Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 5

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 4

Ultimately, Aemilia calls out for equality between men and women, a world in which both sexes may realize personal autonomy.

     Then let us have our Libertie againe,
     And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
     You came not in the world without our paine,
     Make that a barre against your crueltie;
     Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
     Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
                If one weake woman simply did offend,
                This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

(Lanyer 1993, 87)

Boldly, she challenges the assume superiority of men over women. She is ahead of her time, as the saying goes, not for the thoughts but for their expression.

To this, Rowse glibly responds:

     Really, she might be a precursor of Women's Lib! ... this was what the
     menfolk -- the Lord Chamberlain who had discarded her, Alfonso who
     had taken her on unhappily, his actor-dramatist who had fallen for her,
     Forman who came to detest her -- had all had to put up with. We may
     legitimately, if modestly, conclude that men found her a bit much.
(Rowse, 28)

I suppose that is a fair enough comment, because I find Rowse a bit much as well. Sadly, his misogyny saw print as recently as 1978. For some people, very little has changed in 400 years.

Aemilia's book apparently failed to find an audience, and her life began a steady decline. Alphonso died in 1613, at which point she signed over the hay and straw monopoly to his brother, Innocent. The irony of her brother-in-law's name cannot be ignored. He apparently agreed to split the income with Aemilia, but he paid her only a pittance. Even when he passed the monopoly on to another brother, Clement -- also ironically named -- the latter reneged, too, despite repeated court orders.

Aemilia's attempt to run a school for children in the upper echelons only succeeded in leading her back to the courts. She sued her landlord for compensation for repairs she made to the building; he countersued for the rent she refused to pay. Somehow, she managed to achieve the status of pensioner -- one in receipt of a regular income -- by the time she died in 1645. Either her legal wrangling with Clement succeeded or she found other means of supporting herself. In any case, she was apparently never able to achieve her lifelong goal of re-entering high society.

As stated earlier, Aemilia's turbulent life may have helped form her "radical" opinions on the status of women. Her views permeate her poetry and prose. More than a theological curiosity, Aemilia is a prime example of the literary value of female writers of the Renaissance or any other period. There were only nine copies of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum known to exist as of 1996, and her book received minimal attention from scholars until relatively few years before that. Rowse gets the credit, although he demeaned her character, for finally bringing her work to the public eye in 1973.

All that matters now is that others are willing either to stand in her defence or present the unadorned facts and that her work is studied in context with Spenser, Marlowe and -- Heaven help us -- Shakespeare.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 4

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer
Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 3

Rowse debunks Aemilia's focus on religion and virtue as mere posturing, an attempt to cover up the "fact" that men no longer found her attractive (24). Her history with men -- Lord Hunsdon in fact, Shakespeare and Forman in speculation --is treated as inseparable from her character. Rowse does not allow for the changes that maturity can work on even the wildest heart. Who else might he condemn to suffer forever the mistakes of their youth?

"Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum" is a retelling of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in the context of the ultimate crime of men (not to be confused with mankind, which includes both men and women). Aemilia's description of Christ's personality overflows with traits that might be defined as traditionally feminine.

     He was content to stoope unto their Lure,
     Although his Greatnesse might doe otherwise;
     Here Grace was seised on with hands impure,
     And Virtue now must be supprest by Vice,
          Pure Innocencie made a prey to Sinne,
          Thus did his Torments and our Joyes beginne.

     Here faire Obedience shined in his breast,
     And did suppresse all feare of future paine;
     Love was his Leader unto this unrest,
     Whil'st Righteousnesse doth carry up his Traine;
     Mercy made way to make us highly blest,
     When Patience beat downe Sorrow, Feare and Paine:
          Justice sate looking with an angry brow,
          On blessed misery appeering now.
(Lanyer 1993, 74)

This is all the more striking for his being brought down by men, whose representative traits stand in sharp contrast to Chist's qualities. Even Death, Sin and Tyranny are characterized as male.

"Righteousnesse doth carry up his Traine," from the above excerpt, presents the reader with the image of a bride marching down the aisle. One might infer that Aemilia saw her marriage to Alphonso as a personal sacrifice, one which forever removed her from the Royal court. Further on, the narrator says of the persecution, "Nor can their wisdoms any way discover, / Who he should be that proov'd so true a Lover" (Lanyer 1993, 80). Are you listening, Dr. Rowse? Sounds to me like Aemilia wishes that all men could be so true to love as Christ to his faith.

Aemilia holds many men accountable for the crucifixion, but guilt first falls on the head of the Disciple Judas. Although he is not named -- as if his very name would blight the tongue of the speaker -- his story is unmistakable.

     See thy Betrayer, whom too well they knowe,
     One of the twelve, now object of disgrace,
     A trothlesse traytor, and a mortall foe,
     With fained kindnesse seekes thee to imbrace;
          And gives a kiss, whereby he may deceive thee,
          That in the hands of Sinners he may leave thee.
(Lanyer 1993, 72)

The other Disiples abandon Jesus to his fate, "Though they protest they never will forsake him / They do like men, when dangers overtake them" (Lanyer 1993, 78). In other words, they protect their own backsides. Even Peter, as Christ predicted, denies him three times.

Aemilia goes on to suggest that man's responsibility for the death of Christ sheds new light on Eve's role in mankind's expulsion from Eden. While women wear the shame of Original Sin, Aemilia argues that Adam should be held accountable.

     Who being fram'd by Gods eternall hand,
     The perfect'st man that ever breath'd on earth;
     And from Gods mouth receiv'd that strait command,
     The breach whereof he knew was present death;
     Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
     Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
          Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
          Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.
(Lanyer 1993, 85)

He was the physically stronger of the two, the master of Eden, in direct communication with God. Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge through the deception of the Serpent; she passed on the "gift" to Adam out of innocence and love. Adam knew better than she the consequences of the act and should have been able to resist temptation. Wherever one places the blame, Aemilia says, the persecution of Jesus is a far greater sin.