame my self, and blest," (line 14) this sonnet deals with absence through an exchange of voices leading to command.

Five poems later, when the speaker bids farewell to her muse in the final sonnet of the sequence, Wroth maintains the voice of earned mastery. From her achieved poetics of the self, she intends to "Leave the discource of Venus, and her sunn / To young beeginers" (P103, line 9). Wroth's palinode recalls Petrarch's opening sonnet's "giovenile errore," his first youthful error.26 By now, however, it also recalls Cecil's "discource of Venus, and her sunn," as well as Wroth's own opening sonnet of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus with its vision of Venus and Cupid. Her apparent disclaimer makes ambitious claims upon the audience. She asserts her role as duenna in the poetry of love and subjectivity, inviting readers to trace the threads she has woven into the intricate text of her poetry. The invitation recalls Minerva's role as premier weaver, but with a difference. For in Wroth's dignified valedictory, she also cultivates Arachne's skills, not as competitor but as contributor to a shared fabric.

Wroth finds the opportunity for her self-making in the female subjectivity, suggested, but almost unexamined by the Petrarchan tradition, in the social conditions of her own place and time, and in the poetry of the family friend, Cecil, to which she looked when she was a "young beeginer." Neither silenced by Petrarch's legacy, nor in retreat to a private world of interiority, Wroth hands the making of poetry to a new humanist family that embraces female poetic subjectivity in productive dialectic not only with the Petrarchan tradition but also with the social world of early modern England.


This work began in an NEH Summer Institute on Petrarch led by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I am grateful for help and encouragement from many, including Naomi J. Miller, Heather Dubrow, and Elizabeth Hageman. I thank also the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation for supporting my sabbatical research in England, and Keene State College for supporting my sabbatical.

1 Mary Wroth, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (London, 1621), p. 244. All subsequent citations will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically within the text according to page number. I use Wroth, The First Part of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, ed. Josephine A. Roberts (Binghamton: State Univ. of New York, Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995) to refer to Roberts's introductory material.

2 Nancy K. Miller, "Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic," in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Miller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 270-95, 288.

3 Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), p. 18.

4 Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (London: Basil Blackwell, 1988); Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993); and Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). All three scholars provide social and economic contexts for women's work in early modern England. Ann Rosalind Jones's recent essay, "Dematerializations: Textile and Textual Properties in Ovid, Sandys, and Spenser," discusses the parallel between weaver and poet, particularly in Spenser, citing the founding myth of Arachne (in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, ed. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996], pp. 189-209). See also Jones, The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990).

5 Robert Sidney, The Poems, ed. P. J. Croft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 5.

6 Roberts, The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1983), p. 27.

7 Roberts, Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, p. 32.

8 Roberts, Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, p. 34.

9 The critical introduction of Roberts's 1995 edition of Urania establishes the political and social contexts of the prose romance.

10 See Dubrow's discussion of Wroth (pp. 134-61). Dubrow argues that "the paradigm of the dominant and manipulative poet and silenced mistress is deceptive" (p. 11). Since Nancy Vickers's "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," the debate about the influence of the Petrarchan tradition on women writers has been a lively one (Crit 8, 2 [Winter 1981]: 265-79). See also Nona Fienberg, "Mary Wroth and the Invention of Female Poetic Subjectivity," in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, ed. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991), pp. 175-90; Maureen Quilligan, "The Constant Subject: Instability and Authority in Wroth's Urania Poems," in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 307-35; and Jonathan Goldberg, Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997).

11 Robert M. Durling, trans. and ed., Petrarch's Lyric Poems (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 335.

12 Roberts, Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, p. 122. All subsequent citations from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text according to sonnet and line number.

13 Linda A. Pollock, "Embarking on a Rough Passage: The Experience of Pregnancy in Early-Modern Society," in Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Valerie Fildes (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 39-67.

14 Thirsk, p. 51. 15 Thirsk, p. 15.

16 Millicent V. Hay, The Life of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester (15631626) (Washington DC: Folger Books, 1984), p. 211.

17 Edward Dering, British Library, Additional MS 52798, p. 42. The Dering manuscript is cited in Roberts's edition of the poetry, where she notes that Dering's papers held Wroth's manuscript for her drama, Love's Victorie (p. 38).

18 Edward Holdsworth Sugden, A Topographical Dictionary to the Works of Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists (1925; rprt. New York: George Olms Verlag Hildesheim, 1969), p. 227.

19 Arthur Collins, ed., Letters and Memorials of State (1694), 2 vols. (London, 1746), 2:26. Irene Burgess suggested, in response to an early version of this argument in an MLA conference paper, that I seek out the Sidney family connection to the Cinque Ports.

20 Richard Larn, Goodwin Sands Shipwrecks (London: Newton Abbot, 1977), p. 26.

21 Roberts, Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, p. 138.

22 Thomas Dekker, The Great Frost (1608), reprinted in An English Garner, ed. Edward Arber, 8 vols. (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1903), 4:181.

13 Naomi J. Miller, Changing the Subject: Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1996), p. 79. Miller provides the important recent treatment of Wroth's use of the tradition of women writers. Other important contributors to the discussion include Margaret Hannay, Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990); Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990); Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992); and G. F. Waller, The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the Early Modern Construction of Gender (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1993). I argue that Anne Cecil's poetry contributes to the female legacy from which Wroth created her own poetics of the self.

24 Ellen Moody, "Six Elegiac Poems, Possibly by Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford [with texts]," ELR 19, 2 (Spring 1989): 152-70, 164-5. See also Steven W. May, "The Countess of Oxford's Sonnets: A Caveat," ELN 29, 3 (March 1992): 9-19; Louise Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994); and John Soowthern, Pandora (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1937). Although Roberts cautiously accepts May's attempt to question the attribution, Schleiner's discussion on pages 85-92 reaffirms Cecil's authorship. For the citation to Schleiner, I thank Micheline M. White.

25 Moody, pp. 166-7, lines 4-7. 11 Durling, p. 37.

Title: Mary Wroth's poetics of the self

Nona Fienberg is professor of English at Keene State College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in such journals as PMLA, Profession, SEL, Shakespeare Quarterly, Criticism, and Modern Philology, as well as in anthologies.

Copyright Studies in English Literature c/o Rice University Winter 2002