Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feminist Early Modern Verse

9. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Ex Judaeorum Ed. Susanne Woods

My directed study professor introduced me to this book that I'm now very excited about. It may have been the first book of poetry ever published by an Englishwoman. It was printed in 1611. There were other famous women writers of the time, Queen Elizabeth I for one and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, sister to Sir Philip. However, their work was privately circulated in manuscript.

Lanyer is one of the "new discoveries" of Renaissance women in the last couple decades. Her verse is in iambic pentameter, lyric poetry of the type Shakespeare was writing in Lucrece. She re-envisions the passion of the Christ, but with many reminders that men are to be condemned for this deed, not women, who committed a far less grave sin in eating from the tree of knowledge. She also extols the virtues of her patroness Margaret, Countess of Cumberland and suggests that she was born to chronicle the Passion of Christ in her honor. What is most interesting about her work, I thought, are its various dedications, which take up the same length as the work itself.

The dedications are different types of verse, and one, to the Countess of Cumberland, is prose. Every single dedication is to a woman, one is to "vertuous ladies in generall." There are several implications of this choice. The most obvious and mercenary is a bid for patronage, she writes to powerful, influential women, including Queen Anne and her daughter Elizabeth, known for supporting the literary arts. However, she also situates and establishes herself as a writer for women and at the beginning of a tradition of women writing for women. Furthermore, she emphasizes the power that women have gained in patronage, through omitting male patrons, she deems them unnecessary. Finally, she writes to them because these are the people who can see what she is doing and appreciate her religious and moral argument for women to be considered at least equal to men.

Aemilia Lanyer is the kind of woman I want to know more about, why she was so unique and so willing to argue women's case when women's place in society as chaste, silent, and obedient was generally accepted. Or was she really so unusual? The way Shakespeare's women talk, one might not think so. Perhaps our impressions of how Englishwomen in the Renaissance acted are incorrect, perhaps Elizabeth I herself was not as unique as we think. I would urge more people to read this, though fascinating as they are for me, perhaps they would not hold such appeal for the modern reader. Fortunately, we have plenty of women authors and poets to choose from.

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