Monday, August 29, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 3

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 2

Not long after her marriage to Alphonso Lanyer, Aemilia may have become involved with William Shakespeare. According to Rowse, she was the inspiration for the Bard's infamous "Dark Lady."

Then again, Rowse also seems to believe every word of Forman's journal and interprets broadly from its contents in determining whether Aemilia succumbed to Forman. Moreover, he claims Aemilia "always exaggerated" (Rowse 34) and defines her strength of will in terms of "rampant feminism" (Rowse 20). His little asides are condescending in the extreme, like a sly nudge-wink to the reader, whom Rowse assumes will share his point of view.

Aemilia's one collection, Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), was first published in 1611.

The 11 prefatory pieces are dedications to various royal and noble women, as well as "To all vertuous Ladies in generall." Such blatant flattery as displayed in these pieces is well in keeping with the practice of the day. Stroke the right egos, specifically those attached to persons of wealth and power, and suddenly you are running with the In Crowd. In the following excerpt from "To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie," Aemilia opens with praise for Queen Anne, the wife of James I.

          Renowned Empresse, and great Britaines Queene,
          Most gratious Mother of succeeding Kings;
          Vouchsafe to view that which is seldome seene,
          A Womans writing of divinest things:
                   Reade it faire Queene, though it defective be,
                   Your Excellence can grace both It and Mee.
(Lanyer 1993, 3)

Early introduction of a self-deprecating tone does not hurt, either. The author humbly declares the undertaking to be beyond her meagre skills then goes on to (hopefully) meet the challenge.

In her short prose piece "To the Vertuous Reader," Aemilia fairly screams her reason for writing the main poem, "Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum." She feels that women in general -- and perhaps herself in particular -- have suffered undue slander from men and women alike. Men should remember they are born of woman, she asserts, and women should support their own. True to the life-hands-you-a-lemon tradition, Aemilia entreats virtuous women "not to regard any imputations, that they undeservedly lay upon us, no otherwise than to make use of them to our owne benefits, as spurres to vertue, making us flie all occasions that may colour their unjust speeches to passe currant" (Lanyer 1993, 49). If Rowse's Dark Lady theory is correct, this piece may be Aemilia's reaction to the 1609 publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in which the Dark Lady is so prominent a figure.

Whether Aemilia was truly the inspiration for the Dark Lady or merely perceived as such by the public, she would have considered the characterization to be libelous. In such a scenario, she would have struck back in kind, voicing her contempt with the printed word.

Aemilia's apparent reactionary stance is reinforced in the body of the main poem, wherein she writes:

          But woe to them that double-hearted bee,
          Who with their tongues the righteous Soules doe slay;
          Bending their bowes to shoot at all they see,
          With upright hearts their Maker to obay;
          And secretly doe let their arrowes flee,
          To wound true hearted people any way:
                    The Lord wil roote them out that speake prowd things,
                    Deceitfull tongues are but false Slanders wings.
(Lanyer 1993, 55-56)

She was clearly expressing her anger against those who wilfully spread falsehoods. One might safely assume that Aemilia herself was the target of such defamatory comment. However, if her invective was aimed at anyone in particular, such detail was not revealed to the reader.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Real Profit in Poetry

Common wisdom holds that there's no money in writing. And let's be honest, what little there might be for most of us -- assuming we're not Stephen King or the celebrity of the day -- rarely if ever finds its way into the hands of poets. 

Consider the image of the starving poet, huddled in his lonely garret, warming his fingers over a stubby candle so he can scratch out a few more inspired lines by that same meager light. With each word, he leaves another bit of his soul on the page. 

Romantic, isn’t it? 

Only if you’re inspired by your own suffering. I prefer to take my cues from outside influences. 

The natural world is rich in inspiring imagery, from the humble resting place of a slowly melting snowflake to the panoramic reach of the Rocky Mountains. No detail is too small to warrant your attention. And nothing is too large to be captured with a few carefully chosen words.

Strangers are another fine source of ideas. The less you know about them the better. Simply graft your imagination onto their physical attributes, and you’re well on your way to creating something unique. 

With its brevity of form, poetry excels at capturing a moment in exquisite detail. And somehow, magically, poetry sees past even the ugliest fa├žade to the beauty within.

While poetry probably won’t pay the bills, it will most certainly enrich your life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 2

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer
Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 1

Aemilia soon moved on to the court of Elizabeth I and the bed of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. At age 23, she became pregnant and lost her "favoured" status as mistress to the 68-year-old nobleman. Like any good employee, she walked away with a pension (he bought her off). Propriety demanded that her child have a legitimate birth, and she married Alphonso Lanyer.

Coincidentally, her new husband was a musician. He was also something of a businessman, having been granted a monopoly in the London hay and straw weighing market. In theory, two creative people united under the umbrella of a secure income should have been happy together. However, certain details have suggested that their marriage was not without problems.

After the birth of Lord Hunsdon's son, Henry, all but one of Aemilia's pregnancies ended in miscarriage. If Alphonso had any difficulty in accepting another man's son as his own then he must have been disappointed at siring a girl who died in infancy. One account has suggested that Alphonso was an abuser and a wastrel, depleting Aemilia's "severance" in his lifetime.

Aemilia may have felt trapped in her marriage and deprived of the luxuries to which she had become so accustomed at Lord Hunsdon's side. Being the Lord Chamberlain's mistress was more impressive than being a court musician's wife. She seemed bent on reclimbing the social ladder, either through her husband's promotion or her own publication.

Notably, much of what is known of the early years of Aemilia's marriage is attributed to a questionable source.

Her astrologer, Simon Forman, kept a journal on all his clientele. Her visits began on 17 May 1597 and continued for a few years. Forman considered himself something of a ladies' man. Although she may have entertained him in her home, Aemilia apparently refused his advances. His journals "are peppered with accounts of his sexual encounters, about which he is quite explicit [but] he records about Lanyer only his hope and disappointment" (Woods xxiv). He wrote from rejection and frustration when he characterized her as a whore and an incuba (Rowse 13).

IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: Shakespeare's Dark Lady?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 1

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer
Certain Renaiisance anthologies, such as The Literature of Renaissance England, focus on the writings of men, suggesting to the novice that there are no notable female writers from the period.

True, the better known works of the period were written by men, but women were represented as well. They possessed the talent but lacked the resources and encouragement more readily available to their male counterparts.

Women's poetry and prose do appear in print but generally in women's anthologies, as if unworthy of inclusion with the works of men.

The extension of the English Renaissance into the early 17th century opens up new areas of exploration. Janet Clare describes "the Jacobean period as a transitional moment for women seeking to gain access to the circulation, if not the publication, of literary works which were neither strictly devotional nor translations."

Female writers of the period were finding their voices, pushing past the restrictions on the forms their works could take.

One such writer was Aemilia (Bassano) Lanyer (1569-1645). The circumstances of her life were as intriguing as her poetry. One might conclude that the former influenced the latter, in which she expressed theological and political views best described a proto-feminist.

She was outspoken and combative, traits much in evidence in her later years. Aemilia had ample time to observe and experience life. By 17th century standards, living to age 76 was quite an accomplishment. Her opinions, as expressed in her poetry, were no doubt the result of her tug-of-war life. Each apparent advantage or opportunity seemed nullified by one misfortune or setback after another.

Aemilia's interest in writing seemed a logical progression from her family background. Her father, Baptista Bassano, came from a family of court musicians. Her mother, Margaret Johnson, may have been the aunt of musician Robert Johnson, attached to William Shakespeare's company. The bond between music and poetry was strong in 16th century England.

Aemilia lost her father when she was only seven; her mother died 11 years later. She was fostered in the home of the future Countess of Kent and later attached to the household of the Countess of Cumberland. In the latter case, Aemilia gained the advantage of a literary education. Her tribute to the Cumberland estate, "The Description of Cooke-ham," indicated her fondness for the family and her time spent with them. One should note that "Cooke-ham" was published, and possibly written, before Ben Jonson's more famous "To Penshurst," qualifying Aemilia's work as the first country house poem.

The wording of "Cooke-ham" also suggested that she sought the patroniage of the Countess of Cumberland, using the well-established tactic of flattery. Men were often successful with this approach, but female writers were not yet encouraged in their efforts, so noble patroniage was elusive.