Aemilia Lanyer – “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum”

Aemilia Lanyer was born Aemilia Bassano; her father was an Italian musician, possibly Italian-Jewish or Protestant escaping the religious persecution. She was always hanging around the court circles, as her father, husband and eventually her sun were all musicians employed by various aristocrats. As a young girl she was the mistress of the much older Lord Hunsdon, who however, married her off to Alfonso Lanyer when she got pregnant. Her half-Italian or half-Jewish roots, suggesting she might have been a brunette, combined with the fact that Shakespeare’s troupe did perform in Hunsdon’s household in the 1590s (but it was when Hunsdon’s affair with Lanyer was already over) gave some rise to speculations that she might have been the Dark Lady from Shakespeare’s sonnets, but of course we don’t have any definite proofs.

Aemilia Lanyer is the author of only one volume of poetry, containing the Passion poem referenced in the title, another country-house poem (about which I am going to write in a few days) and a lot of dedicatory poems to various noble women, whose patronage apparently Lanyer tried to attract. It is interesting that Lanyer deliberately chooses only women. Many critics read it as a feminist gesture, especially when read in the context of the two main poems: the Passion shown through women’s eyes; Cookham residence as a utopian women’s paradise. But I also tend to think Lanyer wanted to appear extremely proper and after her well-known past with Hunsdon she didn’t want to make an impression that she was again on the prowl for another well-heeled lover as well as a patron.

A short text “To the Doubting Reader”, originally printed at the end of the book, explains the title (which is a loose paraphrase of the words pinned on Christ’s cross) explains that the words came to Lanyer in a dream, many years before she even thought about writing this volume. The next text is the dedicatory poem to Queen Anne, James I’s wife. It is for the most part a run-of-the mill dedicatory poem, with the poet flattering the recipient of the dedication and apologizing for the numerous defects of her poetry. The interesting points are where Lanyer promises to present the Queen with the defense of the biblical Eve, making the Queen a judge of whether her version of the events agrees with the biblical one, and if it is so, why are women blamed more than “more faulty men”? She also admits that as a woman she does not have much learning, but she presents her poetry as a work of Nature, not art or learning.

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