We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

One more day off: Mary Wroth and Anne Cecil · 2 January 06

Dear Harriet,

We did not after all have a marathon viewing of you & Lord Peter in the 12 hour-long film adaptations of Miss Sayers’ novels. After watching the middle story, Have His Carcase, I became convinced that what the film-makers had done was take 3 stories from 3 Harriet Vane novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night) and turn it into a single love story tracing the development of your relationship with Lord Peter. Each episode climaxed in a scene between you, and Lord Peter: at the close of the first, your utter rejection of him based on grounds you had been so humiliated you would be imprisoned; at the close of the second, your tentative refusal based on grounds that you would indeed be pushed by all you encounter into the role of this powerful man’s companion; and at film’s end your half-teasing acquiescence, a kind of agreed-upon non-yielding into mutual independence side-by-side. The series end with a sweet fantasy of you and Lord Peter driving off into a sunny horizon—with Bunter driving the car. I was going to test my theory by watching all 12 in a row. But Yvette preferred 1 Monty Python and I feared Mr Drake would leave the front room.

We also didn’t do this marathon because Mr Drake and Caroline went used car hunting for a second day, and returned home with a very recent silver Saturn SC1 for her. She rejoiced in this just affordable snazzy sensible car: good on gas, small, sturdy, with all the extras (CD and radio, air conditioning, opening in roof). But it was 8 o’clock so we had cold chicken, watched Monty Python, read and then went to bed. Last night we had our steak, champagne, after Yvette and I had gone to see Broke Back Mountain, a gay film I recommend seeing, though it unfortunately does not present gayness as simply another sexual orientation, but rather a central debilitating condition which maims and destroys the lives of those who are unfortunate enough to be perverse in their appetites; the only happiness the two central characters can know is when they are away from all others—who are not to be blamed for not understanding.

I’m not writing to talk of this however much it is a part of the dominant heterosexual macho-male power-worshipping point of view of public entertainment. Today I am at work on a project I am writing to tell of. I’ve been asked to evaluate an article about half of which is on the sonnet sequence I have argued is possibly by Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford, where she mourns the death of a neonate. This author presents the sonnets as undoubtledly by John Soowtherne, a man who otherwise wrote drivel, (covertly) to suggest they are poems by a gay presence (Soowtherne) comparable to Shakespeare’s in the 126 (gay) sonnets where Shakespeare urges a young man (probably Shakespeare’s lover, though this is de-emphasized) to father a baby. I have to find where ideas about motherhood and mourning are presented in such a way as to enable someone to argue they can be taken over by a man, and also where the idea has been previously presented that a man urging another man to have a baby is seducing the young man for himself. My hunch is the latter will be in volume of gay studies of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The article seems to me to participate in the new backlash atmosphere hostile to or erasing the women’s point of view everywhere. I’ve since yesterday read three reviews of recent books where poems by women are re-interpreted from a masculinistic, capitalist, pro-hierarchical, indeed any perspective but that of a woman’s life1.

I can’t go to the library to read the necessary extra articles and to browse the new books until tomorrow. Thus my title: one more day off. Today the federal government is close for 1 of the 8 legal holidays of the year. So my college library is closed too.

In the meantime I’m rereading the essay along with essays on and poems by women to which Anne’s belong, with the original difference that she is writing as a mother deprived of a child that is hers, and not anyone else’s—not the father’s particularly. There is nothing too bad one can say about Oxford. In reading the article I’ve done more research and come across where a few years later Oxford is again berating Anne nastily a short while before she is to give birth. It’s his right to keep her continuously pregnant, a hardship condition which risks death (and she did die a couple of years later): she’s a toilet he’s taken to shit in, the shit being either his sperm or his cruel shaming talk.

Poems by women of open suffering, of guilt, shame, and all the complex of self-scourging that goes along with the double-standard on sexual conduct still central to our society by, for example, Gaspara
, Veronica Gambara—are either still suppressed or marginalized2, or when presented with implicit praise as characteristic poetry by women nowadays on lists openly resented by women. I sent along a few by Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth to the Women Poets list and the reaction was to distance themselves from Wroth, to accuse her of hypocrisy and weakness in not separating herself from her husband. At one time they weren’t read; now women careerists (for who gets to publish mostly) rush to distance themselves from the openly powerless and from the open use of suffering to expose relentless ruthless injustice3.

For today I’ll put 3 sonnets by Wroth on this site, all of which show her technical mastery, virtuoso use of rhyme, feminine imagery, and moving stance; a short life; and an (idealizing) picture of an early Tudor woman.

So, from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus


My pain, still smother’d in my grieved breast
Seeks for some ease, yet cannot passage find
To be discharg’d of this unwelcome guest;
When most I strive, more fast his burdens bind,
Like to a ship, on Goodwins cast by wind
The more she strives, more deep in sand is pressed.
Till she be lost; so am I, in this wind
Sunk, and devour’d, and swallow’d by unrest,
Lost, shipwrecked, spoiled, debarred of smallest hope
Nothing of pleasure left; save thoughts have scope,
Which wander may: go then, my thoughts, and cry
Hope’s perish’d; Love tempest-beaten; joy lost
Killing despair hath all this blessings crost
Yet faith still cries, Love will not falsify.


Late in the Forest I did Cupid see
Cold, wet, and crying he had lost his way,
And being blind was farther like to stray:
Which sight a kind compassion bred in me,
I kindly took, and dried him, while that he
Poor child complain’d hee starved was with stay.
And pined for want of his accustom’d prey,
For none in that wild place his host would be,
I glad was of his finding, thinking sure
This service should my freedom still procure,
And in my arms I took him then unharmd,
Carrying him safe unto a Myrtle bower
But in the way he made me feel his power,
Burning my heart who had him so kindly warmed. (1621)

From her A Crowne of Sonnets:

In this strange Labyrinth how shall I turn,
Ways are on all sides while the way I miss:
If to the right hand, there, in love I burn,
Let me go forward, therein danger is.
If to the left, suspicion hinders bliss;
Let me turn back, shame cries I ought return:
Nor faint, though crosses my fortunes kiss,
Stand still is harder, allthough sure to mourn.
Thus let me take the right, or left-hand way,
Go forward, or stand still, or back retire:
I must these doubts endure without allay
Or help, but travel finde for my best hire.
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move,
Is to leave all, and take the thread of Love.

She’s a past mistress at rhymes, no? And her poetry does not emerge as woolly in the way of Spenser (who also uses the Italian form of sonnet with few rhymes).

A brief life:

Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (1586-1629) was the daughter of Sir Robert Sidney and Lady Barbara Gamage; her family played a prominent role in the politics of the court of Elizabeth I; they were strongly "Protestant" and anti-Spanish, although when the war came they sided with the King (and their property rights). In 1604 she was coerced into (?) marrying Sir Robert Wroth, properties but also a hard and (perhaps understandably) possessive man.

The family was also literary and intellectual. She was niece to a famous Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sidney; Sir Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, translated the psalms; her father, Sir Robert, wrote a sonnet sequence (superb, superb—as good as many of the famous metaphysicals). During her life, Lady Mary or Wroth (as she’s now renamed) wrote a masque, Love’s Victorie, and a long novel, The Countesse of Montgomery’s Urania (dedicated to Anne Cecil de Vere’s daughter, Susan, who had married into the Sidney clan), which basically imitated her uncle Sir Philip Sidney’s famous novel, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (the lady’s name in both cases is the dedicatee). To this novel was attached a sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, also an imitation of her uncle’s sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella (star-gazer and star). Available editions of Wroth’s work include Josephine Roberts’s and Gary Waller’s (all of whose writing on the Wroths and Sidneys I heartily recommend for its frankness, clarity, and truth) of the poetry (The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus) and Josephine Roberts of the (immense) Urania.

As Sir Philip’s sonnets are partly autobiographical (based on his love affair with Penelope Rich); so Mary Wroth’s are partly autobiographical and based on her love affair with her cousin, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (he was the son of Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Worth’s aunt and Philip’s sister who was herself a poet). Pembroke is sometimes also said to have been the male lover in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (he got around); he was an important courtier in the courts of James I and Charles I and wrote cavalier poetry, some to Mary Wroth. The two had two children.

Little is known about Wroth’s intimate private life: she is another women without a story but for what she managed to write down and has survived. We must conjecture what we can from the few external documents and her extant semi-fictional writing. Although her sonnet sequence was written during Donne’s period, its poetics and techniques resemble the poetry of Shakespeare’s sonnets (and those of her uncle) as much as it does that of Donne and his cavalier. It is simpler, the metaphors are slowly worked out; I’s say they are characteristically Elizabethan, apt and feminine, rather than startling or striving for originality. The tone is just drenched in reverie and anguish.

The content is écriture-femme. Her poems must be placed alongside Anne Cecil’s, Gaspara Stampa’s, Louise Labé’s, Sor Juana’s Inés de la Cruz, and the numerous other 16th and 17th century women poets of the European Renaissance. For the 3 I am sending you, beyond knowing about the external details of prosaic and political happenings (a storm, snow a colonialist tall ship grounded), and seeing the typical woman’s imagery (Cupid as a child, weaving), you have to remember how transgressive it was for a woman to write poetry about her love affair in this way, how dangerous, the rise of Protestantism which reinforced self-scourging guilt. Wroth means to make visible the psychological toll the erotic double standard inflicts on women.

And third, a picture:

Cecily Heron, member of Thomas More’s household by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Holbein has made one of Cecily Heron’s eyes larger than the other, and gives us a real sense of this woman’s soft belly creasing her stomacher. Her stance is just a little obviously wary.

Harriet, I hope you had a happy time off and wish you a productive coming year. I’ll try to do the same.


1 It seems that the ground-breaking approach of Ann Rosalind Jones’s The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620, Louise Schreiner (Tudor and Stuart Women Writers), Naomi Miller (Changing the Subject and figurations of gender in early modern Europe) and Gary Waller (in his edition of Wroth’s poetry) , the approach which takes women’s lives and attitudes as the groundwork or context for understanding is slowly being "superceded" by "traditionalist" perspectives.

2 I’ve told the story of how most of Gambara’s poems (erotic and suffering) were not published in her lifetime in the notes to my online edition. On Stampa, see Jones, pp. 119-41.

3 A similar attitude causes the books of many early to mid-20th century women writers first published by Virago to fall. A case in point is Mary Webb (whose poetic masterpiece, Precious Bane was famously ridiculed in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm). See Carol Seigel’s "Mary Webb’s Return of the Native Tess," Novel (1991): 131-33.

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Thank you for the sonnets; and all the best luck to the new Saturn owner.
    R J Keefe    Jan 2, 5:47pm    #

commenting closed for this article