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.


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