Lady Mary Wroth – poems from “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus”

Sonnet 68 (“My pain, still smothered in my grieved breast”) opens with an evocative vision of pain, pent up in the speaker’s breast and finding no way of release. The more the poet strives against her suffering, the deeper it is. She is like a ship that ran into Goodwin Sands, a line of shoals near Dover – the more she tries to get out of them, the deeper she sinks. The only thing that is free is her thoughts, which despair of any solution to the situation, but her faith still believes that love cannot be false.

Song “Love a child is ever crying” uses the image of Cupid, the childish god of love, as a fretful child. The moment when you start to give in to his demands, he wants more. What is more, he will glory in hurting you and lying to you; wolves are not fiercer than he is. So for your own safety, it is better to leave this vicious child alone.

The nest sonnet in the selection is from the “corona” sequence, a difficult form in which the last line of one sonnet is repeated as the first line in the following one, and so on, until the last sonnet repeats the first line of the first sonnet, thus closing the crown. Sonnet 77 starts with the line “In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn?” and explores the predicament of the speaker, who is afraid that every decision she is going to make is going to be the wrong one, but standing still is also not an option. She decides to move in any direction, despite her fears that she is going to meet only with troubles on her way. Punning on “travail/travel”, she is afraid that her travel is going to bring her pain, but she is going to take the thread of love to guide her. I wanted to illustrate the post with a photo of a hedge maze, but apparently these became popular in England under the reign of William III, seventy years after this sonnet was composed, so it would be really anachronistic.

And finally Sonnet 103, closing the whole cycle by addressing the muse: “My muse now happy, lay thyself to rest”. Now her muse can sleep “in the quiet of a faithful love”, but the texts she inspired are going to be read by other suffering lovers. The readers should aspire to truth and true love which is eternal. “Young beginners”, those who are still at the first stage of love, enchanted mostly by the physical beauty, will be inspired to write their own poetry. But the poet herself now leaves off, because she has shown she can love, and now her honour is going to be proven by her constancy in love.

And thus we leave Lady Mary Wroth, who is one of the most interesting surprises – no worse poet than her famous uncles, and I dare say more interesting because the voice of loving and suffering women is so rare in poetry of these times. They are so often the object of poet’s love, but hardly themselves the subject. Reading the umpteenth Petrarchan sonnet about the distant and aloof beloved can be somewhat tiresome, no matter how skilful the poet is. Lady Mary introduces new topics, about which only a woman could write: the need for keeping her feelings secret, the awareness of the double standard of sexual behaviour for women and men. What does it say about our culture that she had to wait 300 years to be rediscovered?

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