Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mary Sidney Wroth: Pamphilia, Poetry, and Prose

Mary Sidney, lady Wroth (born 18 October 1587)


The namesake of another Mary Sidney (about whom I'll be posting later this month), today's Mary Sidney is the daughter of Robert Sidney (whose mother, Mary Dudley Sidney, was the sister of Guildford Dudley, who married Jane Grey, and of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favorite, "Robin"--got all that?). Mary was the daughter of Sidney and first wife, Barbara Gammage, a wealthy heiress (and cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh).

A 1607 portrait thought to be of
Mary Sidney Wroth
Robert Sidney was both a patron of poets and a poet himself. At Penshurst, he welcomed writers and musicians. Ben Jonson would memorialize the artistic coterie promoted by Sidney in his poem "To Penshurst" (long regarded as the first country-house poem, though Aemilia Lanyer's "To Cooke-ham" probably preceded it). 

In the late 1960s, Robert Sidney's own compositions came to light when a manuscript of his poetry was discovered. Dating to the 1590s, the collection includes a variety of lyric forms, most notably that most popular of Renaissance English forms, the sonnet. (If you're interested, you can read about Robert Sidney, the discovery of his manuscript, and the poems themselves by clicking here.)

Mary Sidney's uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, has long been recognized as one of the great poets of early-modern England, but for her aunt and namesake, the third Sidney sibling, that took a bit longer. The elder Mary Sidney is now also recognized as a superlative patron, editor and publisher (of her brother Sir Philip's work) and, more importantly, writer. (As I noted above, I'll be posting on Mary Sidney Herbert later this month.)

Given these literary antecedents and models, that the younger Mary Sidney should choose to become a writer makes perfect sense--though it has taken centuries for her to gain (or, rather, to regain) recognition as a writer. 

In 1604 the younger Mary Sidney was married--unhappily--to Sir Robert Wroth, which has given her the name--Lady Mary Wroth--by which she is now most widely known, if for no other reason, I suspect, than to reduce confusion with her aunt, Mary Sidney (and even her grandmother, Mary [Dudley] Sidney). 

The accomplished Lady Mary
Sidney Wroth, with a lute
As Lady Mary Wroth, she was a member of the court of James I and his wife, Anne of Denmark--the queen was herself a great patron of the arts who was particularly interested in the staging of court masques.

I first encountered Lady Mary Wroth, in fact, not as a writer but as a performer, noted for her participation in the 1605 production of Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness and its 1608 sequel, The Masque of Beauty. (Jonson would dedicate The Alchemist to Wroth.)

But Mary Sidney Wroth was more than a performer of work written and produced by others or the recipient of literary compliments, however graceful and flattering.

A reference to her as early as 1613 comments on her poetry and says that "her uncle's noble vein renews" in her. Ben Jonson also refers to Wroth copying out ("inscribing") her poems for private distribution among readers, a typical form of "publication" for early-modern writers.

Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621) was the first prose romance published by an English woman writer. This pastoral narrative was modeled on Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, a pastoral romance composed at Penshurst and, he says, written to entertain his sister, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke. Wroth's Urania was dedicated to her dear friend--and literary patron--Susan de Vere, countess of Montgomery (the daughter of the Elizabethan poet and courtier Edward de Vere).

Attached to the Urania was Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, modeled on Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. In its published version, Wroth's sequence included eighty-three sonnets and twenty songs. Among all the sonnet sequences published in England during the Renaissance, Wroth's is unique, written from the perspective of a female lover, Pamphilia, to a male beloved, Amphilanthus.* But this published version of the sequence is a revision of an earlier version of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus--a manuscript version, copied in Wroth's own hand, contains 110 sonnets and songs.

Wroth's sonnet sequence not only follows and subverts the model of sequences like Astrophil and Stella, but within the sequence is the "crown"--a series of fourteen linked sonnets. The series begins with Wroth's most well-known poem, "In this strange labyrinth, how shall I turn?" The fourteenth (and last) line of each sonnet in this "crown" becomes the first line of the next until the last sonnet in the series: its final line, "In this strange labyrinth, how shall I turn?" takes us back to the beginning, thus bringing the crown full circle. 

(The corona, like the sonnet itself, is an Italian poetic form. Sir Philip Sidney had included a corona in Arcadia, linking ten ten-line lyrics and describing this form as "that kind of verse which is called the Crown." Wroth's father, Robert Sidney, also experimented with a crown, notably a crown of sonnets, but he completes only four sonnets and the beginning of a fifth, noting the failure of his effort with "the rest . . . doth want.")

In addition to her prose narrative and her sonnet sequence, with its embedded "Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love," Wroth also composed an original pastoral drama, probably about 1620, Love's Victory. In this she may also have followed Sir Philip Sidney's model--his one-act masque, The Lady of May, was written and performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1578 or 1579, its text preserved in a manuscript copy of Arcadia.

Wroth's life was not without its personal difficulties and complications--not least of which was the scandal that resulted from her daring to publish Urania. I'll leave that to you, if you're interested--you will find an excellent biographical essay here, and it includes a discussion of the "storm of criticism" that followed the publication of Urania.

You will find a complete online edition of her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus here. For Urania, I recommend the edition (abridged) by Mary Ellen Lamb, Mary Wroth: The Countess of Montgomery's Urania. The text of Wroth's pastoral play Love's Victory is in S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne Davies's Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents.

And for an excellent analysis of "why women in the English Renaissance wrote so few sonnet sequences in comparison with Continental women writers and English male writers," I recommend Rosalind Smith's Sonnets and the English Woman Writer, 1560-1621: The Politics of Absence (it's really expensive to buy--interlibrary loan?).

And, by the way--while it was originally thought that Wroth's is the first sonnet sequence written by an English woman, it now seems that is not the case. Anne Vaughan Locke (1530-c. 1590) was the first woman to compose a sonnet sequence--her sequence, A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, was published in 1560, a sequence of 26 sonnets based on Psalm 51. (Actually she was not only the first Englishwoman to write a sonnet sequence, but the first English writer.) Wroth's is certainly the first Petrarchan sequence, with its focus on secular love--though Mary, queen of Scots also wrote sonnets based on Petrarchan models. You can sample by clicking here.

*There were sonnet sequences written from the perspective of female lovers on the Continent--Gaspara Stampa and Louise Labé both wrote Petrarchan sonnets from the point-of-view of a female speaker, as we've seen in earlier posts.