Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, April 3, 2015

Poet Aemilia Lanyer, Shakespeare's Contemporary

Aemilia Bassano Lanyer (buried 3 April 1645)




Although details of her life are few, Aemilia Bassano was baptized in the London church of St. Botolph on 27 January 1569, the daughter of Baptiste Bassano, a court musician. Long lost to history, Aemilia Lanyer rocketed to prominence in 1973, when historian A. L. Rowse published Shakespeare the Man, in which he argued that Lanyer was the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Rowse's identification of Lanyer as Shakespeare's  "dark lady" is now generally discounted by Lanyer scholars--in any case, however attractive and exciting her connection to Shakespeare's sonnets may have been, it reduced Lanyer to being an object of a famous poet's desire. But Rowse's identification did bring Lanyer back to scholarly attention. Now she is recognized not as the "dark lady" of someone's fevered imagination but as an accomplished poet in her own right, one who is a notable poetic contemporary of Shakespeare.

Lanyer published her anthology Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) in 1611. It is a composite volume--the book begins with a series of  lyrics addressed to royal and aristocratic women, including Anne of Denmark, queen of England, and her daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, the poet Mary Sydney, and Anne Clifford, the countess of Dorset. These lyrics are composed in an impressive range of styles: six-line stanzas, rime-royal stanzas, cross-rhymed quatrains, and ottava rima. Three of the prefatory dedications are in prose: one to "all virtuous ladies in general," one to Margaret, countess of Cumberland, and one to "the virtuous reader." 

The body of the work, the title poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a narrative of 1840 lines, 230 rime-royal stanzas, that tells the story of Christ's passion. It represents a kind of counternarrative to the New Testament accounts of Jesus's arrest, trial, and crucifixion, telling the story from the perspective of women. The most arresting part of Lanyer's retelling is the section she entitles "Eve's Apology"--here, Lanyer expands one New Testament reference to Pilate's wife, which ascribes to her a few words (from Mark 27:19: when Pilate sits down "on the judgment seat," his wife sends for him, "saying, 'Have you nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.'").

In Lanyer's Salve Deus, Pilate's wife offers an extended speech in defense of Eve, culminating in a direct address not only to Pilate but to all men. If Eve sinned in having "tasted of the Tree," condemning women to pain and subservience, then Pilate's sin, in condemning Jesus to death, is a sin that "surmounts" Eve's and should reverse the situation. In the words of Pilate's wife: 
Then let us have our liberty again
And challenge to [claim for] yourselves no sovereignty;
You came not in the world without our pain,
Make that a bar against your cruelty;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdain
Our being your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weak woman simply did offend,
This sin of yours hath no excuse nor end.

Rounding out the volume is "The Description of Cooke-ham," a country-house poem, and one final prose prose piece, "To the doubtful reader."

There is, of course, a lot of craziness out there about Aemilia Lanyer--but why not start with her work? You can access the full-text of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum here, but I recommend Susanne Woods's edition, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, which offers excellent introductory material and notes.

And then, just for fun, you might enjoy John Hudson's The Dark Lady: The Woman Who Wrote Shakespeare's PlaysHudson argues not that Lanyer was the the object of Shakespeare's desires, real or fictional, but that she is the real author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare! Ha! Talk about reversal of fortune!

Lanyer died in 1645, at the age of seventy-six, and was buried on 3 April at St. James, Clerkenwell. (The old church no longer exists--it was rebuilt in the eighteenth century.)

(There are no known portraits of Aemilia Lanyer, though various lovely images, including an especially beautiful miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, have been said to represent Lanyer.)