Calliope Come Lately: The Continuing Relevance of Poetic Form from the Renaissance to Present Day
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements of the University of Bolton
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
9 Chapter 1 The Use of Conceits in Mid-Tudor, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Poetry
35 Chapter 2 Meet Her in the Middle: Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
52 Chapter 3 Factories and Studios: Nineteenth-Century Poetry
76 Chapter 4 Making it New: Doolittle doing it Differently
92 Chapter 5 Self-Portraits: Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin
114 Chapter 6 Back to the Future: New Formalist Poetry
134 Chapter 7 Contending Voices: Sonnets by Tony Harrison and Stella Pye
Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, and this thesis could be described as an epic poem in the sense that the protagonists, my chosen poets, have their entrances and exits, along with my odyssey of creative development. The creative writing component is embedded within the prose, and the aims are symbiotic. The prose element seeks to determine whether there are similarities between the ways in which male and female writers utilize poetic forms in each chosen period from the Renaissance to the present day, (e.g. whether male poets are more or less assertive than women poets). The concept of ‘self-fashioning’ over-arches the thesis, with underlying issues of gender, class and race, and inherent connotations of ‘owned language’ and outsider status. Ekphrastic poetry is integral to the text.
This chronologically constructed thesis begins by briefly exploring ways in which Italian Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa subverted the sonnet form for self-promotional purposes. Chapter 1 considers how iconic male poets, Shakespeare, Wyatt and Donne, and lesser-known female poets Mary Wroth and Isabella Whitney, writing in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, used metaphorical comparisons as a means of self-fashioning. Eighteenth-century poetry by Anne Finch and Alexander Pope is then compared in terms of metaphorically antithetical Classicism (Chapter 2). ‘Factory poetry’ from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Thomas Hood, and ‘art-versus-life’ poetry are nineteenth-century considerations (Chapter 3). The visual theme continues with Hilda Doolittle’s deviation from Ezra Pound’s Imagist ‘rules’, and moves organically towards ekphrastic poetry from Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin (Chapters 4 and 5). Ekphrasis is the starting-point for a study of poetry from twentieth-century American female New Formalists, in which issues of class, race and, particularly ‘owned language’ are addressed. Class and ‘owned language’ is crucial to the final chapter, surrounding contending voices in sonnets by Tony Harrison and the present poet (Chapters 6 and 7). The present poet’s own self-fashioning in her creative odyssey is inextricable from the text.
I wish to acknowledge the generous interest and friendship shown to me by the University of Bolton. Support in terms of a bursary approved by the Vice Chancellor, Dr. George Holmes, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Rob Campbell and Academic Group Leader, Sam Johnson, is acknowledged with gratitude.
I have been profoundly fortunate in having received Professor Jon Glover’s exemplary tutelage and steadfast nurturing on the M.A. programme, and latterly, his caring supervision and wise guidance, which permitted me the freedom to develop as a formalist poet. A special acknowledgement goes also to Professor Michael Schmidt. Jon and Michael have shown great generosity of spirit in sharing their wealth of knowledge willingly. Their supervisory sessions have been a privilege and a joy.
Professor David Rudd, whose door was always open, has shown immense interest in this project from the outset. Thanks also, to Dr. Paul Birkett, Postgraduate Research Manager.
Grateful thanks to fellow PhD students, Phil Isherwood, Owen Lowery and Minh-hang Dinh for their valued friendship and support. Their feedback has been astute, often hugely humorous, and frequently humbling.
My Subject Librarian, Shirley Ward, at the University of Bolton, has been invariably helpful, and thanks also to staff at The Bolton Archive, Central Library. Archivists at Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, have provided access to Tony Harrison’s workbooks, and a rarified atmosphere in which to study them.
To my husband Alan, my family and my friends, thank you for your encouragement and forbearance. This thesis is dedicated to my un-sighted mother, Annie, whose enquiring mind has inspired this research.
Thank you all.
This chronologically-structured thesis aims to compare and contrast the ways in which male and female writers have used English traditional, and imported poetic forms, from the Renaissance to present day, and the implications therein for their ‘self-fashioning’. ‘Self-fashioning’ is Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicist term for how certain Renaissance writers presented themselves within the prevailing social and linguistic climate.1 I use the term in a similar way to Greenblatt, that is, to mean the process of constructing one’s person according to contextually acceptable social and linguistic standards. The thesis examines whether women writers appear, for example, to be more or less assertive, more or less didactic, or more or less ironic than their male counterparts in their use of form. Simultaneously, these findings are used towards the development and understanding of my own poetry, creating a chronologically based corpus which is entirely influenced by, and in response to, selected poetry, poetics and criticism surrounding my chosen poets. The poems will be integrated into the historical discussion, and this discussion, within the theoretical and empirical framework, will be reflected in the creative component. Both components aim to illustrate how the present writer, a woman with scant literary education until post-retirement, has adopted and revitalised inherited poetic traditions in the language of today. Intrinsic to this doubly-reflective process will, inevitably, be what her use of form says about her own self-presentation.
The project seeks to vindicate the rights of women to have used and, to continue to use, inherited patriarchal forms. However, it is not approached from an overtly feminist perspective. Rather, the thesis considers some of the moral and political notions surrounding women’s use of form from their earliest guise, and outlines ways in which writing by these women can be seen as ‘playing the game’ or protest. Much of the present writer’s own poetry looks at moral and political aspects, but it is not what Virginia Woolf describes as ‘loudspeaker poetry’.2 The poems present contrasting pictures in words, and the sonnet, with its bipartite structure, is the ideal vehicle for so
doing. Should the reader see one picture awry, then it may well be so. The initial problem was how far back in literary history to begin the research, and the sonnet, possibly the most patriarchal of forms, seemed to be an appropriate starting point.
The sonnet is generally thought to have been invented by Giacomo de Lentino, head of the Sicilian School of Poetry, (circa 1230-40), at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.3 The form was transported to Tuscany, and noted exponents in the following century included Guido Cavalcanti, Dante Alighieri and, most famously, Francesco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch). It is fairly safe to say that the writing practices of these early poets established the blueprint for the sonnet form.
John Fuller’s view that ‘it is the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet which is the legitimate form, for it alone recognizes the peculiar imbalance of its parts which is its salient characteristic’, is contentious, in that subsequent English sonnet forms emanating from the Italian also have an imbalance of parts.4 However, his opinion that ‘the essence of the sonnet form is the unequal relationship between the octave and sestet’, in that unequal division between its fourteen lines facilitates the sonnet’s function’ is unquestionable.5 The bipartite structure invites a bipartite division of thought. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet form has a closed rhyme octave (abbaabba) leading to a volta, or turn of thought contained in the shorter, and more varied sestet. The sestet may have an interlaced rhyme scheme (cdecde) or an open rhyme scheme (cdcdcd). Fuller outlines ‘a number of legitimate varieties of sestet’, including cdecde, cdeced, and the French types (ccdede, ccdccd and ccdeed), although these are by no means all.6 The main point is that the tension encoded within the shorter, more varied, yet unified, sestet is the vehicle for the turn of thought heralded by the volta. This may normally either compound or refute the argument posed in the octave.
When the early sonneteers established a blueprint for the form, they also established an agenda to deprive the female muse of speech. Of the 366 poems in Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, written over forty years, (1327-67), 317 are in sonnet form, and surround the poet’s unrequited love for Laura. The poet’s voice is heard throughout, but not a single word from Laura. She is legitimized in a series of physical descriptions, a series of conceits. The use of conceits, or metaphorical comparisons, by poets writing in England in the Henrician era, will be discussed in depth in Chapter 1. In Petrarch’s sonnets, the idealized woman was generally described in glowing images of light and virtue, and the despairing poet depicted in images of dark, stormy seas and despair.
What follows, contends that in creating her sonnet sequence, The Rime, (c.1554), Gaspara Stampa may be said to have used Petrarchan conventions to exploit those conventions. It is arguable that Stampa extended the use of the sonnet form, from a vehicle for love poetry, to a medium for social commentary. Moreover, in silencing the worshipped male, and giving herself a voice, Stampa provided herself with a platform for self-fashioning as a female poet of equal standing with her male literary ancestors.
Stampa’s education was unconventional, and this is a salient factor. Whereas most girls born into middle-class Italian families in sixteenth century Padua were taught housewifery, Stampa’s father afforded his two daughters a Classical education alongside their brothers. After their father’s death, their mother moved the family to Venice where Stampa became a noted, if controversial, figure amongst Venetian literati. It was not unusual for Venetian women to write love sonnets; Stampa’s contemporary, Vittoria de Colonna, wrote modest sonnets to her husband using conceits, but Stampa wrote salaciously. There are two schools of thought about the nature of her Rime. The generally held opinion is that the first half of the sequence, the Rime D’Amore, is an autobiographical account of Stampa’s affair with Count Collatino de Collato by whom she was abandoned. 7 If the Rime D’Amore was autobiographical, it is possible that Stampa was writing the equivalent of an early Don Juan. A female
poet using the sonnet form in such a way in the sixteenth century would be deemed both socially, and linguistically, unacceptable, and a possible reason for Stampa’s languishing in obscurity until the eighteenth century.
The lesser-held view that the Rime D’Amore was non-autobiographical supports the thinking that Stampa used the sonnet as a medium for social commentary on the plight of discarded mistresses generally. This would mean that her sonnets moved into the instructive arena. Ellan Otero takes this a step further, suggesting that in doing so, Stampa not only appropriated Petrarch’s form, but Boccaccio’s content, contending
Stampa did not write an autobiographical Rime, but
was influenced by the Venetian literary environment
to compose poetry in the Petrarchan style [thereby]
designing a unique Canzoniere toned to Boccaccio’s
Elegy, appropriating the concept of the sexually
fulfilled, then abandoned woman, seeking to create
a poetic space for herself to avoid being called a ‘son’
of Boccaccio to create a psychological study of the
The present writer’s attempt to substantiate these claims with readings from Petrarch and Stampa was immediately problematized by having to rely on translation, and prompted her to produce
Translating Italian Sonnets
I’m going to be the future Thomas North,
(though not translate a text from Plutarch’s Lives),
to see if Petrarch’s poetry deprives
his muse of speaking voice. A surely worth-
while task - her words have yet to be unearthed.
I’ll look instead at how his muse survives:
by physical description, he contrives
to give his Laura substance, bring her forth.
O what a nerve! I’ve overlooked one thing,
I cannot speak the lingo. Thomas Hood,
I should have read, instead. I would repent
he said, be staring like a fool, by jing-
o. Silent as a mummy, likelihood.
A dummy with a dummy’s what he meant.
The octave sees the writer self-referentially setting herself up in conventional Petrarchan rhyme scheme, boastfully comparing herself with Lord North, and outlining the task in hand. 9 However, pride goes before the fall she sustains in the sestet, the simple interlaced rhyme scheme equating possibly with ‘dummy’. Her self-deprecation could either be challenged or substantiated by her allusions to Hood’s poem, ‘French and English’, in which the poet reduces the English natives’ linguistic insularity to ‘a nation with a dummy’.10 Thus, her own self-presentation could be described as ‘contrary’, demonstrating an awareness of Plutarch and North, yet aligning herself with Hood. Hood’s phrases are italicized, as are all future quotations from other poets embedded within the present writer’s poetry.
Consider Petrarch’s Sonnet 116, translated by Thomas Higginson, and Stampa’s Sonnet 1, translated by Justin Vitiello, in support of the proposal that Stampa appropriated the Petrarchan sonnet for social commentary as well as love poetry. 11
Those eyes, ‘neath which my passionate rapture rose,
Those arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own soul beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows
And the soft lighting of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the chapel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.
Women, whoever wishes to know my lord,
fix your eyes upon that sweet and natural presence
youth by his years, sage by his experience,
image of valor and glory in concord:
with blond hair and color clear and bright,
stately profile and torso of a steed,
ultimately perfect in word and deed,
except, alas! In love, all lies and spite.
And whoever wishes to know me, gaze nigh
on a woman, in deed and look a worm,
image of death and of the martyr’s sty,
abode of faith, ever constant and firm,
one who, though she weep and burn and sigh, gets no pity, but just her lover’s spurn.
Each sonnet has two divisions of thought, and each sonneteer uses conceits to legitimize the adored one. In the Petrarch, the idealized woman is compared with the angels themselves, her body parts having the power to transform earth into heaven, ‘bright tresses … golden light … angelic smile’. Conversely when the poet speaks of himself throughout the sestet, he is ‘dark without the light’ and ‘adrift in tempests … dead’. Laura’s existence is not merely legitimized metaphorically, but through the ‘pain’ of the true subject, the poet.
Stampa’s first word ‘Women’ is, in itself, subversive, i.e. a woman poet directly addressing a female audience about the plight of the abandoned woman. Addressing women directly in sixteenth-century Venice would have seemed no less outrageous than Medea’s addressing the Corinthian women, in ancient Greece. In this speech, in which the first word is also ‘Women’, Medea interrogates the plight of the abandoned woman, and the polarity of acceptable social and linguistic standards for males and females. 12 Stampa’s education provided access to classical mythology, and she could have been aware of Euripides’s portrayal of a contextually bold woman.
The octave is divided into two quatrains, the first extolling the lover’s virtue, and the
second, his physical attributes, in conventional conceits. However, line 8 undermines lines 1-7, ‘except alas! In love, all lies and spite’. The line is divided, the softly sibilant ‘except, alas!’ being superseded by the harsher ‘lies’ and plosive ‘spite’. Stampa silences Collato here, and, as Fiora Bassanese states, Collato resembles Laura in that his ‘existence is only known through the effects of the true subject, the poet/mistress’.13 The ‘poet/mistress’ is heard in the first line of the sestet, ‘whoever wishes to know me’. Like Petrarch, Stampa cloaks herself in dark imagery of ‘death’, yet unlike Petrarch, she alludes to the technique, i.e. ‘image of death and of the martyr’s sty’. Around sixty sonnets in the Rime are meta-poetic, in the sense that they reflect upon technique, and if Stampa’s allusion to technique is oblique in Sonnet l, it is distinctly overt in Sonnet Vll. This sonnet could be seen to support the proposal that Stampa utilised the form to promote herself as a poet equal to, if not surpassing, her noted male poetic ancestors.
If I, who am an abject, low born woman,
can bear within me such a lofty fire
why should I not possess at least a little
poetic power to tell it to the world?
If Love, with such a new, unheard of flint
lifted me up where I could never climb
why cannot I, in an unusual way
make pain and pen be equal to myself?
If love cannot do this by force of nature,
perhaps by a miracle he may
passing and bursting every comma measure.
How can that be I cannot well explain.
but yet I feel because of my great fortune’
my heart imprinted with a strong new style.
Here, self-deprecation vies with self-affirmation. As Mary Moore puts it, Stampa can be seen to ‘bemoan the weakness of, or tout the power of her own poetic voice’.14 This sonnet contains a finely-tuned philosophical argument that would not be expected of a woman writer. The first premise, ‘If I who am an abject, low born woman / Can bear within me such a lofty fire’, begs the question why not, as a woman, be
permitted to exercise her right. Her second quatrain, (and second premise), appears to suggest that she views her association with Collato as a springboard to elevated poetic status. Moore perceives the lines ‘If Love, with such a new, unheard of flint / Lifted me up where I could never climb’, to be a reference to Collato (meaning ‘hill’). The similar sounding ‘pain’ and ‘pen’ connection aurally enacts the problematic nature of her self-promotional aim, accepting that it would be ‘unusual’. The sestet initially seems to indicate a ‘miracle’ would be required. Whilst she constantly draws attention to her gender and to the business of writing (‘pen … comma’), the resolution in the final couplet may be read as an affirmation of her poetic prowess, moreover, of her ‘strong new style’.
The reader might concur with either Bassanese’s opinion that Stampa’s Rime is an autobiographical account of Stampa’s love affair or, alternatively, give credence to Otera’s argument that Stampa appropriated Petrarchan writing practices, and Boccaccio’s content, to highlight the plight of the abandoned woman. Either way, what has emerged from a brief look at Sonnets l and Vll from Stampa’s Rime, is a profile of a woman poet transgressing contextually accepted social and linguistic gender boundaries. The work of this ground-breaking Italian Renaissance female poet holds great significance for women writing in English in later centuries.
The Use of Conceits in Mid-Tudor, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Poetry
This chapter explores the ways in which certain renowned male, and lesser-known female, poets writing in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, used metaphorical comparisons as a means of self-presentation. Selected poetry from Thomas Wyatt, John Donne and Shakespeare, Lady Mary Wroth and Isabella Whitney will be examined. The emphasis is on the ways in which their use of form and metaphor discloses a gendered ‘self’, and will be reflected in this writer’s creative tasks. She applies similar challenges to her own poetry, and attempts to convey an understanding of writing in different times, and cultures from, our own. Her commentaries on those poems outline the problems and, possible solutions, involved in attempting to ‘echo’ the past in the language of today.
‘The Introduction’ indicated that ‘translation’ has continuing relevance. This chapter reflects upon how English Renaissance poets, who admired and emulated their Italian counterparts, may have used ‘translation’ to interrogate perceptions of ‘owned language’, and to transgress poetic gender barriers. Form, imagery and tone are considered, and how these concepts may have been perceived then, as guided by poetic tradition and contemporary culture, whilst being utilised for enhanced self-awareness and self-promotional purposes. The feasibility of applying a twenty-first century understanding of the sexuality of poetic practice to the evolving presentation of self in this era is interrogated. Carol Rumens’s views are particularly relevant, and her analysis of Wyatt and translation will be considered, along with other critical opinion throughout. It follows that this writer’s creative output will provide links with recent criticism.
It could be considered that the use of metaphorical comparison was fundamental to understanding for whom poetry was written, for what purpose, and by whom it was read in this period. Generally, sixteenth and seventeenth century English poets saw little conflict between biblical doctrine, in which God, the creator, had supremacy and
Platonic theory, in which notions of the ‘real’, as opposed to its shadow, or mimesis,
was paramount.15 Philip Sidney explained the dichotomy
Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle
termeth it in his word mimesis, that is to say a representing
counterfeiting, or figuring forth – to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture – with this end, to teach and delight.
Of this there have been several kinds. The chief, both in
antiquity and excellency were they that did imitate the
inconceivable excellencies of God. 16
It is conceivable that in Mid-Tudor, Elizabethan and Metaphysical poetry, as in Renaissance Italy, that ‘comparison mongering’ in love poetry was a formulaic exercise, not necessarily written for practical wooing purposes. Maintaining courtly love in poetry in a highly decorous way was determined by contemporary aesthetic conventions.17 This raises the question of whether love poetry, written by male or female poets in this era, was love poetry at all, and by extension, whether translating Petrarchan love poetry was aesthetic exercise or pragmatism. Puttenham defined the poet and poet-translator, thus:
‘Euen so, the Poet makes and contriues out of his own braine,
both the verfe and the matter of his poème, and not by any
foreine copie or example, as doth the translator, who may well
be fayd to be a verfifer but not a Poet.18
This is germane to the first major poet to be discussed in this chapter. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) transposed the sonnet form for use in English, and translating Petrarch’s Rime 190, in which pursuing the beloved is compared with hunting a hind, could be seen as mere ‘versifying’, rather than ‘contrivance’. Nonetheless, it was a risky undertaking, and not simply because formula poetry was new to England. Wyatt was allegedly Boleyn’s suitor after her marriage to Henry, thus the translation carried enormous personal, political, and monarchical risks for Wyatt. He could have been writing his decorous death warrant. Translation was, as Carol Rumens states, ‘a way of being private and public at the same time’, and Wyatt’s dilemma was one of public, yet
private, self-presentation. Wyatt was, as Rumens says, ‘cunning’.19 There are subtle differences between Petrarch’s sonnet and Wyatt’s translation below.
Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more:
The vayne travail hath weried me so sore.
I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte to dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain:
And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
Noli me tangere, for Cesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame. 20
Wyatt made two crucial omissions from Petrarch’s sonnet. The first might be thought to suggest to contemporary, and present-day, readers, that Wyatt’s public ‘versifying’ encoded a private reading. Wyatt seemingly invites several males, ‘Who so’, to the pursuit in the octave, but ‘so’ is omitted from the sestet. Rumens argues that this near-repetition signifies an individual ‘closing in on his quarry’. Contemporary readers would have known the word topaz signified chastity, and diamonds faithfulness, and would have noted the second omission, ‘topaz’ (l.11). Wyatt could have suggested to his contemporaries that the beloved was both unchaste and steadfastly unfaithful, although this might be less obvious to readers now.
Another significant difference is Wyatt’s change from the cdecde rhyme scheme in the sestet to cdecee. This renders a couplet which I think Rumens identifies correctly as ‘tight-lipped’. This is apt, because the inscription, rather than the lover, the metaphorical hind, voices the veto Noli me tangere. Rumens cites the third-century Latin grammarian Solinus finding the inscription ‘Noli me tangere, Caesaris sum’ (touch me not, I am Caesar’s) on hinds’ collars 300 years after the emperor’s death. Wyatt
uses only half the Latin quotation, possibly because other sources of the veto have biblical significance. ‘Noli me tangere’ is the risen Christ’s admonition to Mary Magdalene (John: 20:7), and ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ is Christ’s response to his enemies (Matthew: 22:21). Thus, Caesar could be seen to be Henry, Boleyn’s ‘owner’ and Wyatt’s rival.
The translation, published in Tottel (1557), could initially have been intended for private view, passing around courtiers in manuscript form.21 The notion that Wyatt’s translation was a masquerade for autobiographical retaliation, rather than a formulaic exercise, could be dismissed, were it not for the metaphorical similarities with his own poem ‘They Flee From Me’.
They flye from me that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote stalking in my chamber.
I have sene theim gentill tame and meke
That nowe are wylde and do not remember That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and now they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.
Thancked be fortune, it hath ben otherwise
Twenty tymes better; but ons in speciall,
In thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she coaght me in her armes long and small;
Therwithall swetely did me kysse,
And softely saide, dere hert, howe like you this?
It was no dreme: I lay brode waking.
But all is torned throrough my gentilnes
Into a straunge fasshion of forsaking;
And I have leve to goo of her goodenes.
And she also to vse new fangilnes,
But syns that I so kyndely ame serued,
I would fain knowe what she deserued. 22
Wyatt’s choice of rhyme royal is apposite. The form was used originally by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde, in which Criseyde is unfaithful to Troilus. Thus, within the constraints of the form, Wyatt, on the one hand, has the freedom to vent his personal
feelings of sexual desire, disappointment and jealousy associated with his royal lover. On the other hand, the formulaic exercise depersonalizes emotions which would have been deemed, at best, inappropriate.
The problem of how a twenty-first-century female working-class poet might create a gendered space in response to ‘They Flee From Me’, could be approached by adopting the persona of a present-day less-than-regal Boleyn.
They flee from thee that sometime did thee seek?
‘They’ – plural – read! Not talkin’ feathered birds,
depending on your bread to fill a beak,
a crumb or few, but foxy-ladies, furred
and feral, high-class hookers, so I’ve heard.
‘They’ sell their wares to highest bidders, turn-
ing tricks, but not for treats. These girls must earn
protection groats. And ons in speciall? Twit!
You thought I meant that softely saide, dere hert
how like you this? to mean a kiss. The wit,
my dear, you missed. It wasn’t all that smart
to think I meant your sorry bleedin’ heart.
It’s tit-for-tat, you called me once an hynde.
Retaliation never crossed your mind?
You’ve got some nerve to talk about a gyse,
translating Petrarch’s Rime (your Sonnet 7)
and messin’ with his words. Unwise disguise!
You didn’t think I’d notice line 11?
No mention ‘topaz’. Think you’d be forgiven?
It stands for chaste, you’ve made me out a whore.
I’ve treated kynde with kind. You know the score.
This pithy feminist self-presentation conflates Wyatt’s lexis and present-day vernacular. ‘Not talkin’ birds’ is used in the sense of ‘not speaking of girls’. ‘Groats’ equate with ‘bread’ and the double-entendre ‘treated kynde with kind’ signifies poetic form, and carries connotations of sexual parity. Whether or not the writer has a feminist view of Wyatt’s self-presentation in his translation from Petrarch, and in ‘They Flee From Me’, is more problematic.
Wyatt’s self-presentation has been addressed by several critics. Barbara Estrin’s feminist view of ‘They Flee From Me’ sees a retaliation against a female who ‘unsettles
the self Wyatt invents’ because she ‘completely defeats his sexual and verbal energy’. Estrin’s point is that when the female figure enters the poet’s chamber she reverses gender roles, by taking the sexual initiative, and by controlling his vision. ‘The more the man dissolves physically in the satisfaction she promises, the lady – now watching him – is empowered linguistically’.23 Whilst Estrin’s point about the female figure controlling the poet’s vision is viable, the male narrator might be susceptible rather than controlled, but this fails to take into account the historicist argument.
Cecile Williamson Cary and Stephen Greenblatt approach the poem in the historical context of the Henrician court, and the inherent contradictions between male vulnerability and female power. Cary perceives the poet to be doubly betrayed; by the
female, and by Wyatt’s perception of the nature of fe/male roles. The poem moves from the poet’s assumption that women were vulnerable to the realisation of his own
weakness. Although the power dynamic has been subverted, Cary insists the ‘matriarchal substratum is not feminist.’ 24 She thinks an autobiographical reading is unavoidable, not solely because of similarities of imagery in ‘They Flee’ and ‘Whoso List’, but because of contextual sexual politics. Whereas these dictated that men should be sexual and political powerhouses, Boleyn repudiated the status-quo. By becoming queen, Cary concludes the poet ‘became her political and emotional subject’.
Greenblatt’s New Historicist argument is cogent. He also takes into account contrary threads of male vulnerability and female weakness in Henry’s court, but looks additionally at the ‘brutal quest for domination which characterized courtly politics, the self-fashioning inseparable from public and political life of Wyatt’s standing [which was] integral to intimate experience’.25 Greenblatt considers competing models of self-presentation, public and private, and their inherent voices, ‘a manipulation of appearances to achieve a desired end, … a rendering in language, an exposure, of that
which is hidden’. He argues that the ‘claim for injured merit’ and manly contempt for ‘female bestiality’, are at odds with the speaker’s ‘recognition of his implication in his own betrayal’. A dichotomy of, on the one hand, a diplomatic self-presentation ‘struggling to appropriate inwardness’ and on the other hand, an ‘inwardness wanting to achieve independence from self-presentation’.
Whilst the reasoning behind the feminist stance on retaliation is acceptable, the historicist opinions render a more complex reading of the poem. These views, together
with Wyatt’s use of conceits, lead to a conclusion that the poet self-presents as bewitched, bothered and bewildered rather than retaliatory or vindictive. Wyatt’s ‘mastery of sexual experience’, implicit from the first word in the plural ‘They’, i.e. the
metaphorically tame birds stalking the poet, is undercut by predatory ‘wyld’ imagery
of sexually incontinent women ‘seking continuell change’. The poet is both bothered and bewildered by this role reversal, expressed in a bird feeder, or master, metaphor ‘they put theimself in daunger / To take bred at my hand’. The tone shifts to one of enchanted introspection in the second stanza, focusing on a singular occasion ‘ons in speciall’ and one woman ‘thyn’. Although ‘her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall’, echoes the ‘naked foot’ imagery of the vulnerable birds, this woman is in control ‘she caught [him] in her armes’. In the final stanza, the poet equates this woman with the metaphorical raptors in the first stanza, ‘she also to use new fangilness’, at a loss to understand this role reversal.
‘New fangilness’, in the form of social media, solved the problem of how this present-day woman poet might present herself in commenting on Wyatt’s translation of Petrarch’s Rime 190.
Noli mi Tangere, For Caesar’s I am
One guy on Guardian Twitter tweeted ‘Drop
the half-Italianate and English line.’
He’s right about the syntax, missed the point
of Caesar ploughing Cleo till she’d crop.
Boleyn, more chased than chaste, got chopped. This sign
of double standards doesn’t disappoint.
A carcanet, or ‘carcan’ – meaning yoke
or halter, collar – slaves’ neckwear. Topaz
or diamante-studded; all that jazz
is just pizzazz, it’s still the same old choke,
it’s still the same old choker, more bespoke,
the self-same bling still blings belong. Boaz?
Against the grain or what? The Vulgate has
it: master-stroke, enslaving with a cloak.
The writer presents herself as a form-conscious, interrogative poet with a little knowledge of the Old Testament. This adaptation of the Italian sonnet form, in which the sestet precedes the octave, ponders on the possible varietals of a slave’s yoke. The octave obliquely poses the question as to whether or not ‘bling’, in the form of an engagement ring in present day society, and its equivalent, being covered with a man’s cloak in ancient Levite culture, was a signifier of entry into servitude. The sestet addresses gender ideology, a topic addressed by Isabella Whitney in her verse epistles, The Copy of a Letter, Written Lately in Meeter by a Younge Gentilwoman to her Vnconstant Louer, as is (1567)
The Copy of a Letter was the first piece of secular poetry written by a woman to be published in England. The ballad was the only form known to Whitney, a middle-class northern girl. It would have been problematic for a woman to have been published even in this popular form in a culture in which, as feminist Wendy Wall has it: ‘the identification of silence as the feminine ideal’ lead to the ‘linkage of speech with harlotry’. 26 Wall concedes that it would be unfair to say that concerns about publication were entirely gender-related, in that class entered into the equation in a society in which coterie circulation was deemed an aristocratic activity, and publication lower-class. If that were so, a female poet would be perceived to be a ‘fallen woman’ in the dual senses of ‘harlot and non-elite’. 27 It is also a reason for the verses being written almost anonymously.
Whitney’s education is relevant. Her Reformist parents provided all their children with an education; equipping Whitney not only to travel to London, but to persuade Richard Jones to invest in The Copy of a Letter. Jones would have seen the potential and, as Paul Marquis points out, ‘may have contributed to the unique structural and thematic design of the text.’ 28 Whilst two verse epistles attacking male infidelity appear to be written by one female persona (I.W.), and the two defences appear to be written by two separate male personae (W.G. and R.W.), the women’s verses take precedence on the title page where R.W.’s verse does not appear. Thus, although The Copy of a Letter might appear to be an even-handed discourse of opposing gender ideologies, in mid-Tudor society, the billing, as Marquis’s historicist view acknowledges, ‘ultimately privileges the feminine lyric voice of Isabella Whitney.’29
The challenge facing Whitney’s 2014 equivalent’s task of responding to her verse epistles can be approached with a ballad homage, or tribute.
Upon ‘Epistle 1’
The verses are in ballad form,
and Whitney writes a list,
not in Tom Wyatt’s sense of ‘wish’,
but Classics with a twist.
A catalogue of ‘heroes’, who
have dumped their ladies fair
parade, like hazard warning lights
for women to beware.
Aeneas is the first she cites,
next Theseus is reviled.
The Jason myth is amplified
‘two ladies’ he beguiled.
The feminine persona then
attacks what must be curst:
the way that Ovid’s poems place
a woman’s virtue first.
She seems to wish her rival all
the grace of ‘Helen’s face’,
the virtue of Penelope –
the way she stayed so chaste.
The ‘Trueth of Thisbe’ seems to be
an attribute that’s sound.
Lucrece’s constancy is wished
(in Chaucer she was found).
But Helen launched a thousand ships,
Penelope was chased,
her ‘Treuth’ made Thisbe top herself,
Lucrece was raped with haste.
The swain is bid a fond farewell
with equal irony:
the wealth of Croesus wished on him
(from Plutarch’s Historie).
He was indeed a wealthy king,
but didn’t read right well –
misread the Oracle, it’s said –
and languished in a cell.
If her ‘unconstant lover’ might
have further interest,
learn more about her learned mind,
he must ‘peruse the rest’.
It is possible that in appropriating the Classical metaphor throughout ‘Epistle 1’ of ‘The Copy of a Letter, Whitney presents a female persona possessing the wit, meaning knowledge, of a man. The poet-speaker’s disregarding the directive not to ‘speake abroad’ is evident.30 She publicly denounces the duplicitous male for being married and for denying it.
As close as you your wedding kept
yet now the treuth I here:
which you (yer now) might me have told
what nede you nay to swere?31
If, as Wall contends, ‘sixteenth-century coterie sonneteers established poetic authority by linguistically dismembering the female body through the blazon’, Whitney subverted the tradition by linguistically assembling the male into an amalgam of so- called heroes.32 Not only did Whitney subvert the blazon’s function, she was the first English woman to employ the term in its other meaning, ‘to publish’ her catalogue of comparisons.
As by ENEAS first of all
who dyd poor DIDO leave,
causing his queen by his untrueth
with Sword her hart to cleave.
Also I finde that THESEUS did
his faithfull love forsake:
stealyng away within the night
before she dyd awake.
JASON that came of noble race
two ladies dyd beguile:
I muse how he durst shew his face,
to them that knew his wile.33
The ballad’s sing-song rhythms might have disguised Whitney’s sarcasm were it not for the scornful nature her summary.
They, for their unfaithfulness,
did get perpetuall Fame:
Fame? wherefore dyd I terme it so?
I should have cald it shame.34
Jones promised something ‘new and trew’. 35 The novelty was not only that The Copy of a Letter was the first published piece of secular poetry from an English woman, but
a middle-class English woman with a knowledge of formula poems, who subverted Classical conceits to suit her own agenda. Whitney’s agenda was possibly two-fold: to give women the kind of Classical education usually reserved for men and, in satirically revaluing the Classics within a sing-song metre, to provide a male readership with a
palatable alternative slant on heroism. The verses were, however, too contentious for a second edition.
As Walter Cohen states, it is ‘risky to either avoid or undertake’ a biographical reading of the 1609 Quarto Shakes-Speare’s Sonnets: Neuer before Imprinted. 36 Yet, a
biographical reading is, as Peter Jones rationalizes, ‘bound to be on our minds’ when considering the sequential arrangements of the quarto, the order of which is ‘generally
accepted’.37 The sonnets were not numbered in the quarto as, for example, in Petrarch’s Canzoniere, but it is possible to divide the texts into two groups. As Richard Danson Brown states, by contrast with their popular reception now, ‘the implied homoeroticism of Sonnets 1-126, in which a male addresses the male he loves, and the explicit heterosexual content of sonnets 127-152, addressed to a sexually incontinent mistress caused moral outrage in the seventeenth century’.38 The first group is sub-divisible; the speaker in the first 17 sonnets urges the youth addressed to propagate his own image, as in Sonnet 3
Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another,
using which narcissism as the argument:
So through the windows of thine age shall see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.39
The use of comparisons as representations of sexual orientation is complex within Shakespeare’s sonnets. The master/mistress metaphor in Sonnet 20 can be seen to either confirm or deny homosexuality. It is the only sonnet to use exclusively feminine
end rhymes. As formalist Helen Vendler contends, ‘the speaker’s sterile play of the master/mistress against the putative falsity of women can be explained by his anger at women for not being the young man, at the young man for not being a (sexually available) woman’. She considers the ’bitter wit’ of the encoded acquainted [cunt] is re-emphasized in ‘no-thing’. 40 However, the ‘bitter wit’ of ‘no-thing’, is possibly more detectable to the present-day ear than ‘acquainted’.
There are other opinions. Martin Friedman’s historicist article makes an important point about the central metaphor. He thinks the contextual origin of ‘Master/Mistress’
has been ignored, it was an ‘interchangeable term’ for the jack in a game of bowls, i.e. the centre of attention.41 Sir Sidney Lee’s (1916) ‘heterocentric-formalist’ view of the metaphor differs. Brown sees Lee’s agenda as an attempt to ‘persuade readers that Shakespeare was not a homosexual’. Lee argued that ‘when allowance has been made for the current conventions of English sonneteering, [the] autobiographical element is seen to shrink to slender proportions’. His reasoning was that ‘adapted or imitated ideas or conceits are scattered all over Shakespeare’s collection.’42 Thus, from Lee’s perspective, Shakespeare was working within inherited poetic traditions. Conversely, Bruce Smith’s (1994) ‘homocentric-historicist’ perspective refutes Lee’s thinking. Smith
describes his book, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England, as an ‘attempt to consolidate gay identity [for men to] realize they have not only a present community but a past history’. He assesses the first twenty sonnets as a progression in which ‘homo-social desire changes by degrees to homosexual desire.’ 43
Whilst Lee’s opinion is applicable to Sonnet 106, in which Shakespeare exploits the blazon to draw attention to its ‘adapted or imitated’ use, the addressee’s gender remains unclear.
Then in a blazon of sweet beauty’s best
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophesies
Of this our time …
Wilson Knight puts a synaesthetic spin on the blazon: ‘whatever eternity Shakespeare succeeds in establishing is far more than a concept; or web of concepts; it follows from
close physical perception and holds all the colour and perfume of spring.’ 44 However, ‘the colour and perfume of spring’ is subverted in Sonnet 130
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks,
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
The seemingly negative comparisons would suggest that physical perfection in a woman is unnecessary for the provocation of either adoration, or desire, and thus they interrogate the notion of ‘ideal’ womanhood. Responding to this sonnet is possible for
a present-day woman poet, by adopting a male persona, au fait with current corrective surgery. The irony lies in Shakespeare’s earnest couplet.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
has lips like fishes’ – had the collagen
injections. Harley street her boobs were done.
Her hair, those golden lights? They’re halogen.
I’ve seen a rose or 2 – been down to Kew –
In her cheeks Poly Lactic Acids sit.
I sniff her teeth are laser whitened too,
(that xenon fibre whiff, it niffs a bit).
She’s had her voice enhanced – the VE4 -
‘the Magic Curve’ - does echo and reverb.
I never see my mistress’ legs before
she’s had direct electric stubble curb.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
A second approach employs the sun metaphor throughout to interrogate several topics. The first area is ‘what is good art’ whether poetic or painterly. Helen Chadwick’s Piss Flowers lack perfumed origins, yet, are visually pleasing art works. Other topics are relationships between politics and press, how women are presented in the tabloids, and perceptions of ‘ideal’ womanhood. The conclusion is that beauty (physical or artistic) lies in the beholder’s eye.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Does that mean round and hot? Suppose they are
like piss-holes in the snow. Now I’ve begun
to think about it, jaundiced yellow’s far
more apt (those gins and ton before the sun
goes down). Or does that mean they’re nothing like
The Sun ? But then again, it’s sometimes said
that’s read by some (except page 3), unlike
The Daily Telegraph, of course, not red
but Tory blue. The sun sets in the West.
Does that mean neither eye sets in the East?
My mistress squints? (Suspect you second-guessed).
A roving eye? A gliding eye, at least?
I sort-of stand by Shakespeare’s op’ning line
[My]opic vision makes my mistress shine.
The first sonnet employs the Elizabethan, and the second, the metaphysical conceit. Rosamond Tuve describes the difference in effect as the difference between ‘extended pursuit of a simple logical parallel’ and ‘extended pursuit of a likeness by basing it on several logical parallels.’ 45 In light of this, consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87.
Farewell - thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
And charter of thy worth gives thee releasing,
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
And how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st thy own worth then not knowing,
On me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep thy king, but waking so much matter.
Here, gender presentations conflict with gender roles. The poet-speaker assumes a clinging feminine role in lines with feminine end rhymes extending by a syllable, making an on-going complaint. This contrasts with solid masculine end rhymes, e.g. ‘estimate, determinate’. The poem appears to be valedictory. ‘Farewell’, followed by caesura, seems unequivocal. Yet, the extended commercial-legal conceit could be described as a balance sheet pitting the value of the male speaker against that of the male assuming a feminine persona. ‘Thou art too dear possessing’ (in the sense of expensive), seems like resigned relinquishment, the speaker contrasting his own unworthiness with what he deems to be the beloved’s. ‘Possessing’ (nine-tenths of the law) vacillates, ‘back again is swerving’. Legal terms ‘charter … bond … patent and judgement’ are used as excuses. ‘Mistaking’ and ‘misprision’ are miscalculations; the beloved’s ‘own worth then not knowing’ and the speaker’s ‘mistaking’ himself to have been equally valued. Imagery contained within the douzain portrays the loss of idealized love. It is only when the poet abandons legal-commercial imagery for sexual punning in the final couplet, that the worth of ‘thy great gift’ becomes apparent. ‘Thus have I had thee’ is difficult to misinterpret, compounded by the aural similarity in ‘a king’ and ‘aching’.
To what extent Shakespeare’s use of legal-cum-commercial conceits in Sonnet 87 is indicative of maleness, or of sexual orientation is debatable. It could be feasible that
Shakespeare was saying ‘You know this is a male speaker because commerce and law
are masculine terms of reference’. The conceit could indicate either lost homosexual love, or, alternatively, it may simply be linked to traditions of the Shakespearean theatre in which male actors played females. Another contextual point to consider is the death of Queen Elizabeth (1603), and King James’s succession. Although the sonnets were previously thought to have been dated no later than the mid-1590’s, Greenblatt reminds us that recent scholarship suggests ‘perhaps all were revised or initially composed no earlier than the late 1590’s, and that Shakespeare continued working on the publication until its publication in 1609’. 46 If this is so, the sonnets, like the dated plays, might reflect a change of allegiance to a new monarch. Sonnet 130 could be read contemporaneously with Cymbeline’s ‘tirade misogynous’ (1609), and the earlier sonnets revised to appeal to the comparatively effete court of James.
John Donne’s (1572-1631) use of metaphysical conceits also presented sexually indeterminate personae; either dominant alpha male, intent on copulation, or passive female, personae. Consider