A Valediction: of Weeping
Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For they face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore;
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.
On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afric or an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, all,
So doth each tear,
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mixed with mine doth overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;
Let not the wind
To do me more harm, than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Whoe’er sighs most, is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death. 47
This poem shares similarities with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87. The title appears to be a farewell, and in the first stanza, the image of tears, which have in turn become mirrors reflecting the beloved’s face, have transmuted into coinage bearing her likeness. The similarity ends here, in that the extended teardrop conceit is an elaborate persuasion to copulation. Brita Strand Ragnes argues reasonably that ‘what seems to trigger the development of a tear is its shape, its roundness.’ 48 Tears take on global proportions in the second stanza. Ragnes has it that ‘the globe is empty until the workman lays his copies, suddenly the whole world, ‘that which was nothing’ is made ‘all’. The line is highly significant; drawing attention to the conceit, it is meta-metaphysical. The tear is translated into coinage, philately, the globe, and the moon, which has the power to turn the tides. Additionally, given contemporary connotations of ‘nothing’, confirmed in the ultimate word ‘death’, synonym for orgasm, it can be argued the poet has the power to turn the tide (of resistance). The following attempt to resist Donne’s seduction prefaces his title with the self-addressed imperative ‘Don’t’
Don’t let me pour forth my tears before thy face
Pale imitations of your sapphire eyes
and yet, each opal’s seam contains a trace
of gold. Opaque betrayers tell no lies.
Don’t let the pearl-drop’s gleam give me away,
reveal your value – richer still than all
Othello’s tribe – your worth you would assay
in cataracts of truth. Don’t let them fall.
Don’t let the moonstones slide their silver glow
around my neck. A carcanet with power
to turn the tides, engulf this wooden O
in tempests whipped-up from an April shower.
Unsex myself. Become Canute. Command
this sea of tears recede with just one hand.
In the three years during which I have been writing poetry, producing love poems has proven problematic, in the need to distance myself. This may be because, as Gilbert and Gubar state, Petrarch’s Laura ‘can never be herself because she “is” poetry’.49 A likelier explanation is reticence, and writing metaphorically sets reticence aside. I opted to resist Donne’s persuasion in sonnet form, rather than his nine-line stanzas, reasoning that the douzain mimics an extended prayer. Repeated ‘don’t let’ is both incantation and invocation. The teardrop metaphor develops into opals, pearls and moonstones in this softly spoken douzain, ‘face, pale, trace, contains, away, assay’. The mini turn occurs with the harsh assonance, and plosive consonants of, the word ‘carcanet’. ‘Necklace’ would have been too weak a sound to signal the change of tone from pleading, to Lady Macbeth-like resolve. Conceits drawn from discordia concors, unsurprising in the twenty-first century, would have been as rare a phenomenon in Donne’s day, as Whitney’s knowledge of the Classics in 1567.
Consider Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XlV’
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like a usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.50
‘Holy’ and ‘Sonnet’ appear to be paradoxical tensions echoing the religious and erotic elements in the poet’s life. Dating evidence is scant, but reveals that Donne’s religious and secular output overlapped, and was circulated amongst courtiers in manuscript form, prior to his ordination as Dean of St. Paul’s (1621).
Donne exploited the extended conceit for purposes of persuading a woman to copulate in poems other than ‘A Valediction: Of Weeping’. These include comparing mingled blood with sexual intercourse in ‘The Flea’, and exploring the Americas with sexploring the female anatomy in ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’. However, the orientation of the three metaphors encoded in Holy Sonnet XlV diverge; apparently presenting a submissive male persona so obsessed with sex that, paradoxically, the only way in which God can retrieve him is to take him by force. The poem opens with imperatives hammered home by plosives ‘batter…break…burn…blow’, audible representations of violence. In the first quatrain, the poet compares himself with a broken chalice. The sadomasochism involved in this breakage in order to ‘rise and stand’ carries unmistakable connotations. The chalice is so badly damaged that God’s merely tinkering, to ‘breathe and shine’ are insufficient for purpose, destruction is the pre-requisite for restoration.
The second comparison, ‘like a usurp’d town’ captured by the enemy, can be read in two ways. Either the speaker owes his loyalty to God, and is trying to allow Him to retrieve his soul, in that (God given) ‘reason’ cannot fight the enemy because it has been taken prisoner. Conversely, the ‘usurp’d town’ is synonymous with patriarchal hegemony, in which the speaker assumes a female persona. Either way, the town and the female persona appear to be interchangeable.
Betrothal and usurp’d town analogies merge in the third quatrain, with betrothal to the enemy, Satan, linking sacred and secular. ‘Divorce, untie, break [that knot]’ are all plosive, and the salient word ‘again’ indicates previous sinning. Until the speaker is ravished by God, he cannot abstain from sex. ‘Ravish’ is a silky, sibilant verb, indicating a submissive female persona.
The above reading of Holy Sonnet XlV explored rape versus chaste, destruction versus salvation paradoxes. Cleanth Brooks is of the opinion that ‘Our prejudices force us to regard paradox as intellectual rather than emotional, clever rather than profound, rational rather than divinely irrational. Yet there is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry.’ 51
The intricacies of Lady Mary Wroth’s self-fashioning as she juggles paradoxical elements of lust and chastity into her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) are synonymous with her central metaphor, the labyrinth. Labyrinthine promulgation lies at the heart of the sequence, the ‘Crowne’, but is alluded to from the outset. It could be suggested that Wroth, the first English woman to write a sonnet sequence, personifies the paradox: a wife/adulteress with insider/outsider aristocratic status who transgressed social and literary gender boundaries. The eighty sonnets and nineteen songs in the sequence parallel Wroth’s personal paradoxes. Although for Wroth’s aunt, Mary Herbert, there would, as R.E. Richard states, ‘have been some inhibition contextually about the very act of writing as a woman’, Wroth remained uninhibited.52 She wrote love poems and romantic fiction, moreover, poetry in which
female lust is encoded metaphorically.
The sequence was published originally as part of her romance Countess of the Montgomeries Urania. Following the furore surrounding publication, Urania was withdrawn in December, 1621, and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was later published separately. Pamphilia translates as ‘all loving’, and Amphilanthus ‘lover of two’, and Wroth exploited the conceit to contend that neither constancy nor lust are gender-specific.
Wroth’s self-fashioning within this sequence has been described alternately as ‘overdetermined’ and ‘isolated, enclosed, difficult and complex’. Carolyn Campbell has the former opinion, thinking Wroth displays ‘interwoven identities of a subtle sense of
overdetermination.’53 ‘Subtle’ and ‘overdetermined’ seem inconsistent, yet Campbell makes the salient point that in utilizing constancy versus infidelity, and autonomy versus passivity paradoxes, Wroth displays a ‘reliance on and an interdependence from’ works by male sonneteers before her time. This is apparent in Wroth’s usage of, and variations on, Italian and English sonnet forms, and in eschewing the Petrarchan despairing male pursuing the idealized female model. Wroth’s female poet suffers Cupid’s pangs yet remains, as Campbell says, ‘passively accepting’. She is neither dominant nor submissive, as Sonnet 1 illustrates:
When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleepe death’s Image did my sences hiere
From knowledge of my selfe, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftness needs require:
In sleepe, a Chariot drawne by wing’d desire I sawe;
Where sate bright venus Queene of love,
And att her feete her sonne, still adding fire
To burning hartes she did hold above,
But one hart flaming more than all the rest
The goddess held, and putt it to my brest,
Deare sonne, now shut sayd she: thus may we win:
Hee her obey’d and martir’d my poor hart,
I, waking hop’d a dreeme itt would depart
Yet since: O mee: a lover I have bin. 54
The title would lead one to assume the lover is the addressee. Yet, Amphilanthus is never addressed by name, nor, in a departure from Petrarchanism, described in the blazon. Thus, it could be that Wroth’s fictive poet addresses her reader. In the dream scene above, the poem moves from a general description of the court of Venus in the octave, to the particular ‘one hart’, in the sestet where Pamphilia’s heart is the focus.
The epigram sees Pamphilia acknowledge her limitations and accept her captivation, yet, limited options and captivation are not necessarily insurmountable. In Sonnet 3, Pamphilia attempts to educate her inconstant lover, ‘Will you your servant leave: think
butt on this, / Who wears Loue’s Crowne, must not do so amiss’. This mild admonition
precedes a feisty remonstration to Cupid in Sonnet 7, ‘ t’was thy will made me choose’.
Pamphilia refuses to be blinded to self-knowledge ‘Your charmes I obey, but love not want of eyes’. In her initial address to Amphilanthus in Sonnet 21, ‘When last I saw thee, I did not thee see’, Pamphilia’s vision seems distorted, but she is not so blinded that she cannot see his shortcomings. Her agenda is to gain his fidelity: ‘And still true Louer like thy face doth keepe’ (l.14)
Wroth’s Sonnet 21 amalgamates Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms. The present poet’s response quibbles with Fuller, and Geoffrey Hill’s more recent, assertion that the Petrarchan sonnet form is superior to the Shakespearean, because negotiating the resolution in the couplet is akin to ‘two Jack Russells mating’.55 My speaker, like Wroth’s, is not so blind that she cannot see.
When last I saw thee, I did not thee see
When last I saw you, wasn’t you I saw
at all. Is that a paradox or what?
It means I thought you wore the clothes you wore?
It means I go around with eyes wide shut?
I need my glasses changing? Wasn’t you
I saw then, after all? You have a dopp-
elganger? Alter-ego? Can’t be two
like you, so constant, true, I’d never swap.
Or else: I’m not so blind that I can’t see –
another paradox? - you coming on
to my best friend? You swore there’s only me.
You couldn’t even wait until I’d gone,
Jack Russells copulating on the floor!
So Fuck Off, Rover, through your kennel door.
Sonnet 1, from ‘A Crowne of Sonnets dedicated to Loue’
In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?
Wayes are on all sids while all the way I miss:
If to the right hand, there, in loue I burne,
Lett mee goe forward, therein danger is.
If to the left, suspition hinders bliss,
Llet mee turne back, shame cryes I ought returne:
Nor fainte through crosses with my fortunes kiss,
Stand still is harder, although sure to mourne Thus let mee take the right, or left hand way
Goe forward, or stand still, or back retire:
I must these doubts indure without allay
Or helpe, but trauell find for my best hire.
Yett that which most my troubled sense doth moue
is to leaue all, and take the threed of loue.
Campbell and Marilyn Moore concur on Wroth’s ‘reliance on, and interdependence from’, Petrarchan conventions. Additionally, Moore focuses on the labyrinth as an ‘image of self-fashioning especially suited to a Protestant woman writing Petrarchan poetry during this period’, in that ‘night and sleep [symbolize] self-knowledge’.56 Moreover, the Middle-English spelling of labyrinth is ‘laborinth’, thus it is conceivable that Wroth’s use of labyrinthine imagery reflects a creative self, delivering an agenda to promote fidelity for both sexes within the confines of the sonnet form, thus vindicating Moore’s opinion of Wroth’s ‘enclosed’ self-presentation.
The Crowne’s Sonnet 5 begins with a paradox redolent of the male Petrarchan lover ‘And burne, yet burning love the smart’. Yet, in admitting addiction, the speaker-poet
aims for transcendence through self-knowledge ; ‘divine love’ which fosters ‘chaste art’. Moore’s view that ‘Wroth never asserts her idealized love frees her from the labyrinth’, is illustrated in Sonnet 14, where Wroth revisits her original dilemma.
So though in Love I frequently doe burne,
In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?
The sequence’s Sonnet 78 sees Pamphilia burning still:
No time, no roome, no thought, or reason can
Give rest or quiet to my loving hart.
The final sonnet brings contentment; with Wroth accomplishing her mission to show that whilst neither sex is free from lust, promiscuity is the province of youth, and constancy, of maturity:
My muse now happy lay thy selfe to rest, 1
Sleepe in the quiet of a faithfull loue.
Leaue to discourse of Venus and her sonne 9 To young beginners.
Thus, it has emerged that writing formula poems is a means of speaking publicly and privately simultaneously. Whilst there was a wealth of iconic material from renowned male poets from this era, and selection was random, the paucity of surviving material from lesser-known female poets made choosing women poets more problematic. However, all poems chosen from writers of both sexes proved to have been concerned, in one way or another, with paradoxical elements of the pain and pleasure of love, constancy and infidelity.
Theoretical and critical analysis has revealed complex self-fashioning, with male poets adopting female characteristics and personae, and vice versa. Sincerity of expression has proven to be problematic in the selected poems. If Shakespeare’s was encoding homosexuality in his ‘master/mistress’ conceit, he was being subversive, if used strategically to please his new ‘master’, King James, then not so. Formulaic exercises are self-reflexive, the poets’ skill, like the ‘master/mistress’ ball, being the centre of attention, and the metaphor is extendable. Whilst Wyatt had the freedom to play within literary conventions, he presented a vulnerable ‘self’, no longer ‘master’ of his ‘mistress’ when she became his Queen. If Shakespeare’s presentations of sexual orientation has been indeterminate, and Wyatt’s presentations of gender ideology ‘bothered and bewildered’, Donne’s self-presentation has been equally contradictory.
His extended teardrop metaphor in ‘A Valediction: Of Weeping’ indicated a prowling alpha male persona. Conversely, ‘Holy Sonnet XlV’, suggests a submissive female persona using conceits from masculine arenas. Nonetheless, God, being the ultimate chain of being, is arguably the ‘master’ of Donne’s would-be ‘mistress’. Conversely, Whitney presented herself as a woman poet possessing the wit of a male in employing the Classical conceit to interrogate notions of the master’s honour towards his ‘mistress’. Wroth, additionally, demonstrated that ‘mastering’ lust was a problematic, but not, necessarily, irreconcilable issue for either sex.
‘Mastering’ my problem with producing love poetry was facilitated by putting myself through the same mill as my chosen poets. Writing formulaic exercises enabled me to write intimately, yet impersonally. Further chapters consider whether these problems and solutions (or otherwise) will resurface, and what will be the implications for my
creative output; whether my creative development will evolve from comparative impersonality at five centuries distance, to a more personal involvement with living poets.
Meet Her in the Middle: Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720)
Good Heav’n, I thank thee, since it was design’d
I should be fram’d, but of the weaker kinde,
That yet, my Soul, is rescu’d from the loue
Of all those Trifles, which their Passions move.
Pleasures, and Praise, and Plenty haue with me
But their just value. If allow’d they be,
Freely, and thankfully as much I tast
As will not reason, nor Religion wast.
If they’re deny’d, I on my selfe can Liue,
And slight those aids, unequal chance does give.
When in the Sun, my wings can be display’d,
And in retirement, I can bless the shade.
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea 57
Her first two lines appear to be a calm
acceptance of her gender – ‘weaker’ sex.
The second couplet doesn’t really qualm
to make distinctions; ‘my’ and ‘theirs’ – the hex
of pusillanimis that isn’t her’s.
She isn’t strident, doesn’t need to be:
she values ‘pleasures’ outwardly, but there’s
the undermining ‘just’, implicitly
suggesting reason isn’t compromised,
religion, too. She then goes on to slight
‘unequal chance’: exploits her ostracized,
outsider status, stakes her claim to write
with seeming equanimity, display-
ing parity/disparity her way.
This chapter examines Winchilsea’s use of form and content in two statement poems, ‘On Myselfe’, and ‘The Introduction’, in the epistolary poem, ‘The Answer’, and in two ‘nature’ poems, ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’, and ‘The Petition for an Absolute Retreat’. By the eighteenth century, the whole concept of poetry had altered. Poets moved closer to using metaphor for illustrative, rather than exploratory purposes, and so problems
and opportunities for women poets writing in this era altered. They had to abandon what they were doing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and accept the Classical way of understanding, i.e. that nature needed no embellishment. If imitating the Classicists seems at odds with nature and the natural life of women, it might also be assumed that male poets could adapt to hierarchical structures more easily.58 The consideration now, is whether, and how, Winchilsea manipulated poetic form to accommodate her own preoccupations within the content of the poems selected. These preoccupations surrounded perceptions of female identity: the woman’s sphere in eighteenth-century society, the value of female friendship and, particularly, the woman/woman-poet predicament. What follows contends that for Winchilsea, the woman/woman-poet self-presentation was not irreconcilable. Her command of poetic form enabled her to either show, or to conceal, herself at will.
The sonnet, ‘On Herself’, will leave the reader with the immediate impression that this present poet has not responded to like with like. Her creative task in this chapter will be to attempt to imitate the Classicists in conveying an understanding of Winchilsea’s poetry, and that of male poets with whom her work is compared and contrasted. The challenges and opportunities afforded to Winchilsea then, will be tackled by this poet now, and recent literary and critical voices will join the supporting chorus. The poems will illustrate whether a woman writing three centuries on can produce poetry within the formal, but nowadays less censorious, constraints of the eighteenth century and, inherently, what this says about her self-presentation.
Germaine Greer assesses Winchilsea’s tone of ‘quiet determination and ultimate confidence’ in ‘On Myselfe’ correctly, ascribing this to ‘the couplets clutching the dense syntax, so that the spare, unpatterned phrases must push steadily against the returning chime’.59 Up to a point, this is so. Lauren Assaf’s research shows that Winchilsea’s phrases are not as unpatterned as they might seem, in that they lead to the heart of the poem. Assaf says that the poet uses ‘patterns of iambs and substitutes
that inversely mirror each other, drawing attention to the centre of the poem in which Winchilsea shows the reader her real self.’60 She sees the split iambic lines and their substitutes being synonymous with the division between the ‘narrator’s physical body
[and its] internal activities’. Her theological stance that Winchilsea took ‘her awkward position and made it God made’ is credible. Several biographers testify to Winchilsea’s Anglican ethic underpinning her feminist views.61
Assaf’s article prompted the production of the following poem written in heroic couplets, Alexander Pope’s elected form for his seminal essay poem, ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1709), which will be examined later. Imitating this inherited form is a challenging departure from previous responses, in mainly sonnet form, for the present writer. She might follow Pope’s example of indenting each new paragraph, and frequent enjambment should give a sense of running commentary. She presents an academically distanced self with which to address her minor quibbles with Assaf. Another challenge will be to replicate Winchilsea’s stress patterns; splitting trochaic and iambic lines has not, thus far been attempted. The approach is to use Winchilsea’s lines (italicized) as a springboard to stress patterning.
An Essay on Criticism: ‘Meet Me in the Middle’
In ‘Inverse Patterns and the Honest Self’ –
where Assaf analyses ‘On Myselfe’ –
she finds a wealth of evidence that shows
that Winchilsea – deliberately – chose
to centralize the work’s essential core
by mirror images of stress. Therefore:
we need to look at patterning of stress
to find the topic Winchilsea addressed.
Iambic lines and substitutes adjust
the aural impact. Iambs then, aren’t just
a metrical requirement, but to cue
their subject’s ‘ordered’ state; a speaker who
is ‘natural’, in the established way,
hierarchically structured, one might say.
Trochs and spondees counteract the status-
quo – the poet’s aural apparatus.
Lines 1-4: the poet-speaker gives
her heartfelt thanks to God that: though she lives
within a female body, stays exempt
from fripperies she holds beneath contempt.
The lines remain iambic, indicate
no inconsistencies within this state.
And yet: if ‘Good Heav’n’s read as a spondee,
her reverence is not as clear to see.
Pleasures and praise and plenty have with me
But their just value, if allowed they be.
‘Pleasures’, a troch, (1st foot, line 5), highlight
a list of qualities most people might
construe as natural to woman, so
in light of this, remaining stresses go
iambic. Then: (1st foot line 6) But their
(I quibble here with Assaf’s view, that’s where
she says trochee), but either stress will place
a diff’rent value judgement. Interlaced
with pyrrhic sub, just value. If (3rd foot)
existing either side caesura, puts
the emphasis on her internal frame
of mind. Her estimation’s deemed the same
as other women’s only to a point,
the woman/woman-poet self disjoint.
Where Assaf states that pyrrhic substitute
deflates the strength of Freely, I refute:
Freely and thankfully as much I taste,
As will not reason nor religion waste.
The poet-speaker celebrates her choice
of ‘reason’ in her ‘norm’ iambic voice.
If they’re denied, I on myself can live
And slight those aids, unequal chance does give.
A poet, self-sufficient by her pen
regardless of those ‘pleasures’, (9-10)
When in the sun, my wings can be displayed,
And in retirement, I can bless the shade.
The final line – for Assaf’s – added to;
an extra foot she reckons, this is due
to unstressed half trochee. I think it’s done
to replicate the rhythmic stress, line 1.
Winchilsea, like Wroth, was aristocratic, yet marginalized. She endured, as McGovern states, ‘displacement from court and public life, homelessness and financial hardship’, and ‘the derision and censure directed toward all women who dared to write’.62 The most infamous derision and censure, ‘slip-shod Sibyls’, hailed from Pope himself.63 Winchilsea tackles censure head-on in the first twelve lines of her 64 line poem