Aemilia Lanyer

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Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara K. “Of God and Good Women: The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, pp. 203-24. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Lewalski admires Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum for its “quite remarkable feminist conceptual frame.”]

A volume of religious poems published in 1611, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was written by a gentlewoman who identified herself on her title page as “Mistris Aemilia Lanyer, Wife to Captaine Alfonso Lanyer, servant to the Kings Majestie.”1 Since published women poets were so very rare in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the volume invites attention on that score alone.2 But beyond this, it has considerable intrinsic interest as a defense and celebration of good women and of Lanyer herself as woman poet. It has also some real, if modest, poetic merit.

Lanyer's volume is in three parts. First, there are eleven dedications, all to women: nine dedicatory poems to royal and noble ladies, a prose dedication to the Countess of Cumberland, and a prose epistle “To the Virtuous Reader” which is a vigorous apologia for women's equality or superiority to men in spiritual and moral matters—and by implication an apologia for Lanyer herself as a religious poet. Second, the title poem on Christ's Passion and death incorporates the several subjects which are itemized on the title page as if they were separate poems: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Containing, 1. The Passion of Christ. 2. Eves Apologie in defence of Women. 3. The Teares of the Daughters of Jerusalem. 4. The Salutation and Sorrow of the Virgine Marie. With divers other things not unfit to be read. Although the subtitle is misleading as to the contents of Lanyer's volume it properly registers her emphasis in the title poem upon the good women associated with the passion story. Consonant with that emphasis are the preface and coda, comprising more than a third of the poem's 1,840 lines, praising Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, as a virtuous follower of the suffering Christ. The third part of Lanyer's volume is a country-house poem in heroic couplets, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which celebrates the Countess of Cumberland's estate as a lost female paradise. This poem may or may not have been written before Jonson's “To Penshurst” (commonly thought to have inaugurated the genre in English literature) but it can certainly claim priority in publication.3

The volume was entered in the Stationers' Register on October 2, 1610, by the bookseller, Richard Bonian, and the poems were probably written within a year or two of this date.4 It was issued twice in 1611, with minor changes in the imprint, and is now very rare.5 In the British Library copy, several of the dedicatory poems and the epistle to the reader have been omitted, evidently by design, but we can only speculate as to the number of such copies issued, and the reasons for the omissions.6

A. L. Rowse's modern edition (1978) marshals the known facts about Aemilia Lanyer's life, drawn chiefly from records kept by Simon Forman the astrologer, in the service of his not impossible but unproven thesis that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets.7 However, the possible links to Shakespeare suggested by these records are far too tenuous to support Rowse's confident identification, even if we grant his questionable assumption that the sonnets are to be read as straightforward Shakespearean autobiography.8 The unfortunate effect of Rowse's speculation has been to deflect attention...

(This entire section contains 10447 words.)

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from Aemilia Lanyer as a poet and from her poems. My concern here is to examine her book in its own terms, and to assess her achievement.

First, a résumé of the little we know of Aemilia Lanyer's life. Her father was Baptista Bassano, one of the queen's Italian musicians, her mother was his “reputed wife,” Margaret Johnson, and Aemilia was christened at St. Bartolph, Bishopsgate, on January 27, 1569. She had one sister, Angela. Her father died in 1576 when she was seven years old, and her mother died eleven years later. She was married in 1592 at age twenty-three to Alfonso Lanyer, one of Queen Elizabeth's (and later King James's) musicians (Rowse, Sex and Society, p. 102; Dark Lady, p. 18). Forman reports several facts about Lanyer's early life, presumably gleaned during her visits to him in 1597:

She hath had hard fortune in her youth. Her father died when she was young; the wealth of her father failed before he died, and he began to be miserable in his estate. … She was paramour to my old Lord Hunsdon that was Lord Chamberlain, and was maintained in great pride; being with child she was for colour married to a minstrel [i.e., Alphonso Lanyer]. …

… She was maintained in great pomp. She is high-minded. … She hath £40 a year and was wealthy to him that married her, in money and jewels. She can hardly keep secret. She was very brave in youth. She hath many false conceptions. She hath a son, his name is Henry. …

… She hath been much favoured of her Majesty and of many noble men, hath had great gifts and been made much of. … But her husband hath dealt hardly with her, that spent and consumed her goods.9

It seems clear from this that Lanyer had enjoyed some access to the life of the court as a young girl by reason of the Hunsdon connection, and that she had obtained an estate in money and jewels which her husband squandered. The Lanyers like the Bassanos were a musical family. Alphonso Lanyer was both a court musician and a military man: he served as gentleman volunteer on the Essex Island voyages and evidently hoped to be preferred to a knighthood (Rowse, Dark Lady, p. 18). Forman indicates that when Aemilia visited him she wanted to know “whether she should be a lady or no,” and he also implies that her reduced circumstances might lead her to questionable moral behavior: “She is now very needy, in debt and it seems for lucre's sake will be a good fellow, for necessity doth compel. She hath a wart or mole in the pit of the throat or near it.”10

Alphonso Lanyer was not knighted on this voyage or in consequence of his later military engagements, nor was he wealthy enough to buy a knighthood from James, as so many did. In 1604 he was awarded a patent to take revenue from the weighing of hay and grain in London, and after his death in 1613 Aemilia was involved in several lawsuits respecting her rights in this commission.11 In 1617 she set up a school in St. Giles in the Fields but was soon in litigation with her landlord about rent arrears and repairs, during which she deposed that the death of her husband left her poor, “he having spent a great part of her estate in the service of the late Queen in her wars of Ireland and other places.” Aemelia died on April 3, 1645, at the age of 76 (Rowse, Dark Lady, pp. 33-34).

From her multiple dedications we can infer some facts concerning the circles she moved in—who was known to her and who was not. While these poems like most of their kind are full of hyperbole, they would not succeed in their purpose of winning favor if they were to falsify blatantly the terms of a relationship. These dedications are obviously intended to call Aemilia Lanyer to the attention of past patronesses, and perhaps to attract new ones. This strategy was common: Spenser appended to his Faerie Queene seventeen dedicatory sonnets honoring former and would-be patrons, while inscribing it in the first instance to Queen Elizabeth.

It is evident from these poems that Lanyer does not enjoy in the court circles of King James the associations and the favors she attracted in Elizabeth's court. The opening dedication to Queen Anne contrasts her present sorrow with an earlier, happier time, when “great Elizaes favour blest my youth” (l. 50). The dedications to Princess Elizabeth and to the two greatest literary patronesses of the period—Mary (Sidney) Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and Lucy (Harrington) Russell, Countess of Bedford, do not claim personal acquaintance. And Lanyer frankly admits that she is a “stranger” to the Countess of Suffolk, Katherine (Knevet) Howard. However, other dedications attempt to renew relationships harking back to those better Elizabethan times. Lanyer addresses Lady Arabella Stuart, first cousin of James I, as “Great learned Ladie, whom I long have knowne, / And yet not knowne so much as I desired.” And she addresses the Dowager Countess of Kent, Susan (Bertie) Wingfield, as “the Mistris of my youth, / The noble guide of my ungovern'd dayes,” suggesting that as a young girl she had lived in the countess's household, waiting upon her.12

Some kind of formal patronage is implied in the dedications to Margaret (Russell) Clifford, Dowager Countess of Cumberland, and to her daughter Anne, Countess of Dorset, as well as in the praises of them incorporated in the major poems of the volume.13 Several poets and theologians dedicated books to Margaret Clifford as patron, among them the poet Samuel Daniel who served as tutor for her daughter Anne.14 Lanyer indicates that the countess also acted as her patron, asserting that she wrote her poems at the countess' behest, and intimating that she owes both her religious conversion and her recognition as a poet to a period of residence with the countess and her daughter at the country estate of Cookham, in Berkshire.15 Lanyer alludes knowledgeably to the countess' domestic unhappiness with her profligate adventurer husband, George Clifford—troubles which persisted after his death in 1605, when both mother and daughter became engaged in extended litigation over the terms of his will in an effort to secure to Anne her proper inheritance.16 At the least, Lanyer seems to have received some encouragement in learning, piety, and poetry in the bookish and cultivated household of the Countess of Cumberland. Quite possibly she was also supported by the countess in the unusual venture of offering her poems for publication.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, for all its diversity of subject matter, is governed by certain unifying themes and concerns. It is set forth as a comprehensive “Book of Good Women,” fusing religious devotion and feminism so as to assert the essential harmony of those two impulses. Lanyer does not imitate Boccaccio, or Christine de Pizan, or Chaucer—but she does employ several poetic genres and verse forms with considerable facility to celebrate good women.17 Given Lanyer's questionable past, her evident concern to find patronage, and her continuing focus on women, contemporary and biblical, we might be tempted to suppose that the ostensible religious subject of the title poem, Christ's Passion, simply provides a thin veneer for a subversive feminist statement—but that conclusion would be wrongheaded. Lanyer is a woman of her times, and her imagination is governed by its terms. She appears to be sincerely, if not very profoundly, religious, and she presents Christ's Passion as the focus for all the forms of female goodness—and masculine evil—her poems treat. Her good women meditate upon and imitate this model, and as poet she interprets her experience of life in religious categories.

The first section of the book, the dedications, sets up a contemporary community of good women. Most of the dedicatees were linked through kinship or marriage with the staunchly Protestant faction of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, which promoted resistance to Spain, active support of Protestantism on the Continent, continued reform in the English church, and patronage of the arts, especially Christian poetry.18 Lanyer's dedications continually emphasize the descent of virtue in the female line, from virtuous mothers to daughters: Queen Anne and Princess Elizabeth, Margaret and Anne Clifford, Catherine and Susan Bertie, Katherine Howard and her daughters. The author positions herself among these women, describing her book as the glass which shows their several virtues, and inviting them to receive and meditate upon Christ their Bridegroom here depicted.

The extraordinary virtue and merit she discerns in these ladies also redounds upon herself as poet, justifying her in undertaking what is “seldome seene, / A Womans writing of divinest things” (“To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie,” ll. 3-4). Aemilia's several apologias for her poetry excuse it as faulty and unlearned by reason of her sex, but her disclaimers seem closer to the humilitas topos than to genuine angst. She continually proclaims her poems worthy of attention for the virtue and divinity they manifest: the implication is that a woman poet may write worthily since all these women are seen to be so worthy.

The first dedication (in six-line pentameter stanzas rhymed ababcc) honors Queen Anne for embodying the qualities of Juno, Venus, Pallas, and Cynthia, and for attracting Muses and Artists to her throne. Lanyer calls the queen's particular attention to “Eves Apologie, / Which I have writ in honour of your sexe” (ll. 73-74), and concludes with a defense of her poems' worth as deriving from nature rather than from learning and art:

Not that I Learning to my selfe assume,
Or that I would compare with any man:
          But as they are Scholers, and by Art do write,
          So Nature yeelds my Soule a sad delight.
And since all Arts at first from Nature came,
That goodly Creature, Mother of perfection,
Whom Joves almighty hand at first did frame,
Taking both her and hers in his protection:
          Why should not She now grace my barren Muse,
          And in a Woman all defects excuse.

(ll. 147-56)

The sonnet-like poems to Princess Elizabeth and the Lady Arabella (dedications two and four) emphasize their learning: Lanyer offers her own “first fruits of a womans wit” to Elizabeth, whose “faire eyes farre better Bookes have seene”; and she apostrophizes Arabella as “Great learned Ladie … / so well accompan'ed / With Pallas, and the Muses.”19 The third dedication (in seven-line pentameter stanzas rhymed ababacc) is addressed “To all vertuous Ladies in generall”; it praises all who are ladies-in-waiting to Queen Virtue, companions of the Muses, and Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. The fifth dedication (in the same verse form as that to the queen) praises the Countess of Kent as the glass displaying all virtues to the young Aemilia, and as a heroic follower of Christ even in infancy when her staunchly Protestant mother, Catherine Bertie, Countess of Suffolk, fled England with her family during Queen Mary's reign:20

Whose Faith did undertake in Infancie,
All dang'rous travells by devouring Seas
To flie to Christ from vaine Idolatry,
Not seeking there this worthlesse world to please,
          By your most famous Mother so directed,
          That noble Dutchesse, who liv'd unsubjected.
From Romes ridiculous prier and tyranny,
That mighty Monarchs kept in awfull feare;
Leaving here her lands, her state, dignitie;
Nay more, vouchsaft disguised weedes to weare:
          When with Christ Jesus she did meane to goe,
          From sweet delights to taste part of his woe.

(ll. 19-30)

The next dedication is given special importance by its central position, its length (224 lines), its verse form unique in this volume (four-line pentameter stanzas rhymed abab), and its genre: it is a dream vision narrative entitled “The Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembroke.” In it Lanyer recounts a dream visit under the conduct of Morpheus to the Idalian groves where she finds the Countess of Pembroke enthroned in Honor's chair, crowned by eternal Fame, and receiving tribute from various classical representatives of art, beauty, and wisdom: the Graces, Bellona, Dictina, Aurora, Flora. Under the countess' aegis the strife between Art and Nature is resolved, and all the company join to sing the countess' psalm versions:

Those holy Sonnets they did all agree,
With this most lovely Lady here to sing;
That by her noble breasts sweet harmony,
Their musicke might in eares of Angels ring.
While saints like Swans about this silver brook
Should Hallalu-iah sing continually,
Writing her praises in th'eternall booke
Of endlesse honour, true fames memorie.

(ll. 121-28)

Morpheus then reveals the lady's name, indicates that she spends all her time “In virtuous studies of Divinitie,” and (continuing Lanyer's argument concerning the equality or superiority of women in moral and spiritual matters) ranks the countess “far before” her brother Sir Philip Sidney “For virtue, wisedome, learning, dignity” (ll. 147, 151-52). Dismayed upon awakening from her vision, Lanyer resolves to present her own “unlearned lines” (l. 203) to that lady, expecting that she will value these “flowres that spring from virtues ground” (l. 214) even though she herself reads and writes worthier and more profound books:

Thogh many Books she writes that are more rare,
Yet there is hony in the meanest flowres:
Which is both wholesome, and delights the taste:
Though sugar be more finer, higher priz'd,
Yet is the painefull Bee no whit disgrac'd,
Nor her faire wax, or hony more despiz'd.

(ll. 195-200)

The poem is well conceived, well made, and charming, testifying by its length and art to the importance of the Countess of Pembroke as model for Lanyer's conception of herself as learned lady and poet.

The later dedications are again epistolary in form. That to the Countess of Bedford (in seven-line pentameter stanzas rhymed ababbcc) identifies Knowledge, wielded by Virtue, as the key to her heart, and emphasizes, like Jonson's epigram, her “cleare Judgement.”21 The dedication to the Countess of Cumberland—distinguished as the book's primary patron and audience by the fact that only this dedication is in prose—offers the Passion poem as a worthy text for the countess' meditations in that its subject “giveth grace to the meanest and most unworthy hand that will undertake to write thereof.” Also, describing the poems as a mirror of the countess's “most worthy mind,” it claims that their art can extend the life of both dedicatee and author: these poems “may remaine in the world many yeares longer than your Honour, or my selfe can live, to be a light unto those that come after.”

The dedication to the Countess of Suffolk (in six-line, pentameter stanzas rhymed ababcc) praises her as “fountaine” of all her husband's blessings, and, with continuing emphasis upon the female community, urges the countess to guide her “noble daughters” in meditations based upon Lanyer's Passion poem (ll. 49-68). In this dedication Lanyer eschews apologies for her poetic vocation and poetic achievement, claiming that both are God-given. She was led by her birth-star “to frame this worke of grace,” and is enabled to do so by God himself: “his powre hath given me powre to write, / A subject fit for you to looke upon” (ll. 7, 13-14).

The final long dedication to Anne, Countess of Dorset (116 lines, in eight-line pentameter stanzas rhymed abababcc) presents her as the worthy heir to her mother's excellencies and virtues, contrasting a female succession grounded upon virtue and holiness with the male succession through aristocratic titles. In this verse epistle, uniquely, Lanyer presumes to teach proper moral attitudes and conduct to her subject, as if privileged to do so by former familiarity. Intimating (perhaps) that Anne should continue such familiarity despite the differences in their rank, and evidently alluding to the fact that Cumberland's will alienated his estates and the titles they carried from his daughter (against the terms of the entail),22 Lanyer compares the worthlessness of aristocratic titles to the “immortall fame” which “faire virtue” wins:

What difference was there when the world began,
Was it not Virtue that distinguish all?
All sprang but from one woman and one man,
Then how doth Gentry come to rise and fall?
Or who is he that very rightly can
Distinguish of his birth, or tell at all
          In what meane state his Ancestors have bin,
          Before some one of worth did honour win.

(ll. 49-56)

She emphasizes the office of the virtuous to serve as “God's Stewards” in providing for the poor, no doubt intending some application of that stewardship to herself as she urges Anne to fulfill her role as true successor and heir to her mother's virtues:

To you, as to Gods Steward I doe write,
In whom the seeds of virtue have bin sowne,
By your most worthy mother, in whose right,
All her faire parts you challenge as your owne;
You are the Heire apparent of this Crowne
Of goodnesse, bountie, grace, love, pietie,
By birth its yours, then keepe it as your owne,
Defend it from all base indignitie;
The right your Mother hath to it, is knowne
Best unto you, who reapt such fruit thereby:
          This Monument of her faire worth retaine
          In your pure mind, and keepe it from al staine.

(ll. 57-60, 65-72)

The dedication ends by begging Anne to excuse any insufficiency in her poem arising from “wants, or weakenesse of my braine” (l. 141), since her subject, Christ's Passion, is beyond any human art.

If these dedications as a group portray a contemporary community of learned and virtuous women with the poet Aemilia their associate and celebrant, the prose “Epistle to the Vertuous Reader” confirms and extends that community, offering the book “for the generall use of all virtuous Ladies and Gentlewomen of this kingdome” (sig. f3r). The epistle is a remarkable contribution to the so-called querelle des femmes, that ongoing controversy over women's inherent worthiness or faultiness which produced a spate of writing, serious and satiric, from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century and beyond.23 Lanyer first lectures those women who “forgetting they are women themselves … speake unadvisedly against the rest of their sexe,” and she urges them to leave such “folly” to “evill disposed men.” With considerable passion she denounces those men who, “forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final ende of them all, doe like Vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred”—associating such men with those who “dishonoured Christ his Apostles and Prophets, putting them to shamefull deaths” (sig. f3r). Marshalling biblical evidence with rhetorical force and flair, she claims that God himself has affirmed women's moral and spiritual equality or superiority to men:

[God] gave power to wise and virtuous women, to bring down their pride and arrogancie. As was cruell Cesarus by the discreet counsell of noble Deborah, Judge and Prophetesse of Israel: and resolution of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite: wicked Haman, by the divine prayers and prudent proceedings of beautiful Hester: blasphemous Holofernes, by the invincible courage, rare wisdome, and confident carriage of Judeth: & the unjust Judges, by the innocency of chast Susanna: with infinite others, which for brevitie sake I will omit.

(sig. f3v)

In clipped, forceful phrases, she cites further evidence to the same point from the singular honors accorded to women by Christ:

It pleased our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, without the assistance of man … to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed women, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, even when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also in his last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious resurrection to the rest of his Disciples. Many other examples I could alleadge of divers faithfull and virtuous women, who have in all ages, not onely beene Confessors, but also indured most cruel martyrdome for their faith in Jesus Christ.

(sig. f3v)

Lanyer's long poem on Christ's Passion (in eight-line pentameter stanzas rhymed abababcc) constitutes the second part of her volume. The account of the Passion emphasizes the good women who played a major role in that event, and it is presented from the vantage point of women, past and present. Not only is the Passion narrative interpreted through the sensibility of Lanyer as woman poet, it is also enclosed within descriptions of the Countess of Cumberland as exemplary image, imitator, and spouse of the suffering Saviour. As poetic interpreter, Lanyer treats her material variously, sometimes relating events, sometimes elaborating them in the style of biblical commentary, sometimes meditating upon images or scenes, often apostrophizing participants as if she herself were present with them at these events.

The conceptual scheme of this poem is of primary interest; stylistically, it is uneven. Lanyer uses rhetorical schemes—especially figures of sound, parallelism, and repetition—with considerable skill; her apostrophes often convey strength of feeling; she can describe and sometimes dramatize a scene effectively. There are few striking images or metaphors, but her allusions are usually appropriate and her language straightforward, taking on at times colloquial directness. Her greatest fault is slackness—padding lines and stanzas to fill out the metrical pattern.

The Passion poem begins with a long preface addressing the Countess of Cumberland (sts. 1-33). The first nine stanzas propose to immortalize her in verse, and recall the solace she has found for her many sorrows in the beauties of Cookham and the love of God. Stanzas 10 to 18 comprise an embedded psalmic passage praising God as the strong support of the just and the mighty destroyer of all their enemies, with obvious (and later overt) application to the much wronged Margaret Clifford. Lanyer perhaps intends the passage as a gesture of discipleship to the Countess of Pembroke, as it echoes or paraphrases a melange of psalm texts, chiefly Psalms 18, 84, 89, and 104:24

With Majestie and Honour is He clad,
And deck'd with light, as with a garment faire;
He of the watry Cloudes his Chariot frames,
And makes his blessed Angels powrefull Spirits,
His Ministers are fearefull fiery flames,
Rewarding all according to their merits;
The Righteous for an heritage he claimes,
And registers the wrongs of humble spirits;
          Hills melt like wax, in presence of the Lord,
          So do all sinners, in his sight abhorr'd.

(sts. 10.1-12.8)

Stanzas 19 to 33 identify the countess as one of those just who are specially beloved and protected by God, and praise her for abandoning the delights of the court to serve her heavenly king in rural retirement. This section includes a dispraise of beautiful women—Helen, Cleopatra, Rosamund, Lucretia, Matilda—whose beauty led them or their lovers to sin or ruin; by contrast, the countess' inner beauty of grace and virtue made Christ the husband of her soul, and his death “made her Dowager of all” (st. 33.1).

This statement leads into Lanyer's proper subject, the Passion (sts. 34-165). First, however, she invokes and admonishes her “lowely Muse” (sts. 34-41) for risking the fate of Icarus or Phaeton by flying so far above her “appointed straine”:

Thinke when the eye of Wisdom shall discover
Thy weakling Muse to flie, that scarce could creepe,
And in the Ayre above the Clowdes to hover,
When better 'twere mued up, and fast asleepe;
They'l thinke with Phaeton, thou canst ne'r recover,
But helplesse with that poore yong Lad to weepe:
          The Little World of thy weake Wit on fire,
          Where thou wilt perish in thine owne desire.

(st. 36)

But Lanyer takes courage from the story of the Widow's Mite, and the conviction that God's glory will shine the more, “the Weaker thou doest seeme to be / In Sexe, or Sence” (st. 37.1-2). Proposing like many of her contemporaries to render sacred matter “in plainest Words” so as not to distort it,25 she prays God to “guide my Hand and Quill” (st. 41.4).

Her account of the Passion is part commentary or meditation on the biblical story and part apostrophe—a poetic figure which often intensifies emotion and creates an effect of immediacy. The first section begins with Christ's prayers and subsequent capture in the Garden of Gethsemane (sts. 42-99). Using apostrophe to poignant effect, Lanyer conveys Christ's profound isolation even from his beloved apostles:

Sweet Lord, how couldst thou thus to flesh and blood
Communicate thy griefe? tell of thy woes?
Thou knew'st they had no powre to doe thee good,
But were the cause thou must endure these blowes.

(st. 48.1-4)

The emphasis throughout his section is on the sins and failures of Christ's own apostles. Peter declared that his faith would never fail, but Christ knew Peter would deny him three times. Christ implored the apostles to wait and watch with him, but they slept. The Apostle Judas proved to be “A trothlesse traytor, and a mortall foe” (st. 61.5). Peter offended Christ and the laws by drawing his sword against Christ's enemies. Turning then to the “accursed crew” of Scribes and Pharisees who apprehended Christ, Lanyer castigates them with a fine flourish of parallelism and antithesis:

How blinde were they could not discerne the Light!
How dull! if not to understand the truth,
How weake! if meekenesse overcame their might;
How stony hearted, if not mov'd to ruth:
How void of Pitie, and how full of Spight,
Gainst him that was the Lord of Light and Truth:
          Here insolent Boldnesse checkt by Love and Grace,
          Retires, and falls before our Makers face.
Here Falshood beares the shew of formall Right,
Base Treacherie hath gote a guard of men;
Tyranny attends, with all his strength and might,
To leade this siely Lamb to Lyons denne.

(sts. 64; 72.1-4)

The section ends by reverting to the disciples' failures: “Though they protest they never will forsake him, / They do like men, when dangers overtake them” (st. 79.7-8). This formulation begins Lanyer's sharply drawn contrast between the weak and evil men in the Passion story and the good women who play a role in it.

The second section (sts. 80-118) focuses upon yet more wicked men, Christ's several judges—“wicked Caiphas,” “Proud Pontius Pilate,” “scoffing Herod.” It begins by describing Christ through a series of epithets—George Herbert's technique in “Prayer I”:26

The beauty of the World, Heavens chiefest Glory;
The mirrour of Martyrs Crowne of holy Saints;
Love of th'Almighty, blessed Angels story;
Water of Life, which none that drinks it, faints;
Guide of the Just, where all our Light we borrow;
Mercy of Mercies; Hearer of Complaints;
          Triumpher over Death; Ransomer of Sinne;
          Falsely accused; now his paines begin.

(st. 81)

The judges are characterized through striking metaphors: Caiaphas' “Owly eies are blind, and cannot see,” and Pilate is a “painted wall / A golden Sepulcher with rotten bones” (sts. 89.8; 116.1-2).

Then Lanyer addresses a lengthy apostrophe to Pilate, explicitly contrasting good women with these weak and evil men (sts. 94.5-105). Ranging herself with Pilate's wife whom she takes as the representative of womankind, Lanyer pleads with Pilate to spare Christ, relating that plea to a remarkable apologia pronouncing Eve guiltless of any evil intention in the Fall:

O noble Governour, make thou yet a pause,
Doe not in innocent blood imbrue thy hands;
          But heare the words of thy most worthy wife,
          Who sends to thee, to beg her Saviours life.
          Let not us Women glory in Mens fall,
          Who had power given to over-rule us all.
Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much less appeare;
Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
          The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
          Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.

(sts. 94.5-96)

She presses that argument, claiming that Eve's “harmeless Heart” intended no evil at all, that her fault was only “too much love, / Which made her give this present to her Deare” (st. 101.1-2). All the guilt of the Fall belongs to Adam, who was strong, wise, and undeceived. Moreover, any faults which women might have inherited from Eve are far outweighed by the guilt and malice of men, epitomized in Pilate:

          Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay,
          But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.
Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
          If one weake woman simply did offend,
          This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.
To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;

(sts. 102.6-105.2)

The third section presents the procession to Calvary, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, again contrasting the responses of good women and evil men to these events (sts. 119-65). The journey scene is described with considerable dramatic effectiveness:

First went the Crier with open mouth proclayming
The heavy sentence of Iniquitie,
The Hangman next, by his base office clayming
His right in Hell, where sinners never die,
Carrying the nayles, the people still blaspheming
Their maker, using all impiety;
          The Thieves attending him on either side,
          The Serjeants watching, while the women cri'd.

(st. 121)

A lengthy apostrophe to the daughters of Jerusalem follows (sts. 122-26), contrasting their tears and their efforts to beseech mercy for Christ with their menfolk's cruelty:

When spightfull men with torments did oppresse
Th'afflicted body of this innocent Dove,
Poore women seeing how much they did transgresse,
By teares, by sighes, by cries intreat, nay prove,
What may be done among the thickest presse,
They labour still these tyrants hearts to move;
          In pitie and compassion to forbeare
          Their whipping, spuring, tearing of his haire.
But all in vaine, their malice hath no end,
Their hearts more hard than flint, or marble stone.

(sts. 125-126.2)

Then Lanyer locates herself with the mother of Jesus as observer and mourner at the crucifixion, and in an extended passage (sts. 127-42) meditates upon Mary's role in the Redemption and her exaltation as “Queene of Woman-kind”:

How canst thou choose (faire Virgin) then but mourne,
When this sweet of-spring of thy body dies,
When thy faire eies beholds his bodie torne,
The peoples fury, heares the womens cries.

(st. 142.1-4)

Lanyer's baroque description of the crucifixion itself is not without poetic force and religious feeling:

His joynts dis-joynted, and his legges hang downe,
His alablaster breast, his bloody side,
His members torne, and on his head a Crowne
Of sharpest Thorns, to satisfie for pride:
Anguish and Paine doe all his Sences drowne,
While they his holy garments do divide:
          His bowells drie, his heart full fraught with griefe,
          Crying to him that yeelds him no reliefe.

(st. 146)

But the emphasis on good women continues. This icon of the Crucifixion is presented as an object of meditation to the Countess of Cumberland, who is apostrophized as “Deere Spouse of Christ” (st. 147.2), and urged to judge “if ever Lover were so true” (st. 159.3). Finally, the precious balms brought by still other good women to annoint the dead Christ are interpreted as a figure of the precious ointments “of Mercie, Charitie, and Faith” brought to the risen Christ (the Bridegroom of Canticles) “by his faithfull Wife / The Holy Church” (st. 161).

A long coda to the Countess of Cumberland (sts. 166-230), which parallels the long prologue, expatiates upon the many forms in which Christ appears to the countess as she practices the works of mercy, and portrays her in Canticles imagery as Christ's Spouse. It also proclaims her superiority to the worthy women of history. She is more noble and more faithful to her spouse than Cleopatra was, since “she flies not from him when afflictions prove” and she dies not one death for love but a thousand (st. 180). She also surpasses the famous women who fought and conquered with the sword—the Scythian women who put Darius to flight; Deborah who judged Israel; valiant Judith who defeated Holofernes—since she wages “farre greater warre … / Against that many headed monster Sinne” (st. 187.1-2). Hester who fasted and prayed three days so as to free her people from Haman gives way before the countess, who for “dayes, weekes, months, and yeares” has worn the sackcloth of worldly troubles (st. 190.3-4). So also Susanna's single trial of chastity is overmatched by the countess' conquest of all base affections in her own breast, And the journey of the noble Queen of Sheba to find King Solomon was but a figure of the countess' love and service to an almighty and everlasting king.

At this juncture we find a sensuous and not ineffective baroque passage (sts. 219-28) expatiating upon the sweetness of Christ's grace and love:

Sweet holy rivers, pure celestiall springs,
Proceeding from the fountaine of our life;
Swift sugred currents that salvation brings,
Cleare christall streames, purging all sinne and strife.
Faire floods, where souls do bathe their snow-white wings,
Before they flie to true eternall life:
          Sweet Nectar and Ambrosia, food of Saints,
          Which, whoso tasteth, never after faints.

(st. 217)

Such sweetness “sweet'ned all the sowre of death” (st. 219.1) to the first martyrs—St. Stephen, St. Lawrence, the Apostles Andrew and Peter, and John the Baptist. The praise of these male saints as chief of the martyrs and confessors by whom “our Saviour most was honoured” (st. 229.6) provides some counterweight to the massive wickedness Lanyer lays to men's charge throughout the poem. But it is a small gesture. Lanyer concludes her poem by declaring that the Countess of Cumberland follows in the footsteps of these martyrs, folding up “all their Beauties” in her breast (st. 229.8).

The final poem, “The Description of Cooke-ham” is the gem of the volume. In 210 lines of pentameter couplets it sustains a gentle elegaic tone and contains some lovely pastoral description. The poem presumably executes the Countess of Cumberland's charge, reported in Salve Deus as not yet fulfilled, to write “praisefull lines of that delightfull place,” the “Paradice” of Cookham (st. 3.5). Whether Lanyer's poem was written before or after “Penshurst,” it was conceived on very different lines. It is a valediction—a farewell by the author and by the residents (the Countess of Cumberland and her daughter) to an Edenic home, perhaps in specific reference to the countess' permanent departure to those residences she would occupy as a widow.27

This poem also embodies but gives mythic dimension to Lanyer's dominant concerns: the Eden now lost is portrayed as a female paradise inhabited solely by women—the countess, her young virgin daughter Anne, and Aemilia Lanyer. In keeping with the Edenic myth Lanyer (who is twenty years older than Anne Clifford) describes herself as a constant participant in Anne's sports (ll. 119-21), as if they had been young girls together at Cookham. Located in Berkshire a few miles from Maidenhead, the area is still a beauty spot, with extensive frontages on the Thames, rich woodlands, lush meadows, picturesque scattered hamlets, and high hills in the west—which however do not afford a prospect into thirteen shires, as Lanyer's poem asserts.28

The elegaic tone is established in the opening lines, as Lanyer bids farewell to the place she associates with her conversion and the confirmation of her vocation as poet:

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtain'd
Grace from that Grace where perfit Grace remain'd;
And where the Muses gave their full consent,
I should have powre the virtuous to content:
Never shall my sad eies againe behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.

(ll. 1-10)

She represents the countess as sharing these elegaic sentiments, and advises her to regard those “pleasures past” as but “dimme shadowes of celestiall pleasures.”

Then begins the description of the estate, as it responds to the arrival and departure of its mistress in terms of the seasonal round. The house itself is barely mentioned, but the estate becomes a locus amoenus as each part decks itself out in all its spring and summer loveliness for her arrival:

The Walkes put on their summer Liveries,
And all things else did hold like similies:
The Trees with leaves, with fruits, with flowers clad,
Embrac'd each other, seeming to be glad,
Turning themselves to beauteous Canopies,
To shade the bright Sunne from your brighter eies:
The cristall Streames with silver spangles graced,
While by the glorious Sunne they were embraced:
The little Birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertain both You and that sweet Spring.

(ll. 21-30)

Other aspects of nature contribute to the welcome with an obsequiousness analogous to that of the Penshurst fish and game offering themselves to capture, but Lanyer's tone carries no hint of Jonson's amused exaggeration.29 The hills descend humbly that the countess may tread on them, the gentle winds enhance her pleasure in the woods by their “sad murmure”; the “swelling Bankes deliver'd all their pride” (their fish) upon seeing this “Phoenix”; and the birds and animals sport before her—(only slightly more timorous than they would have been with Eve):

The pretty Birds would oft come to attend thee,
Yet flie away for feare they should offend thee:
The little creatures in the Burrough by
Would come abroad to sport them in your eye;
Yet fearefull of the Bowe in your faire Hand,
Would runne away when you did make a stand.

(ll. 47-52)

Like that other Eden the focus of interest in this place is a “stately Tree” (l. 53). This oak surpasses all its fellows in height and also incorporates qualities of other trees: it is straight and tall “Much like a comely Cedar” and it has outspread arms and broad leaves “like a Palme tree,” veiling the sun and fanning the breezes (ll. 57, 61). Seated by this tree the countess enjoys regal honors and delights: “Hills, vales, and woods, as if on bended knee” salute her, and the prospect of “thirteene shires” (if not of all the world) is “fit to please the eyes of Kings” (ll. 68, 72). However, this tree offers no temptation, only contentment and incitement to meditate upon the creatures as they reflect their Creators' beauty, wisdom, love, and majesty. Elsewhere in the woods the countess meditates on the Scriptures, “Placing his holy Writ in some faire tree” (l. 83), and in her daily life at Cookham she follows in the spiritual footsteps of the greatest Old Testament saints:

With Moyses you did mount his holy Hill,
To know his pleasure, and performe his Will.
With lovely David you did often sing,
His holy Hymnes to Heavens Eternall King.
With blessed Joseph you did often feed
Your pined brethren when they stood in need.

(ll. 85-92)

The next passage is a complaint that Lanyer can no longer associate with Anne Clifford, now Countess of Dorset, because “Unconstant Fortune” has placed too great a social divide between them (l. 102). While the passage gives vent to Lanyer's discontent with her station, and makes a transparent bid for further attention from Anne, it is thematically appropriate. The social constrictions attending Anne's nobility by birth and marriage are set off against the natural associations, dictated solely by virtue and pleasure, in Edenic Cookham, “Whereof depriv'd, I evermore must grieve” (l. 125).

Next, Cookham's grief at the ladies' preparations for departure is described in a notably effective passage in which pathetic fallacy fuses with the seasonal change from autumn to winter:

Me thought each thing did unto sorrow frame:
The trees that were so glorious in our view,
Forsooke both floures and fruit, when once they knew
Of your depart, their very leaves did wither,
Changing their colours as they grewe together.
But when they saw this had no powre to stay you,
They often wept, though speechlesse, could not pray you;
Letting their teares in your faire bosoms fall:
Their frozen tops, like Ages hoarie haires,
Showes their disasters, languishing in feares:
A swarthy riveld ryne all over spread,
Their dying bodies halfe alive, halfe dead.

(ll. 132-46)

The countess' gracious leavetaking of all the beloved creatures and places on the estate culminates in the charge to Lanyer to preserve them in poetry. Then the scene declines into sentimentality as Lanyer portrays herself stealing the farewell kiss the countess bestows on the noble oak.

The final passage echoes the imagery of the opening passage, as all the beauties of the locus amoenus wither in desolation:

And those sweet Brookes that ranne so faire and cleare,
With griefe and trouble wrinckled did appeare.
Those pretty Birds that wonted were to sing,
Now neither sing, nor chirp, nor use their wing;
But with their tender feet on some bare spray,
Warble forth sorrow, and their owne dismay.
Each arbour, banke, each seate, each stately tree,
Lookes bare and desolate now for want of thee;
Turning greene tresses into frostie gray,
While in cold griefe they wither all away.
The Sunne grew weake, his beames no comfort gave,
While all greene things did make the earth their grave:
Each brier, each bramble, when you went away,
Caught fast your clothes, thinking to make you stay:
Delightful Eccho wonted to reply
To our last words, did for now sorrow die:
The house cast off each garment that might grace it,
Putting on Dust and Cobwebs to deface it.
All desolation then there did appeare,
When you were going whom they held so deare.

(ll. 183-294)

In sharpest contrast to Jonson's “Penshurst” which celebrates a quasi-Edenic place whose beauty and harmony are centered in and preserved by its lord who “dwells” permanently within it, Lanyer's country-house poem portrays the destruction of an idyllic place when its lady departs. Cookham takes on the appearance of a ravaged Eden after the first human couple is expelled. But here it is a female pair—or rather trio—who depart: the countess called away by her “occasions”; the virgin daughter to her marriage; Lanyer to social decline. Offering her poem as “This last farewell to Cooke-ham” (l. 205) Lanyer suggests strongly that none of them will return to this happy garden state, in which women lived without mates, but found contentment and delight in nature, God, and female companionship. Though of uneven quality, “The Description of Cooke-ham” is an attractive poem presenting a sustained imaginative vision.

Until we can learn more about Lanyer's life we will be unable to answer most of the questions her book so insistently provokes: What influences and circumstances led her to write—and especially to publish—poetry? What poetic models did she look to? How much patronage did she in fact enjoy and from whom? Was “Penshurst” written before “Cooke-ham” or did Lanyer invent the English country-house poem? How important was religion and religious devotion to her? How was her book received? Did she write anything else? And especially, how ought we to account for the strong feminism which pervades every part of her book?

Despite its artistic flaws, Lanyer's volume is worthy of attention for the charm of the “Cooke-ham” poem and for its quite remarkable feminist conceptual frame. The patronage poems present a female lineage of virtue from mother to daughter, a community of good women extending from Catherine Bertie, Protestant fugitive in Mary Tudor's reign, to the young Anne Clifford, heir to the “Crowne / Of goodness, bountie, grace, love, pietie” long worn by her mother, the Countess of Cumberland. The Passion poem extends this community back to biblical times, portraying women as Christ's truest apostles and followers. In the “Cooke-ham” poem a female Eden suffers a new Fall when the structures of a male social order force its women inhabitants to abandon it. In sum, the fundamental Christian myths—Eden, the Passion, the Community of Saints—are here revised, with women at their center.


  1. All citations are from the Huntington Library copy of the first issue (STC 15227) with the imprint in four lines, “AT LONDON / Printed by Valentine Simmes for Richard Bonian and / are to be sold at his Shop in Paules Church- / yard. Anno 1611.” The STC lists only this single copy of the first issue, with imprint in four lines. At the end of the book, in a postscript addressed “To the doubtfull Reader” Lanyer explains the origin of the title in a dream many years before the book itself was conceived:

    Gentle Reader, if thou desire to be resolved, why I give this Title, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, know for certaine, that it was delivered unto me in sleepe many yeares before I had any intent to write in this maner, and was quite out of my memory, untill I had written the Passion of Christ, when immediately it came into my remembrance, what I had dreamed long before; and thinking it a significant token, that I was appointed to performe this Worke, I gave the very same words I received in sleepe as the fittest Title I could devise for this Booke.

  2. The Countess of Pembroke's poetic translation of Robert Garnier's classical drama appeared in 1595 as The Tragedie of Antonie, her pastoral dialogue in honor of Queen Elizabeth was published in Davison's Poetical Rhapsody in 1602, and (if it was hers) “The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda” appeared as part of Spenser's elegy for Sidney, “Astrophel,” in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, 1595. But her terza rima translation of Petrarch's “Triumph of Death” was published for the first time in 1912, and the Sidney-Pembroke version of the Psalms circulated only in manuscript and was not published for over two centuries. Queen Elizabeth's metrical translation of Psalm 13 [14] appeared in her translation of Marguerite de Navarre's Godly medytacyon of the christen sowle, edited by John Bale in 1548, but her other poetic translations and poems remained in manuscript. Other aristocratic women—Lucy, Countess of Bedford for one—evidently wrote poetry for private circulation (as did their male counterparts) but very little seems to have survived. The only other women who published substantial original poetry (besides Lanyer) in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period are Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland, whose verse drama, The Tragedie of Mariam, the Fairie Queene of Jewry appeared in 1613, and Lady Mary Wroth, niece of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, whose pastoral sonnet sequence with interspersed songs, “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” appeared as part of her unfinished Arcadian romance, The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania in 1621.

  3. From internal evidence it is clear that Jonson's “Penshurst” was written sometime before the death of Prince Henry in 1612 (l. 77), but it was first published in the folio of 1616. Lanyer's poem was written sometime after Anne Clifford's marriage to Richard Sackville on Feb. 25, 1609 (she is referred to as Dorset, the title her husband inherited two days after the marriage) and before the volume was registered with the Stationer on Oct. 2, 1610. If Jonson's poem was written first Lanyer might have seen it in manuscript, but there are no obvious allusions.

  4. Since the Passion poem contains an apology for the author's delay in fulfilling the Countess of Cumberland's charge to write about Cookham, it was evidently written before the Cookham poem. Since it alludes to the countess as a widow, it was clearly written sometime after the death of George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, on Oct. 30, 1605. The several dedications were probably written shortly before publication; the Countess of Dorset's marriage date supplies a terminus post quem for the dedication to her.

  5. The STC (1976) lists eight copies, only one of the rare first issue, and seven with the imprint in five lines, “AT LONDON / Printed by Valentine Simmes for Richard Bonian, and are / to be sold at his Shop in Paules Churchyard, at the / Signe of the Floure de Luce and / Crowne, 1611” (STC 15227.5).

  6. The British Library copy may be a unique book prepared for the Countess of Cumberland or the Countess of Dorset, or it may possibly represent a special issue. It omits the dedication to Arabella Stuart (probably because she had been taken into custody in March 1611 and sent to the Tower). It also omits the dedications to the Countesses of Kent, Pembroke, and Suffolk—perhaps so as to identify the volume yet more closely with the Countess of Cumberland and her daughter, and to present it only to the obvious court patrons: the queen, the Princess Elizabeth, and the Countess of Bedford who was the queen's most influential lady-in-waiting and the most important Jacobean literary patroness. The epistle “To the Virtuous Reader” is also omitted, possibly because its strong feminist tone would offend the audience for whom this version was prepared. The front matter is not reset: signature c is eliminated as are all but the final leaf of signature d (d4, the Bedford dedication), and signature f (all but the first seven stanzas of the Dorset dedication and the epistle to the reader). The final sheets are shifted so that the dedications appear in the following order: the Queen, Princess Elizabeth, All Virtuous Ladies, the Countess of Bedford, the Countess of Dorset, the Countess of Cumberland.

  7. A. L. Rowse, ed., The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanier (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978). The edition is based on the Bodleian copy, complete except for the Cookham poem, which is supplied from the British Library copy. Rowse urges his thesis in an edition of Shakespeare's sonnets and also in Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer (New York: Scribner's, 1974).

  8. Rowse notes that Shakespeare's landlady also visited Forman; that in 1592, as a girl of seventeen, Lanyer had an illegitimate son by Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, later patron of the company of players with whom Shakespeare was associated; and that Lanyer, as an Italian beauty from a family of court musicians, with some literary talent and a questionable moral character, fits the general description Shakespeare gives to the “Dark Lady” in the sonnets.

  9. Forman records that Lanyer visited him on May 17, June 3, and June 16, 1597, and the three passages quoted are from his notes on these three occasions, respectively. Cited in Rowse, Dark Lady, pp. 11-12.

  10. From Forman's record on June 16, 1597, cited in Rowse, Dark Lady, p. 12. Forman follows up his speculation about her loose morals with an account of his efforts to seduce her, and he implies some success in that endeavor—but it is hard to know how far to believe this self-styled Casanova in such matters.

  11. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1634-35, pp. 516-17.

  12. Princess Elizabeth was later Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen. Lanyer honors her primarily as namesake of the great Queen Elizabeth.

    The Countess of Pembroke, sister of Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Robert Sidney of Penshurst, wife of Henry Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, extended hospitality and patronage at her Wilton estate to many writers—such as Nicholas Breton, Samuel Daniel, Abraham Fraunce, Gervase Babington, Thomas Moffatt—and received dedications from many others—Michael Drayton, Thomas Nashe, Henry Lok, Nathaniel Baxter, Edmund Spenser. Lucy, Countess of Bedford, was patron and friend to Donne and Jonson, among many others. Franklin B. Williams, Jr.'s Index of Dedications and Commendatory Verses in English Books Before 1641 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1962) lists more dedications and praises addressed to these two noblewomen than to any other patronesses except members of the royal family.

    Katherine, Countess of Suffolk, was wife to the wealthy and ambitious Lord Admiral and Lord Chamberlain of the Household, Thomas Howard, whose manor, Audley End, was said to have been built with a foundation of Spanish gold. She alone seems out of place in Lanyer's company of good women, though she and her husband were not yet notorious for the rapacity which was to lead in 1618 to their disgrace and imprisonment for extortion and embezzlement.

    Arabella Stuart was a constant focus for political intrigue during the final years of Elizabeth's reign and the early years of James, because of her strong title to the throne derived from Margaret, eldest sister of Henry VIII. Forbidden to marry without the king's permission, she did so secretly in July 1610 to William Seymour, grandson of Catherine Grey—an alliance which strengthened her title. When the marriage became known, she was taken into custody on Mar. 3, 1611, and after an abortive attempt to escape in June 1611 was lodged in the Tower.

    Susan Bertie's first husband was Reynold Grey of Wrest, de jure Earl of Kent, who died in 1573. In 1581 she married Sir John Wingfield of Withcall, a member of the Leicester-Sidney faction (knighted by Leicester at Zutphen, one of the twelve honor guard at Sidney's funeral, and a participant in the Cadiz expeditions). Lanyer's residence with the countess may or may not have taken place before the countess' second marriage, but clearly antedates Lanyer's own marriage in 1592. Lanyer is probably being ingenuous when she disclaims (ll. 43-48) any thought of “former gaine” or “future profit” from the countess.

  13. Margaret Clifford, third and last daughter of Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford, married George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland in 1577. Their only surviving child, Anne, married Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset in 1609, was widowed in 1624, and in 1630 remarried Philip Herbert, younger son of Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and then Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. See George C. Williamson's biographies, Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery. 1590-1676, (Kendal: Titus Wilson and Son, 1922), and by the same author, George, Third Earl of Cumberland (1558-1605): His Life and His Voyages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1920).

  14. There are dedications to Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, by Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Samuel Daniel, Henry Lok, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Hieron, Henry Peacham, William Perkins, Richard Greenham, and Peter Muffett, among others. See Williams, Index. On her connection with Edmund Spenser, see Jon Quitslund's essay in this collection.

  15. Cookham, a manor belonging to the crown from before the Norman Conquest until 1818, was annexed to Windsor Castle in 1540. It was evidently granted or leased to the Cliffords and occupied by Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, at some periods during her estrangement from her husband in the years before his death in 1605. The countess may have spent some time there during the early months of her widowhood, before the journey she and her daughter made in 1607 to visit the Cumberland and Westmorland estates. In 1608 they took up residence at Lady Clifford's own house at Austin Friars. Anne Clifford's diary records a visit to Cookham in 1603, but unfortunately there are no entries from 1603 to 1616; see The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford, ed. V. Sackville-West (London, 1923), p. 15. It is not clear just when or for how long Lanyer was at Cookham.

  16. George Clifford, noted Elizabethan seaman, explorer and adventurer, and womanizer was for several years virtually separated from his wife (Diary of Anne Clifford, pp. 10-15), though he begged forgiveness and reconciled with her on his deathbed. He left a will bequeathing to his brother, Sir Francis Clifford, the new Earl of Cumberland, his northern estates (with a reversion to the Lady Anne in the event of the failure of male heirs). In doing so he ignored a deed executed in the reign of Edward II entailing the estates upon his child regardless of sex. Margaret Clifford and later Anne herself engaged in continual litigation and court appeals to secure her right to these estates, but they only redounded to her in 1643, at the death of her cousin Henry Clifford, son to Sir Francis. Williamson, Lady Anne Clifford, pp. 25-55.

  17. Lanyer may or may not have known or known about Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, or Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, published in 1521 in an English translation by Brian Anslay. But Anne Clifford might have directed her to Chaucer: much later in her life (1649), Anne declared Chaucer to be a favorite poet and a great consolation to her in trouble (Harley MS. 7001, f. 212).

  18. I am indebted to my colleague David Sacks for this observation and for working out the genealogies supporting it.

  19. These poems are in 14 lines, divided into two stanzas. That to Princess Elizabeth is rhymed ababacc, dededff; that to Arabella Stuart, ababbcc, dedeeff.

  20. The dedication “To the Ladie Susan, Countesse Dowager of Kent, and daughter to the Duchesse of Suffolke,” associates her at the outset with her famous mother whose flight and wanderings with her family in Europe—as recorded by her husband Richard Bertie—was incorporated in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Catherine married Richard Bertie in 1553, after the death of her first husband Charles Brandon, Earl of Suffolk; Susan was born in 1554, only a few months before the flight. Susan herself accompanied her second husband, Sir John Wingfield, on his military expeditions and was imprisoned with him briefly in Breda after the fall of Gertruydenburg.

  21. Cf. Jonson, “Epigram 76,” in The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, ed. W. B. Hunter (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 32, which ascribes to her “a learned, and a manly soule.”

  22. See note 16 above. Anne Clifford could not have inherited her father's earldom, but she could and eventually did inherit titles which pertained to the estates: Baronesse Clifford, Westmorland, and Vessey, Lady of the Honor of Skipton in Craven, High Sheriffesse of the County of Westmorland.

  23. For an account of and bibliography pertaining to this controversy through 1568 see Francis L. Utley, The Crooked Rib (New York: Octagon Books, 1970), and for discussion and listing of later titles see Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent & Obedient (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1982).

  24. Cf. Psalm 104 to Lanyer's passage:

    2. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
    3. Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his charriot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind.
    4. Who maketh his angells spitits; his ministers a flaming fire.
    32. He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
  25. See the discussion of this concern in Barbara K. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 3-13, 213-50.

  26. Cf. George Herbert, “Prayer I,” in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), p. 51:

    “Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
    Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
    The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth …”

    (ll. 1-4)

  27. See note 15. The valedictory mode of this poem suggests a permanent rather than a seasonal departure, probably related to the move the countess would have to make from the major Clifford properties to her own estates or to dower residences after she was widowed in 1605.

  28. The Victoria History of Berkshire, ed. P. H. Ditchfield and William Page, 4 vols. (London: A. Constable, 1906-24), III, 124-25.

  29. Cf. Jonson, “To Penshurst,” in Complete Poetry, pp. 78-79, ll. 29-38:

    The painted partrich lyes in every field,
              And, for thy messe, is willing to be kill'd.
    And if the high swolne Medway faile thy dish,
              Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
    Fat, aged carps, that runne into thy net.
              And pikes, now weary their owne kinde to eat,
    As loth, the second draught, or cast to stay,
              Officiously, at first, themselves betray.
    Bright eeles, that emulate them, and leape on land,
              Before the fisher, or into his hand.

Research for this paper was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980-81.


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Aemilia Lanyer 1569-1645

(Born Aemilia Bassano) English poet.

Lanyer is recognized as a notable English poet whose work has garnered critical attention in recent years for her unique female perspective on the role of women in Jacobean society. Her only volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), has been praised as the first significant book of original poetry published by an Englishwoman. The volume contains eleven dedicatory pieces, a long poem on Christ's passion, and the first of the “country-house” genre of poems to be printed in English. In recent years, feminist interpretations of her work have explored Lanyer's depiction of women's friendships, gender roles, and sexuality. Moreover, scholars have commended her appropriation of male-authored biblical stories and rewriting them from a female perspective. Critics assert that her poetry offers valuable sociological and historical insight into Jacobean England.

Biographical Information

Lanyer was born at Bishopsgate in 1569, the illegitimate daughter of an Italian court musician. In 1576 her father died penniless, which forced her employment as a maid at a young age. While in the service of Susan Wingfield, countess of Kent, Lanyer received an education in religious theory, classical literature, and contemporary poetry—particularly that of Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, who proved to be an influential figure in her life. As a teenaged girl, she became romantically involved with Lord Henry Carey Hunsdon, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth. As his mistress, Lanyer was kept in comfort and became acquainted with several aristocratic and powerful ladies. When she became pregnant in 1592, Hunsdon abandoned her and she was married off to a court musician and soldier, Alphonso Lanyer. Lanyer tried to regain her previous status at court by advancing her husband's place in English society, and she hoped that he would be given a knighthood. Although he failed to receive this honor, in 1604 he was granted a hay-and-grain patent by King James I which provided them with a steady income. In the early 1600s Lanyer was inspired to write “The Description of Cooke-ham” after a visit with Margaret, the Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter, Lady Anne Clifford, at a country estate. Lanyer's religious verse was influenced by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who with her brother translated the biblical Psalms. In an attempt to attract patronage for her work, Lanyer published her poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611. Although it was read by a number of influential people, the work failed to elicit patronage, and Lanyer never published again. After the death of her husband in 1613, Lanyer focused her attention on keeping the rights to his patent for her family and heirs. In 1617 Lanyer opened a school in the London suburb of St. Giles in the Fields, but stopped teaching when the lease was lost in 1619. At this time Lanyer lived with her son and, after his marriage in 1623, with his wife and children as well. There is no evidence that Lanyer wrote again. She died in March or April 1645 and was buried at St. James, Clerkenwell.

Major Poetic Works

The poems collected in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum praise the qualities of specific women whom Lanyer hoped would act as her patrons. Critics view the poems as an exploration of the major role women have played in promoting Christian values throughout history and a call for all women to turn to virtue and religious piety. Most commentary is devoted to two poems: “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” and “The Description of Cooke-ham.” The title poem focuses on the Passion of Christ, relating the events from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion from a female point of view—that of Pontius Pilate's wife. This was one of the first poems of religious devotion published by a woman and the first to grant women a higher religious authority than men. In this work Lanyer praises the virtues of females and argues that women have the right to be free of the subjugation of men. She also reflects on the role of contemporary Christian women, asserting that they must remain strong, virtuous, and pious and fulfill their obligations to Christian principles. Lanyer also paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth I in “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” and dedicated the poem to the Countess of Cumberland, praising her virtues and comparing her with the Queen of Sheba. “The Description of Cooke-ham” is an early English example of a country-house poem. Written after her visit to the Countess of Cumberland's estate at Cookham, the poem memorializes the noble estate and the companionship she shared with the inhabitants. Describing Cooke-ham as an ideal Christian community of women, she contrasts it to the misogynist world outside of the borders of the country home. Although Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst” is often cited as the first country-house poem, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which was published five years before Jonson's poem, is recognized as being the first poem of this type to appear in print. The pastoral poem “The Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembroke” pays tribute to Mary Sidney, whom Lanyer celebrates and praises as a major inspiration for her work.

Critical Reception

Upon its publication in 1611, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum attracted little or no attention. Until recently, Lanyer has remained an obscure minor poet. In 1973 A. L. Rowse identified Lanyer as the “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare's sonnets—a theory that was quickly refuted by other Shakespearean scholars. The controversy brought attention to Lanyer's verse, and critics began to investigate her feminist interpretation of Christianity and explore the sociological value of her work. As an outsider—a woman of lower socioeconomic rank—her views on an aristocratic, patriarchal society that sought to marginalize women is considered an essential historical and sociological perspective. In particular, commentators regard Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as a valuable cultural document that expands our understanding of women's religious roles. Lanyer's expression of ambivalence toward the power of the patronage system is considered a noteworthy commentary on the practice of patronage in the arts. The influence of the Jacobean court on Lanyer's life and work has been another topic of critical discussion. Recent studies have focused on homoerotic aspects of her poetry and have examined the attachments between women during the Jacobean period, perceiving these bonds as a way for women to transcend class differences to create a community of women. In addition to these issues, Lanyer has been praised for her vivid imagery and mastery of rhyme and meter, and “The Description of Cooke-ham” has attracted critical interest for the role it played in defining the conventions of the country-house poetic genre. In the past few decades, critical evaluations of her work have deemed Lanyer a major author and ready for inclusion in the canon of significant English writers.

Tina Krontiris (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Krontiris, Tina. “Women of the Jacobean Court Defending Their Sex.” In Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance, pp. 102-20. London: Routledge, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Krontiris elucidates the strategies employed by Lanyer to gain financial compensation and acceptance as a female writer.]

The Jacobean period was a time of advances in the status of women. Comparing it to earlier periods, Retha Warnicke states that it is the one most deserving the label ‘golden.’1 Many more women than before were receiving some form of education, and more female precedents had been established in publishing and patronizing books. The theatre was paying more attention to women, and though most dramatists simply exploited the gender issue, some were questioning traditional notions.2 The court itself was relaxing its restrictions, despite the fact that King James himself was a misogynist. Neither his attitude nor the association of the theatre with loose morals kept James's Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark, from appearing in extravagant court masques and inviting other women of the nobility to do the same. Indeed, the Jacobean court appears to have served as a kind of training ground for at least two outspoken women writers—Aemilia Lanyer and Lady Mary Wroth. Lanyer was the daughter and wife of court musicians, while Wroth was the wife of a courtier and lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of Denmark. The court was undoubtedly a formative environment for these two women. The confidence in public debate and the manoeuvring skills they display may be largely attributed to it. The court was also a source of powerful friends and acquaintances who were called upon by Lady Wroth to give moral support when scandal broke out and by Aemilia Lanyer to provide literary patronage. In their private lives the two women appear to have been nonconformists: loquacious and active, mothers of illegitimate children. In their published works they are obviously critical of patriarchal attitudes and ideas but, as in the case of other women writers, what they finally say is limited by their aims in writing and by established ideologies.


Lanyer was apparently an assertive and unconventional woman. According to Forman, the astrologer whom she visited frequently, she was ‘very brave in youth,’ ‘high-minded,’ unable to keep secrets, and had ‘many false conceptions.’3 Her father died bankrupt when she was very young. Later she became the mistress of Lord Chamberlain but, left pregnant by him, was ‘for colour’ married to Alfonso Lanyer, a court musician who ‘spent and consumed her goods.’4 At court she seems to have been a favourite with many prominent men and women, including Queen Elizabeth.

In 1611 Lanyer published a small book entitled, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, which Betty Travitsky aptly describes as ‘societal rather than religious in purpose.’5 In addition to the title poem on Christ's passion and death, the book contains nine dedications, two addresses to the reader, and ‘A Description of Cook-ham,’ a country-house poem celebrating Lady Cumberland's residence. The economic difficulties Lanyer experienced as well as the blatant appeals in her work indicate that, like Whitney, she turned to writing for economic reasons. But unlike Whitney who counted on the popularity of the material she published, Lanyer placed her bid on patronage and specifically on female patronage: all nine of her dedicatees are women of high social rank. Dedication by and to women had become a culturally accepted practice with several precedents. Young Elizabeth Tudor, for example, had translated, dedicated, and presented as gift to her stepmother, Catherine Parr, Marguerite de Navarre's Miroir. Anne Locke had also dedicated her translation of a religious work to a woman, Catherine Brandon. The use, too, of multiple dedications was not uncommon. Spenser had appended seventeen dedicatory sonnets to his Faerie Queene.

Such precedents could legitimate Lanyer's use of dedication, but they could not likewise endorse her attempt to pose as a professional writer. Though offered by women, patronage was not open to them. Denied the right to authorship, a woman could not easily ask people to reward financially an activity that was considered rebellious in the first place. For Lanyer, then, as for other women who wrote for publication, gaining acceptance as a female writer was a precondition for, as well as a means to, achieving various aims. In the religious stories she judiciously chooses to rewrite and in her numerous dedications, opposition to cultural norms appears to be inevitably circumscribed by the use of the oppositional voice as a strategy in soliciting patronage.


The strategies Lanyer uses to establish her acceptance as writer are a combination of male and female literary practices. One of these strategies, used by Whitney also, involves the deployment of conventional notions of respectability. Sometimes in unsubtle ways, Lanyer utilizes available opportunities to prove that she is a person worthy of respect and attention. She starts in fact from the title page itself where she displays her marital and social credentials: ‘Written by Mistris Aemilia Lanyer, Wife to Captaine Alfonso Lanyer, Servant to the Kings Majestie.’ Likewise, she turns her acquaintance with some of her dedicatees into opportunities for showing that she has held the attention of the virtuous and the great. There are two obvious examples. One is her strategic mention in the dedication to Queen Anne of the special favours she received from the late Queen Elizabeth. Another is her reference to her association with famous religious households, noticeable particularly in the dedication ‘To the Ladie Susan, Countesse Dowager of Kent, and daughter to the Duchesse of Suffolke.’ In this piece, Lanyer calls attention to the fact that her dedicatee is ‘The noble guide of my ungovern'd dayes’ and also the daughter of the well-known Protestant martyr. Thus, without actually lying about her association with any of the women she hopes to impress and profit from, Lanyer draws on the advantages that their respectable names offer to her.

Lanyer's praise of conventional virtues in her dedicatees also helps to credit herself and thus to establish her respectable status. Goodness, piety, love of God, patience, bounty, grace, and moral purity (‘a mind … free from giving cause / Of least suspect’)6 are among the attributes held up for admiration. Also, the general quality of virtue (especially in the sense of worth, excellence, or moral goodness) is frequently mentioned, as it was in most Renaissance dedications. By using such conventional laudatory language, Lanyer appears to endorse the values that this language praises. Hence, she can also claim the benefits of respectability that derive from it. This is not to say that Lanyer is indiscriminate in the type of feminine attributes she is willing to appear to uphold. Indeed, the absences in the text reveal as much as the presences, and the quality of obedience, so highly valued by contemporary theoreticians on feminine conduct, is markedly absent. The word itself occurs only once, as an attribute of Christ. Its near opposite, the word ‘unsubjected,’ rarely found in women's writings and emphatically unfeminine in conventional language at the time, is used as a term of praise for the Duchess of Suffolk who actively opposed religious oppression (p. 53). Indeed, as a relatively independent woman, the only subjection Lanyer seems to have accepted is that to God, to whom she refers as ‘the husband of thy [Lady Margaret's] soule.’ Likewise, the displacement of the husband as an authority figure is suggested by Lady Margaret's relationship to Christ, who ‘dying made her Dowager of all’ (B1r). Such references would be appropriate for the dowager Countess, but they could, inadvertently, also undermine the God-husband-wife relationship established by humanists and reformers.

The portrait of Lady Cumberland, the principal dedicatee of the book, offers the best example of how Lanyer employs culturally esteemed feminine virtues and respectable names to establish credibility and gain acceptance among her audience. It is also an example of how the language of patronage, already conventionalized by male writers, shaped Lanyer's work. As the author herself announces in the opening to her poem on the Passion, one of her principal tasks is ‘to write [the Countess's] never dying fame’ (A1r). Lanyer does this by constructing a mythologized portrait of her subject. The Countess is presented as a pious, almost saintly person. She is compared to a number of great women (including Cleopatra, Sheba, Deborah, Judith, and Joachim's wife) and is shown to be superior to them in faithfulness, devotion, chastity, moral purity, and spiritual strength. Lady Cumberland is presented above all as a woman solely devoted to Christ and unconcerned about the worldly aspects of life:

The meditation of this Monarchs love,
Drawes thee from caring what this world can yield;
Of joyes and griefes both equall thou dost prove,
They have no force, to force thee from the field:
Thou from the Court to the Countrie art retir'd,
Leaving the world, before the world leaves thee:
That great Enchantresse of weake mindes admir'd.


No worldly thing can thy faire mind remove;
          Thy faith, thy prayers, and his speciall grace
          Doth open Heav'n, where thou behold'st his face.


Respecting worldly wealth to be but drosse,
Which, if abuz'd, doth proove the owners losse.


Him hast thou truely served all thy life,
And for his love, liv'd with the world at strife.


This representation of the Countess draws both on the language of religious devotion and on that of patronage. But it bears very little relation to the actual person Lanyer attempts to praise. What we know about Lady Cumberland7 indicates that though she was a woman with religious principles, she was by no means removed from worldly concerns or activities and certainly not disdainful of worldly possessions and titles, as she is made to appear in Salve Deus. Her devotion was not solely to Christ but also to a life-long litigation over the restitution of her husband's property to her daughter Anne.8 In fact, her biographers inform us that she pursued this matter, which apparently occupied most of the latter part of her life, with unrelenting determination. Also, her application to the Crown for a patent to obtain sea coal and to use it in smelting iron9 suggests an enterprising spirit as well as a concern for enlarging her possessions. It is true that she left the city and the court to go to the country, but Lanyer's praise of the Countess's country retirement has probably more to do with an emerging literature on the subject of country life than with the Countess's wishes to be removed from the world of strife.10 In her younger years, Lady Margaret had in fact resented having to move to her husband's residence in the north, while in her later life she was too well established there and had too many possessions at stake to relocate permanently to the city. And we know that she visited the court frequently even after her move from the capital.

This discrepancy between fact and literary representation was not peculiar to Lanyer. Indeed, the importance of Lanyer's portraits lies precisely in the fact that they are not original. Their language is the sycophantic idiom of male writers who wrote for patronage, and especially for female patrons. If we compare, for example, Breton's picture of Mary Herbert as a spiritual being in The Countesse of Pembrokes Love11 we will see that it has much in common with Lanyer's representation of the Countess of Cumberland in Salve Deus. In writing for patronage, therefore, Lanyer is using institutionalized language shaped by and for men.

Lanyer's principal strategy in rendering her work profitably acceptable involves the appropriation of religion. This is not, however, a statement about Lanyer's personal religious convictions. Although one could easily argue that Lanyer's outlook, as seen in her work, is not deeply religious,12 my main point here is that belief in religion did not preclude its appropriation for other purposes. On the contrary, it made it more likely and more convincing. For women authors, religion was a general licence that they used, consciously or unconsciously, to do a number of things which could not easily be done otherwise. For Lanyer specifically, inscription within the religious area meant permission to request certain things from the audience as well as a way out of the binds of culture and class.

First, the religious subject of the passion of Christ, which actually occupies only about one-third of the title poem and a much smaller part of the whole volume, allows Lanyer to circumvent the barrier of social class. Addressing an aristocratic audience involved a liberty that an untitled woman could not as a matter of course take in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, and Lanyer seems to have been particularly class conscious. As her astrologer tells us, in actual life she was very anxious to acquire a title: she demanded to know ‘whether she should be a Lady or no.’13 This anxiety, manifested in various forms, is evident throughout her book. In her epistle ‘To all vertuous Ladies in generall’ she apologizes for placing ordinary women ‘In generall tearmes … with the rest, / Whom Fame commends to be the very best’ (b4r). And in her ‘Description of Cooke-ham,’ she regrets the social distance that separates her from her aristocratic female friends, Lady Margaret and Lady Anne:

Unconstant Fortune, thou art most too blame,
Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame:
Where our great friends we cannot dayly see,
So great difference is there in degree.


It is within this context that we must read Lanyer's repeated references to Christ's humble birth:

Loe here thy great Humility was found,
Beeing King of Heaven, and Monarch of the Earth
Yet well content to have thy Glory drownd,
By beeing counted of so meane a berth.


Unto the Meane he makes the Mightie bow,
And raiseth up the Poore out of the dust.


Within the same context, we must also read Lanyer's praise of Lady Cumberland as a lover of the low-born Jesus:

Then how much more art thou to be commended,
That seek'st thy love in lowly shepheards weed?
A seeming Trades-mans sonne, of none attended,
Save of a few in povertie and need.


Apparently, then, the religious subject of the poem, with its focus on the passion of low-born Christ, allows Lanyer to enter the company of women of aristocratic birth and hence to establish a socially legitimate speaking voice. (The idea of God or Christ as a leveller, who ‘makes the Mightie bow, And raiseth up the Poore out of the dust,’ was also used by women petitioners and preachers of the revolutionary period.)

The religious subject proved even more useful in soliciting patronage. Indeed, the deployment of the story of Christ as a marketable subject is quite apparent. In many cases, it is blatantly treated as a selling point:


                                                                      spare one looke
Upon this humbled King, who all forsooke,
          That in his dying armes he might imbrace
          Your beauteous Soule, and fill it with his grace.

(p. 52)


Loe here he coms all stucke with pale deaths arrows:
          In whose most precious wounds your soule may reade
          Salvation, while he (dying Lord) doth bleed.
You whose cleare Judgement farre exceeds my skil,
Vouchsafe to entertain this dying lover.



Sometimes h'appeares to thee in Shepheards weed,
And so presents himselfe before thine eyes,
A good old man; that goes his flocke to feed;
Thy colour changes, and thy heart doth rise;
Thou call'st, he comes, thou find'st tis he indeed,
Thy Soule conceaves that he is truely wise:
          Nay more, desires that he may be the Booke,
          Whereon thine eyes continually may looke.
Sometime imprison'd, naked, poore, and bare,
Full of diseases, impotent, and lame,
Blind, deafe, and dumbe, he comes unto his faire,
To see if yet shee will remaine the same;
Nay sicke and wounded, now thou do'st prepare
To cherish him in thy deare Lovers name:
          Yea thou bestow'st all paines, all cost, all care,
          That may relieve him, and his health repaire.


The last two stanzas quoted above suggest that the religious subject of the poem also allowed Lanyer to utilize the Christian concept of good deeds14 in soliciting economic support for herself. At various points in the title poem, as in the passage cited below, Lanyer praises Lady Cumberland for her religious devotion and for the material proof of it:

Shee sacrificeth to her deerest Love [Christ],
With flowers of Faith, and garlands of Good deeds,
Shee attendeth upon him, and his flocke shee feeds.


In the dedicatory epistle to Lady Anne, Lanyer argues, rather self-righteously, that economic support for the unprivileged should be required as proof of noble birth, challenging in the process the concept of hereditary aristocracy. But even in that instance, she falls back on the connection between social class and religion: ‘Gods Stewards must for all the poore provide, / If in Gods house they purpose to abide’ (C2v).


Lanyer's unmistakable female voice constitutes the unconventional part of her work. It serves both as a form of protest against misogynist ideas and as an additional strategy for attracting patronesses.

Her strongest and most detailed statements on women and patriarchy are found in two parts of Salve Deus: in the epistle ‘To the Vertuous Reader’ and in ‘Eves Apologie in defence of Women.’ These two pieces and partly also the dedicatory epistle to Queen Anne place Lanyer among the few female critics of her culture. The most striking one in boldness and directness is the epistle to the reader. I cite a large portion of it here:

I have written this small volume. … And this have I done, to make knowne to the world, that all women deserve not to be blamed though some forgetting they are women themselves, and in danger to be condemned by the wordes of their owne mouthes, fall into so great an errour, as to speak unadvisedly against the rest of their sexe; which if it be true, I am perswaded they can shew their own imperfection in nothing more: and therefore could wish … to be practised by evill disposed men, who forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and … doe like Vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred. … Therefore we are not to regard any imputations, that they undeservedly lay upon us, no otherwise than to make use of them to our owne benefits, as spurres to vertue, making us flie all occasions that may colour their unjust speeches to passe currant. Especially considering that they have tempted even the patience of God himself, who gave power to wise and virtuous women, to bring down their pride and arrogancie.

(pp. 77-8)

The importance of this piece of criticism lies primarily in two facts: its presence in a book addressed to noblewomen and its foregrounding of the lack of solidarity among women. In pointing to this latter issue, Lanyer is locating one of the major setbacks in the status of women in the early modern period. As a whole, however, this piece, like Jane Anger's Protection and other defences of women, is basically conformist. Women's problem is presented mainly as bad faith on the part of men, and the solution proposed is for women to refrain from provoking men's criticism. Implicitly, women are asked to comply with the rules that reproduce their subordination. Thus, not only from our point of view today but also from that of later seventeenth-century feminist tracts, like Womens Sharpe Revenge, Lanyer's statements here are basically conservative, failing to consider matters of economics and culture. (See Simon Shepherd's modern edition of four pamphlets, The Women's Sharp Revenge, including Anger's Protection.)

But while in the epistle to the reader Lanyer states the problem simplistically and does not articulate any of the fundamental problems in the construction of gender, in ‘Eves Apologie in defence of Women’ she does. In this piece, which is incorporated into the story of the Passion of Christ, she treats several subtle but crucial issues and shows that if she cannot see into all the workings of her culture, she is at least sharply aware of the way patriarchy has oppressed women. Lanyer first locates one of the main strategies used by western patriarchal culture in the subjugation of the female sex: she shows how certain biblical incidents have been selected, at the exclusion of others, and used to represent woman as the cause of man's fall and destruction. She then employs the same strategy, but with a different selection of incidents, to show that the loss of Eden was actually Adam's responsibility, and that men transgressed more gravely by crucifying Christ.

In arguing for Eve's innocence, Lanyer points out that since Adam was charged with authority, he should be the one held responsible for his own as well as for the actions of his subordinate wife:

But surely Adam cannot be excus'd,
Her fault though great, yet he was most too blame;
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refus'd,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpents craft had her abus'd,
Gods holy word ought all his actions frame,
          For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
          Before poore Eve had either life or breath.
Who being fram'd by Gods eternall hand,
The perfect'st man that ever breath'd on earth,
And from Gods mouth receiv'd that strait command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath,
          Which God hath breathed in his beauteous face,
          Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.


Here and in the rest of her argument, Lanyer points to the bias involved in the male reading of the Bible: responsibility is portioned out equally but authority is not; men want it both ways—Adam's authority over Eve and Eve's autonomy in the fall. She implies that if the balance of power is to be unequal, if the authority for actions taken is to be given to the man, then the responsibility for these actions must follow the same chain of command and must therefore go to the one invested with authority. Thus in what appears to be a naïve way, Lanyer discloses and exploits the biases and contradictions she sees in long-standing patriarchal arguments.

Lanyer's case in support of Eve's innocence is skilfully linked to her argument about man's sin in crucifying Christ. She cleverly establishes a parallel between Adam and Eve on the one hand and Pontius Pilate and his wife on the other, in order to prove the similarity of the situations and man's position on the erring side in the latter pair. She discloses Pilate's political motives in giving up Christ (including his fear of ‘Peoples threatnings … / That he to Caesar could not be a friend, / Unlesse he sent sweet JESUS to his end,’ (D3r)) and at the same time points to the wisdom of Pilate's wife, who advised her husband to ‘have nothing to doe at all / With that just man,’ (D2r). Furthermore, she suggests, even if Eve did err, men's sin in the crucifixion makes woman's original error seem lighter:

Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare.


In the conclusion to her argument, Lanyer addresses men directly, challenges what she sees as self-assumed, unwarranted, and tyrannical authority on their part, and asks for women's freedom:

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
          If one weake woman simply did offend,
          This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.


Lanyer's argument about men's sin in the crucifixion is given force by the female characteristics of the Christ she portrays. A victim in the hands of tyrannical authority, Christ is a man with passive qualities usually expected of women:

If zeale, if grace, if love, if pietie,
If constancie, if faith, if faire obedience,
If valour, patience, or sobrietie;
If chast behaviour, meekenesse, continence,
          If justice, mercie, bountie, charitie,
          Who can compare with his Divinitie?

(p. 71)

Christ's appearance is likewise marked by feminine characteristics:

This is that Bridegroome that appeares so faire,
So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight,
That unto Snowe we may his face compare,
His cheekes like skarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milke, to give the more delight;
          His head is likened to the finest gold,
          His curled lockes so beauteous to behold;
Black as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like skarlet threeds, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew,
Or hony combes, where all the Bees doe meet;
Yea, he is constant, and his words are true,
His cheeckes are beds of spices, flowers sweet;
          His lips like Lillies, dropping downe pure mirrhe,
          Whose love, before all worlds we doe preferre.


The association of Christ with femaleness apparently derives from medieval times. In iconographic and textual sources, Christ's body and experiences were sometimes identified with female functions.15 His saving role was seen as analogous to giving birth and feeding, and his bleeding wound was associated with lactating. Medieval female mystics in particular describe Christ's body in terms that suggest a subjective experience and an identification with the suffering male divinity. Julian of Norwich ‘identifies Christ's pains on the cross with a woman's pains in childbirth, and his love with the “intimate, willing and dependable” services our mothers do for us.’16 Catherine of Siena speaks of attaching ‘ourselves to the breast of Christ crucified, which is the source of charity, and by means of that flesh we draw milk.’17 These and other religious women of the Middle Ages describe Christ's life in emotional and dramatic images which link it to the female experience. Lanyer apparently draws on such images. What becomes interesting therefore is not the originality of the posture of a feminized Christ but the fact that Lanyer deploys such a posture. Like medieval women, Lanyer appropriates a powerful religious symbol, turning it into an uncontroversial vehicle for expressing her own anger and opposition to tyrannical authority. The story of the Passion allows her to speak about as well as for the oppressed subject. In her poem, Jesus's confrontation with authority is described as a confrontation between powerless subject and oppressor:

Yet could their learned Ignorance apprehend
No light of grace, to free themselves from blame:
Zeale, Lawes, Religion, now they doe pretend
Against the truth, untruths they seeke to frame:
Now al their powres, their wits, their strengths, they
          Against one siely, weake, unarmed man, bend
          Who no resistance makes, though much he can.


These and similar passages stress the violence committed on a passive subject and also reveal Lanyer's awareness of how powerful social institutions (law, religion, education) could be wielded to oppress subjects deviating from the established norm. She apparently saw not only the religious but also the political side of the biblical events of the story. (I have already mentioned her political analysis of Pilate's actions.)


Like Jane Anger, Rachel Speght, and a number of other female authors, Lanyer defends women against male charges and establishes a spirit of solidarity even by addressing herself to women only. On this account, that is, in a historically specific sense, Lanyer could be called a feminist. This is not to say that she is consistent in her feminist voice—for she is not, and could not have been. Sometimes she thrusts out challenging feminist statements while usually she retreats into conventional language; still other times she seems to occupy a middle ground, expressing self-righteousness through a feminized Christ. Why is there such a divergence or inconsistency? What is the purpose of what would have been considered then an outright attack on men in a book so obviously aimed to solicit support from women patrons?

The problem of inconsistency is to a large extent a function of language and history. If Lanyer is in places inconsistent, so are the discourses she employs. Even so, I suggest that in her case the inconsistency is partly due to the author's own unease, uncertainty, and confusion about her expressions of female solidarity. Despite her occasional bold declarations, the text discloses that Lanyer does not know how exactly to treat the women she addresses, or what benefits she may expect from adopting what might be called a feminist speaking voice within a female group. In other words, she does not appear certain that feminism is an efficacious strategy in soliciting female patronage. In the title poem of Salve Deus the defence of women drifts into praise of the Countess of Cumberland in conventional terms. The Countess is presented as an embodiment of sixteenth-century admired virtues. Indeed, one might argue that in the latter part of the poem the feminist spirit becomes somewhat offset by the Countess's portrait, for in praising Lady Cumberland, Lanyer seems not only to espouse conventional virtues but also to deprecate a number of other women. Cleopatra, Deborah, Judith, and Sheba, among other female figures, are presented as inferior to the Countess. The author uses them not just to enlarge the circle of ‘good women’18 but to flatter the Countess. It seems that as she approaches the end of her volume (and as the book becomes more exclusively directed to Lady Cumberland and Lady Anne), Lanyer drops her feminist voice. If the praise of the male saints at the end of the poem is an attempt at offering a counterweight to the earlier unflattering picture of men,19 then in the context of what I have been saying, it seems very doubtful that such an attempt can be read as a token of the author's concern about being unfair to men. The praise of these male saints has probably more to do with Lanyer's doubts about her feminist strategy than with her conscience. In this case (especially if those particular saints were the Countess's favourites), it might be an abandonment of feminism in favour of a more profitable approach. In ‘A Description of Cook-ham,’ which is Lanyer's most promising bid for patronage, she refrains from what might then be considered bold statements in favour of women. This, taken together with the absence of such statements from the dedicatory epistles to Lady Margaret and Lady Anne, suggests perhaps that the feminist sentiments of the principal potential patronesses of the book could not be taken as granted or used in public. Although these two women had grudges against men that Lanyer could appreciate and exploit, she could not with certainty enlarge them into a public castigation of the male sex.

In this context, the fluctuations in the feminist voice of the text reflect the author's discursive impasse as well as her attempt to contain what might offend if carried too far. In some cases, apparently it did offend. The British Library copy shows that the aggressive epistle ‘To the Vertuous Reader’ was removed along with four dedications when the book was reissued in the same year it was published. Although we do not know the reasons for the removal of each of these dedications,20 it seems almost certain that the epistle to the reader was removed because of its feminist content. Apparently, the women to whom the book was addressed objected to its bold statements. And could some have objected even to the milder feminist portions (like ‘Eves Apologie’) or to their names being used by a woman who turned out to be more than just a writer of religious stories? The omission of the dedications to the Countesses of Pembroke, Kent, and Suffolk points to this possibility, especially if these dedications were ex post facto. It cannot be merely a coincidence that the dedicatory epistles which remained in the volume are to women who either had promised to support Lanyer (as is probably the case with Lady Cumberland and Lady Anne) or did not care about the association of their name with feminist ideas. Most likely, Queen Anne belonged to this latter category. More flamboyant in her behaviour than most English noblewomen, Anne of Denmark generally disregarded criticisms aimed at her feminine improprieties. In Lanyer's book the dedication to her is the only one that contains at least some overtly feminist lines (see A4r). Thus from the available evidence it seems that Lanyer miscalculated the extent to which she could employ feminist sentiment to her advantage. In her culture, feminism and respectability were not compatible. Nor could a woman who fostered feminist notions assume that other women around her shared these notions.

As a woman writer trying to squeeze into an already overcrowded and somewhat outworn system of patronage for men, Lanyer has very little room for manoeuvre. Her religious subject gives her an opportunity to get a foot in the door, but her appeal to sisterhood seems to have been a miscalculated tactic. Addressing a group of eminent and respectable noblewomen was not easy. The lack of solidarity that the epistle ‘To the Vertuous Reader’ brings to the fore had much deeper roots and greater magnitude than Lanyer—herself enmeshed in the ideas and material practices of her culture—could probably see.


  1. Retha Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 208.

  2. There seems to be a wide range of opinion about whether or not Jacobean dramatists opposed or championed women's traditional roles, with Lisa Jardine (Still Harping on Daughters) and Linda Woodbridge (Women and the English Renaissance) representing the pessimistic and optimistic sides respectively. Most critics agree that Webster's plays do at least question traditional values on gender.

  3. A. L. Rowse (ed.), The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanyer (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), pp. 11-12. As the title indicates, Rowse tries to prove that Lanyer was the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare's sonnets. He thus most unfortunately deflects the attention from Lanyer as an author. But his work is useful in that it provides us with an accessible edition of her poetry and gathers together into a kind of biography all that is known about Lanyer's life, mainly from the records of Forman the astrologer, whom Lanyer visited several times.

  4. Cited in A. L. Rowse (ed.), op. cit., p. 12.

  5. B. Travitsky (ed.), The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 29.

  6. A. L. Rowse (ed.), op. cit., p. 53. I have used as primary text the British Library copy of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (London: Valentine Simmes for Richard Bonian, 1611), but for material omitted from that copy, as in this instance, I have relied on Rowse's edition. Signatures and page numbers respectively refer to these two sources.

  7. Our main sources of biographical information on Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, include her long biographical letter to Dr Layfield (reprinted in George C. Williamson, George, Third Earl of Cumberland, 1558-1605: His Life and His Voyages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), pp. 285-8) and the accounts of her daughter, Lady Anne Clifford, in the latter's Diary and Lives of her parents.

  8. George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, seaman, adventurer, and womanizer, was separated from his wife, Lady Margaret, for several years in the last part of his life. They were finally reconciled on his deathbed, but apparently not soon enough for Lady Margaret to have exerted any influence when he made his will (eleven days before his death on 30 October 1605), in which he bequeathed his northern estates to his brother, Sir Francis Clifford. On the basis of an old deed that entailed the family estates upon her husband's child regardless of sex, the dowager Countess initiated court proceedings and collected documents in support of her daughter's claim.

  9. G. C. Williamson, op. cit., p. 295.

  10. Jonson's ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ (published in The Forest, 1616) is usually cited as the first English original composition in praise of a life in the country, away from the turbulence of the city and the court. But epigrams on the court and the country had appeared as early as 1600. See Maren-Sofie Røstvig, The Happy Man: Studies in the Metamorphoses of a Classical Ideal, vol. I (Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1962), esp. pp. 55-67.

  11. See Mary Ellen Lamb, ‘The Countess of Pembroke's patronage,’ English Literary Renaissance, 12.2 (1982), pp. 162-79.

  12. Although Lanyer's interest in religion must be taken as granted, the extent of her conversion (hinted at in the opening of her ‘Description of Cooke-ham’) must be questioned. Certainly, if the conversion she vaguely alludes to did take place, the effect of religious thought on her intellectual development cannot have been as profound as, say, that of Lady Cary or Lady Pembroke.

  13. Cited in A. L. Rowse (ed.), op. cit., p. 12.

  14. This would seem to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant concept, but in its context it does not appear to have a specifically religious meaning. It is most likely a reference to Lady Cumberland's preoccupation with philanthropy. Her husband's biographer tells us that she engaged in works of social welfare. One of her greatest projects was the construction of a boarding house for poor women. She also interested herself in prisoners in Fleet Street. See George Williamson, op. cit., esp. pp. 290-6.

  15. Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: a reply to Leo Steinberg,’ Renaissance Quarterly, 39 (Autumn 1986), pp. 411-37.

  16. Margaret Walters, ‘The naked Christian,’ in The Male Nude: A New Perspective (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1978), p. 77.

  17. Quoted in C. Walker Bynum, op. cit., p. 417.

  18. Barbara Lewalski sees an attempt on the part of Lanyer to create a community of Good Women, ‘fusing religious devotion and feminism so as to assert the essential harmony of these two impulses’. See ‘Of God and good women: the poems of Aemilia Lanyer,’ in M. Hannay (ed.), Silent But for the Word (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985), p. 207. Elaine Beilin does not find a feminist spirit in the poem. Instead, she sees Lanyer's praise of women as evolving ‘from her own piety and her poetic calling as a Christian visionary who yearns for a world greatly different from the one she knows’—see Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 181.

  19. Barbara Lewalski suggests that it is. See ‘Of God and good women …’, p. 220.

  20. The removal of the dedication to Arbella Stuart is the only one that can be easily explained, for 1611 was the year of her final disgrace. Although her secret marriage to William Seymour (which would strengthen her claim to the English throne) was discovered not long after it took place in early July 1610 (before Lanyer's book was registered), Arbella's continued efforts to escape the king's orders that placed her under confinement, and her final attempt on 4 July 1611 to sail secretly to France, resulted in her final condemnation and commitment to the Tower. Lady Katherine, wife of Thomas Howard, Lord Admiral and Lord Chamberlain of the Household, was the only other controversial figure among the dedicatees whose names were removed. She and her husband used state funds for building their luxurious manor. They were imprisoned for extortion and embezzlement. But this did not occur until 1618.

Principal Works

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Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum 1611

The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum [edited by Susanne Woods] 1993

Jonathan Goldberg (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Goldberg, Jonathan. “Canonizing Aemilia Lanyer.” In Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples, pp. 16-41. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Goldberg provides a favorable evaluation of Lanyer's contribution as a female poet and considers the importance of sexuality and gender roles in her life and work.]

In the opening paragraph of an essay offering an important rejoinder to the emphasis on “idealized sisterhood” in “current studies devoted to early modern women writers” (an intervention that guides the pages that follow), Ann Baynes Coiro notes a remarkable fact about one of these writers: in the most recent (sixth) edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1993), Aemilia Lanyer appears “as a major author,” ready for, if not granted, canonization by her inclusion.1 Coiro does not mention the fact that the headnote introducing Lanyer is, save for a single phrase, identical to the one that prefaced the piece of her writing that had appeared in the previous edition of the Norton Anthology (1986). There she had been included as a sixteenth-century prose writer, and one of the three prose pieces in her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) had served to represent her. Lanyer's elevation in the sixth edition involves dropping her preface “To the Virtuous Reader” and replacing it with a stretch of some 100 lines from the main poem plus the entirety of the final poem in the volume, “The Description of Cooke-ham.” To be a “major author,” Lanyer must be represented, it seems clear, as a poet (this, of course, does not misrepresent her volume, whose prose pieces are a minute portion of a text whose verse runs to 3,000 lines). Whether as major poet or as minor prose figure, the same headnote, it seems, can serve to introduce her.

In both editions of the Norton Anthology, the claim for Lanyer's inclusion is made in terms of the thesis that Coiro calls into question: she is described as a writer of work with “a decidedly feminist thrust” realized in her depictions of “a community of contemporary good women” and in a historical project that rereads the Bible to offer paradigms of “good women” to counter “weak and evil men” and that turns in the poem on Cookham to offer “an Edenic paradise of women, now lost.”2 Thus, an undifferentiated sisterhood among contemporaries and stretching across centuries is the mark of Lanyer's feminism and the sign of her value as a woman writer. In the fifth edition, Lanyer's prose selection presents her as a feminist contributor to the querelle des femmes, whereas in the sixth, it is her poetic defense of Eve that fills this slot.3 One may have some doubts whether a claim to major authorship can be made when literary value is tantamount to a paraphrasable content as available in prose as verse. More to the point, however, is to wonder what to make of a “feminist thrust,” in which, to quote Coiro, “sisterhood” ignores “highly varied configurations of women.” By grouping women (writers) together “simply as women,” Coiro argues, “a disservice to women writers and a distortion of their real power” results (p. 358). Even as the Norton Anthology offers Lanyer up to canonization, the terms for such an elevation can be seen, following Coiro, as wanting.4

Lanyer's contribution to the querelle des femmes is described as “spirited and forceful” in the Norton headnotes, and it is not difficult to see that a taxonomy of good forceful women versus weak bad men is taken to represent her feminism, where “spirited” is only a hairsbreadth away from “spiritual.” “Women” qua women is thus modified by the insistent adjective “good.” Yet, the attribution of force and “thrust” to women may make legible a certain displacement of a conventional attribute of masculinity in this definition of the femme fort. In this context, it is worth noting that when the headnote adduces other texts from the querelle to situate Lanyer's, all of them are male-authored.5 The listing of texts by Chaucer and Shakespeare puts Lanyer in canonical company. The Wife of Bath or the shrew Kate, it would seem, are strong women tout court, no matter the gender of the authors or the politics of their writing.

This move—in which “male” values are excoriated and appropriated for the woman writer—has its counterpart, in fact, in Lanyer's own defense of Eve, the text taken to represent her strong and gender separatist feminism. It is precisely the failure of Adam as strong man that extenuates weak Eve's fall:

But surely Adam cannot be excused;
Her [Eve's] fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What weakness offered, strength might have refused,
Being lord of all, the greater was his shame.

(Norton Anthology, “Eve's Apology,” ll. 33-36)

Lanyer's suspicious deployment of conventional male/strength, female/weakness equations suggests that the seemingly tautological “women … as women” formulations that seek to guarantee Lanyer's feminist value are not quite Lanyer's terms. It is certainly the case, as Janel Mueller has argued, that Lanyer calls male strength into question: how strong was Adam if he fell to the seduction of Eve, she asks? How culpable was Eve, made from Adam's rib, and thus “the ground of all” (l. 66)? How could her offer of knowledge to ignorant man or her display of love be blamed when compared to the part men played in the crucifixion? It was one thing when in her “weaknesse” (l. 72) Eve was lured by the serpent, another when men demonically sacrificed God.6 Much as Lanyer questions male/strength, female/weakness equations, she also preserves them even as she works her reversal: “Then let us have our liberty again, / And challenge to yourselves no sovereignty. / You came not in the world without our pain” (ll. 81-83). The reversal of priority here—in which women produce men—also overturns the fully ideological biblical narrative, in which the first man produces the first woman. These reversals of priority and of sovereignty seize upon woman's childbearing capacity and its attendant pain. The latter, however, is a consequence of the fall. So, too, there is no way of fathoming what prior state of liberty is imagined since it results from a redistribution and redeployment of the gendered terms of value (strength/weakness) based in the foundational biblical narrative. If weakness emerges to be valued over strength, it is along the lines of identification between the suffering, humiliated Christ and female powerlessness: it is this identification that makes for “good” women.

If the transvaluation of Eve involves a redeployment of sovereignty and priority, the question of the possibility of a separate sphere of female value, uncontaminated by masculinity, must inevitably arise. This problem can be recognized as the familiar dilemma attending any radical break with prior systems of conceptualization and social organization that cannot entirely frame itself without using the very terms it seeks to evade. (In this instance, Lanyer's reversal, however radically it rereads the Bible to wrest from it its patriarchal bias, nonetheless also preserves many of the crucial terms that link women to suffering and passivity.) This dilemma need not lead to the argument that such new possibilities inevitably reproduce old systems; rather, it may mean that the resources for the future are already available within them. My point here is not to suggest that Lanyer's text is incompatible with a feminist revaluation, but to begin to notice some complications in her presentation of gender that have not been recognized by the arguments around ideal sisterhood; as I have also indicated, there is some reason to wonder whether those arguments are as woman-centered as they appear to be.

Coiro provides further terms for this inquiry and moves us from the ethical register (“good women”) to the social: “women” in this period cannot be thought of as a category in itself; “it is virtually impossible to separate out gender as a category unrelated to class position” (p. 358), Coiro writes, thus insisting that Lanyer's address to patrons represents not one good woman speaking to others but a negotiation across highly differentiated positions of power. Community, if achieved, must be a socially mediated activity; as Coiro sees it, class resentment cannot be overcome. Hence, to return to Lanyer's defense of Eve, it could be argued that her elevation to sovereignty and the production of her goodness resonates with Lanyer's celebration of her aristocratic patrons. Eve's sovereignty and liberty make her a “great Lady”; such, indeed, is Lanyer's explicit claim in the first of the prefatory poems to Salve Deus, dedicated to Queen Anne, where the Eve of her revisionary text is offered especially to Anne as a “great Lady” (l. 79) whom the Queen may “delight to looke upon” (l. 82), as if Lady Eve were one of her court attendants reflecting back her majesty even as she serves as a kind of exemplary mirror for the Queen.7

Just as one must recognize the nexus of class and gender in defining “good” women, so, too, elements of power that are conventionally treated simply as an attribute of gender need to be rethought. Eve's “male” sovereignty could be instructively compared to the praise of Queen Anne, who descends through “the blood of Kings” (l. 18) and is herself “Most gratious Mother of succeeding Kings” (l. 2). Even in her most radical formulation of genealogy, in the dedicatory poem to Anne Clifford, in which Lanyer offers the argument that virtue rather than class defines true nobility, female perfection has a male lineage. Lanyer replaces blood there with the honor of male ancestors, and when she declares Anne Clifford “Gods Steward” (l. 57), she locates her in “that place to him assign'd” (l. 54): the good woman occupies the place of a man “fit for honour, or command” (l. 49). Lanyer's argument at this point is part of her complicated representation of Clifford's right to the inheritance she had been barred from thanks to her father's will. Denying on the one hand the basis for Clifford's claim in blood, she reasserts it in a genealogy of masculinized virtue. What Coiro refers to as a “levelling” argument here is perhaps better understood as the way in which such a formulation represents Lanyer's attempt to find a ground of address across the divide of social position. What this intimates about the community of virtuous women can be noted as well in the antagonism between women in the dedicatory poem to the Countess of Pembroke, in which the struggle between the goddesses Nature and Art is resolved to “perfit unity” (l. 90), a suspension of “subjection” (l. 92) resulting in “equall sov'raigntie” (l. 93). Equalization here, like the mirroring relationship between Eve and Queen Anne, is part of Lanyer's project to put herself on a footing with her patrons as a good woman. What this involves, however, is a wresting of “male” sovereignty for female equality; the imaginary projection of virtue that “levels” class difference does not guarantee female community. Rather, it is offered against the implacable divide of social status.

“Goodness” and the supposed community of good women is an ideological project that serves Lanyer and her patrons differentially. Insofar as it points to Lanyer's position as a writer, it needs to be decoupled from the standard plot that Coiro adduces, the “shared difficulty” of women writers of “speaking in a male-dominated discourse” (p. 358), a plot that lends itself to hagiographic gestures celebrating those able to overcome this difficulty, or those like Mary Wroth, excoriated when they did so. As Coiro briefly notes, however, print is a contested sphere in the period; indeed, the insistent effort to gender print as an exclusively male venue is precisely that, an effort that registers the co-implications of gender construction with the definition of a public space supposedly denied to women and, more generally, an attempt to secure writing as a masculine activity against feminizing implications. Coiro puts the point succinctly, that “we must now in these latter days acknowledge, women, as well as men, were authors” (p. 360) and therefore explore the systems of possibility rather than frame each instance of a woman writing as the unique triumph over constraint. In The Imprint of Gender, Wendy Wall has brilliantly documented the ways in which a gendered plot emerges with print culture, one that would seek to preclude women as authors or to make their appearance suspect. But, as she also demonstrates, difficulties are not impossibilities: women authors do write and publish, and this sometimes involves the negotiation of the terms of exclusion. These negotiations may also call into question the absolutism of gender division. Women who can write and do publish may not simply be assimilable to the supposedly self-identical category of gender; as Coiro pointedly asks, “To what extent would a woman be breaking company with other women by publishing?” (p. 360)

Oddly enough, when the Norton Anthology headnote identifies Lanyer as “the daughter and wife of gentlemen musicians attached to the courts of Elizabeth I and James I,” it might seem to point to this “break.”8 Coiro's main argument about Lanyer is to insist on her (lower-) class position and on the difficulties of her transportation to the milieu (that in which canonical male verse is produced in the period) in which the headnote effortlessly locates her by way of her father and husband. Although it is certainly true that both Lanyer's father and husband were court musicians, whether they were exactly “gentle” and what that might mean needs to be asked (one might note that Lanyer herself seizes upon something like the strategy of the headnote on the title page of Salve Deus, which names her as “wife to Captaine Alfonso Lanyer,” although even then it only further describes him as “Servant to the Kings Majestie,” not as a gentleman). Moreover, court musicians were males, and their offices were passed down from fathers to sons; locating Lanyer in this male genealogy does not point to a set of affordances to her as a writer. The headnote's legitimation of Lanyer by way of a husband and father with court connections, one must suspect, serves to cover over the omission of some biographical facts: that it is not certain that Lanyer's parents were legally married; that Lanyer's marriage to Alfonso Lanyer was arranged by her lover, Lord Hunsdon, when he discovered that she was pregnant with his child. The headnote seems to evade what Lorna Hutson refers to as Lanyer's “notorious past” and to deny what Hutson takes to be undeniable: “No-one denies that she was promiscuous.”9 Indeed, the headnote risks patriarchal complicity in order to guarantee Lanyer's status as good woman.

The reasons for this are not far to seek. Lanyer's notoriety has been common knowledge ever since A. L. Rowse invidiously linked the supposed fact that “she was illegitimate to begin with” to her “promiscuity” and to her “rampant feminism.”10 It is to Rowse, after all, that scholars are indebted for most of the information retrieved thus far about Lanyer. In the context of arguments everywhere belied by false syllogisms, Rowse claimed that Lanyer was Shakespeare's dark lady and that her volume of poems constituted her angry response to Shakespeare's representations of her—and especially of her promiscuity—in the 1609 volume of his sonnets. The “logic” of this is transparently false; that Lanyer was Lord Hunsdon's mistress and Hunsdon was Lord Chamberlain when Shakespeare's company was under his patronage, hardly proves that Lanyer had sex with Shakespeare.11 Rowse “found” Lanyer in his research into Simon Forman's manuscripts, discovered that she had visited him several times in the late 1590s, and that in the course of consultations had revealed her former liaison with Hunsdon and her forced marriage. (Forman's notes also reveal, pace Coiro, that Lanyer was hopeful that she might regain her social status lost when she married Lanyer, rather than that “she self-consciously identified herself with the laboring classes,” [p. 363] as Coiro claims.)12 In the recent edition of Lanyer's poems in the new Oxford series Women Writers in English, 1350-1850, a few slips in transcription have been noted, but its editor, Susanne Woods, basically follows Rowse, attempting, however, to read the diary entries to produce a “good” woman from them. One has to be sympathetic to this endeavor insofar as Rowse's imagination continually borders on the salacious and pornographic. It is nonetheless worthwhile pausing over Woods's arguments because they are symptomatic of the endeavor to produce Lanyer as a good woman, the seeming prerequisite for her canonization as a writer.

In seeking to exonerate Lanyer from Forman's charge, Woods makes the question of Lanyer's sexual behavior entirely a moral issue. She thus passes hastily over Lanyer's liaison with Hunsdon rather than developing the case that even Rowse makes intermittently, that Lanyer was the prey of powerful men; nor does she consider that sex work may also have been one of Lanyer's few options for advancement at court. (Coiro's argument that Lanyer experienced service to powerful women as demeaning is, of course, not entertained, since Woods subscribes to the thesis about female community.) Woods points out that the entry that Rowse takes as proof that Lanyer and Forman had sex does not explicitly make that claim. Forman was not usually reticent about recording his conquests and indicating when sexual intercourse occurred; it seems clear that Lanyer refused to have intercourse with him, and that when she persisted in her refusal he became angry and abusive. As Woods puts it: “Forman's frustration is evident as he reports that Lanyer was friendly to him, apparently enjoyed his company, let him kiss her, but would not ‘halek’ [Forman's code for intercourse] and ‘he never obteyned his purpose.’ His reaction suggests that he is not interested in friendship on her terms. His calling her a ‘hore’ who ‘delt evill with him’ must be taken in the context of his disappointment” (p. xxiii). Fair enough. Yet what were the terms of “friendship” that Lanyer offered, according to Forman?

Woods rather euphemizes the situation that Forman describes, in which he “staid all night. and she was familiar & friendlie to him in all thinges. But only she wold not halek. Yet he tolde all parts of her body wilingly. & kyssed her often” (Woods, pp. xxii-xxiii). If the diary is to be trusted, Lanyer gave Forman access to her body in every way short of intercourse; her “friendship” had only that limit. Although Rowse thinks that eventually Lanyer did have sex with Forman, Woods instead advises her reader that “one might better imagine that she came for a consultation” (p. xxiii). Lanyer undoubtedly did have Forman cast her horoscope, but this is clearly not an either/or situation. How one chooses to understand what they did in bed, however, must be more complicated than the question of how far they went. Sex short of intercourse is still sex; sexual behavior needs to be understood in its social circumstances, not simply as a moral question; even if Lanyer had intercourse with Forman, that would not prove that she was a bad, promiscuous woman.13

How far Woods goes to present Lanyer as a “good” woman is suggested by a rather bizarre gloss she offers to explain Forman's comment about Lanyer, that “it seams for Lucrese sake [Lanyer] wilbe a good fellowe for necessity doth compell.” Here is Woods's note: “Lucrese: lucre, money. Possibly also a cryptic reference to Lucrece, whose rape by a member of the ruling family caused the downfall of early imperial Rome” (p. xxin20). Forman nowhere mentions paying Lanyer; if she refused to have intercourse, perhaps it was because she expected to be paid. If this means that she was literally someone who sold her body, even Forman offers a way of understanding this outside of moral judgment: “necessity doth compell.” Woods turns lucre into Lucrece, metamorphosing the woman who (it is claimed) would sell her body into a rape victim whose suicide guarantees her status as a foundational figure of chastity. What is unencrypted in this supposed allusion is the assurance, thus, of Lanyer's exemplary moral status. Yet, as Stephanie Jed has taught us to appreciate, the complicity of rape with the exaltation of the chaste (and suicidal) Lucrece is a moment to be reread under feminist suspicion; what way is this to constitute the good, chaste woman?

Not the least disturbing fact about this strange emergence of Lucrece into Woods's text is its possible prompting by a moment in Lanyer's poem where Lucrece appears in the context of a list of women whose beauty led to their downfall and the destruction of civilizations:

Twas Beautie bred in Troy the ten years strife,
And carried Hellen from her lawfull Lord;
Twas Beautie made chast Lucrece loose her life,
For which prowd Tarquins fact was so abhorr'd:
Beautie the cause Antonius wrong'd his wife,
Which could not be decided but by sword:
          Great Cleopatraes Beautie and defects
          Did worke Octaviaes wrongs, and his neglects.

(Salve Deus, ll. 209-16)

Lorna Hutson handles this difficult moment in the poem by arguing that through it Lanyer shows that not even the exemplary chaste woman is safe from male depredation. Hutson claims that Lanyer needs to develop a tactic in writing in which female beauty is not just a counter in male rivalry. Such a reading grants to Lanyer something like Jed's feminist insight, although this form of revealing the fate of Lucrece in the male imaginary is tantamount to consigning her to the locus of “bad” women—temptresses and homewreckers like Helen or Cleopatra; the strategies employed in the defense of Eve are not mobilized here toward a revaluation of these women. Hutson argues that Lanyer deploys Lucrece in this fashion in order to “avoid the articulation of … virtue as the incriminating display of the female body” (p. 30), but the path of “avoidance” also involves criminalizing Lucrece. This strategy of removing good women from being counters in male negotiation (Hutson's critical project, which she claims as Lanyer's poetic project) produces a community of good women around a set of assumptions, all of which are questionable: that all (hetero)sexual relations involve female victimization (that there can be no female agency in such relations, even if prostitution is involved); that female-female relations must necessarily not be sexual (since sex involves depredation) and thus would not involve any power differentials. However, it is precisely in order to praise the true inner beauty of the Countess of Cumberland that Lanyer launches her “Invective against outward beauty” (l. 185, marginal gloss) that includes the denigration of Lucrece: a contest between women is necessary to produce the category of good women, a contest involving invidious distinctions, including those of race, and one that, in its very vehemence, may also be sexually charged.

Just as Coiro insists upon considering how class/status differences between women will not deliver a unitary gender category, I would want to question the notion of gender identification by putting pressure on the assumption that the community of good women necessarily raises no questions of sexual relations. When, at the end of Salve Deus, a review of “famous women [of] elder times” (l. 1465) is undertaken in order to prove that none is comparable to the Countess of Cumberland, as Lanyer reiterates, telling each of these stories of good women (see ll. 1474, 1513, 1541, 1690), Lanyer concludes this section by declaring that “each desireth with his like to be” (l. 1600). The likeness she adduces is between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, a likeness linking female goodness and male sovereignty. Even this is only a simile for the relationship of identification between the Countess of Cumberland and Jesus, a likeness that overcomes gendered difference. Likeness thus is not simply a matter of gender identification; moreover, likeness also expresses desire, precisely the desire of like for like. Through the sovereign male figure, female-female desire is intimated.

To rigorously pursue the conflicted question of classed, sexualized relationships in an anything but self-identical community of women in Salve Deus would involve a consideration of each of the patrons addressed by Lanyer since there is no reason to assume absolute uniformity in the volume. Such a project is well beyond the scope of this chapter. In the pages that follow, I use the dedicatory poem to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, as a focus to develop some of the terms for Lanyer's strategies of address; I choose this poem because the Countess of Bedford is a well-known patron and has received a fair amount of scholarly attention; as the Countess was the recipient of poems from Donne, Daniel, and Jonson, comparison between Lanyer's poem and those of her contemporary poets can be drawn. Although “To the Ladie Lucie, Countesse of Bedford” is only 28 lines long, and not much commented on, I am guided in my reading by Wendy Wall, who notes that the poem is “fraught with sexual overtones” (p. 327), something, as Wall points out, also true of other dedicatory addresses as well as in the long poem, especially when it offers the body of Christ up for the delectation of the Countess of Cumberland. This is not something much acknowledged by the critics whose volumes on Renaissance women writers best exemplify the kinds of strategies that Coiro identifies, Elaine Beilen and Barbara Lewalski.

Beilen's vision of sisterhood is tantamount to describing her good women as members of a monastic community, and the nine dedicatory poems are taken to unfold the gifts of the Holy Ghost, producing a composite “ideal Christian,” a context in which the Countess of Bedford emblematizes “knowledge and understanding” (pp. 188-89). Lewalski makes much the same point in her chapter on Lanyer, “Imagining Female Community.” Her summary of the poem to the Countess of Bedford paraphrases its message: it “identifies Knowledge, wielded by Virtue, as the key to her heart, and emphasizes (as does Jonson) her ‘cleare Judgment’” (p. 224). Although Lewalski is intent upon female community, her mention of Jonson cannot fail to signal the fact that Lanyer's poem may be paralleled by male writers seeking patronage; indeed, her summary of Lanyer's poem echoes the one she provides for a poem addressed to Lucy by Samuel Daniel. “Especially pleasing,” she opines of this poem, “was Daniel's recognition of her difficult situation as female courtier, and his judicious praise of her for qualities she apparently liked to be praised for—intelligence and learning” (p. 105).14 If Lewalski, in this instance, hesitates slightly in granting the Countess of Bedford these qualities, it would seem that she does so to register a certain suspicion about Daniel (saying things to please his patron) as well as to note a certain amount of self-promotion on the part of the Countess (the latter, however, is an aspect of her self-fashioning that Lewalski seeks to endorse). No such hesitations are registered in the straightforward account of Lanyer's poem, and this presumably explains the difference in address between good women.

There is nonetheless reason to wonder whether or in what way the repetition by Lanyer of tropes used by Daniel involves their reconstitution within a sphere of exalted and exclusive femininity. Indeed, the very tropes that Wall indicates lend Lanyer's poem its sexual overtones are to be found in Daniel's. He too describes Virtue as the “key” (l. 39) to Lucy's interiority and also praises the “cleernesse of [her] heart” (l. 94]). Further consideration of Daniel's poem reveals something Lewalski conveniently overlooks: that his praise of female learning as the “key … T'unlocke that prison of your sex” (ll. 40-41) does not quite mean, as Lewalski argues, that she “has largely escaped the female role” and thus has expanded her possibilities as a woman. Rather, Daniel takes femininity to be itself a condition that must be overcome; when Lucy is unlocked, she assumes a position rightly hers as an aristocrat, in which she “may over-see / This rowling world” (ll. 44-45). Class position transcends gender limitation.

What Daniel—and Lanyer, perhaps—are up to in praising Lucy's learning and virtue can be glossed by way of an essay by Margaret Maurer on Donne's poems in praise of the Countess of Bedford. Maurer has no patience with the critical stance that takes Donne's exalted views of “a less than ideal Lady” (p. 206) at face value, and she places Lucy's patronage of poets in a context in which Lucy's religion seems highly artificial, and in which her financial profligacy, intriguing, power-brokering, even her masquing, allow Maurer to view her as a typical member of an exceedingly corrupt court.15 Maurer's moralizing condemnation is as suspect as the prevailing pieticizing of the Countess of Bedford, but her main point is to describe the role of patronage poetry as part of a system in which she performed as a consummate courtier. Lewalski, in fact, adopts Maurer's point but mobilizes it to the conclusion that Lucy was “one Jacobean lady who laid claim to considerable political power and cultural status, and got away with it” (p. 123). Yet, Lucy's activities at court were not really exceptional; her power-brokering was well within the purview of well-placed aristocrats of either gender, whereas such things as marriage arrangements, which was one of her fortes, were normally in the hands of women.16 That she often acted in accord with Queen Anne's interests against those of James I can hardly count as “subversion” in a court so intensely and unstably factionalized; “interest” hardly boiled down to queen versus king, or woman versus man.17

Nor were Lucy's alliances only with women, or even always with the queen (at least one of her letters explicitly registers her irritation at having to wait on the queen, and many of them make clear that she attended the king assiduously).18 As Linda Levy Peck notes, “although the Countess of Bedford was both an important friend of Queen Anne and a member of her Household, equally important were her connections to three of the court's leading male officials [Buckingham, Hamilton, and Pembroke]; her patronage connections spanned council and household” (p. 72). I do not mean to suggest that Lucy's scope was equal to that of a male aristocrat; as Maurer points out, in detailing a moment when the Countess's marriage-brokering backfired, her gender could always be used against her as a way of pointing to the limits of her efficacy. Salisbury, against whose interests she had attempted to work, observes “that the ‘noble and discreet parts of her mind’ had temporarily been governed by faculties in which she ‘more resembled her sex,’” thereby communicating, Maurer continues, “his displeasure in terms that remind her of her place” (p. 221). To succeed as a courtier, this exchange implies, meant to leave no trace of involvement—or of gender—behind. Reduced to “her place,” Lucy is described as a woman. Properly herself, she is noble and discreet; or as Donne's poems so often suggest, she undergoes an alchemical process, a refinement and sublimation. In Daniel's poem, as we have seen, the trope for this involves locating the Countess as an unworldly overseer, making her social position tantamount to a transcendent one. As Maurer argues, consummate acts of courtiership successfully cover their material traces.

However much Lanyer's poem to Lucy participates in the kinds of idealizing and ideologizing of patronage that mask interest, gender does make a difference, but not in terms of the production of Lucy as “good” (learned, pious) woman. For that strategy is one Lanyer shares with Donne or Daniel. When Daniel, however, holds out the key of Virtue as that which separates Lucy from worldly sordidness, he deploys it in order to assert his gender. Emphasizing Lucy's class position is tantamount to granting her masculinity (as Jonson does explicitly in a poem praising her “manly soul”),19 and the aim of this is to find a meeting point for poet and patron; Lucy is granted a self-possession located “in the minde” (l. 49), a site shared with the knowing poet, and named as “our royalties” (l. 60). This unworlding may serve Lucy's interest (in obscuring or aestheticizing courtly maneuvering), but it does not suggest that she has power as a woman in the world. That Daniel in effect lectures her on the aptness of her non-feminine choice as a way of unconfining her also implicitly makes her his subject.

When we compare how Lanyer uses the trope of Virtue “readie … T'unlocke the closet of your lovely breast, / Holding the key of Knowledge in her hand” (ll. 1-3) it is to allow the entrance of “him … by whom her youth was blest” (l. 5), a Christ who is immediately described as “the true-love of your soule, your hearts delight” (l. 6). Whereas Daniel's gesture to unconfine the sex of the Countess works immediately to produce an imaginary equalization of poet and patron—imaginary because it obscures and attempts to reverse status difference by the production of a “shared” masculinity—Lanyer's figuration insistently sexualizes the scene of Virtue's entrance. Indeed, what is remarkable, when one compares Lanyer's poem to Daniel's, is that the way in which he rhetorically overcomes his dependence upon her makes her more of a good woman than Lanyer's does; that is, the playing off of gender/social rank relations explicitly excludes any “worldliness” and thus any sexuality. In Lanyer's poem, it is entirely possible to regard Virtue's penetration of Lucy's heart as a same-sex encounter, indeed, even to regard the “proper” substitution of male lover for female keyholder as configuring Christ as a kind of supplementary instrument for penetration (as a dildo, in short);20 at the very least, Virtue acts as a kind of pander in this triangular relationship, as she passes on to the Countess her former lover.

One could argue that Daniel's poem depends upon a familiar homosocial arrangement in which the Countess facilitates his relationship with a worldliness—with the patronage nexus—by acting as if he and his patron exist together on an exalted sphere of learning, detachment, and self-possession. It is a version of this homosocial scenario that, Hutson claims, Lanyer seeks to avoid, since it inevitably demeans women and makes them objects of exchange between men.21 It is certainly true that nothing of Lucy's gender survives her exaltation, but it is not clear to me that when Daniel wields the key of Virtue, he sexually assaults the Countess or specularizes her body. Lanyer's poem would seem to be offering a kind of inverted homosociality, in which Jesus serves as go-between. Hutson has noted this, too, as a major component in the latter part of Salve Deus, where the worship of the Countess of Cumberland is couched in the imagery of Canticles. She seems to assume that the reverse blazoning of the male body of Christ and the substitution of male beauty safely allows for what she insistently refers to as a compassionate mutuality of women transacted across this body, rather than the typical male rivalry; however, as we have already seen, Lanyer can scarcely mention the excellence of the Countess of Cumberland without making invidious comparisons. It remains to be seen how same-sex relations are configured in Lanyer's poem to the Countess of Bedford.

As a figure “all stucke with pale deaths arrows” (l. 12), Jesus is offered for the Countess's embrace, to be received as a “dying lover” (l. 16). The humiliated, penetrated, and penetrating Christ of the poem to the Countess of Bedford bears resemblance, if only positionally, to the Countess herself (penetrated) and her female alter ego, Virtue the key-holder. Jesus is described as a “blessed Arke … / Where your faire soule may sure and safely rest, / When he is sweetly seated in your breast” (ll. 19-21). The penetrator/penetrated situation is unstable and interchangeable here; moreover, not only is Jesus figured as a haven, but, as Woods's gloss reminds us, the ark also figures Lanyer's poem, which contains the passion as its central narrative. Indeed, Christ appears in the poem as one who “read” (l. 10) the story of earthly misery and took part in it by dying; so, too, it is his death wounds that the Countess is invited to “reade” (l. 13). Reader and read, again the boundary is crossed, and Lanyer's humble withdrawal before the Countess's penetrating gaze (“You whose cleare Judgement farre exceeds my skil, / Vouchsafe to entertaine this dying lover” [ll. 15-16]) also entails her leaving her book as that which may be lodged in the closet of her heart—or, at any rate, in her closet, accepted as a gift. But not one without returns, as the active/passive, male/female crossings must suggest. The poem ends with a ceremonial scene, in which Jesus—or the poem, or the poet—is now the guest in the bower of the Countess, bringing to her “Flowers of fresh comforts” that “decke that bed of rest” (l. 25). Lanyer's humble self-effacement is also her self-propelling as book and as Jesus. If there is here, as in Daniel, an idealizing and unworlding of the Countess as a figure of insistent privacy and piety, her bower of bliss is also repeatedly violated by a series of substitute figures: Virtue, Christ, the book, the writer. The pious scenario of a community of good women is thus coextensive with scenes of sexual intimacy and scenarios of sexual violence. These do not comfortably line up along the axis of gender difference.

Indeed, as Wall has emphasized, the Christ offered up by Lanyer is often feminized (in his suffering) and thus appears as a site of female-identification, which is to say, as Wall does not quite, of cross-gender identification.22 Such is also the case in the address to the Countess of Cumberland toward the end of Salve Deus, and whatever the form of sharing between women that is imagined, it cannot quite be safeguarded, as Hutson would have it be. There is passion in this compassion:

This is that Bridegroome that appeares so faire,
So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight,
That unto Snowe we may his face compare,
His cheekes like skarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milke, to give the more delight;
          His head is likened to the finest gold,
          His curled lockes so beauteous to behold;
Blacke as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like skarlet threeds, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew. …

(Salve Deus, ll. 1305-15)

In the lines presenting the blazoned body of Christ, it is not merely the case that the most familiar terms of feminine beauty have been transported to his pale skin and scarlet lips; as Woods points out in her note to these lines, some of the similes used to describe him are those attached to the body of the bride in Canticles. Moreover, the lines liken the blackness of his hair to the raven “in her blackest hew” (l. 1313). The dark lady in this poem is Lanyer's Jesus. These deployments of Jesus as lover implicate a femininity that is not gender-bound; they imply heterosexual relations and religious passion that coincide with female-female eroticism.

There are several grounds for thinking about the aptness of these erotics for Lanyer's address to her would-be patrons. The piety of the Countess of Cumberland is not in doubt; yet, it also seems clear that her religious retreat, while she was married, had much to do with the abuses of a husband whose interests she continued to promote,23 and, after his death, went hand-in-hand with the entirely worldly instigation of court proceedings to contest his will, and with the archival recovery of documents to substantiate Anne Clifford's hold on the patrimony.24 In Lanyer's poem, sometimes rather bathetically, the pursuit of these claims against “evil men” is likened to Christ's treatment by his tormentors. If Christ's body performs the function of “subliming” property claims, it also serves to vehiculate Lanyer's desire. In this context, it seems worth recalling that it is not only the feminized body of Christ offered up to the Countess of Cumberland, but a morcellated body subject to the kind of violence that blazoning of the female body often involves. The account of the passion comes to this climax:

His joynts dis-joynted, and his legges hang downe,
His alablaster breast, his bloody side,
His members torne, and on his head a Crowne
Of sharpest Thorns, to satisfie for pride:
Anguish and Paine doe all his Sences drowne,
While they his holy garments do divide:
          His bowells drie, his heart full fraught with griefe,
          Crying to him that yeelds him no reliefe.

(Salve Deus, ll. 1161-68)

This is followed immediately with an address to the Countess of Cumberland:

This with the eie of Faith thou maist behold,
Deere Spouse of Christ, and more than I can write;
And here both Griefe and Joy thou maist unfold,
To view thy Love in this most heavy plight.

(Salve Deus, ll. 1169-72)

In this context it must be recalled that at the very end of the poem, the figures with whom the Countess is invited to identify are a group of male saints, ravished by the sweetness of Christ (forms of the word “sweet” are used repeatedly in ll. 1729 ff), the last of whom is the beheaded John the Baptist. Indeed, the poem ends on a highly ambiguous note:

His Head did pay the dearest rate of sin,
Yeelding it joyfully unto the Sword,
To be cut off as he had never bin,
For speaking truth according to Gods word,
Telling king Herod of incestuous sin,
The hatefull crime of God and man abhorr'd:
          His brothers wife, that prowd licentious Dame,
          Cut off his Head to take away his shame.

(Salve Deus, ll. 1817-24)

Whose shame? Is the sacrifice of John the Baptist—a beheading here clearly tantamount to a castration—meant to ensure the purity of his passion? And is the final alignment of the Countess with a group of males enamored of the sweetness of Christ meant somehow also to guarantee that her activities in pursuit of her daughter's inheritance be reread as spiritual, homosocial; not the work of a “prowd licentious Dame,” but that of a male-identified woman—or, rather, of a woman identified with female-identified (suffering, beheaded) men?

In suggesting relationships between worldliness and spiritual retreat, between female goodness and male self-sacrifice, between passions of one kind and another (questions that also could be raised around the morbidity of the dying lover in the poem to the Countess of Bedford),25 I do not seek to repeat the charges of sycophancy and of false religiosity that have been leveled at Lanyer (the same kinds of claims that a generation or two ago were regularly made about Donne's poems). As Lewalski aptly says, “Lanyer was a woman of her age, and her imagination was governed by its terms. At the time of this writing, she appears to have been sincerely, if not very profoundly, religious” (p. 219). What this suggests is that religion vehiculates many things, not all simply to be understood as religion: power relations, gender relations, patronage, and sex among them. In Lanyer's poem, it is not that sex is its deepest meaning, but that sexualized religious passion provides the mediating language to overcome social disparity and to put Lanyer on some kind of footing with her patrons. The textual/sexual body as go-between, as Wendy Wall has argued, is not unexpected in the period, and Lanyer, as she argues, goes about as far with the trope as any author does; but here, Lanyer seizes upon male prerogative both to vehiculate her desire (for patronage, etc.) and to imagine her place in the company of aristocratic women. To this extent, and in this highly mediated fashion, one could call this “community.”

Lanyer may share with Donne or Daniel the ability to appreciate, as Maurer puts it, “the strategy of a disguise that makes its wearer's intentions plainer than common decency would allow” (p. 225). Maurer's generalization would seem to attach itself particularly to the Countess of Bedford's masquing appearances, appearing, according to Dudley Carleton, “too light and Curtizan-like” in the Masque of Blackness, for instance, or as Penthesiliea, Queen of the Amazons in The Masque of Queens, a guise Maurer describes as one in which “she abandons her identity as a discreet lady in the world's eye to claim a condition beyond discretion by virtue of her role … occupying the ground between some literally ‘true’ image of herself (in which case her costume would be indecorous) and some ideally ‘true’ status (in which case, it would transcend the requirement of civility)” (p. 216). Lanyer's poem, as I have been suggesting, comes close to the indecorous side of these revelations, masking female-female relations through the sublimity of Christian passion and the appropriate male figure of devotion. Yet, Maurer's remarks do insistently draw us to ask what it can have meant for Queen Anne's favorite—the Countess of Bedford—to have appeared as an Amazon, or why it is that the costumes for the queen's masques so often featured bare-breasted women. These are questions pertinent to Lanyer's address to her and the other patrons she seeks for her poem.

The possibility that female service of a patron could involve sexual services can be discerned as a subtext even in Lewalski's chapter on the Countess of Bedford. It begins by answering some sexually accusatory lines by Sir John Harington; “they pertain to the likes of Frances Howard, Cecilia Bulstrode, Penelope Rich and the Countess of Suffolk” (p. 96), Lewalski contends, not to the virtuous Lucy. Yet, Bulstrode was an intimate of Lucy's, and within a few pages, Lewalski is rescuing Lucy's “kinswoman and friend and the Queen's lady-in waiting” (p. 109) from Jonson's attack on her as the Court Pucelle (Ep. 49), the embodiment of “tribade lust” and “epicoene fury” (ll. 7-8; Epicoene, with its attack on learned ladies as a community of predatory Amazons, is in the wings). By the end of her chapter, when Lewalski unveils the one surviving poem by the Countess of Bedford, it turns out to be an elegy on Cecilia Bulstrode. Thus the chapter closes by joining Cecilia Bulstrode and Lucy in a proper spiritual relationship; all traces of impropriety have been sublimed. But it began by taking Jonson's position about Cecelia Bulstrode; if, finally, the Court Pucelle is metamorphosed into a virgin, the precedent can still be found in Jonson. In the elegy he wrote on Bulstrode's death, he ends by claiming (perhaps disingenuously) that she “might make the Fable of Good Women true” (Miscellaneous Poems 24).

One need not credit the misogynist motives for Jonson's attack on Bulstrode—an instance of his use of his gender as a weapon against aristocratic female patrons—in suggesting that there may be some truth in his tribade suggestions. Lanyer's poem to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her addresses to the Countess of Cumberland—the insistent sexualization detailed in Wall's account of the poem—suggest as much. When, for instance, the poem to Lady Arbella Stuart discovers her in bed and asks her to “spare one looke” (l. 11) at the “humbled King” who offers his “dying armes” to her (ll. 12-13), one has to note that Stuart is initially described as the sun, so that the final embrace of Sun and Son could be viewed as male-male. But the “humbled King” is not merely the crucified Christ but also Lanyer's text, and indeed a site of authorial projection—she, like him, is one “who all forsooke,” as she repeatedly reminds her would-be patrons. Indeed, Stuart is described as being in the all-female company of Pallas and the Muses as she emerges from her bed, and it is that company that Lanyer seeks to join by way of the book that she offers. Again, it is virtually impossible to separate hetero- and homoerotics in this bedroom scene; and, again, it seems clear that it is by way of these erotic crossings that Lanyer attempts to negotiate across the divide of class. That the potential scandal of same-sex sex might be appropriate for this patron is suggested by a 1605 letter of Anne Clifford's to her mother apologizing for being unable to fulfill “your Ladyship's desire,” which was to have gone to Arbella Stuart “and to have slept in her chamber, which she much desired.”26 Although in this case, Clifford failed to do what her mother wanted, in her diary she records how after a quarrel with her mother when she was sent to sleep alone, her cousin Frances Bourchier “got the Key of my Chamber & lay with me which was the first time I loved her so well.”27 The point here is simply this: that just as male friendships in the period often cross over into a terrain that involves sexual relations, such, too, must have been the case among women, and especially among powerful aristocrats and those who served them, or whom they served.

This may be seen in the final poem on Cookham, that female paradise now accorded canonical status as the only complete poem by Lanyer in the most recent Norton Anthology, especially if we attend to a moment in it to which Coiro draws our attention. As the Countess of Cumberland is about to leave the estate, she and Lanyer proceed to the great tree that has shaded her, beneath which they, along with Anne Clifford “then a virgin faire” (l. 160), had read, and with whom Lanyer had sported:

To this faire tree, taking me by the hand,
You did repeat the pleasures which had past,
Seeming to grieve they could no longer last,
And with a chaste, yet loving kisse tooke leave

(“Cooke-ham,” ll. 162-65)

“We are moved by the act of sisterhood,” Coiro comments. “By the next line, however, “To Cooke-ham”'s whole over-wrought, high art structure of ingratiating simile falls into a ludicrous joke: we realize that Lady Clifford has kissed the tree” (p. 373).

Of which sweet kisse I did it soon bereave;
Scorning a sencelesse creature should possesse
So rare a favour.

(“Cooke-ham,” ll. 166-68)

For Coiro this intercepted kiss is not merely risible; it stages, once again, the distance between the aristocratic women and their dependent creature; the stolen kiss functions to break the world of similitude and of female community, an act of intrusion on the part of the upstart writer unhappy in her position and in being treated less well than even a “sencelesse creature.”

There is, however, something to be added to this analysis, prompted in fact by Lewalski's observation that the tree “is almost the only element of nature gendered male” (p. 238). The vegetable love of this poem, like the insistence on her “alwaies beare[ing] a part” in the “beauteous Dorsets former sports, / So farre from beeing toucht by ill reports” (ll. 119-20), depends upon the exclusion of males from this female paradise and then on their reintroduction in the guise of similes of servitude and protection. This displacement of gender, so that the tree acts, as Lewalski comments, “as a kind of ideal lover, more dependable than her [the Countess's] own husband” (p. 238), functions in the same mediating way that the figure of Jesus does in Salve Deus—that is, ostensibly as a guarantee of the sanctity of female-female relations—or here, of their asexuality. The tree, it hardly needs to be said, is, however tamed and at their service, nonetheless a clear substitute for the phallus, and in several ways. It is a “stately Tree” (l. 53), a tree of state—it emblematizes sovereignty, and beneath it the Countess has a view that would “please the eyes of Kings” (l. 72). Although it is nominally an oak (Jupiter's tree), it appears “like a comely Cedar” (l. 57) and “like a Palme” (l. 61). This tree may be something like a family tree, but it is generative of other kinds of trees. It is the root of similitude, straight like a cedar, receptive as a spreading palm. From this male principle, that is, a genealogy of virtue arises, a principle that would equalize the aristocratic woman and her poet, who makes the similes. The Countess enters the tree, and it becomes a bower and her seat of state. In short: the tree is both male and female, natural and unnatural, a site of female phallic power due to aristocratic women and seized by their would-be poet.

The comedy and anger that Coiro reads in the scene of the farewell kiss as a sign of the class relationship is also legible in a sexual context. Kissing the rod, these women disavow a passion that the poet also declares when she “deceives” the tree, stealing a kiss she has no intention of returning, taking revenge on the tree by reducing it to an object even below her position. The tree, at the end, is just a tree, not the beautifully dissimulated image of female-female relationship. The “ingratefull Creature” (l. 171), as she terms herself, breaks the pretense of idyllic union, displaying not merely resentment, but also the desire for a kiss she has been denied. Not that a kiss is just a kiss, although Lanyer protests in the poem how much greater her love is than that of the Countess of Cumberland or her daughter; the lost kiss signals lost patronage and the loss of physical intimacy that went along with it. “And yet it grieves me,” Lanyer laments, “that I cannot be / Neere unto her” (ll. 99-100). This lack of nearness, fully legible as the inevitable divide of class/status, also must be read as the loss of physical intimacies that served to cross the divide.


  1. Coiro, pp. 357-58. For a more recent intervention along similar, if less fully argued, lines, see Schnell, which also argues for social disparity and resentment as inevitably fracturing an idealized sisterhood of oppressed women.

    The process of canonization for Lanyer began with her inclusion in a number of anthologies of women's writing, among them: Gilbert and Gubar; Greer et al.; Mahl and Koon; Travitsky, Paradise of Women. Schleiner presents an excerpted version of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in an appendix.

  2. Citations from Abrams, 1: 1045-46 (1986 ed.); 1: 1059 (1993 ed.).

  3. It is the mention of this defense of Eve that constitutes the only substantive textual change in the headnote from the fifth (1986) to the sixth (1993) editions.

  4. Coiro's argument is paralleled by Krontiris when she suggests that the limits to Lanyer's feminism may have been due to the fact that it was not “an efficacious strategy in soliciting female patronage” (p. 119); Krontiris thus sees that the intermittent feminism voiced in the poem is a classed and not simply a gendered articulation.

  5. It would be impossible for a reader who knew nothing about the querelle to be aware that defenses of women, many of them authored by women, constitute a more plausible context for Lanyer.

  6. See Mueller, esp. pp. 229-30, where she concludes that the speaker of the argument in defense of Eve, whom she takes to be Pilate's wife, embodies “femininity triumphant in masculine terms.” However, on p. 233, she compares Lanyer to some feminist precursors, claiming that unlike them she does not presuppose Eve's inferiority.

  7. Citations from Woods.

  8. The fullest information about Lanyer's family history and service as court musicians is offered in headnote in Mahl and Koon.

  9. Hutson, pp. 16, 14 cited.

  10. See Rowse, Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady, pp. 11, 20, for the phrases cited. Rowse first presented his arguments about Lanyer in Sex and Society, pp. 96-117.

  11. Nor does the fact that she was Italian on her father's side mean that she necessarily was “dark”—if “dark” even means brunette. Crewe has suggested the racial implications of “dark” as a euphemizing of “black” in Trials of Authorship, p. 183n4, an argument elaborated in forthcoming work. The fullest discussion of the racialization implicit in the sonnet tradition is to be found in Hall, ch. 2; she also glances at the figure of Cleopatra as used by women writers (including Lanyer and Cary) as an important site of difference among women, which could be further mobilized to disrupt the homogeneous notion of a community of women taken to be exemplified in these texts. Although I do not address racialized difference in the discussion here, I turn to these questions in “Aphra Behn's Female Pen” and in “Graphina's Mark.”

  12. Cf. Schnell, who concludes, “she revered the upper classes and fantasized herself a member of them” (p. 34).

  13. The feminist literature revaluing sex work is extensive; a necessary starting point is represented by Rubin, “Thinking Sex”; see also her interview with Butler, “Sexual Traffic,” for contextualizations of that essay.

  14. Daniel's poem cited from vol. 1 of Grosart.

  15. Maurer takes to task the kind of biography of Lucy preserved in the DNB and supported by Wiffen, 2: 74-123; she instead echoes eighteenth-century condemnations of her character, as does Grimble, pp. 165-76. For a brief account that emphasizes the courtiership of Lucy and its basis in stunning indebtedness, see Byard.

  16. On women as marriage brokers, see Erikson, p. 93, and Ezell, Patriarch's Wife; for an earlier period, see Harris, who has argued for and extensively documented the power at court of women. What is not to be endorsed in the arguments of Ezell and Harris, however, is the dissolving thereby of any effective notion of patriarchy; equally suspect is to assume that all female activity is necessarily subversive.

  17. On this subject, see Peck; the role of women (including the Countess of Bedford) is briefly discussed on pp. 68-74.

  18. In her letters to Lady Jane Cornwallis (in The Private Correspondence of Lady Jane Cornwallis), she complains that the Queen's illness (her final one, as it turned out) “makes me oftener a courtier than I intended” (p. 56), and, earlier, that she “cannot be sorry for her [the Queen's] frowns, which are now litle to me, all my court businesses being so dispatched as they will not requier my attendance ther” (pp. 44-45); she frequently excuses herself for failing to be able to visit Cornwallis by explaining that her movements and projects depend entirely upon the king (see, e.g., pp. 24, 47, 50, 52, 56, 58).

  19. Epigram 76; cited from Parfitt.

  20. Wall's citation (Imprint of Gender, p. 327) of Steinberg in this context is apt; Christ's tumescence is a sign of his humanity, Steinberg argues; as Rambuss argues, such depictions of Christ must have sexual meaning.

  21. For a similar argument, see McGrath, “Metaphoric Subversions,” p. 103. McGrath (p. 104), in an unspecified way, does note the possibility of “erotically nurturing relationships with Christ and each other” (i.e., among women).

  22. The feminization of Christ is also noted by McGrath, “‘Let Us Have Our Libertie Againe,’” pp. 342-44.

  23. On her marriage, see Williamson, George, Third Earl of Cumberland, ch. 21, which includes a pathetic autobiographical letter in which the Countess describes her life up to 1589 as a “Pilgrimage of Grief” (p. 285). The letter adds to the sorrows of her marriage her failure to produce a living male heir.

  24. For this stage of her life, see Williamson, Lady Anne Clifford. From this biography, it would be difficult to ascertain any information about Margaret Clifford's piety, which goes virtually unmentioned, although it is a quality frequently adduced by her daughter; Anne Clifford refers habitually to her as her “Blessed Mother.” Although there are moments in Salve Deus in which the maternal bond is celebrated, it is certainly not the whole story. There is evidence to suggest that Anne was initially driven not entirely willingly by her mother. Thus, in her final letter to her mother, Anne refers to her husband as “the best, and most worthy man that ever breathed” and indicates that were it not for her mother's insistence, she might well have succumbed to Dorset's desire for her to accept a settlement rather than pursue her claims to inherit; the letter notes how “bitter against him” the Countess is and concludes: “Be assured that I will stand as constantly to my birthright as is possible for me, but I can do no more than I can, and therefore I can promise you no certainty of these matters” (Williamson, Lady Anne Clifford, p. 154).

  25. See The Private Correspondence of Lady Jane Cornwallis, for her comparison between the death of her mother and the Lord Chamberlain's loss of his son (p. 65), or, for another instance in which piety and courtly self-interest coincided, her comments on the death of the Marquis of Hamilton (pp. 118-19), and the discussion of these episodes in Lewalski, pp. 118-19.

  26. Williamson, Lady Anne Clifford, p. 76.

  27. See Clifford, p. 25. This is not the first time they slept together—an earlier incident is reported on p. 23—but it is apparently the first time they had sex.

Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara K. “Seizing Discourses and Reinventing Genres.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 49-59. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

[In the following essay, Lewalski views Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as an appropriation and rewriting of patriarchal ideology and discourse.]

Aemilia Lanyer—gentlewoman-in-decline, daughter and wife of court musicians, cast-off mistress of Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, Henry Hunsdon (to whom she bore an illegitimate child)—is the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of original poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). These poems are now beginning to accumulate the kind of scholarship and criticism that will enable us to assess and properly value their cultural significance and their often considerable aesthetic merit.1 My interest here is in Lanyer's appropriation and rewriting, in strikingly oppositional terms, of some dominant cultural discourses and a considerable part of the available generic repertoire, as she introduces a forceful female authorial voice into the Jacobean cultural scene.

Lanyer's volume challenges patriarchal ideology and the discourses supporting it, opposing the construct of women as chaste, silent, obedient, and subordinate, and displacing the hierarchical authority of fathers and husbands. Her book as a whole is conceived as a Book of Good Women, imagining a female community sharply distinguished from male society and its evils, that reaches from Eve to contemporary Jacobean patronesses. The volume incorporates a wide variety of genres—dedicatory poems of several kinds, a prose polemic in defense of women, a meditative poem on Christ's Passion which contains an apologia, laments, and several encomia (the Salve Deus), and a country-house poem (“A Description of Cooke-ham”). Her dedicatory poems emphasize the legacy of virtue from mothers to daughters—Queen Anne and Princess Elizabeth, Margaret and Anne Clifford, Catherine and Susan Bertie, Katherine Howard and her daughters—a legacy that redounds upon their female poet-client and celebrant, Lanyer. The qualities Lanyer associates with her gallery of good women—heroic virtue, extraordinary learning, devotion to the Muses, and high poetic achievement—implicitly challenge patriarchal constructs of women and help to justify her own poetic undertaking. The challenge to patriarchy is quite explicit in the dedication “To the Ladie Anne [Clifford], Countesse of Dorcet,”2 as Lanyer protests in strikingly egalitarian terms the class distinctions and privileges produced by male structures of inheritance:

All sprang but from one woman and one man,
Then how doth Gentry come to rise and fall?
Or who is he that very rightly can
Distinguish of his birth, or tell at all,
          In what meane state his Ancestors have bin,
          Before some one of worth did honour win?

[ll. 35-40]

The title poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, disrupts our generic expectations for a meditation on, or a narrative of, Christ's Passion, by its sharp focus on the contrast between the good women associated with that event—Pilate's Wife, Mary, Mary Magdalene, the women of Jerusalem, even Eve—and the evil men: the cowardly apostles, the traitor Judas, the wicked Hebrew and Roman judges, the tormenting soldiers, the jeering crowds. The country-house poem, “Cooke-ham,” celebrates an estate without a lord—or indeed any male inhabitants—but with a virtuous mother and daughter as its defining and ordering principle.

Lanyer's multiple dedications to Queen Anne and nine noblewomen rewrite cultural and literary discourses pertaining to courtiership and patronage. They make an overt bid for patronage much as a male poet-client might: Spenser, for example, dedicated The Faerie Queene principally to Queen Elizabeth but secondarily, in seventeen appended sonnets, to powerful (chiefly male) courtiers and patrons. By contrast, Lanyer reaches out only to women, showcasing as principal dedicatee, not Queen Anne but Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, whom she credits with nurturing her talent and commissioning her country-house poem. This is apparently the first English instance of female patron and female literary client.3 Unlike Spenser also, Lanyer both honors her dedicatees as individuals and displays her own poetic talent by devising dedications in different genres: odes in a variety of stanzaic forms for the queen, the Countess of Kent, and the Countess of Suffolk; sonnet-like poems for Princess Elizabeth and Arabella Stuart; a long dream-vision narrative of 224 lines for Mary Sidney (Herbert), Countess of Pembroke; a prose epistle for Margaret Clifford; a verse epistle for Anne Clifford in which Lanyer calls upon the conventions of that genre to sanction her presumption in offering to teach Anne proper moral attitudes and conduct. These dedications construct a female community of patrons to support a female poet who celebrates them and all womankind.

The concluding prose epistle, “To the Vertuous Reader,” reaches beyond the named dedicatees to a general female audience (and to well-disposed male readers as well). This is a polemic, a brief but hard-hitting contribution to the querelle des femmes, that centuries-old controversy over women's inherent worthiness or faultiness, chiefly managed by men as a witty game.4 Lanyer's biblical examples were conventional, cited in numerous defenses of women to argue women's natural abilities, their moral goodness (equal or superior to men), and the honors accorded them by God and Christ. Lanyer supplies to the genre heightened passion and rhetorical power:

It pleased our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, without the assistance of man, … to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed women, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, even when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also in the last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious Resurrection to the rest of his Disciples.

[pp. 49-50]

Most notably, she argued the God-given call of many “wise and virtuous women” (not merely queens) to exercise military and political power “to bring downe their [men's] pride and arrogancie.” Her examples are Deborah, Jael, Judith, and Hester “with infinite others, which for brevitie sake I will omit” (p. 49). The discourse she here seizes upon, biblical exegesis, is employed even more boldly in her Passion poem.

The title of Lanyer's volume refers only to that Passion poem, and the title page promises, somewhat misleadingly, a collection of religious poetry: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Containing, 1. The Passion of Christ. 2. Eves Apologie in defence of Women. 3. The Teares of the Daughters of Jerusalem. 4. The Salutation and Sorrow of the Virgine Marie. With divers other things not unfit to be read. In fact the title poem is a long meditation on the Passion and death of Christ (1,840 lines) in which the other items listed (and more) are incorporated as embedded kinds. The genres of religious and devotional literature were long identified as safe and perhaps even laudable for women writers, but Lanyer reconceived her Passion poem in decidedly unsafe terms that challenge fundamental assumptions of patriarchy. Identifying women with the suffering Christ, she argues their moral and spiritual superiority to men by contrasting the many kinds of female goodness displayed by the women in the Passion narrative with the multiple forms of masculine evil. More daring still, she presents Christ and Christ's passion as subject to female gaze and interpretation—by herself as woman poet, and by the Countess of Cumberland, her patron. The countess is eulogized in framing passages of 776 lines (more than a third of the whole) as chief meditator upon, as well as exemplary image and imitator of, her suffering Savior.

This poem incorporates several kinds. One is the religious lament or complaint—the tears of the Magdalen, of Christ himself, of penitent sinners—usually focussed on Christ's Passion. This was usually, though not exclusively, a Counter-Reformation genre: the best-known English example was probably Robert Southwell's St. Peters Complaynt, in which Peter laments Christ's Passion and his own cowardly denial of Christ.5 Lanyer's stanzas on the tears of the daughters of Jerusalem and on the grief of the Virgin are complaints—but voiced by Lanyer as she apostrophizes those personages rather than by the characters themselves. The segment called “Eves Apologie” is a rhetorical apologia or defense. It may even be a direct response to the frequent outbursts of misogyny in Southwell's poem, as when Peter berates the woman who questions him, laying his and all men's sins, at woman's door:

O Women, woe to men: traps for their falls,
Still actors in all tragicall mischances:
Earths Necessarie evils, captivating thralls,
Now murdring with your toungs, now with your glances.(6)

Another important constituent genre is the Passion meditation, often featuring, as in Lanyer's poem, erotic elements from the Song of Songs. This was also a popular Counter-Reformation kind, but the third part of Giles Fletcher's baroque Christs Victorie and Triumph (1610)7 provides a suggestive Protestant analogue. Also, Lanyer's very long framing passages eulogizing Margaret Clifford find suggestive analogues in the frames of several meditative poems addressed by poet-clients to Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, associating her with Christ and his Passion: for example, Nicholas Breton's The Countesse of Pembrookes Love, and Abraham Fraunce's The Countesse of Pembrokes Emanuell.8

Lanyer adopts a variety of stances toward her material: sometimes narrating and elaborating upon events, sometimes interpreting them as a biblical exegete, sometimes meditating upon images or scenes, often apostrophizing participants as if she herself were present with them at these events. She also calls upon a variety of stylistic devices. Stanzas 10-18 comprise an embedded psalmic passage, a melange of psalm texts—chiefly from Psalms 18, 84, 89, 97, and 104—that praise God as the strong support of the just and the mighty destroyer of all their enemies.9

With Majestie and Honour is He clad,
And deck'd with light, as with a garment faire;
He rides upon the wings of all the windes,
And spreads the heav'ns with his all powrefull hand;
Oh! who can loose when the Almightie bindes?
Or in his angry presence dares to stand?
He of the watry Cloudes his Chariot frames,
And makes his blessed Angels powrefull Spirits.

[ll. 73-90]

This has application to the much-wronged Countess of Cumberland and may be a gesture of discipleship to the Countess of Pembroke and her psalms.10 Lanyer uses rhetorical schemes—especially figures of sound, parallelism, and repetition—with considerable skill; her apostrophes often convey strong feeling; she describes and sometimes dramatizes scenes effectively; and the inset rhetorical speeches such as “Eves Apologie” are conducted with force and flair. Also, her baroque descriptions yield nothing to Giles Fletcher:

His joynts dis-joynted, and his legges hang downe,
His alablaster breast, his bloody side,
His members torne, and on his head a Crowne
Of sharpest Thorns, to satisfie for pride:
Anguish and Paine doe all his Sences drowne,
While they his holy garments do divide:
          His bowells drie, his heart full fraught with griefe,
          Crying to him that yeelds him no reliefe.

[ll. 1161-68]

Lanyer manages her surprising fusion of religious meditation and feminism by appropriating the dominant discourse of the age, biblical exegesis. She thereby claims for women the common Protestant privilege of individual interpretation of Scripture, and lays some groundwork for the female preachers and prophets of the Civil War period. Her most daring exegetical move is to rewrite the Adam and Eve story within a narrative of Pilate's wife appealing to her husband for Christ's release. The apologia for Eve pronounces her virtually guiltless by comparison with Adam and Pilate, ascribes to Eve only loving intentions in offering the apple to Adam, and identifies woman as, through that gift, the source of men's knowledge:

Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
          The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
          Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.
If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit being faire perswaded him [Adam] to fall:
          No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
          If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?
Not Eve, whose fault was onely too much love,
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
          Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
          From Eve's faire hand, as from a learned Booke.
If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him [Adam], he was the ground of all;
          Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay;
          But you [Pilate] in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.
Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit.

[ll. 763-818]

This exegesis underscores the susceptibility of biblical texts to interpretations driven by various interests: the Genesis text had long been pressed to patriarchal interests, so by a neat reversal Lanyer makes it serve feminist ones. Taking Eve and Pilate's wife as representatives of womankind, while Adam and Pilate represent men—who are far more guilty than Eve because responsible for Christ's death—Lanyer concludes with a forthright demand for gender equality:

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
          If one weake woman simply did offend,
          This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

[ll. 825-32]

“The Description of Cooke-ham” (210 lines of pentameter couplets) may have been written and was certainly published before Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst.”11 We cannot be sure just when or how long Lanyer was at Cookham with Margaret and Anne Clifford, or just what kind of patronage stands behind her claim that this sojourn led to her religious conversion and confirmed her in her poetic vocation:12

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtain'd
Grace from that Grace where perfit Grace remain'd;
And where the Muses gave their full consent,
I should have powre the virtuous to content:
Where princely Palace will'd me to indite,
The sacred Storie of the Soules delight.

[ll. 1-6]

At the least she seems to have received some encouragement in learning, piety, and poetry in the bookish and cultivated household of the Countess of Cumberland.

Whichever came first, “Penshurst” and “Cooke-ham” draw upon some of the same generic resources and offer, as it were, a male and a female conception of an idealized social order epitomized in the life of a specific country house. Jonson's poem, an ode, established the genre of the English country-house poem as a celebration of patriarchy: it praises the Sidney estate as a quasi-Edenic place whose beauty and harmony are centered in and preserved by its lord, who “dwells” permanently within it. However false to social reality, the poem constructs a social ideal: a benevolent and virtuous patriarchal governor; a house characterized by simplicity and usefulness; a large extended family with lord, lady, children, servants, and retainers all fulfilling their specific, useful functions; the harmony of man and nature; a working agricultural community of interdependent classes linked together in generosity and love; ready hospitality to guests of all stations, from poets to kings; a fruitful and chaste wife and mother embodying and transmitting the estate's ideal fusion of nature and culture; and stability ensured by the religion and virtue passed on from the lord and lady to their progeny.13 Penshurst is imagined as a locus amoenus harmonizing pastoral and providential abundance with georgic cultivation.

Lanyer's country-house poem conceives the genre in very different terms, displacing patriarchy. It is not celebratory but elegiac, a valediction lamenting the loss of an Edenic pastoral place inhabited solely by women: Margaret Clifford, who was the center and sustainer of its beauties and delights, her young unmarried daughter Anne, and Aemilia Lanyer. Lanyer's poem, like Jonson's, draws upon the “beatus ille” tradition originating in Horace and Martial, praising a happy rural retirement from city business or courtly corruption, but Lanyer replaces the male speaker and the virtuous happy man with women. Another strand is classical and Renaissance pastoral and golden-age poetry. Yet Lanyer owes most to poems like Virgil's First Eclogue, based on the classical topos, the valediction to a place. Rewriting that model, Lanyer makes the pastoral departure a matter not of state but of domestic politics—the patriarchal arrangements pertaining to Margaret's widowhood and Anne's subsequent marriage.14

The generic topics that became conventional after Jonson's “Penshurst” are managed very differently by Lanyer. The house itself (which belonged to the Crown, not the countess)15 is barely mentioned. The estate is, as we expect, a locus amoenus, but the pastoral pathetic fallacy is exaggerated as all its elements respond to Margaret Clifford's presence and departure as to the seasonal round of summer and winter. The creatures welcome her presence with an obsequiousness like that of the Penshurst fish and game offering themselves to capture, but Lanyer does not, like Jonson, invite us to smile at the exaggeration:

The swelling Bankes deliver'd all their pride,
When such a Phoenix once they had espide.
Each Arbor, Banke, each Seate, each stately Tree,
Thought themselves honor'd in supporting thee.
The pretty Birds would oft come to attend thee,
Yet flie away for feare they should offend thee:
The little creatures in the Burrough by
Would come abroad to sport them in your eye.

[ll. 43-50]

There is no larger society: no extended family, no servants, no villagers, no visitors, no men at all. The only male presences are from nature or the Bible: an oak tree serves the countess as a kind of ideal lover, sheltering her against the too fierce onslaughts of the (also male) sun, and receiving her farewell kiss before she departs. She also enjoys in meditation the spiritual companionship of the psalmist and the apostles. Female aspects of nature, Philomela and Echo, serve as emblems: at first their voices bring praise and delight, but at the ladies' departure they sound their familiar tones of grief and woe, associating their sad stories with this new example of women's wrongs and sorrows. The final passage effectively heightens the pathos of the ladies' departure as all the elements of the locus amoenus transform themselves from summer's beauty to wintry desolation:

Those pretty Birds that wonted were to sing,
Now neither sing, nor chirp, nor use their wing;
But with their tender feet on some bare spray,
Warble forth sorrow, and their owne dismay.
Faire Philomela leaves her mournefull Ditty,
Drownd in dead sleepe, yet can procure no pittie:
Each arbour, banke, each seate, each stately tree,
Lookes bare and desolate now for want of thee;
Turning greene tresses into frostie gray,
While in cold griefe they wither all away.
The Sunne grew weake, his beames no comfort gave,
While all greene things did make the earth their grave:
Each brier, each bramble, when you went away,
Caught fast your clothes, thinking to make you stay:
Delightfull Eccho wonted to reply
To our last words, did now for sorrow die:
The house cast off each garment that might grace it,
Putting on Dust and Cobwebs to deface it.

[ll. 185-202]

By writing and publishing her poems under her own name, Lanyer also intervened in the era's developing discourse about authorship, claiming authority for herself as a woman writer. At times she invokes the humilitas topos to excuse the “defects” of her sex, but she also boldly claims the poet's eternizing power, promising Margaret Clifford that her poems will endure “many yeares longer than your Honour, or my selfe can live” (p. 35). She authorizes her poetry on several grounds: For one, the excellence of her subject—Christ's Passion, and all the worthy women she celebrates. For another, Nature: though Lanyer's poems display considerable knowledge of classical rhetoric, the Bible, and poetic traditions, she assigns learned poetry to men, and to women a (perhaps superior) poetry based on experience and on “Mother” Nature, source of all the arts:

Not that I Learning to my selfe assume,
Or that I would compare with any man:
          But as they are Scholers, and by Art do write,
          So Nature yeelds my Soule a sad delight.
And since all Arts at first from Nature came,
That goodly Creature, Mother of Perfection,
Whom Joves almighty hand at first did frame,
Taking both her and hers in his protection:
          Why should not She now grace my barren Muse,
          And in a Woman all defects excuse.

[“To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie,” ll. 147-56]

She also claims divine authorization for her poetry: a postscript recounts that the title of the volume was “delivered unto me in sleepe many yeares before I had any intent to write in this maner;” significantly, she concludes, “that I was appointed to performe this Worke” (p. 139). She finds further sanction by assuming a place in a female poetic line: in her dream-vision poem to the Countess of Pembroke, she invites the countess to accept her as her own poetic heir.

Lanyer's case would seem to indicate that dominant literary and cultural discourses do not define women's place and women's speech with the rigorous determinism seen by some theorists—at least they do not when women take up the pen and write themselves into those discourses. Lanyer's oppositional writing was, it seems, deliberate: the evidence of genre transformation and subversion of dominant discourses argues for considerable authorial intentionality. Lanyer seems to have regarded the several literary genres she uses, as well as biblical exegesis and the discourses relating to patronage and authorship, not as exclusively male preserves but as common human property, now ready to be reclaimed for women. Her little volume delivered a formidable challenge to Jacobean patriarchal ideology as it appropriated and rewrote these genres and discourses, placing women at the center of the fundamental Christian myths—Eden, the Passion, the Community of Saints. Like other early modern women writers, she could do little to change the repressive conditions of her world. But she was able—no small feat—to imagine and represent a better one.


  1. Some important recent studies include: Elaine Beilin, “The Feminization of Praise: Aemilia Lanyer,” in Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Lynette McGrath, “‘Let Us Have Our Libertie Againe’: Aemilia Lanyer's Seventeenth-Century Feminist Voice,” Women's Studies 20 (1992): 331-48; Janel Mueller, “The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,’” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristianne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993): 331-48 (reprinted in revised form in this volume as chapter 6); Wendy Wall, “Our Bodies/Our Texts?: Renaissance Women and the Trials of Authorship,” in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, ed. Carol J. Singley and Susan E. Sweeney (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 51-71. See also Lewalski, “Imagining Female Community: Aemilia Lanyer's Poems,” in Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  2. Anne Clifford was the only surviving child of the dashing adventurer and privateer George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, and Margaret (Russell) Clifford. In 1609 she married Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and in 1630 Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. She is remarkable for the sustained lawsuits she carried out with her mother, to claim property denied her by her father's will. That struggle and much else about her domestic life, Court associations, and family are recorded in several autobiographical and biographical works, the most remarkable of which is a Diary of the years 1603, and 1616-19, published in The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, ed. D. J. H. Clifford (Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.: Alan Sutton, 1993). See Lewalski, Writing Women, chapter 5.

  3. Margaret Clifford's literary and clergy clients include Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Samuel Daniel, Henry Lok, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Hieron, Henry Peacham, William Perkins, Richard Greenham, and Peter Muffett, among others. See Lewalski, Writing Women, chapter 5.

  4. For discussion of the English controversy and its gamesmanship, see Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1640 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  5. [Robert Southwell], Saint Peters Complaynt (London, 1595); rpt. with other Southwell poems in 1595, 1597, 1599, 1602, 1607.

  6. Ibid. (1607), p. 14.

  7. Christs Triumph over Death” is Part III of Fletcher's Christs victorie and triumph in heaven and earth, over and after death (Cambridge, 1610).

  8. Nicholas Breton, The Pilgrimage to Paradise, Joyned with the Countesse of Pembrookes Love (Oxford, 1592); also, A Divine Poem, divided into two Partes: The Ravisht Soule, and the Blessed Weeper (London, 1601). Abraham Fraunce, The Countesse of Pembrokes Emanuell (London, 1591).

  9. See especially Psalm 104:

    2. Who coverest thy self with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain. 3. Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his charriot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind. 4. Who maketh his angells spirits; his ministers a flaming fire. … 32. He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.

  10. First published in 1823, the psalm versions of Sir Philip Sidney (Psalms 1-43) and the Countess of Pembroke (Psalms 44-150) were widely circulated in manuscript; they were especially noteworthy for stanzaic and metrical variety. Margaret Clifford had for some years been estranged from and virtually rejected by her husband, a notorious womanizer.

  11. From internal evidence it is clear that “Penshurst” was written sometime before the death of Prince Henry in November, 1612, as a reference to him (l. 77) indicates, but the poem was first published in Jonson's Works (1616). Lanyer's poem was written sometime after Anne Clifford's marriage to Richard Sackville on February 25, 1609, since she is referred to as Dorset, the title her husband inherited two days after the marriage, and before the volume was registered with the Stationers on October 2, 1610. If Jonson's poem was written first, Lanyer might have seen a manuscript copy.

  12. None of the extant records or letters identify Lanyer as a client or a member of Margaret Clifford's household, but there are few such records. During the period September-November 1604, Margaret Clifford dated five letters from “Cookham in Berkshire” (Longleat, Portland Papers, vol. 23, ff. 24-28), and this may be the period of residence. Anne Clifford's Diary (p. 15) records one visit to Cookham in 1603, but has nothing before 1603 and then skips to 1616, so has no occasion to mention Lanyer.

  13. For an extended comparison, see Lewalski, “The Lady of the Country-House Poem,” in The Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House, ed. Gervase Jackson-Stops, et al., (Hanover and London: National Gallery of Art, 1989), 261-75. See also Grossman's essay in the present volume (chapter 7).

  14. The valedictory mode of this poem suggests a permanent rather than a seasonal departure, probably related to the countess's permanent departure to her dower residences in Westmoreland after she was widowed in 1605. Anne would have departed with her; she was married to Dorset in 1609.

  15. Cookham belonged to the Crown from before the Conquest until 1818; it was annexed to Windsor Castle in 1540. The manor was evidently granted or leased to Margaret's family (the Russells) and occupied by the Countess of Cumberland at some periods during her estrangement from her husband in the years before his death in 1605, and perhaps just after.

Further Reading

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Hodgson, Elizabeth M. A. “Prophecy and Gendered Mourning in Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 1 (winter 2003): 101-16.

Contends that “in at least one respect Lanyer has a consistent goal and strategy throughout Salve Deus: to invoke a particular type of spiritual foremother in a quest to define and defend her own role as prophetic poet.”

Loughlin, Marie H. “‘Fast Ti'd unto Them in a Golden Chaine’: Typology, Apocalypse, and Woman's Genealogy in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2000): 133-79.

Explores Lanyer's use of biblical typology in order to create a genealogy of woman.

McBride, Kari Boyd and John C. Ulreich. “Answerable Styles: Biblical Poetics and Biblical Politics in the Poetry of Lanyer and Milton.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100, no. 3 (July 2001): 333-54.

Finds similarities in the style of Lanyer and John Milton.

Phillippy, Patricia. “Sisters of Magdalen: Women's Mourning in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.English Literary Renaissance 31, no. 1 (winter 2001): 78-106.

Traces the depiction of women's mourning throughout Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Prior, Roger. “Aemilia Lanyer and Queen Elizabeth at Cookham.” Cahiers Elisabéthains, no. 63 (April 2003): 17-32.

Explicates Lanyer's reference to the “princely palace” in “The Description of Cooke-ham.”

Roberts, Josephine A. “Diabolic Dreamscape in Lanyer and Milton.” In Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers, edited by Susanne Woods and Margaret P. Hannay, pp. 299-302. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

Contrasts Lanyer's depiction of the dream of Pilate's wife in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum with Eve's dream in John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Schleiner, Louise. “Women's Household Circles as a Gendered Reading Formation: Whitney, Tyler, and Lanyer.” In Tudor and Stuart Women Writers, pp. 1-29. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Compares the role of women's circles in the work of Lanyer, Isabella Whitney, and Margaret Tyler.

Silcox, Mary V. “Aemilia Lanyer and Virtue.” In Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers, edited by Susanne Woods and Margaret P. Hannay, pp. 295-98. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

Explores the role of virtue in Lanyer's poetry.

Wall, Wendy. “Our Bodies/Our Texts?: Renaissance Women and the Trials of Authorship.” In Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 51-71. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Maintains that Mary Sidney's “To the Angell Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney” and Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum “document how the female writer grappled with the gender code subtending literary paradigms.”

Woods, Susanne. “Aemilia Lanyer, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” In A Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, edited by Anita Pacheco, pp. 125-35. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Offers a thematic and stylistic overview of the poems in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Additional coverage of Lanyer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 121; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 10, 30, 83; and Literature Resource Center.

Marshall Grossman (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Marshall. “The Gendering of Genre: Literary History and the Canon.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 128-42. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

[In the following essay, Grossman investigates Lanyer's place in and influence on English literary history.]

In what ways does Aemilia Lanyer solicit us to think about the theory and practice of literary history? In general, when we write the history of literature we construct a variety of narratives to connect events, works, styles, writers, genres—what have you—over time. The narratives so constructed serve not only to represent the past, but to represent it to the present, and, the past being past, it is in the present that these narratives must have their effect. The very small number of surviving copies of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and the lack of contemporary reference to it or to any other literary works by Lanyer argue against her having participated in any great way in the construction of English literature. Perhaps something of hers was in some manner appropriated by writers the impact of whose work is easier to trace. Ben Jonson comes to mind as someone she might have influenced, and though the evidence does not support A. L. Rowse's contention that she was Shakespeare's “dark lady,” her connections to the court music as well as to the Lord Chamberlain may well have placed her on occasion in the milieux of Court and theater inhabited by Jonson, Shakespeare, and other familiar literary names of the period. We cannot rule out the possibility of her direct influence in literary history, but neither can we adduce any positive evidence for it. The question, then, arises: if, as appears to be the case, Lanyer's publication had, in fact, no historical consequence, failed to cause anything at all, in what sense (if any) was it a literary historical event? What does it mean—now—for Lanyer so belatedly to enter literary history?

As is typically true of historical questions, we can project possible answers to this question on two scenes: the past and the present. The Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is a historical document. Its existence tells us that a woman did, in fact, publish a work of this genre in 1611 (or 1610) and that it was possible for her to address a particular group of aristocratic women in this way, although we cannot say whether the address succeeded.

Physical differences among the extant copies suggest some things about how presentation copies were prepared and patronage sought.1 Specific references in the poems may illuminate specific historical events (in, for example, the family histories of the Russells and the Cliffords) and general trends (like that toward litigiousness regarding the heritability of land holdings). Moving a bit closer to literary history, we can also see Lanyer's book as a moment in the querelle des femmes and deduce from it interesting facts about the lives of noble and middle-class women in the early seventeenth century.2

In respect of what it suggests about life in the early seventeenth century, we might say that whether or not the Salve was, in itself, a literary historical event, it is for us a historical document. My present interest, however, is to emphasize the specifically literary historical implications of the Salve as they might come to be played out on the other scene, that of the present. I want to consider how Lanyer's addition to the canon might change the way we read other more familiar poets so as to recreate the narrative of our literary history in its relation to the present, and I want briefly to reflect on what that revision or reconstruction of the familiar might more generally indicate about the sort of knowledge literary history affords.

To illustrate the potential power of Lanyer's work as an intervention in the present construction of a literary historical narrative, I think it useful to begin with a small example: some familiar lines by a poet whose settled familiarity Lanyer disturbs:

The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him, where to look for it.
And freely men confesse, that this world's spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out againe to his Atomis.
'Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subiect, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For euery man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee
None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.(3)

In these lines, published in the same year as the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, John Donne laments the contemporary reduction of the world to its “atomies” by the death of Elizabeth Drury, a young girl he never met and whose most salient feature in the poem is her indistinction as an individual.4

Now the very fact that these lines are quoted in an essay about Aemilia Lanyer suffices to call attention to what in other circumstances has gone unnoted: that when Donne enumerates the relations “all forgot,” in 1611, he forgets to forget relations among women. Moreover, Donne evokes not just the loss of patrilineal relations but also a series of analogous disorientations. These disorientations progress upward through the loss of fealty between sovereign and subject, the order of the planets and stars and the relation of the sun to the earth. The poem thus implies the existence of a previously homogenous and integrated cosmic order, of which the “idea of a Woman” served as a symbolic representative. This order produces Woman as idea, or concept, while silently erasing the relations of actually existing mothers, daughters, and sisters, which would tend in every case to disable the concept by making it more concrete. Donne's substitution of the “idea of a woman” for the material existence of the girl whose death he commemorates shifts the focus of the poem from the loss of Elizabeth Drury, the daughter he has been commissioned to memorialize, to the failure of the cosmic order as traditionally represented. The “death” of the idealized figure of Woman is used to represent the death of a certain way of representing the world. In his reduction of (lost) relation to the parallel and inclusive sets of prince-subject, father-son, “shee,” whose death is represented in the poem as the death of the world, dies twice: once as an individual human being and a second time as the generalized holder of symbolic place in the universal order.5

Yet, insofar as “Her Ghost doth walke” in a “kind of world remaining still” (ll. 67-70), the world of dead male relations is haunted by another, in which the relevant relations are the unspoken ones of queen and subject, mother and daughter.6 It is in the interest of literary history to consider Lanyer's peculiar ability to make us aware of what we might not otherwise notice, to recall what we have been in fact trained to forget, giving voice to the maternal ghost necessarily inhabiting and perhaps outliving a patriarchal genre. I have just invoked Donne's lamentation, in the Anniversaries, for the loss of “the idea of a woman” from whom all relation stems and to whom no relation is necessary, and I will soon advert to Jonson, because I want to begin to see what, if anything, happens, in a literary historical sense, when her voice, Aemilia Lanyer's voice, the voice of a woman who, like her contemporaries Donne and Jonson, needs financial means and seeks patronage through the poetry of praise, is (re)placed in dialogue with the voices of the two male poets whose names have, again, in a literary historical sense, served alternatively as ways to name seventeenth-century verse: for example, in university courses with names like “Age of Jonson” or “Donne and the Metaphysicals” and enduringly useful books like Joseph Summers's The Heirs of Donne and Jonson.7

Therefore, in addition to its intrinsic poetic interest, which is considerable, the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, by virtue of its early date and the example it affords of a feminine voice speaking in the genres of the poetry of praise, presents an opportunity to consider in a concrete way issues central to our understanding of the interrelationship of material history and literary form. I am thinking in particular of two large questions: (1) What is the relationship between the ideological work performed by seventeenth-century epideictic poetry and the becoming canonical of certain generic conventions? and (2) In what ways do generic conventions function as protocols of reading, and, conversely, to what extent and in what ways are noncanonical poems rendered opaque by these protocols? Gaining access to the intrinsic poetic interest of Lanyer's poems is, I want to suggest, not just a matter of learning to value the conventions and figures of her poetry as we have been taught to value those of (generically speaking) his, but of learning to read otherwise, a process of dialectical negation in which the “natural” is converted to the “historical” through an active consideration of the genders of genre.

Choosing the most obvious generic parallel, I want to consider how a comparison of Lanyer's “The Description of Cooke-ham” and Jonson's “To Penshurst” helps to make visible how deeply implicated Jonson's poem is in assumptions about land tenure and inheritance from which Lanyer is excluded by gender.8 Lanyer's poem allows us to stand at a key distance from Jonson's poem and the rhetorical norms established in it. While “The Description of Cooke-ham” may well be the first English country-house poem, by virtue of its feminine origin and address it cannot sensibly engage what will become the canonical metaphors of the English country-house genre. Thus the comparison illuminates the facts that the country-house genre was gendered at its inception, and that, unsurprisingly, in literary historical as in material historical terms, the male form engendered a self-conscious lineage beneath which the female genealogy becomes difficult to read. The material ways in which the male country-house poem and the legal system of patrilineal descent reinforce each other at the expense of the female country-house poem and female genealogy are obvious, but the details of this interaction between literary and material history can be illuminating.

Jonson's poem does its ideological work by identifying land and lord as earth and fruit, mother and father; these metaphors, like Donne's summary of relation “all forgot,” use the commonplace assumption that the microcosm will reproduce the macrocosm to assert a relation not between nature and humankind but between natural order and man: the rhetorical formalization of this analogy as at once metaphor and mimesis—comparison and imitative representation—posits an immanent reduplication between logos and maleness, constituting and establishing precisely what we might today call phallogocentricity.9

The gendered distinction between nature and natural order for which I am reaching here is aptly characterized in Luce Irigaray's recent je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference (1993). In order to illuminate the deployment of nature and order within the broad context of discursive phallogocentricity I am going to quote at some length from an essay, “On Women's Discourse and Men's Discourse,” included in that book. Asserting, a very generalized difference between masculine and feminine discourse, Irigaray characterizes men's discourse as distinctly mediated by culture:

Most of the time, in men's discourse, the world is designated as inanimate abstractions integral to the subject's world. Reality appears as an always already cultural reality, linked to the individual and collective history of the masculine subject. It's always a matter of a secondary nature, cut off from its corporeal roots, its cosmic environment, its relation to life. This relation is only ever mentioned to be denied, and is perpetually passing into uncultured behavior. The forms may change, but the blind immediacy of the behavior stays the same. The male subject's relations to his body, to what it has given him, to nature, to the bodies of others, including those of his sexual partners, are yet to be developed. In the meantime, the realities of which his discourse speaks are artificial, mediated to such an extent by one subject and one culture that it's not really possible to share them.10

Now it is necessary to be careful and precise about this assertion. I would want, at some point, to meditate on the doubly paradoxical situation of (1) Irigaray's reliance on this highly conceptualized language to make the point that a discourse mediated by the concept is characteristically masculinist and (2) the decorum of my situation as a man appropriating her distinction for the traditionally masculine demands of literary history. More importantly, I think, we would do better to think of what Irigaray describes as a style of discourse identified as masculine within a certain historically occurring patriarchal configuration rather than as “men's discourse.” Many men may be quite comfortable in “women's discourse,” which by implication we may characterize as less culturally mediated—more “natural” in the sense of being more in touch with the body, its senses, and their more or less immediate objects—as some women are surely quite comfortable in “men's discourse.” A fully theorized use of Irigaray's gendered discourses would thus require a careful consideration of the (at least quasi-) essentialist tendencies of the broad distinctions she makes, and an emphasis on the fact that insofar as we are talking about discourse, we are not talking about unmediated nature at all, but about a cultural ideal of nature, a distinction not between nature and culture but between cultural attitudes toward nature and culture.

For now, however, I have the more modest aim of noting the admirable specificity of Irigaray's formulation in relation to the seventeenth-century poems I have been discussing. It is not, then, a question of women actually or essentially having an unmediated relation to nature—an assertion I would deny on the grounds I have just suggested—but of the fact that, when seen in their difference from Lanyer's poems, Jonson's “To Penshurst” and Donne's Anniversaries (to take just the two examples I have discussed) answer as well as they do to Irigaray's description of “men's discourse.” Both Irigaray and Lanyer use the same opposition between culturally mediated and naturally immediate discourse as a way of figuring difference; that is, of figuring the feminine as difference, as that which remains outside or beyond the conceptual frame.

One might, after all, think that the language system formed around the expected repetition of the same divinely instituted structure in microcosm and macrocosm is precisely and historically a mediation of world by body.11 Hegel thought it such when he labelled such rhetorical tools image thinking. To become fully patriarchal such figures need to be negated as image and incorporated in the more general and abstract form of concept. But in the dialectic of patriarchal practice it tended to be also the body which was mediated by the world—that is, by the world experienced in accord with a highly determined idea of cosmic design. Within this idealization the immediacy of things was sacrificed to a reassuring sense of the immediately significant. The suppression of women under the figure of a generic and idealized Woman who functions as the focal point around which male (conceptual) discourse may be constituted was one important symptom of this displacement. Beatrice and Laura are two of the better known names of the generic “she,” who functions, in this way, as the support of a conceptual discourse from which she is, herself, excluded.

The putative subject of Donne's Anniversaries, Elizabeth Drury, fulfills a similar function.12 Donne's 1611 poem is, however, more reflexively diagnostic than its predecessors, representing the death of Drury as marking precisely the end of the effectiveness of the figure of idealized femininity as the constitutive other of “men's discourse.” In the First Anniversary, “her” disappearance is identified with the inviability, in 1611, of a cosmology that organized vision around “natural” forms that offer themselves immediately as also symbolic representations. Thus Donne identifies and records a historical moment in which the figure of the idealized woman is itself lost to a conceptual mediation of the cosmos. The circular orbits of the Ptolemaic planets traced real lines in real space to outline the abstract conceptual being of a God whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. This visual world organized relation, made the world cohere. “Shee” then, as the conventional and visual embodiment of a sublimed and subjected desire is also this sign of significance:

She that was best and first originall
Of all faire copies; and the generall
Steward to Fate …
She to whom this world must itselfe refer,
As Suburbs, or the Microcosme of her

[ll. 222-36]

Donne's lament gives us some idea of what is at stake in appropriating the figure of Woman as the emptied center around which a patriarchal conceptual economy circles, or, to put it another way, of foreclosing the space in which something other than that idealized figure might be maintained. The unspoken dialogue between the country-house poems of Lanyer and Jonson tells us something of what might happen if that space, which threatens to become silent and disorganized for Donne, were actually to be filled with the sound of women's voices.

The implicit or explicit claim that these voices would, if they could be heard, paradoxically speak a relation to nature unmediated by the logos—that is, according to the categories, compartments, and polarities of a conceptual order—takes on a particular potency in this dialogue because it poses a very specific threat to the work of the Jonsonian poem. This work, in the case of “To Penshurst” at least, is rhetorically to assimilate patrilinearity to nature—to unify the origin of the logocentric and the phallocentric by representing a particular and historically determined set of laws and customs as expressing a divinely designed natural order.

The seventeenth century was aware of and sensitive to a crucial point of resistance inherent in this naturalizing arrangement. Take, for example, the following exchange between Miranda and Prospero:

Sir, are not you my father?
Thy mother was a piece of vertue, and
she said thou wast my daughter; and thy father
Was Duke of Milan; and his only heir
And princess, no worse issued.(13)

Prospero's rejoinder evinces both the system of patrilineal descent that makes Miranda his heir and the word of the silenced mother on which that system depends.

Whatever status we might want finally to assign to Irigaray's (and Lanyer's) claims for a distinctively feminine access to a material reality unmediated by discursive culture, I think we can acknowledge that maternity is a position that can be established on empirical grounds. It is written visibly on the mother's body and witnessed visually at birth. Paternity, on the contrary, is not only necessarily mediated by the word; it is, in fact, necessarily mediated precisely by the mother's word. As we see in Prospero's exchange with Miranda, this is a word that cannot be spoken without paradoxically evoking the scandal of its potential falsity. This scandal in the structure of patrilinearity itself is acknowledged in Jonson's penultimate compliment to Penshurst, when, like Prospero, the poet presumes to speak the mother's word: “Thy lady's noble, fruitful, chaste withal. / His children thy great lord may call his own” (ll. 90-91).14 The serious tension that underlies these lines is betrayed by the poet's attempt to relieve it with the wry addition of “A fortune in this age but rarely known” (l. 92). The relation of dialectical negation between male and female genres comes into view in these lines. In the very moment that Lady Sidney's word is made good, generic woman must be denigrated, her word made nought. The individual is praised at the expense of the genus.

In Jonson's “To Penshurst” the assertion of an autochthonous link between the Sidney family and the Kentish land covers over two ideologically less convenient possible accounts of the Sidney estate: the relatively recent, Henrician origins of the family's landed status in Kent and Robert Sidney's financial dependence on Barbara Gammage's legacy to replenish family fortunes depleted by his illustrious brother Philip.15

Moreover, the presentation of the Sidneys as cultivating and cultivated by the land covers over this political and economic history in a way that exemplifies Irigaray's remark that

Although our societies, made up half by men, half by women, stem from two genealogies and not one, patriarchal power is organized by submitting one genealogy to the other. Thus, what is now termed the oedipal structure as access to the cultural order is already structured within a single, masculine line of filiation which doesn't symbolize the woman's relation to her mother. Mother-daughter relationships in patrilinear societies are subordinated to relationships between men.


This subordination is not news, but there is, I believe, value—for literary history and, perhaps, for contemporary feminism—in tracing out in concrete cases some of the specific ways in which patrilineal succession is expressed in the legal system on the one hand and validated or resisted by generic conventions on the other. The way in which Jonson substitutes the land for women as the womb from which succeeding generations of Sidney heirs are produced is all the more exemplary when contrasted with Lanyer's country-house poem in the feminine voice.

Lanyer's poem attacks (possibly preemptively, as it may have preceded Jonson's) the substitution of land (wealth-patrimony) for woman (mother) that characterizes the rhetoric of patrilinearity. Thus, to exemplify what I propose to call, after Adorno, the negative dialectics of the canon, the comparison of our two earliest examples of the English country-house poem makes visible the way in which “To Penshurst” significantly excludes female descent by metaphorically assimilating the Sidney women to the land from which the Sidney men descend.16 Just as Prospero's “so thy mother told me,” the “ghost” of Elizabeth Drury haunting Donne's dead world and the references to Barbara Gammage in “To Penshurst” represent remainders of the feminine genealogy negated by patriarchal practice, Lanyer's encoding of a feminine poetic subject persists as a remainder with which to confront the patrilinear literary history whose generic conventions tended to negate it.

Margaret Russell, Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Anne Clifford, later Countess of Dorset, appear to have retreated to Cookham, a royal estate in the Russell family's holding, during the countess' estrangement from the errant Clifford in the years before his death in 1605. Jonson celebrates (or, more correctly, recommends) Robert Sidney's dwelling on the Kentish land. Lanyer, on the contrary, recalls the moment of a leave taking that probably occurred when the dowager countess moved to a Russell estate before beginning the epic litigation by which she and her daughter—the remarkable diarist—struggled to enforce an entail from the time of Edward II that would allow the property to descend through the female line and thus prevent the customary passage of her husband's estates to collateral male heirs.17 As Barbara Lewalski has noted, Lanyer portrays Cookham as a place without men, a sort of feminine academy, and evokes the departure of the spirit of the place, when the women disperse, Margaret to one of her dowager holdings and Anne to the estate of her new husband, Robert Sackville, the Earl of Dorset.18

The implications for the poems of the very different legal relations to landed property experienced by men and women within a system governed by the principle of patrilineal primogeniture may be exemplified by the gender specific ways in which trees are used to figure the relation of land to lord and lady respectively in “To Penshurst” and “The Description of Cooke-ham.” In “To Penshurst” Jonson evokes trees: Philip's Oak, “That taller tree, which of a nut was set, / At his great birth, where all the muses met,” “thy lady's oak,” under which Barbara Gammage is said to have gone into labor, producing a new Sidney, as it were fruit of the land, and, acknowledging in a cleverly repressed form her necessary financial contribution, the copse

          named of Gammage, …
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer,
When thou would'st feast, or exercise thy friends.

[ll. 13-21]

These arboreal associations serve to develop a picture of the Sidney's rootedness in the Kentish land, which brings forth trees and Sidneys with equal fecundity.

Lanyer, on the contrary, combines the image of an oak and a strategically motivated pathetic fallacy to figure the experience of virilocality and patrilinear descent in the feminine community as a disruption, not of the logocentric order in which men read a self-validating design, but of an immediate identification of woman and nature itself. Thus the poet coming to “That Oake that did in height his fellowes passe, / As much as lofty trees, low growing grasse” (ll. 55-56), remarks:

How often did you visite this faire tree,
Which seeming joyfull in receiving thee,
Would like a Palme tree spread his armes abroad,
Desirous that you there should make abode.

[ll. 59-62]

Seated not under but in the tree, Lady Margaret “might plainly see,”

Hills, vales, and woods, as if on bended knee
They had appeard, your honour to salute,
Or to preferre some strange unlook'd for sute:
All interlac'd with brookes and christall springs,
A Prospect fit to please the eyes of Kings.

[ll. 68-72]

It is striking here that Lanyer does not simply oppose the figure of woman-in-nature in contradistinction to Jonson's assimilation of man to natural order; rather, she posits a distinctly alternative mode of reading the logos. Reversing Jonson's metaphoric transfer of the qualities of permanence, stability, and rootedness from tree to man, Lanyer's pathetic fallacy transfers human attributes to the landscape, which appears “as if on bended knee.” Where the trees at Penshurst knit the Sidneys to a land that willingly provides for their needs, the tree at Cookham affords a “Prospect” from which the landscape appears to want something of the ladies: “some strange unlook'd for sute.” Finally, where Jonson's construction emphasizes the expanse of time—the Sidney line reaching backward to the immemorial time measured by the slow growth of trees and forward to the horizon of anticipation, the view from Lanyer's poem collapses time to a visual prospect that mediates an eternal moment beyond anticipation or retrospection:

What was there then but gave you all content,
While you the time in meditation spent,
Of their Creators powre, which there you saw,
In all his Creatures held a perfit Law;
And in their beauties did you plaine descrie,
His beauty, wisdome, grace, love, majestie.
In these sweet woods how often did you walke,
With Christ and his Apostles there to talke;
Placing his holy Writ in some faire tree,
To meditate what you therin did see:
With Moyses you did mount his holy Hill,
To know his pleasure, and performe his Will.

[ll. 75-86]

With subtle irony this evocation of the logos read in rather than out of the trees (in contrast to Sir Philip's Oak, where “in the writhèd bark, are cut the names / Of many a Sylvan, taken with his flames” [“To Penshurst,” ll. 15-16]) abridges the law of primogeniture that governs Jonson's figures and evokes instead a divine first genesis that envelopes and subsumes man's phallocentric law.19 An alternative to this law appears when the “prospect” of a divine communion beyond time gives way to a vision of female descent and timely communion in the praise of Anne Clifford:

And that sweet Lady sprung from Cliffords race,
Of noble Bedfords blood, faire, streame of Grace;
To honourable Dorset now espows'd,
In whose faire breast true virtue then was hous'd:
Oh what delight did my weake spirits find
In those pure parts of her well framed mind.

[ll. 93-98]

In sharp contrast to Jonson's stress on Sidney's dwelling, Lanyer, evoking the futility of feminine attachments, astutely connects the demands of virilocality—which disrupt female community and make impossible the ideological identification of land and lady that Jonson makes of land and lord—to the demands of hereditary degree:

And yet it grieves me that I cannot be
Neere unto her, whose virtues did agree
With those faire ornaments of outward beauty,
Which did enforce from all both love and dutie.
Unconstant Fortune, thou art most too blame,
Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame:
Where our great friends we cannot dayly see,
So great a difference is there in degree.

[ll. 99-106]20

In contrast to Jonson's slyly muted presentation of the movement of Barbara Gammage from her late father to her new husband, which served to replenish Penshurst with wealth and a continuing supply of Sidneys with which to ensure the historical perpetuity of her lord's dwelling, Lanyer represents the movement of Anne Clifford from Cookham to Dorset's Kentish estate, Knole, as the disruption of a community that, because it lacks a locus of perpetual descent, must be retained and preserved in the perpetual present of inward recollection: “Therefore sweet Memorie doe thou retaine / Those pleasures past, which will not turne againe” (ll. 117-18).

The force of the structural and thematic differences between the male and female country-house poems may be appreciated in relation to J. G. A. Pocock's argument locating the English discovery of history in common-law debates about the “ancient constitution.”21 These debates, which become crucial in the 1640s as arguments about the priority of king or parliament, begin in land use and inheritance cases—like the lengthy litigation in which Margaret tried to retain the Clifford estates for her daughter Anne.

The urgent litigation of the Cliffords, to which Lanyer alludes in the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was unusual in its scope and duration, and in the difficulties and the opportunities of defiance it would later present to Anne, but the necessity of litigation to preserve rights of descent through the female line seems to have been a definite feature in the landscape of feminine experience referenced in Lanyer's work: witness the fact that the poet herself would, within a few years, enter her own bitter and protracted efforts to enforce on her brothers-in-law an agreement concerning the proceeds of her late husband's hay- and straw-weighing patent. Although this litigation was in Lanyer's future when she wrote “The Description of Cooke-ham,” Simon Forman's records suggest that she already brought to the poem her own experience of her husband's misappropriation of funds she derived from the Lord Chamberlain, and, of course, the anomalous experience of having been cast off as Hunsdon's acknowledged mistress in consequence of producing a son who could not also be an heir.

Excluded by gender from the glorification (and mystification) of patrilinear descent that structures Jonson's poem, Lanyer develops the alternative notion of a lateral or synchronic community of women.22 This community is at once the product and the audience of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. In the title poem, Lanyer underlines the tension that exists between this community and the patriarchal and virilocal culture which is its host. Setting the temporal arrangements of patrilineal descent against an eternal arrangement that both precedes and succeeds it, she subsumes Margaret Russell's temporal passage to widowhood—a passage through which her husband's estates and titles passed to his brothers, leaving her with the dubious title dowager countess—in the comprehensive and eternal legacy of Christ:

Still reckoning him, the Husband of they Soule,
Which is most pretious in his glorious sight:
          Because the Worlds delights shee doth denie
          For him, who for her sake vouchsaf'd to die.
And dying made her Dowager of all;
Nay more, Co-heire of that eternall blisse
That Angels lost, and We by Adams fall.

[Salve Deus, ll. 253-59]

Once again Jonson's use of trees to figure aristocratic continuity over time may be contrasted with Lanyer's use of the two trees, by tradition one and the same, to which she alludes in this astonishing passage. To figure the divine abridgment of time, Lanyer represents the tree of knowledge, as a gift of Eve misused by men, and the tree of the Passion, through which this ambiguous gift of “blisse” returns.

The “Description of Cooke-ham” is necessarily gendered in its dissent from the Jonsonian celebration of patrilineal dynastics. Take for example the very different rhetorical uses of trees in “To Penshurst,” where they bind the generations to the soil and mark the passage of time, and of the tree in “Cooke-ham,” which serves as a focal point for feminine companionship and endeavor during the stay of Margaret and Anne, but becomes insignificant in their absence, because, in the absence of the women who grasp its significance, its function as a meditative lever out of time lies dormant. As in winter:

Each arbour, banke, each seate, each stately tree,
Lookes bare and desolate now for want of thee;
Turning greene tresses into frostie gray,
While in cold griefe they wither all away.

[“Cooke-ham,” ll. 191-94]

The Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in general, and “To Cooke-ham,” in particular, present a specific resistance to the recollection of the past as history. Attending to this model provides a better understanding of the ideological work performed by its canonical alternative and perhaps allows us to hear differently and for the first time the heretical voice that the canonical form suppresses. Ironically, this voice, when it is heard, has the potential precisely to restore history, by opening a dialogue in which can be traced that history's formulation in and as ideology. From the point of view of literary history, and that is the point of view I have been trying to establish, the canon cannot be simply opened through addition, nor paralleled by another canon, nor can it be discarded. Like patriarchy itself, the canon is a historical fact, which must be submitted to dialectical negation, a practice which reinscribes canonicity as a temporal performance by a historically situated work. This negation is, for the moment, the positive task of the literary historian.


  1. For a discussion of the different forms of extant presentation copies of the Salve for Prince Henry and Thomas Jones, Archbishop of London, see Woods, Poems, “Textual Introduction,” pp. xlviii-xlix. See also, Leeds Barroll, this volume, chapter 2.

  2. See, for example, Ann Baynes Coiro, “Writing in Service: Sexual Politics and Class Position in the Poetry of Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson,” Criticism 35 (1993): 357-76; Lorna Hutson, “Why the Lady's Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” in Women, Texts and Histories, 1575-1760, ed. Clare Brant and Diane Purkiss (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 13-38; and Barbara K. Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 213-41.

  3. John Donne, An Anatomy of the World, in John Donne: The Anniversaries, ed. with an intro. and commentary, Frank Manley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), ll. 206-18.

  4. Donne, of course, is reported to have told Ben Jonson that he described “the idea of a woman, and not as she was.” “Conversations with William Drummond,” in Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 462.

  5. For a cogent discussion of Donne's “Idea of a Woman,” see, Edward W. Tayler, Donne's Idea of a Woman: Structure and Meaning in The Anniversaries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). The argument about The Anniversaries here summarized is developed at length in my The Story of All Things: Writing the Self in English Renaissance Narrative Poetry (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), chapter 5.

  6. The ghost may be discerned, for example, when Donne alludes to the matrilineal relationship in the passage just before the one quoted: “The euening was the beginning of the day, / And now the Springs and Sommers which we see, / Like sonnes of women after fifty bee” (202-4). So, the loss of patriarchal relation (“Prince, Subiect, Father, Sonne”) coincides with the inherited exhaustion and weakness of superannuated mothers, whose spectral presence nevertheless persists.

  7. Joseph Summers, The Heirs of Donne and Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970).

  8. My comparison of Lanyer and Jonson will be confined to the two country-house poems. For broader discussion of the two poets see Susanne Woods, “Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson: Patronage, Authority, and Gender,” Ben Jonson Journal 1 (1994): 15-27, and Coiro, “Writing in Service.”

  9. On the coming together of metaphor and mimesis in seventeenth-century epideictic poetry, see Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

  10. Luce Irigaray, je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. Alison Martin (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 35.

  11. For further discussion of the mediations accomplished by the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, see my The Story of All Things, chapter 5.

  12. As Joseph Hall astutely notices in a commendatory poem, “The Harbinger to the Progres,” included in the 1612 Anniversaries: “Still vpwards mount; and let thy makers praise / Honor thy Laura, and adorne thy laies” (ll. 35-36; quoted in Manley ed., pp. 89-90).

  13. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1954), I,ii,55-59.

  14. All citations of “To Penshurst” are from Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems, ed. Georges Parfitt (London: Penguin, 1988).

  15. Both aspects of the Sidney family history are documented by Don E. Wayne, Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984). See also Kari Boyd McBride, “Gender and Class in the Country House Poem,” SEL 38 (1998): “[T]he Sidneys, social arrivistes who were granted Penshurst only under Henry VIII, needed both to link themselves to the history of the house and to discount the unique valorization implicit in the estate. They needed both to pretend they had always lived there and pretend it didn't matter that they hadn't.”

  16. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1987): “The critique of every self-absolutizing particular is a critique of the shadow which absoluteness casts upon the critique; it is a critique of the fact that critique itself, contrary to its own tendency, must remain within the medium of the concept. It destroys the claim of identity by testing and honoring it; therefore, it can reach no farther than that claim. The claim is a magic circle that stamps critique with the appearance of absolute knowledge” (p. 406).

  17. See Barbara K. Lewalski, “Re-writing Patriarchy and Patronage: Margaret Clifford, Anne Clifford, and Aemilia Lanyer,” The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991): 104-6.

  18. Ibid. See also Barbara K. Lewalski, “The Lady of the Country-House Poem,” in The Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House, ed. Gervase Jackson-Stops, Gordon J. Schochet, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, Studies in the History of Art, no. 25 (Hanover and London: National Gallery of Art, 1989), pp. 261-75.

  19. For an intriguing development of the differing functions of the “Sidney oak” and the oak at Cookham in their respective poems, see Coiro, “Writing in Service”: 374.

  20. Cf. Lewalski, Writing Women, p. 225: “Alluding both to Anne's loss of her lands and to her own loss of contact with Anne, now Countess of Dorset, Lanyer contrasts male succession through aristocratic titles with a female succession grounded on virtue and holiness, drawing radical egalitarian conclusions.”

  21. J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), pp. 30-55.

  22. For a dissenting view on the presence of feminine commonality in “The Description of Cooke-ham,” see Lisa Schnell, “‘So Great a Difference Is There in Degree’: Aemilia Lanyer and the Aims of Feminist Criticism,” MLQ 57 (1996): 23-35.

Achsah Guibbory (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Guibbory, Achsah. “The Gospel According to Aemilia: Women and the Sacred.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, pp. 191-211. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

[In the following essay, Guibbory analyzes Lanyer's relationship to the sacred as expressed through her poetry.]

In the history of Western religion, women have had a far more ambiguous relation to the sacred than men. Although women were celebrated in the Hebrew Bible for their heroism and devotion to God, it was men, we are told, who were the priests and prophets chosen for God's service. With the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e., the study of the sacred Torah became exclusively the province of males, and the rabbis replaced the priests, while women engaged in practical, domestic roles supporting the spirituality of the male scholars. In some ways, the advent of Christianity might have marked a change in women's relation to the sacred, for Christ's teachings could be seen as giving women equal access to the divine—“there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28); the fact that all believers, male and female, are “sonness” of Christ (e.g., Gal. 4:6-7) and strive to be his “spouse” (e.g., Matt. 25:1-13) might minimize gender as well as class differences.1 But there were other passages in the New Testament that implicitly placed women at a farther remove from the sacred than men. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:4-8 insists that women in church must be “covered” as a sign of their inferiority and subjection.2 Whereas men can freely “prophecy” in the church, Paul orders women to “keepe silence” there, instead asking their husbands “at home” about spiritual matters, over which men are presumed to have more authority (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

As the work of Elaine Pagels, Peter Brown, and Caroline Bynum has shown, the growth of the church as an institution reveals both the importance of women's devotion and the ways in which women were distanced from authoritative, direct contact with the divine. The early centuries of the church saw women martyrs, patrons of the church, and ascetics, though the church fathers encouraged a sense of women's remove from the sacred by associating woman and the feminine with the body or “flesh,” and by presenting marriage as a model of Christian order in which women's “subjection” to their husbands mirrors both the hierarchical order of society and the body's proper subjection to the rule of the soul.3 From the late twelfth through the fourteenth century, women saints and mystics cultivated and displayed their spirituality, insisting on women's special, intimate connection with God.4 But as the church grew, so did the power of the priests and bishops, and restrictions were placed on women's activities within the sacred church.5

In some ways, the Protestant Reformation actually deepened the distance between women and the sacred. In getting rid of monastic orders and religious houses, it deprived women of a special form of sacred experience. In rejecting the adoration of the Virgin Mary and the female saints, it eliminated important models as well as objects for women's devotion. Moreover, Protestantism associated the “feminine” with the supposed “carnal idolatry” of Roman Catholicism.6 But Protestantism also had the potential to give women equal access with men to the sacred.7 All were “brethren” in God, all people could know God through reading the Scriptures, and women as well as men could be touched by God's grace.

Aemilia Lanyer's own relation to the sacred has seemed particularly ambiguous. In 1611, she published a single volume of poetry which presented itself as sacred verse, but our contemporary source of information about Lanyer, Simon Forman, presents her in his diary entries as a woman very much of the world—the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, who married Alfonso Lanyer to cover an illegitimate pregnancy, who sought a knighthood for her husband and took her brothers-in-law to court to secure her late husband's custom patent. Her reputation for holiness has not been helped by A. L. Rowse's inference from Forman's diary that she was promiscuous, or his speculation that she was Shakespeare's “dark lady.”8 Even Barbara Lewalski has questioned the appropriateness of calling Lanyer's poetry religious, for she finds the poems notably worldly in their concern with patronage.9 I would argue, however, that, for all its concern with patronage, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum asks to be taken seriously as religious poetry that adopts Christ's message to give a special place to women in devotion. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum has a claim to our interest, not only as one of the first substantial volumes of poetry published by a woman in England, but also because it is a significant cultural document expanding our understanding of women's religious roles. In her poetry, Lanyer is a biblical interpreter who claims the status of a true apostle of Christ and even assumes a quasi-priestly role. The importance of the Salve becomes clearer when read within the broad historical context of woman's vexed relation with the sacred as well as within the specific historical context of the Protestant culture of early Jacobean England—a culture that assumed women did not have as privileged a connection with God as men, but that also sanctioned the individual reader's authority to interpret the Bible.

With the accession of James I in 1603, the dominant structure of power shaping English culture and society became more distinctly patriarchal than it had been in Elizabeth's reign. As a female ruler, Queen Elizabeth had violated the traditional assumption that women were subject to men. Though it has been argued that Elizabeth's example was the exception that proved the rule of patriarchy, the very existence of a woman monarch destabilized the traditional gender hierarchy. Moreover, in constructing her monarchical authority, Elizabeth appropriated the symbols and imagery of the Virgin Mary, attempting to give religious sanction to her political rule and also implicitly preserving a powerful role for female spirituality. During her long reign, she served as head of the English Church as well as the state, thus assuming a spiritual authority that had been presumed to belong only to Protestant kings. But with the death of Elizabeth, a male figure of monarchical power replaced that of the Virgin Queen, and James promoted a rigorously patriarchal authority in both church and state. Whereas the English Church had followed the Catholic practice of allowing women as well as lay men to baptize in an emergency, James insisted in 1604 that only ministers could baptize, thus restricting women's role in the Church as he reinforced the distance between clergy and laity (Crawford, p. 56). Masculine authority was also emphasized in the king's writings and speeches, as James figured himself as husband and father of the realm. Clearly preferring the company and advice of men, he created a court with a strongly homosocial and patriarchal ethos.10 But as Leeds Barroll and Barbara Lewalski have shown, this patriarchal ethos did not go unchallenged. James's wife, Queen Anne, established a separate court, which “provided a locus, unstable yet influential, of female resistance” to the ethos and policies of James's court.11 This sense of a female alternative to the male nexus of power—both secular and sacred—informs Lanyer's poem. In her prefatory poems, Lanyer looks back nostalgically to the reign of Elizabeth but in dedicating the volume to Queen Anne and the powerful noblewomen associated with her, Lanyer attempts to attach herself to Anne's court as it provided a female-centered alternative to James's.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum appeared in 1611, the same year as the King James Bible, the work of Launcelot Andrewes and a group of distinguished divines commissioned by James to provide “an exact Translation of the holy Scriptures into the English Tongue.12 In the very year that the “Authorized Version” of the Bible was published, founded on the Protestant belief that every Christian should be able to read the Bible in the vernacular, and dedicated to King James as “the principall moover and Author of the Worke” (sig. A2v), Aemelia Lanyer published her version of the Passion, proclaimed her authority as a woman to read and interpret the Bible, and asked for the queen's patronage of her work. Might we not, then, see the Salve as in some sense constituting an oppositional alternative to the monumental biblical project of James?

Though, as Lewalski observes, religious poetry was considered more appropriate than secular verse for women (Lewalski, “Re-writing Patriarchy,” p. 98), Salve Deus is hardly a conventional, modestly pious poem for a woman. Whereas the institution of the Church had increasingly restricted women's roles, Salve Deus places women at the heart of the sacred: it is introduced by ten dedicatory pieces to prospective or actual women patronesses and a prose address to her “Virtuous Readers” (defined as exclusively female), which defends the special affection and distinction Christ showed to women. The principal poem is a narrative of Christ's Passion that also contains a lengthy panegyric frame praising Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, as a virtuous woman and spouse of Christ, a catalogue of good women in biblical and classical history, and a description of the Queen of Sheba as exemplary of female spiritual devotion. As an epilogue, the country-house poem “The Description of Cooke-ham” presents the estate where Margaret Clifford lived as a spiritual retreat where women had a special connection with the holy. Though, as Elaine Beilin recognizes, women's relation with the sacred pervades the entire volume (Redeeming Eve, pp. 177-207), it is particularly striking in Lanyer's bold version of Christ's Passion that literally forms the center of the Salve. I will argue that, defying powerful cultural restrictions, Lanyer presents her poem as a true gospel, inspired and authorized by God, offering a distinctive version of the significance of Christ's Passion, bearing a message for social as well as spiritual change, and founded on a critical and independent reading of the Scriptures that recognizes the New Testament as not simply the Word of God but a series of texts, written by men, in which all parts are not equally authoritative. In reading the Bible, she discovers a disturbing discontinuity between Christ's teachings and those of his disciples.

Paul's advice that women remain “silent” in the church not only discouraged women's speaking publicly about religious matters but also suggested that men possessed greater authority about spiritual concerns—hence their freedom to prophecy and the subsequent selection of men as priests in the church. Paul's comments about women's “place” would be radically challenged in the foment of the Civil War years, when radical women of the 1640s and '50s took it upon themselves to preach or prophecy, claiming special inspiration from God. But the conduct books of the early seventeenth century and the “Homilie of the state of Matrimonie,” read regularly in every church during Elizabeth's and James's reigns, encouraged the silence of women, not only in the church but even within the home. Women's silence was a mark of their subjection, a subjection which confirmed the order of society as founded on the obedience of people to their superiors.13

Lanyer's “preamble” before the Passion makes clear her awareness that she is violating the social codes sanctioned by these books and by Paul's foundational verses that women be “covered” and “silent” in the church.

But my deare Muse, now whither wouldst thou flie,
Above the pitch of thy appointed straine?
With Icarus thou seekest now to trie,
Not waxen wings, but thy poore barren Braine,
Which farre too weake, these siely lines descrie.

[ll. 273-77]

Aware that in seeking to narrate and interpret Christ's Passion she is transgressing the “appointed” boundaries for a woman (her insistent consciousness of gender makes these lines more than the conventional humility topos), she prays for God's “Grace”:

Therefore I humbly for his Grace will pray,
That he will give me Power and Strength to Write,
That what I have begun, so end I may,
As his great Glory may appeare more bright;
Yea in these Lines I may no further stray,
Than his most holy Spirit shall give me Light:
          That blindest Weakenesse be not over-bold,
          The manner of his Passion to unfold.
Yet if he please t'illuminate my Spirit,
And give me Wisdom from his holy Hill,
That I may Write part of his glorious Merit,
If he vouchsafe to guide my Hand and Quill,
To shew his Death, by which we doe inherit
Those endlesse Joyes that all our hearts doe fill
          Then will I tell of that sad blacke fac'd Night,
          Whose mourning Mantle covered Heavenly Light.

[ll. 297-304, 321-28]

Like the women prophets during the English Revolution and like Milton in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Lanyer invokes divine inspiration, hence insisting on divine authority for what she will speak. Her prayer recalls Matthew's and Mark's accounts in the New Testament that when Christ sent out his Apostles to preach the Gospel, he told them: “take no thought how or what ye shall speake: for it shal be given you in that houre, what yee shall say. For it is not yee that speake, but the spirit of your father which speaketh in you” (Matt. 10:19-20; cf. Mark 13:11). She extends the argument still further, suggesting that her very “Weakeness” makes God's glory shine more fully, as if she is simply a medium for transmitting God's truth. But by publishing her interpretation of the Passion and its significance for humanity—a version which, like Milton's versions of biblical truth in his epics, will include significant departures from tradition and original additions—she defies Paul's prohibition against women's speaking publicly about religion, suggesting, as she will do later in the poem, that women are more qualified than men since in their weakness and humility they are closer to God and more open to his grace:

But yet the Weaker thou doest seeme to be
In Sexe, or Sence, the more his Glory shines,
That doth infuze such powerfull Grace in thee,
To shew thy Love in these few humble Lines.

[ll. 289-92]

Echoing Christ's privileging of the poor, humble, and weak, Lanyer suggests that the traditionally masculine faculty of reason (“Sence”), like the masculine “Sexe,” in its supposed strength competes with and hence may exclude divine illumination. If she is led by God's spirit and his hand guides her “Quill,” then her poem will be “true,” even perhaps in the sense that the Gospels, written by men visited by the spirit of God, are “true.”14 Like Milton, later she implies that biblical truth is not “fixed” but that God may grant later, additional revelations. Lanyer cites evidence of being favored by divine illumination when she claims in a final note “To the doubtfull Reader” that she received the title for the work “in sleepe many yeares before” (p. 139). In the prayer for divine inspiration, which introduces her narrative of Christ's Passion, she not only follows in the footsteps of those holy women of early Christianity and of the later Middle Ages who claimed to be filled by the spirit of God, but also raises the possibility that a woman could be chosen to be a true witness of God, a belated “author” of the Gospel of Christ. As she says with a simplicity born of confidence: “I was appointed to performe this Worke” (p. 139)—not by men but by God. Like the Gospels the male disciples wrote after the death of Christ, Aemilia Lanyer's, as we shall see, bears revolutionary messages radically at odds with the dominant values of the contemporary society and the institution of the church.15 Using the gospel form, she revives the gospel tradition of subverting worldly authority.

Lanyer's version of the Passion of Christ is a mixture of the conventional and the original. All the “facts” and incidents are taken from the New Testament; her language is often close to the Bible—both when she describes the key events and when she praises Christ in terms taken from the Song of Songs, which had for centuries of Christian exegesis been understood to describe the reciprocal love between Christ and the Church. She draws her narrative of the Passion from the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but she takes on herself the ability to interpret the Bible, guided by grace, and emphasizes the distinctive roles that women and men played in their relations to Christ. Her confidence that she has interpreted the Bible correctly is evident in her challenge to Queene Anne: “judge if it agree not with the Text” (“To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie,” l. 76).

The story she tells is one of men's betrayal and women's faith. Following Matthew and Mark closely, she recounts how on “That very Night our Saviour was betrayed,” Christ “told his deere Disciples that they all / Should be offended by him” and forsake him (ll. 329, 337-38; cf. Matt. 26:31-33, Mark 14: 27-29), how Peter who “thought his Faith could never fall” and protested his constancy would before morning “deny” Christ three times (ll. 341, 345-46; cf. Matt. 26:34-35, Mark 14:30-31, Luke 22:33-34, John 13:37-38), and how Christ in Gethsemane told Peter and “the sonnes of Zebed'us” (James and John) of his sorrows (ll. 369-76) only to have them fall asleep rather than watch through the night (Matt. 26:40-45, Mark 14:37-38, Luke 22:45). While Matthew, Mark, and Luke (but not John) mention the sleeping apostles, Lanyer gives far more attention to this detail, drawing out its symbolic and spiritual significance:

But now returning to thy sleeping Friends,
That could not watch one houre for love of thee,
Even those three Friends, which on thy Grace depends,
Yet shut those Eies that should their Maker see;
What colour, what excuse, or what amends,
From thy Displeasure now can set them free?
          Yet thy pure Pietie bids them Watch and Pray,
          Lest in Temptation they be led away.
Although the Spirit was willing to obay,
Yet what great weakenesse in the Flesh was found!
They slept in Ease, whilst thou in Paine didst pray;
Loe, they in Sleepe, and thou in Sorow drown'd.

[ll. 417-28; cf. Mark 13:38]

But the sleep of the apostles signifies not just the inescapable weakness of the body—it is a defect of the heart: “Their eyes were heavie, and their hearts asleepe” (l. 465). The ominous sleeping, the fatal inattentiveness to Christ, anticipates their disloyalty when Christ's “foes” come to seize him: “all his deere Disciples do forsake him” (ll. 623-24).

Those deare Disciples that he most did love,
And were attendant at his becke and call,
When triall of affliction came to prove,
They first left him, who now must leave them all:
For they were earth, and he came from above,
Which made them apt to flie, and fit to fall:
          Though they protest they never will forsake him,
          They do like men, when dangers overtake them.

[ll. 625-32]

If Christ's apostles, his closest friends, “forsake” him, what can one expect of his enemies? Lanyer makes explicit what is implicit in the biblical accounts, that those responsible for Christ's death were all men: the Jewish high priest Caiaphas; the witnesses who make false charges; Judas, whose example shows that only “faithlesse dealing” “can be expected / From wicked Man” (ll. 737-39); Pontius Pilate, who consents to Christ's death and frees Barrabas; King Herod; the “Crier” and the “Hangman” (ll. 961, 963); and the “spightfull men [who] with torments did oppresse / Th'afflicted body” of Christ (ll. 993-94).

In sharp contrast to these men—who are guilty of contributing to Christ's death through evil, cowardice, or (in the case of Pilate) the desire to please Caesar (ll. 919-20)—are the women. Again relying closely on the New Testament Gospels for her evidence, but particularly on Luke, who distinctly emphasizes the importance of women in Christ's life, Lanyer presents women as the only ones to recognize Christ's innocence, remain constant in their devotion, and be moved by compassion.16 The tears of the Jewish women of Jerusalem elicit Christ's “grace” as he comforts them (Luke 23:27), though they cannot touch the men, whose “hearts [are] more hard than flint, or marble stone” (ll. 975, 1002). Elaborating on John's remark that Mary “stood by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25), the poem describes the sorrows of the Virgin Mary, presenting her as a model of devotion (ll. 1009-1104, 1129-36). Lanyer's extended attention to this “Blessed” “Mother of our Lord” (ll. 1032, 1031) recalls and perhaps revives the devotion to the Virgin Mary that blossomed in medieval Catholicism but withered with Protestantism.17 But it is Pilate's wife who drives home Lanyer's point that the women are the true believers and who articulates the significance of Christ's Passion, a significance Lanyer finds implicit in the New Testament accounts but either unobserved or suppressed by male writers who have interpreted the Passion.

The role of Pilate's wife is her most original and startling addition to the narrative of the Crucifixion. The Gospel according to Matthew mentions in passing, “Also when hee [Pilate] was set downe upon the judgement seate, his wife sent to him, saying, Have thou nothing to doe with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dreame by reason of him” (Matt. 27:19). But Lanyer expands the episode, giving the wife a ten-stanza speech that defends Jesus, offers an “Apologie” for Eve, and asserts women's rightful liberty. It is this speech that has struck her readers as most radical. Lanyer's earlier claim that she receives “divine illumination” in writing her poem sanctions her invention of this speech, authorizing her version, which adds to the known Gospels of the New Testament, much as Milton later in Paradise Regained will invoke God's special inspiration in order to write what had been “unrecorded left through many an Age” about the temptations of Christ.18 The argument of Pilate's wife's speech deserves further attention for its centrality in Lanyer's interpretation of the Crucifixion's significance.

The section begins as Lanyer, addressing Pilate, who is about to judge “faultlesse Jesus” (l. 746), tells him in close paraphrase of Matthew 27:19 to “heare the words of thy most worthy wife, / Who sends to thee, to beg her Saviours life” (ll. 751-52). It ends ten stanzas later as Lanyer paraphrases the last part of Matthew's verse:

Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;
Who did but dreame, and yet a message sent,
That thou should'st have nothing to doe at all
With that just man.

[ll. 834-37]

The stanzas in between are the “message” or “words” that Pilate's wife sent, though a certain indeterminacy of voice has led some critics to suggest this is Lanyer's speech rather than that of Pilate's wife (Hutson, p. 170; Lewalski, “Rewriting Patriarchy,” p. 103). The confusion of voice is significant, for the poet's identification with Pilate's wife—a woman who also had a dream, whose knowledge came from divine illumination—allows her to speak with and for her. The implication is that both women have not only interpretive power but the right and responsibility to speak publicly. The words of both women violate the codes of their respective societies that encourage the silence of women and their subordination to the authority of husbands. Far from yielding to her husband, Pilate's wife advises him, judges Jesus more justly, and makes her “words” public, sending them to him. Thus in her intervention, Pilate's wife provides Lanyer with an example for the role she herself assumes in publishing her devotional poem. That the wife's words went unrecorded in Matthew (and Matthew is the only apostle to mention her) may suggest the silencing of women's words by the men who wrote the Gospels, or their blindness to their importance—an omission Lanyer is out to correct.

The warning to Pilate to “open thine eyes” yields to a defense of Eve contrasting her small, innocent sin with the sin Pilate commits in condemning Jesus. In Lanyer's reading of the brief narrative of the Fall in Genesis—the text that, subjected to the exegesis of men throughout history, had been used to sanction the authority of men and the inferiority and submission of women to their husbands—Eve appears “simply good” (l. 765), possessing an “undiscerning Ignorance” that allowed her to be “deceav'd” by the “cunning” of the “subtile Serpent” (ll. 769, 773, 769). Though Lanyer's indictment of Adam as “most too blame” (l. 778) because he was stronger and “Lord and King of all” (l. 783) may seem sophistical, her emphasis on Eve's simplicity and on her generous nature (her “fault was onely too much love, / Which made her give this present to her Deare,” ll. 801-2) could be considered a plausible interpretation of the biblical account (Gen. 3:1-6). Even more important, however, in a single move that overturns centuries of exegesis, Lanyer turns Eve's credulity into a virtue, much as she had turned her own weakness of “Sexe” and “Sense” into a strength. For Eve's credulity is presented as an innate tendency to believe and trust, that is, a disposition to faith—and thus her simple credulity links her to the receptive, humble faith that the Virgin Mary shows in receiving the visitation from God (she “could hardly apprehend” Gabriel's “salutation,” “Nor couldst [she] judge, whereto those words did tend,” ll. 1058-60) and to the faith of all the women who believe in Christ and instinctively acknowledge his innocence and divinity. The credulity and gullibility of Eve is but the reverse side of the faith that sustains these women and distinguishes them from the men who, either weak in faith or moved by hate rather than love, are complicit in the Crucifixion.

Because Pilate's act is far worse than Eve's sin, it lessens her guilt: Eve's “weakenesse did the Serpents words obay; / But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray” (ll. 815-16). While Lanyer follows Genesis in acknowledging that men “had power given to over-rule us all” (l. 760; cf. Gen. 3:16), she argues that Pilate's sin—and by extension men's role in crucifying Christ—invalidates and revokes God's sentence subjecting Eve and her female descendents to their husbands' authority. If Pilate condemns Jesus to die,

Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it.
          This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
          As doth the Sunne, another little starre.
Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
          If one weake woman simply did offend,
          This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

[ll. 818-20, 823-32]

Here in this crucial passage, Lanyer offers a new understanding of the significance of Christ's crucifixion. Rather than simply following the tradition from Paul and Augustine through Luther and Calvin that interprets the Crucifixion as generally abrogating the human bondage to sin, to the flesh, and to the Mosaic laws that Christians believed were the mark of human bondage to sin, Lanyer sees it as, in addition, specifically redeeming women, liberating them from their subjection to men under the Law.19 Just as the “sleeping” apostles and the otherwise treacherous men failed to see what the women saw in Christ, so Lanyer implies that throughout the history of Christianity the male apostles who interpreted the events of the Passion and, after them, the male interpreters of the Bible have failed not only to recognize women's devotion to the sacred but also to understand the full significance of the events surrounding the Crucifixion. Though her version of the Passion is closely based on the “facts” and words of the New Testament, her interpretation is independent of church tradition. Identifying with the women who from the beginning accepted Jesus, and especially with Pilate's wife, Lanyer claims the authority to interpret the Bible and the meaning of Christ's Crucifixion for humankind. In her Gospel, Christ's Passion reverses the order that gave men “power … to over-rule us all,” undoing the punishment that God placed on Eve and cancelling the bondage of women. Speaking through and with Pilate's wife, as if she were present at Christ's Passion, Lanyer insists that now—with Pilate's condemnation of Jesus—there is a new dispensation that should make women the “equals” of men, “free” from their “tyranny.” But the fact that she is also writing in seventeenth-century England and protesting the continued subjection of women suggests that Christ's redemption, which should have changed the social order, has yet to be enacted on earth.

For Lanyer, Christ's Passion and his teachings bear significance for transforming the secular order of society as well as humans' spiritual relation with God. Recalling the early Christians and anticipating the radical Protestants of the mid-seventeenth-century English Civil War, Lanyer recognizes the radical message of Christ's life and death for reordering society. Many of the teachings of Jesus were socially revolutionary. The pronouncements that the last shall be first, and that the meek shall inherit the earth, inverted the social and economic orders of secular society and thus were considered dangerously subversive in the centuries before Christianity became the established religion of Rome. Similarly defiant of the contemporary social order were Christ's teachings suggesting that the true Christian should cast off the bonds of marriage and family to follow Christ: “if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26); “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife” (1 Cor. 7:32-33). For all the seeming worldliness of Lanyer's concern for patronage, she recaptures something of the revolutionary spirit of Christianity in her interpretation of the Passion as calling for a radical reordering of society even in her own time. Properly understood, Lanyer suggests, Christianity undoes not only the power hierarchy in which the strong dominate the weak, but also the socially constructed gender hierarchy in which men rule over women—an order that characterized early seventeenth-century England much as it did Roman and Jewish societies in the time of Christ, and that was inscribed in the social codes of marriage that were understood to uphold the larger social order.

In early seventeenth-century England, marriage, far from circumscribing a fully private sphere, was part of the public world. Like the homily on marriage, the numerous marriage conduct books, with their various prescriptions for women's obedience, all assume the value of marriage in sustaining the order of society. While it is often mentioned that the marital conduct books of this period show the Puritan valuing of companionate marriage (in contrast to the supposed Catholic privileging of celibacy and virginity), in Protestant England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries marriage was particularly valued because it was understood to embody, encourage, and preserve a hierarchical social order. Domestic order mirrors and breeds order within the church and state. As Robert Cleaver puts it in A Godly Forme of Houshold Government, “a Household is as it were a little Common-wealth.”20 Given this close connection between marriage and the social order, it is far from coincidental that Aemelia Lanyer's poem, with its socially radical interpretation of the Passion as offering a new liberty to women, also implicitly rejects the institution of marriage.

Lanyer praises those women whose devotion to Christ has taken the place of earthly, human marriages: the Virgin Mary, who is “Farre from desire of any man” (l. 1077, her marriage to Joseph is erased from Lanyer's text), and Margaret Clifford, who as a widow refuses to entertain the “desires / Of idle Lovers” (ll. 1550-51) and is completely faithful to Christ, whom she has chosen to be her sole “Lord” and “Lover” (ll. 1705, 1398). Her prefatory poems encourage women to take Christ as their bridegroom, to put on “wedding garments” (“To all vertuous Ladies in generall,” l. 8) and take him into “your soules pure bed” (“To the Ladie Susan,” l. 42). In Salve Deus, she tells Margaret Clifford that Christ is the “Bridegroome” from whom she “shalt never be estrang'd” (ll. 77, 60)—a phrase that evokes the countess's former unhappy marriage, in which for a number of years she lived apart from her philandering husband. Drawing on the familiar biblical analogy between human marriage and the relation between the individual believer (or the Church) and Christ, particularly as developed in centuries of Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs, Lanyer presents Christ as the only “true” “Lover” (l. 1267), the only husband a woman needs.

This is that Bridegroome that appeares so faire,
So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight,
That unto Snowe we may his face compare,
His cheekes like skarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milke, to give the more delight;
          His head is likened to the finest gold,
          His curled lockes so beauteous to behold;
Blacke as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like skarlet threeds, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew,
Or hony combes, where all the Bees doe meete;
Yea, he is constant, and his words are true,
His cheekes are beds of spices, flowers sweet;
          His lips, like Lillies, dropping downe pure mirrhe,
          Whose love, before all worlds we doe preferre.

[ll. 1305-20]

In a sense, this appropriation of the Song of Songs is conventional, as is her eroticization of the relationship between the countess and Christ: the language of human, erotic love is the only language we have for apprehending divine, spiritual love. But rather than emphasizing the congruence between secular and sacred love, Lanyer draws the analogy only to reject secular love, arguing that Christ is the only true object of our love and fulfills all our desires. Whereas the interpretations of the Song of Songs in the Middle Ages saw Solomon and Sheba's marriage not only as describing the relation between Christ and the Church but as validating or sacramentalizing human marriage and thus supporting the social order (Astell, pp. 31, 63, 179), Lanyer's reading of the Song of Songs ultimately points to a rejection of earthly marriage. Although Lanyer's praise of the Queen of Sheba might initially seem to validate a reordered human marriage in emphasizing the equality between Solomon and Sheba (“Here Majestie with Majestie did meete, / Wisdome to Wisdome yeelded true content,” ll. 1585-86) and celebrating female agency (she fearlessly travels over “sea and land” to pursue her “Desire,” ll. 1604-1601), the example of Solomon and Sheba actually yields to the greater example of Margaret's passion for Christ, which leaves actual, secular marriage behind as something no longer necessary for the fulfilment of Christian women:

Yet this rare Phoenix of that worne-out age,
This great majesticke Queene comes short of thee,
Who to an earthly Prince did then ingage
Her hearts desires, her love, her libertie,
Acting her glorious part upon a Stage
Of weaknesse, frailtie, and infirmity:
          Giving all honour to a Creature, due
          To her Creator, whom shee never knew.
But loe, a greater thou hast sought and found
Than Salomon in all his royaltie;
And unto him thy faith most firmely bound
To serve and honour him continually.

[ll. 1689-1700]

Ultimately, the Salve uses the language of love and marriage to reject marriage in favour of a celibacy that recalls not so much the Catholic privileging of virginity as the socially revolutionary stance of those women and men in the early centuries of Christianity who, following Christ's teachings, chose virginity, repudiating the institution of marriage that was the foundation of their society, and disdaining to perpetuate that society by producing offspring.21 The rejection of secular marriage in the Salve may also recall Queen Elizabeth's refusal to marry so as not to compromise her authority by having a man “over” her. Whatever one makes of Lanyer's position as mistress of Lord Hunsdon in the early 1590s, her 1611 poem, with its revolutionary gospel spirit, its sense of exclusive devotion to Christ, its sense that earthly loves and marriages conflict with marriage to God, aligns itself with those passages in the New Testament in which Christ teaches that “The children of this world marrie and are married. But they which shalbe counted worthy to enjoy that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marrie wives, nor are married” (Luke 20:34-35; cf. Matt. 22:30). It is notable that many of the women she dedicated her poetry to were in some sense independent of, or in conflict with, the authority of husbands.22 Moreover, while her inclusion of mothers and daughters seems to emphasize family and lineage, sons and husbands are conspicuously absent in her addresses to contemporary women—almost as if these women, as she says of Christ, exist “without the assistance of man” (“To the Vertuous Reader,” p. 49).

The rejection of marriage in the Salve is an integral part of Aemilia Lanyer's socially radical understanding of the meaning of Christ's Passion. To reject marriage is to undo the hierarchical social order in which men rule over women, thus freeing women from bondage to men and thus fulfilling the redemptive significance of Christ's Passion. If the goal of life is union with Christ in heaven at the end of the world, then marriage, with its commitment to reproduction, only delays that goal. Moreover, for a woman to choose Christ as her only Spouse, her true lover, is not just to be devoted to God but to reject the authority of any earthly husband, an authority understood in early seventeenth-century England to be representative of the authority of all earthly magistrates, particularly the king. Hence her argument has strongly subversive implications. King James well expressed this notion of the symbolic authority of husbands when, in his speech to his first English Parliament (19 March 1603), he compared the union between the monarch and his subjects to marriage: “I am the Husband, and all the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife. I am the Head, and it is my Body” (Political Works, p. 272).

James's comment here, which genders the notion of obedience as it insists on the interconnection between marital and political order, echoes Paul's comments in Ephesians comparing a well-ordered marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church:

Wives, submit your selves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the wives head, even as Christ is the head of the Church, and the same is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is in subjection to Christ, even so let the wives bee to their husbands in every thing. … So ought men to love their wives, as their owne bodies: he that loveth his wife, loveth himselfe. … This is a great secret, but I speak concerning Christ, and concerning the Church. Therefore every one of you, doe yee so: let every one love his wife, even as himselfe, and let the wife see that shee feare her husband.

[Ephesians 5:22-24, 28, 32-33]

Paul's analogy identifies the husband with Christ and the head, the wife with the Church and the body, defining a mutual dependence and “love” based on woman's “subjection” and “submission,” which is seen as necessary for a well-ordered society. These foundational verses from Ephesians, as well as other New Testament verses on marriage in which the apostles gave prescriptions for women's behavior, were enormously influential in Lanyer's time.23 Cited in the “Homilie on … Matrimonie” and marital conduct treatises, they were used to give religious sanction to the established social and political order. Frances Dillingham's Christian Oeconomy opens with the passage from Colossians 3:18, “wives subject yourselves to your husbands, as it is meete in the Lord,” and quotes Paul's advice in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit not a woman to teach, neither to usurpe authoritie over the man, but to be in silence”). Robert Cleaver's A Godly Forme of Household Government, the most popular of these books (it went through nine editions between 1598 and 1624), repeatedly cites Ephesians 5:22-27 to encourage wives' obedience to their husbands, sometimes invoking a number of biblical passages in powerful combination: “wives [should] submit themselves, and be obedient to their owne husbands, as to the Lord, because the husband is by Gods ordinance, the wives head, … and therefore she oweth her subjection to him, like as the Church doth to Christ; and because [of] the example of Sarah, the mother of the faithfull, which obeyed Abraham and called him Lord” (Ephes. 5:22, 1 Cor. 11:3, 1 Pet. 3:6, Ephes. 5:24, cited in margin).24

Perhaps these conduct books, with all their emphasis on women's subjection, described an ideal at odds with actual practice. The point I wish to make, however, is that in all these treatises the apostles, particularly Paul and Peter, are understood to provide unshakable biblical authority for prescriptions about domestic order, seen as the basis of all order in society. These apostolic verses are precisely the ones Lanyer so insistently defies in the Salve, as she gives women a public voice, insists on their equality or even superiority, and argues against the authority of men to rule them.25 The argument of the entire poem, as well as of “Eves Apologie,” constitutes a firm rejection of those New Testament verses in which the apostles rigorously prescribed wives' submission to the authority of their husbands. The evidence of Lanyer's poem thus suggests her recognition of a fundamental contradiction or discontinuity between Christ's teachings, which subverted the social order of Roman and Jewish society and emphasized the equality of the sexes, and those interpretations of Christ's message by his disciples that perpetuated the subjection of women.

The Salve reveals a surprisingly sophisticated hermeneutics, touched by a skepticism about the Bible one would not expect to find in the seventeenth century, for she clearly distinguishes between, on the one hand, Jesus's words and the “facts” of the Gospels and, on the other, the moral, domestic, and social prescriptions concerning women made by the male disciples and authors of the books of the New Testament. In a fundamentally Protestant move, Lanyer returns to the words of Christ, rejecting later human interpretations and accretions. But she goes considerably further than most of her Protestant contemporaries, for she rejects many of the apostolic texts themselves as corruptions of Christ's teachings. A discriminating reader of the text of the Bible, she suggests that all of its words are not equally inspired and authoritative. For Lanyer, the prescriptions of Paul and the other disciples for ordering/subjecting women and for silencing them in the Church—principles at odds with the teachings and actions of Christ as recorded in the Bible—prove to be misinterpretations of Christ's message that, supported by centuries of Christian commentary, have perpetuated the very bondage the Crucifixion was to have abrogated.

Finally, it is not only confidence in divine inspiration that allows Lanyer to claim religious authority; it is also her identification with a uniquely privileged woman, the Virgin Mary. Her description of the “blessed Virgin” (l. 1025)—of “meane estate” and “lowly mind,” “hardly [able to] apprehend” Gabriel's salutation, yet deserving that “the Holy Ghost should … overshadow thee” (ll. 1034-35, 1058-59, 1082-84)—mirrors Lanyer's sense of herself as lowly (“To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie,” ll. 109-14, 127-28), “Weake” in “Sexe” and “Sense,” and fully receptive to God's grace and illumination (ll. 289-302). In what is perhaps a Protestant revision of Catholic mariolatry, the Virgin Mary becomes a pattern for the individual woman's unmediated connection with the divine. Like the Virgin Mary, Lanyer has been “chosen” to be a vessel for Christ (“To the doubtfull Reader”; cf. Salve Deus, l. 1030). Thus her poem contains Christ. She presents his “picture” as something the Countess of Cumberland can keep in her “heart” and draw spiritual nourishment from (ll. 1325-28). But her prose dedication to the countess insists she is offering not simply an image or picture, but God himself: “Right Honourable and Excellent Lady … I present unto you even our Lord Jesus himselfe. … Therefore good Madame, to the most perfect eyes of your understanding, I deliver the inestimable treasure of all elected soules, to bee perused at convenient times” (pp. 34-35; italics mine).26 The language here suggests that she is like the priests of the church who in celebrating Holy Communion offer Christ to the congregation.27 Finding in Mary a precedent for a female priesthood, for woman's worthiness to contain and offer up God for human salvation, Lanyer thus assumes for herself something like the public, priestly power denied to women within the institution of the Christian church. In this assumption of a priestly function, she turns to women's advantage the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. But she is also a true descendent of the early Christian women who believed they had the right to preach and even baptize, and of the medieval holy women who, as Bynum says, “saw themselves as authorized to teach, counsel, serve, and heal by mystical experience rather than by office” (Holy Feast, p. 235) and thus challenged the exclusive, intimate connection with God enjoyed by the priest.28 Lanyer's presumption of this authority was certainly radical in 1611. But even today, the idea that women might bear priestly authority remains intensely controversial—witness the furor over the decision to allow the ordination of women in the Church of England, a decision prompting clergy as well lay Anglicans to consider conversion to Roman Catholicism. Claiming the authority to reinterpret the Bible and the significance of the Crucifixion, joining the ranks of the (male) apostles and correcting their prescriptions for human behavior where they diverge from what seems to her the message of Jesus, Aemilia Lanyer takes the next logical step and defies the assumption that the priesthood is an exclusively male privilege.


  1. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), esp. ch. 1 (pp. 5-32), discusses Christianity within the cultural context not only of Rome but of the first-century Jews. See also Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988). On women's roles in early Judaism and early Christianity, see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983). On the discontinuities about woman implicit in the two creation stories in Genesis, and their complex development through centuries of Christian tradition, see James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987). New Testament references are to the Geneva Bible (1602 ed.); i/j and u/v have been modernized.

  2. The marginal annotations on these passages in the 1607 printing of the third (1602) ed. of the “Geneva” New Testament, based on Beza, point out that the “covering” of women “declareth that the woman is one degree beneath the man by the ordinance of God,” and that “having their heades covered … was then [in Paul's time] a signe of subjection.” The Geneva Bible (The Annotated New Testament, 1602 Edition), ed. Gerald T. Sheppard, Pilgrim Classic Commentaries, vol. 1 (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), p. 85r.

  3. See Pagels's account of the heroism of Thecla and Perpetua (ch. 1-2). Brown (p. 145) notes the important role of women in the church by 200 c.e., though Pagels implies that as early as the deutero-Pauline letters of the New Testament (particularly Timothy 1 and 2, and Ephesians) there was an attempt to suppress the empowering of women evident in the case of Thecla, who claimed that women could teach and baptize (ch. 1, esp. pp. 24-26). See Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, 2 vols. (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1948), Bk. 14 ch. 7 (II, 10-12), Bk. 15 ch. 20, and Bk. 15 ch. 22-23 (II, 84-89, 91-97) on the association of woman with flesh, which tempts man from God. On subjection in marriage as the model of order, see Augustine, City of God, Bk. 14. ch. 7 (II, 10-12), Bk. 19 ch. 14 and 16 (II, 322-23, 325-26) and Pagel's discussion of Augustine (p. 114). On the association of woman with the flesh, see also Brown's discussion of Ambrose (pp. 348-49) and Jerome (pp. 375-77), Pagel's discussion of Augustine, esp. pp. 113-14, and Ann W. Astell's discussion of Origen in The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), esp. pp. 2-5. Brown and Pagels emphasize the powerful influence of Augustine on Christianity and, indeed, Western values (Brown, ch. 19; Pagels, ch. 5).

  4. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

  5. Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), esp. Introduction (pp. 1-21), and “Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta” (pp. 170-262). Bynum (Holy Feast) argues that the increased power of the clergy was related to the late medieval proliferation of holy women, for these women claimed an immediate, intimate experience of God that was similar to that enjoyed by the priest. Astell sees a distinctly positive valuing of the feminine in religious experience in medieval interpretations of Canticles.

  6. On the Protestant suppression of the feminine aspect of Catholic spirituality, see Maureen Sabine, Feminine Engendered Faith: The Poetry of John Donne and Richard Crashaw (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 1-42, and Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England, 1500-1720 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 21-37.

  7. Elaine V. Beilin, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), discusses the Reformist women prose writers and poets, some of whom contributed to religious polemic (see esp. pp. 48-150). On women's status as defined in English Protestant writings, particularly in relation to Roman Catholicism, see also Charles H. George and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation, 1570-1640 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 258-65, 275-89.

  8. A. L. Rowse, Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer (New York: Scribners, 1974); Rowse, “Introduction: Shakespeare's Dark Lady,” in The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1979), pp. 1-37.

  9. Barbara K. Lewalski observes: “The title of Lanyer's volume promises, somewhat misleadingly, a collection of religious poetry” (“Re-writing Patriarchy and Patronage: Margaret Clifford, Anne Clifford, and Aemilia Lanyer,” Yearbook of English Studies 21 [1991]: 98). See also Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 213-41. Lewalski stresses the secular aspect of the volume as a “defense and celebration of the enduring community of good women” (Writing Women, p. 213).

  10. On Elizabeth, see Sabine, p. 13; Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), pp. 117-28, esp. p. 126, and Phillippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989), who emphasizes the importance of Elizabeth's spiritual authority, noting also that the queen assumed the title “supreme governor” of the Church rather than “supreme head,” the title of Henry VIII (pp. 65-66). On James, see Sabine (p. 25) and Jonathan Goldberg, “Fatherly Authority: The Politics of Stuart Family Images,” in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, ed., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 3-32. For James's writings, see The Trew Law of Free Monarchies and his first speech to the English Parliament, in The Political Works of James I, intro. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), pp. 55, 273.

  11. Lewalski, Writing Women, p. 18. See also Leeds Barroll, “The Court of the First Stuart Queen,” in Linda Levy Peck, ed., The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 191-208.

  12. Holy Bible [King James Authorized Version] (London, 1611), dedicatory epistle “To the Most High and Mightie Prince James,” sig. A2v. Janel Mueller, “The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,’” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Christanne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 208-36—and in the revised version of this essay that appears in this volume—mentions the publication of the King James Bible as part of the context for the Salve (Keller and Miller, p. 215; and see above, chapter 6).

  13. An Homilie of the State of Matrimonie insists wives should suffer in silence and “be quiet,” for they will get their reward hereafter; in Certaine Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth I (1547-1571), Facsimile Reprod. of the Edition of 1623, intro. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup, 2 vols. in one (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), II, 245. On women's silence, see William Whately, A Bride-Bush. Or, A Direction for Married Persons (London, 1623), pp. 200-1; Robert Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Houshold Government (London, 1603), p. 230: “The best meanes therefore that a wife can use to obtaine, and maintaine the love and good liking of her husband, is to be silent, obedient, peaceable.”

  14. In her emphasis on the role of women, Lanyer is closest to Luke, the one gospel written by someone who did not claim to have witnessed the Crucifixion.

  15. The question of whether a woman could have written one of the Gospels is intriguing. Among the Gnostic Gospels purporting to be the secret teachings of Jesus condemned as heretical (most of which were discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945) is a Gospel supposedly by Mary Magdalen. On the Gospel of Mary, see Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 61, and Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), pp. 11-14, 64-65. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, argues for the importance of recovering “the women disciples and what they have done” (p. xiv).

  16. Lorna Hutson, “Why the Lady's Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” in Isobel Armstrong, ed., New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 154-75, aptly observes: “Lanyer figures the climax of the narrative as a drama of interpretation, in which women elicit radiance and meaning from the event which had remained mute and indecipherable to masculine exegesis” (p. 170). Mueller, “Feminist Poetics,” notes the “pattern of fundamental misprision exhibited by all of the males in the story … while the female poet unfailingly understands what and who Jesus is” (p. 222).

  17. Beilin (p. 198) observes Lanyer's emphasis on Mary but does not see the possible Catholic significance of this. Instead, she sees Lanyer's poetry as “ardently Protestant” (p. 182). Lewalski observes that many of the dedications are to women “linked through kinship or marriage with the Sidney-Leicester faction,” which was strongly Protestant (Writing Women, p. 221). However, two of Lanyer's dedicatees—Queen Anne and Lady Arabella Stuart—had Roman Catholic connections; Anne may even have converted. Certain aspects of her poem (particularly the attention to the Virgin Mary, who has thirteen stanzas devoted to her) make the label “Protestant” problematic.

  18. John Milton, Paradise Regained, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1957), 1.16.

  19. See Augustine, City of God, Bk. 15 ch. 2-3 (II, 51-53), Luther, Treatise on Christian Liberty, in Works of Martin Luther, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1916), pp. 312-48, and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, 5th American edition, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), Bk. 2, ch. 11 (I, 405-19), Bk. 3, ch. 19 (II, 62-76).

  20. Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Houshold Government, p. 13. See also William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1623), “the family is a seminary of the Church and common-wealth” (p. 17); and An Homilie of the State of Matrimonie. On the analogy of family and politics, particularly in the Stuart period, see Gordon Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes especially in Seventeenth Century England (New York: Basic Books, 1975), pp. 54-84, and Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 152-54.

  21. Brown (esp. pp. 1-4, 5-102) gives an eloquent, sympathetic explanation of the socially revolutionary significance of sexual renunciation for the early ascetic Christians. See also Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, esp. ch. 1, 2, 4. Brown points out the social usefulness of Augustine's later defense of marriage in a society where “the security of the Catholic church depended on the authority of male heads of households” (p. 404).

  22. Queen Anne had a separate court as well as a relatively separate life from her husband, King James, who was known for his homoerotic attachments to male favorites. (See Lewalski, Writing Women, pp. 15-43, on Anne's “oppositional politics”). The queen's daughter, Elizabeth, was as yet unmarried; the Dowager Countess of Kent and Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, were both widows; Margaret's daughter, Anne Clifford, was to be in conflict for many years with her husband as she struggled to gain legal rights to her inheritance from her father.

  23. As Pagels (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 23-26) and Brown (p. 57) have shown, the deutero-Pauline writings, which include Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy, endorse marriage and thus “correct” the preference for celibacy and sexual renunciation in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:1, 7-8), though the sense of gender hierarchy remains generally consistent throughout the Pauline epistles.

  24. An Homilie of the State of Matrimonie, esp. p. 242; Francis Dillingham, Christian Oeconomy: or Houshold Government (London, 1609), pp. 1, 11; Cleaver, p. 224. For further examples of reliance on these biblical verses, see also Whately and Gouge. 1 Peter 3:1, 5-6 (“let the wives bee subiect to their husbandes. … For even after this maner in time past did the holy women, which trusted in God tire themselves, & were subject to their husbands. As Sara obeyed Abraham, and called him Sir”), which Cleaver paraphrases, was regularly invoked to encourage women's proper “reverence.” See An Homilie … of Matrimonie, pp. 242-43; Whately, p. 203; Gouge, p. 283.

  25. On the differences between the Pauline and deutero-Pauline texts on women and sexuality, see Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 23-25; on the differences between these texts concerning marriage, see Brown, pp. 44-58; and on the contradictions in Paul concerning gender, see Daniel Boyarin, “Paul and the Genealogy of Gender,” Representations 41 (winter 1993): 1-33.

  26. Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), points out that Lanyer creates her authorial role as “her text becomes the Word Incarnate”; “her published text becomes Christ” (pp. 324-25).

  27. Cf. 1 Peter 2:5, 9 on the faithful as a holy priesthood. But Peter implies it is men who speak God's words and minister (4:10-11). In her claims for being able to “present” Christ, Lanyer recalls the medieval holy women who, Bynum has argued, were assuming the power of priests to handle and enjoy God (“Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta,” in Jesus as Mother, pp. 170-262).

  28. Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 24, observes that early Christian women claimed the right to preach and baptize.

Susanne Woods (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Woods, Susanne. “Lanyer and English Religious Verse.” In Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet, pp. 126-62. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Woods discusses Lanyer's religious verse and places her among several key religious poets, including John Donne and John Milton.]

Religion defined the social, political, and intellectual life of medieval and Renaissance Europe. From the imperialist folly of the Crusades to individual sacrifices, from cathedrals and epics to vestments and sonnets, religion also infused and transported the period's artistic imagination. Today many find it hard to grasp the ubiquity and power of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It underlay virtually every assumption about the nature, purpose, and value of life, and what appear to us as small differences within a hegemonic worldview were reasons for debate, imprisonment, and even martyrdom.

The seventeenth century is the great age of English religious verse. Stimulated in part by the Protestant focus on the Word and in part by the vivid piety of the Counter-Reformation, poets struggled to articulate their personal relationship with the divine. Religious verse was of course not new to England in this period. The greatest portion of extant medieval English verse is occasioned by religious themes, but they represent a religion so integrally a part of the rhythms of human life that the sacred and secular are often barely separable. The Second Shepherd's Play is a celebration of Christ's Nativity, but it is also a jolly comedic romp, and even Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have an overlay of pious intention. Petrarchan love lyrics seem remote from religion, until we remember the Christianized Neoplatonism that subsequent writers (such as Ficino and Spenser) derived from the last third of the Canzoniere.

Through the sixteenth century religious lyrics were characteristically translations and imitations of the Psalms. Considered the “compendium par excellence of lyric poetry” by Reformation lyricists, the Book of Psalms appeared in over three hundred English editions by 1640 and provided models for a wide range of topics and approaches to religious experience and feelings.1 Lanyer grew up surrounded by these verses. In addition to the Sternhold-Hopkins common meter Whole Booke of Psalmes (1562) which had a long life as the principal hymnal of Protestant worship, she would have known Anne Vaughan Lock's sonnet sequence based on Psalm 51, and she cites the Sidney-Pembroke Psalms as an important model for her own verse.2

Poets such as Lanyer, Donne, and Herbert move toward a more personalized religious expression. As the energy of the Reformation drew away from issues of national to issues of individual identity, it seems to have promoted a new intensity in the religious lyrics of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The break with Rome and subsequent schisms, the access to a vernacular Bible, the emphasis on individual conscience all served to make religious interpretation more subjective and therefore more tenuous, vexed, and urgent. Even Catholic writers are forced into a more considered and dangerous piety, as Church and State were thought to be inseparable and recusancy therefore treasonous.

Lanyer writes of religion in the midst of this ferment and at the beginning of the great age of English religious poetry. Her central poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, summarizes and challenges key Protestant beliefs and presents a view of Christ's passion in some details not unlike Counter-Reformation piety. In this she rehearses some of the varied religious discourse of the period, at the same time challenging the authorities by which it was traditionally dispensed: men in power.

This chapter situates Lanyer as a poet among a few of her key Protestant and Catholic predecessors; her best-known contemporary among writers of religious verse, John Donne; and two of her brilliant successors, with whom she had affinities, Herbert and Milton.


Two important differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine recur consistently in both popular and polemical literature of the sixteenth century: whether salvation is a function of faith or of works, and whether Christ exists memorially or corporeally (the doctrine of “transubstantiation”) in the sacrament of bread and wine. Protestants believed that faith in Jesus Christ alone brought salvation, though good works would issue, through God's grace, from a proper faith. Catholics believed that good works were pleasing to God, and a community of good works could bolster the lagging sinner; the model and mediation of saints were therefore properly invoked as part of that community of salvific work. Protestants reduced the number of sacraments (“certain and sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us”) from seven to two, baptism and communion, “the Supper of the Lord.”3 The latter, the blessing and partaking of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, though it comes from the tradition of the Catholic mass, was carefully distinguished from Catholic teaching: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine [into the physical body and blood of Christ, as the Catholics taught]) … is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.”4

For Protestants (and especially for Calvinists) human nature since the fall was utterly degenerate and therefore incapable of works that could be redemptive; faith alone, itself a gift from God, could save a sinner. According to the Calvinist catechism, “all suche workes as we doe of our selves, by our Nature are utterly corrupte: whereof it followeth necessarily, that thei can not please GOD, but rather do procure his wrath, and he condempneth them every one.” When the catechizing minister asks the child how the works “whiche we doe by vertue of [God's] Spirite” may be made acceptable to God, the child properly answers, “by faithe onely.”5 For Catholics, human nature became perverted and distorted but not utterly debased. A man or woman could and should be a partner with God, sharing in the good works made possible by Christ's redeeming sacrifice. When the child in the Catholic catechism asks his master why, “if Christ have satisfied his Father for the sinnes of all men … we have neede to doe penance for our sinnes,” he receives this response:

Christ hath satisfied for the sins of all men: but it is necessarie to aplie this satisfaction in particular to this man and to that man, which is done by faith, by the Sacraments, by good workes, and particularlie by penance: and therefore we have neede to do penance and other good works, though Christ have suffered, and wrought for us.6

These doctrines had implications for how a poet might approach and represent religious matters. In general, a Protestant poet might reflect on his or her condition and seek God's grace, or celebrate and enhance a faith already in place in another. Since Christ is the source and only mediator of the divine, and since works could contribute nothing at all to attain salvation, Protestant verse tends to focus on the penitent's sense of sin, longing for grace, and relationship with Christ. Catholic verse, on the other hand, though it may be equally focused on the need for repentance, may invoke the mediation of saints and may treat the contemplation of Christ's and saints' lives as a holy work. Further, as Catholic iconography and doctrine is more corporeal, Catholic poetic language tends to emphasize the incarnational aspects of the divine, while Protestant language tends to be more analytic and intellectual.7 Catholic language tends to be tropic, with symbols and extended metaphors, while Protestant language tends to be schematic, its artistry in analytical devices such as parallelism and contrast, and its passion in repetition.

The concluding few lines of Lock's second introductory sonnet to the Psalm 51 sequence illustrate the Protestant sense of sin, conveying emotion in the schematic play and repetition of key words and phrasings:

Yet blinde, alas, I groape about for grace.
While blinde for grace I groape about in vaine,
My fainting breath I gather up and straine,
Mercie, mercie, to crye and crye againe.(8)

(ll. 11-14)

A similarly penitential lyric by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, “A vale of teares,” uses rich and sensuous description to allegorize the suffering soul:

A vale there is enwrapt with dreadfull shades,
With thicke of mourning pines shrouds from the sunne,
Where hanging clifts yeld short and dumpish glades,
And snowie floud with broken streames doth runne,

(ll. 1-4)

.....Where waters wrastle with encountring stones,
That breake their streames, and turne them into foame,
The hollow clouds full frought with thundering groans,
With hideous thumps discharge their pregnant wombe.(9)

(ll. 13-16)

These are only general tendencies. Most poets use metaphor, and all poets structure verse schematically. Lanyer is particularly interesting because her use of these devices blurs some of the doctrinal distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism. There is no reason to believe her faith was anything other than the Reform Protestantism in which she was apparently raised, particularly given the centrality of Christ to all her extant poems, but her expression of that faith, though it contains typically Protestant language, includes visual and sensual elements more similar to her Catholic than to her Protestant predecessors.

Lanyer's references to Christ make ample use of the biblical and attributive epithets common to Protestant poetics. He is a “mightie monarch,” “humbled king,” “king of kings,” “King of Heaven and Monarch of the Earth.”10 He is the “Paschall lambe,” “this Lambe,” “pure unspotted Lambe,” “sweet lambe of God,” “this siely lambe.”11 He is also the “Saviour in a Shepherds weed,” “the Shepheard,” “the rock,” the “watchman.”12 Above all, he is “The Bridegroome” of the women for whom Lanyer writes.13

Yet Lanyer's imagery is more insistently physical than we might expect from a Protestant poet. If Lanyer is presenting the crucifixion as a text that a woman must learn to read, she encodes its meaning in the body and blood of Jesus. So she presents the figure of Christ to “All Vertuous Ladies” “In bloody torments” (l. 60) and to “Lucie, Countess of Bedford”

          … all stuck with pale deaths arrows:
In whose most pretious wounds your soule may reade
Salvation, while he (dying Lord) doth bleed.

(ll. 12-14)

She assures “Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk” that Christ in his death is “writing the Covenant with his most pretious blood,” presents him “Crowned with thornes, and bathing in his blood,” and urges her to see his beauty, his “faire corps,” in the “rose, vermillion” of his “precious blood” (ll. 47, 62, 80-82). Christ's blood drenches the Salve Deus, from the scripturally derived description of his agony in Gethsemane, where “his pretious sweat came trickling to the ground, / Like drops of blood” (ll. 406-08; Luke 22:44), to the imaginative vision of Christ on the cross, “His blessed blood watring his pierced feet” (l. 1176).14 At the center of Lanyer's salvation story is a bloody Christ who hangs like the crucifix in a Catholic church.

There is no direct match in approach and vision among her older poetic contemporaries. Among Lanyer's most likely models are the two Protestant women poets already mentioned, Anne Lock (c. 1533-c. 1590) and Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621). She would have known the former because of connections between the Bassano and Vaughan families, and of course she explicitly mentions the Psalms of the latter.15 Among men whose work Lanyer certainly or possibly knew, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) and his friend Fulke Greville (1554-1628) wrote religious poems in the Reform Protestant tradition, while another Elizabethan courtier of Lanyer's time, Henry Constable (1562-1613), wrote religious sonnets that reflect his conversion to Catholicism.16 The poems of the Catholic priest Robert Southwell (1561-95) were published shortly after his execution, and show some interesting resemblances to Lanyer's language in Salve Deus. The Protestant and Catholic approaches illustrated by these six poets show Lanyer to be Protestant in her basic theology, but unconventional in her poeticizing of religious materials.17

Here I focus principally on poems about salvation and penitence, since these are topics Lanyer and the other six poets clearly share. The models for these topics are largely biblical and often refer to the Psalms and the Canticles, or Song of Songs, as metaphoric resources. The Psalms provided a variety of ways in which the individual soul might approach God, while the Canticles were considered an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or Christ and the individual soul.18 These several poets show the influences of both the Psalms and the Canticles, while Lanyer, in the Salve Deus, draws from these biblical resources and adds the element of narrative, based largely on Matthew's version of Christ's passion.

Lock's sonnet sequence on Psalm 51 and the countess of Pembroke's poeticizing of Psalms 44-150 (and her brother's of 1-43) illustrate two Protestant approaches to Englishing the biblical lyric, one of passionate repentance and the other of assured salvation. Lock's sequence incorporates and extends the language of the Psalm, taking it as an opportunity to reflect on the degradation of sin and the impossibility of redemption through works. The Sidney-Pembroke Psalms remain close to their originals but formulate each psalm into confident English. Lanyer's Salve Deus has both passion and confidence.

Lock's language, as her editor Susan Felch notes, “reflects that of a nonconformist molded by the catholic Christian tradition” and, despite the example I gave above of her direct, schematic poetics, her attention remains firmly tied to the physical world.19 By contrast, Pembroke's handling even of the same Penitential Psalm (51) remains elegant and assured. Of the two, the countess's version is more “Protestant,” in that it is more analytic and less iconic. Take, for example, her reading of 51:2, “Wash me throughly from mine iniquitie, and clense me from my sinne”:20

o clense, o wash my fowle iniquitie:
          clense still my spotts, still wash awaie my staynings,
          till staines and spotts in mee leave noe remaynings.(21)

The lines gain their rhetorical force from a schematic device: “clense” and “wash” are repeated in the second line accompanied by “spotts” and “staynings,” which are repeated with variation (“staines” and “spotts”) in the third line. The repetition of “still” in the second line, which reinforces the cascading parallelisms, underscores “Till” in the third. The power of the passage comes from an artfully arrayed set of emphases; however passionate the expression, the speaker is in control, and the experience is of the mind, not the body.

The reverse is true in the Lock sonnet on the same biblical verse (“Wash me yet more from my wickednes, and clense me from my sinne,” as it appears in the sidenote to the sonnet):

So foule is sinne and lothesome in thy sighte,
So foule with sinne I may be washed white
So foule I dare not, Lord, approche to thee.
Ofte hath thy mercie washed me before,
Thou madest me cleane, but I am foule againe.
Yet washe me Lord againe, and washe me more.
Washe me, O Lord, and do away the stain
Of uggly sinnes that in my soule appere.
Let flow thy plentuous streames of clensing grace.
Washe me againe, yea washe me every where,
Both leprous bodie and defiled face.
Yea wash me all, for I am all uncleane.
And from my sin, Lord, cleanse me ones againe.(22)

Devices of repetition abound, but with less self-conscious variation than in the Pembroke selection. The repetitions, often at the beginning of the line (“So foule,” “Wash me”), serve a passionate insistence rather than an artful analysis, and lead to the climactic image that gives the sonnet its principal power: “yea wash me everywhere, / Both leprous bodie and defiled face.” This language depicts a real scrubbing—a maternal God, cloth in hand, chafing off the ingrained dirt of an incorrigible child. The portrayal is both emotional and physical, suggesting the medieval heritage Felch notes in Lock's style. She may be closer in time, and therefore rhetorical tendency, to an iconic Catholic tradition, but, like Mary Sidney, her theology is firmly Protestant, and her descriptive language leans away from the baroque lushness toward which Counter-Reformation verse was heading.

The distinction between Protestant and Catholic penitential verse is clear in a comparison between the poems of statesman and writer Fulke Greville and his sometime colleague, Catholic convert Henry Constable. Both poets had associations with the Sidneys. Greville, who went to Shrewsbury School with Sir Philip and became his biographer, considered him his closest friend and had at least some contact with the countess of Pembroke after Philip's death.23 Constable knew Sidney and his widow, Frances, who became countess of Essex, and was a friend of Penelope Rich, reputed to be Sidney's first love (the “Stella” of Astrophil and Stella). Although he claimed not to know the countess of Pembroke personally, he dedicated a sonnet to her.24 Greville and Constable also had associations with the countess of Cumberland's circle, with which Lanyer may have been associated as early as 1589 or '90. Greville appears to have been friendly with Samuel Daniel in the 1590s and is mentioned by name in Daniel's Musophilus (1599).25 One of Constable's poems is dedicated to the sisters, Ann, countess of Warwick, and Margaret, countess of Cumberland.26 Greville and Constable's religious poetry, whether or not Lanyer knew it the way she knew the work of Lock and Pembroke, sprang from the Elizabethan court with which she was familiar.

On the same general theme as the Lock and Pembroke versions of Psalm 51—God's redemptive power over the inevitable sins of mankind—Greville expresses the Calvinist understanding of “mans degeneration” as absolute, and God's mercy as an unfathomable doctrine of faith:

Wrapt up, O Lord, in mans degeneration;
The glories of thy truth, thy joyes eternall,
Reflect upon my soule darke desolation,
And ugly prospects o're the sprites infernall.
          Lord, I have sinn'd, and mine iniquity,
          Deserves this hell; yet Lord deliver me.
Thy power and mercy never comprehended
Rest lively imag'd in my Conscience wounded;
Mercy to grace, and power to feare extended,
Both infinite, and I in both confounded;
          Lord, I have sinn'd, and mine iniquity,
          Deserves this hell, yet Lord deliver me.
If from this depth of sinne, this hellish grave,
And fatall absence from my Saviours glory,
I could implore his mercy, who can save,
And for my sinnes, not paines of sinne, be sorry;
          Lord, from this horror of iniquity,
          And hellish grave, thou wouldst deliver me.(27)

Despite the claim that hellish horrors “rest lively imag'd” in his conscience, we are not presented those images. Instead, the poem sets out the Reform Protestant case that man is unable to help himself and depends entirely on God's grace for the transformation of mind and heart (“and for my sinnes, not paines of sinne, be sorry”) that allows for salvation.

Constable, by contrast, presents icons of repentance and tells their stories in vivid imagery. Originally an outspoken Protestant, Constable converted to Catholicism around 1590 and spent most of the rest of his life in France. Before his conversion he had apparently been a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and a continental spy for Lord Burghley. Even afterwards he remained an English patriot to the extent his religion and residence away from England would allow, advising King James on continental issues. Constable had been a popular sonneteer in the 1580s. His religious poetry, which circulated in manuscript around the first decade of the seventeenth century, reflects his Catholic conviction and sensibility.28

Four sonnets “To St Mary Magdalen” exemplify Constable's penitential voice. Two will serve as examples here (and another in the next section of this chapter). The first of these appears among five other poems to several saints and concludes very differently from Greville's poem. Instead of an impassioned faith that calls for God's grace, Constable invokes penitential works, which will win heaven for the sinner:

For fewe nyghtes solace in delitious bedd,
          where heate of luste, dyd kyndle flames of hell:
          thou nak'd on naked rocke in desert cell
          lay thirty yeares, and teares of griefe dyd shedd.
But for that tyme, thy hart there sorrowed,
          thou now in heaven aeternally dost dwell,
          and for ech teare, which from thyne eyes then fell,
          a sea of pleasure now ys rendered.
If short delyghtes, entyce my hart to straye,
          lett me thy longe pennance learne to knowe
          how deare I should for triflyng pleasures paye:
And if I vertues roughe beginnyng shunne,
          Lett thy aeternall joyes unto me showe
          what hyghe Rewarde, by lyttle payne ys wonne.(29)

Not only does the poem's message emphasize works over faith (Magdalen earned heaven through her thirty years of penance), the poem's method is thoroughly Catholic, invoking the model of a saint's life rather than examining the unhappy conscience of the speaker.

Constable's religious poems often involve the mediation of saints and tend to be more narrative and pictorial than those of his Protestant contemporaries. His other three poems to St. Mary Magdalen form a short sequence at the end of the manuscript,30 where they rely on the contrast between earthly and heavenly love, drawing on the language of the Canticles, to make their point. The first of these three signals a crucial difference between Lock and Greville's view of the total degeneracy of the human condition, and Constable's vision of the joy of repentance:

Blessed Offendour: who thyselfe haist try'd,
          how farr a synner differs from a Saynt
          joyne thy wett eyes, with teares of my complaint,
          while I sighe for that grave, for which thow cry'd.
No longer lett my synfull sowle abyde
          in feaver of thy fyrst desyres faynte:
          but lett that love which last thy hart did taynt
          with panges of thy repentance, pierece my syde.
So shall my sowle, no foolish vyrgyn bee
          with empty lampe: but lyke a Magdalen, beere
          for oyntment boxe, a breast with oyle of grace:
And so the zeale, which then shall burn in mee,
          may make my hart, lyke to a lampe appere
          and in my spouse's pallace gyve me place.

While Constable sees “how far a synner differs from a Saynt,” Greville sees “the depth of mine iniquity, / That ugly center of infernall spirits,” a place unredeemable except by “this saving God of mine” (sonnet 99, ll. 1-2, 6). The words that capture Greville's imagination are “deformity,” “degeneration,” desolation,” and “eternall doome” (ll. 3, 8, 14, 20). Although the result, through faith, is still salvation, made more wonderful by the distance traveled between man's sin and God's forgiveness, it is difficult to think of Greville or any Protestant praising a “Blessed Offendour.” Yet Constable has much for a Protestant poet to admire, including his allusions to the biblical authority of the Canticles.

There is no reason to suspect that Lanyer had any contact with the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell, but his capture and imprisonment in 1592 were famous events, and his verse, first published in 1595, not long after his execution, went through several editions of varying authority before 1610.31 The title poem of the earliest editions, “St. Peter's Complaint,” is a long mea culpa in the voice of Peter, who has denied Christ three times just as his master predicted (Matt. 26:69-75). The purpose of the poem, as the speaker explains in the introductory verse, “The Author to the Reader,” is to set the model of a penitent saint before the contemporary sinner:

Dear eie that daynest to let fall a looke,
On these sad memories of Peters plaintes;
Muse not to see some mud in cleerest brooke,
They once were brittle mould, that now are Saintes.
Their weakness is no warrant to offend:
Learne by their faultes, what in thine owne to mend.

(ll. 1-6)

Like Lanyer (and George Herbert) after him, Southwell complains about the attention poets give to the false beauties of love poetry (“Still finest wits are stilling Venus Rose. / … To Christian workes, few have their talents lent,” ll. 16, 18) and invokes “heavenly sparkes of wit” to speak plainly of divine things: “Cloude not with mistie loves your Orient cleere” (ll. 20, 21).

Throughout the poem proper, Southwell uses the extended metaphor of the ship in the storm, borrowing language from the traditional Petrarchan conceit of the lover in the storm-tossed sea (see, e.g., Spenser's Faerie Queene 3.iv.8-10) and alluding to Peter's own experiences as a fisherman and follower of the Christ who walked on waves (Matt. 14):

Launche foorth my Soul into a maine of teares,
Full fraught with griefe the traffick of my mind:
Torne sailes will serve. thoughtes rent with guilty feares:
Give care, the sterne: use sighes in lieu of wind:
Remorse, the Pilot: thy misdeede, the Carde:
Torment, thy Haven: Shipwracke, thy best reward.

(ll. 1-6)

The poem suggests its Catholic theology by making grace the result of penance:

Divorc'd from grace thy soule to pennance wed:

(l. 10)

.....Thy trespasse foule: let not thy teares be few:
Baptize thy spotted soule in weeping dewe.

(ll. 17-18)

Catholicism is more explicit in references to the standard Latin Vulgate Bible, attributed to St. Jerome (l. 40), and the intercessory role of the Virgin Mary:

When traitor to the sonne in mothers eies,
I shall present my humble suit for grace:
What blush can paint the shame that will arise;
Or write my inward feeling in my face?
Might she the sorrow with the sinner see:
Though I dispisde: my griefe might pittyed bee.

(ll. 577-82)

Here is hope for a mediated grace by means of penitential work, just the reverse of the Protestant unmediated and unearned grace that comes from faith in Christ alone.

There are nonetheless some interesting similarities between Southwell's work and Lanyer's. His poem is in six-line stanzas (Lanyer's is in ottava rima) and reads like a narrative despite its single penitential voice; it concerns a piece of the passion story; and it accumulates vivid detail that produces something like the tone Lanyer evokes in her retelling of the passion. Like Lanyer, Southwell portrays Christ as the perfect lover, emphasizing his physical beauty as well as his redemptive power. In a nineteen-stanza rhapsody on Christ's “sacred eyes” (ll. 331-444), Southwell includes language from the Canticles (“O Pooles of Hesebon, the bathes of grace, / Where happy spirits dyve in sweet desires,” ll. 379-80) and his rhapsodies on Christ's beauty anticipate Lanyer's portrayals of Christ. Here is Southwell on Christ's microcosmic eyes:

O little worldes, the summes of all the best,
Where glory, heaven, God, sunne: all vertues, starres:
Where fire, a love that next to heaven doth rest,
Ayre, light of life, that no distemper marres:
The water, grace, whose seas, whose springs, whose showers,
Cloth natures earth, with everlasting flowers.

(ll. 409-14)

And Lanyer, emphasizing the magnitude of the passion:

The beauty of the World, Heavens chiefest Glory;
The mirrour of Martyrs, Crowne of holy Saints;
Love of th'Almighty, blessed Angels story;
Water of Life, which none that drinks it, faints;
Guide of the Just, where all our Light we borrow;
Mercy of Mercies; Hearer of Complaints;
Triumpher over Death; Ransomer of Sinne;
Falsly accused: now his paines begin.

(ll. 641-48)

Despite Lanyer's references to “Martyrs” and “holy Saints,” Christ remains her only mediator (“Hearer of Complaints”). Her Virgin Mary, unlike Southwell's, does not stand between her sins and her God. Lanyer does place an emphasis on Mary that is unusual in Protestant piety; she devotes sixteen stanzas to “The sorow of the virgin Marie” (ll. 1009-1136), including a version of the Magnificat, “the salutation of the virgin Marie” (ll. 1041-56). This portrait contains no hint of Mary as mediator or co-redeemer, but instead presents her as the chief examplar of all the womanly virtues Lanyer praises throughout the Salve Deus. She is the “Most blessed virgin” (l. 1025), the “Faire chosen vessell” (l. 1030), the “most beauteous Queene of Womankind” (1040) whom God raised from “poore degree” to “Servant, Mother, Wife, and Nurse / To Heavens bright King, that freed us from the curse” (ll. 1086-88).

In their portrayal of women generally, however, there is a strong contrast between the two poets. Despite his invocation of a mediating Virgin Mary (a much more distant figure than Lanyer's weeping mother), Southwell has nothing good to say about women. St. Peter agonizes over his own responsibility for the sin of denying Christ three times on the morning of the crucifixion, but he also manages to blame the young women who identified him as a follower of Christ: “A puffe of womans breath bred all my feare” (l. 150). The voice of Peter later complains that while “the blaze of beauties beames” were “Davids, Salomons, and Sampsons fals” (ll. 307, 302),

… gratious features dasled not mine eies,
Two homely droyles were authors of my death:
Not love, but feare, my sences did surprize:
Not feare of force, but feare of womans breath.
And those unarm'd, ill grac'd, despisde, unknowne:
So base a blast my truthe hath overthrowne.

(ll. 313-18)

Southwell's Peter describes himself as worse than those biblical figures who were moved by beauty, since his downfall comes from ugly, weak, and insignificant women. The speaker pauses to make the point that women of every kind are the cause of evil generally:

O women, woe to men: traps for their falls,
Still actors in all tragicall mischaunces:
Earthes necessarie evils, captivating thralles,
Now murdring with your tongs, now with your glances,
Parents of life, and love: spoylers of both.
The theefes of Harts: false do you love or loth.

(ll. 319-24)

This seems an excessive response to the women of the biblical story (described simply as one and another “maide” in the Geneva translation, “damsel” in the King James, and “maidservant” in the Douai), who merely comment that Peter was one of Christ's followers. But it is part of a long line of gratuitous clerical castigation of women from at least St. Jerome forward. A similar patristic misogyny moved Chaucer's wife of Bath to throw her fourth husband's book into the fire and, more than two hundred years later, provoked Lanyer to her ingenious “Eves apology” (Salve Deus, ll. 761-832). As Pilate's wife tries to persuade her husband not to authorize Christ's crucifixion, she makes the point that, whatever Eve's culpability, Adam's is at the base of it, and the men who would crucify Christ assume an even more grim responsibility:

If any Evill did in her [Eve] remaine,
Beeing made of him [Adam], he was the ground of all;
If one of many Worlds could lay a staine
Upon our Sexe, and worke so great a fall
To wretched Man, by Satans subtill traine;
What will so fowle a fault amongst you all?
          Her weaknesse did the Serpents words obay;
          But you [men] in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.

(ll. 809-16)

While Protestant misogynists can be as vigorous as Catholic ones, Southwell is the only poet within the group I am looking at here who condemns women categorically. Sidney and Greville, for example, distinguish between human and divine love and beauty, as Spenser had done (see chapter 2), but there is no universal condemnation of women in their renunciation of earthly love. Sidney longs for the light of Christian truth and seeks to cast away that which fades:

Leave me o Love, which reachest but to dust,
And thou my mind aspire to higher things:
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust:
What ever fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beames, and humble all thy might,
To that sweet yoke, where lasting freedomes be:
Which breakes the clowdes and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold, let that light be thy guide,
In this small course which birth drawes out to death,
And thinke how evill becommeth him to slide,
Who seeketh heav'n, and comes of heav'nly breath.
          Then farewell world, thy uttermost I see,
          Eternall Love maintaine thy life in me.(32)

Greville similarly distinguishes between earthly fire and heavenly light. Confronted with passion, he advises endurance or renunciation:

The Earth with thunder torne, with fire blasted,
With waters drowned, with windie palsey shaken
Cannot for this with heaven be distasted,
Since thunder, raine and winds from earthe are taken:
Man torne with Love, with inward furies blasted,
Drown'd with despaire, with fleshly lustings shaken,
Cannot for this with heaven be distasted,
Love, furie, lustings out of man are taken.
Then Man, endure thy selfe, those clouds will vanish;
Life is a Top which whipping Sorrow driveth;
Wisdome must beare what our flesh cannot banish,
The humble leade, the stubborne bootlesse striveth:
          Or Man, forsake thy selfe, to heaven turne thee,
          Her flames enlighten Nature, never burne thee.(33)

These efforts to reject passion are compatible with Lanyer's attempt to move beyond false to true beauty:

That outward Beautie which the world commends,
Is not the subject I will write upon,
Whose date expir'd, that tyrant Time soone ends:
Those gawdie colours soone are spent and gone:
But those faire Virtues which on thee attends
Are alwaies fresh, they never are but one:
          They make thy Beautie fairer to behold,
          Than was that Queenes for whom prowd Troy was sold.

(ll. 185-92)

Despite her appreciation for the Virgin Mary and her richly descriptive penitential language, Lanyer remains more closely identifiable in doctrine and sensibility with her Protestant predecessors than with the Catholic Southwell. The sensibility and language in Constable's religious sonnets, however, resonate in Lanyer's Salve Deus and may help us to see how the work of yet another Catholic (turned Protestant), John Donne, compares to Lanyer's verse.


The figure of Christ the bridegroom offers an interesting point of departure for considering how male and female poets, whether Catholic or Protestant, envision salvation and their personal relationship to Christ. The bridegroom in the Christian interpretation of the Canticles is always Christ, but the bride may be either the church as a whole, invariably depicted as female, or the individual soul (whether of a man or a woman), depicted in a posture of female subservience to and union with Christ. Beyond those conventions, Catholic and Protestant imaginations differed considerably in how they negotiated the allegory. In general, the Protestant exegetes used the allegory of the celestial wedding to interpret a historical and personal narrative of pilgrimage, while the Catholic tradition saw the bride as the perfected church or the soul in mystical union.34

The last of Constable's poems to Mary Magdalen portrays the transformed penitent as a model for the soul's ultimate fulfillment in Christ. This poem extends the image of the celestial wedding, on which so much of Lanyer's Salve Deus also depends, transforming Mary Magdalen into the exemplary bride of Christ and allowing the (male) poet to see what his own happy union will become:

Sweete Saynt: Thow better canst declare to me,
          what pleasure ys obtayn'd by heavenly love,
          then they which other loves, dyd never prove:
          or which in sexe ar differyng from thee:
For lyke a woman spowse my sowle shalbee,
          whom synfull passions once to lust did move,
          and synce betrothed to goddes sonne above,
          should be enamored with his dietye.
My body ys the garment of my spryght
          whyle as the day tyme of my lyfe doth last:
          when death shall brynge the nyght of my delyght
My sowle uncloth'd, shall rest from labors past:
          and clasped in the armes of God, injoye
          by sweete conjunction, everlasting joye.

The image of Christ the bridegroom mating with the reformed Christian soul takes a more violent turn in the well-known Donne sonnet, “Batter my heart, three person'd God”:

Yet dearely I love you, and would be lov'd faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie,
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

(ll. 9-14)35

These are Catholic and Protestant versions of the same desire: that the soul of a man be like the body of a woman and achieve its union with Christ. For Constable the wedding night is “the rest from labors past” as well as the “uncloth'd” enjoyment of “sweet conjunction” with Christ—the reward for good works, as well as the gift of spiritual consummation. Donne's poem is more reminiscent of Anne Lock's in the violence of its imagery, and, although its implicit physicality may be more like the Catholic tradition in which Donne was raised, it is Protestant in its plea for a grace that will overcome the worthless degradation of the longing soul and in its use of spousal imagery to describe the struggle of pilgrimage rather than the ecstasy of union.

Another of Donne's “Holy Sonnets” offers a more considered look at the relation between bridegroom and bride, Christ and the church, in the confusing world of Reformation and Counter-Reformation:36

Show me deare Christ, thy Spouse, so bright and clear.
What! is it she, which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which rob'd and tore
Laments and mournes in Germany and here?
Sleepes she a thousand, then peepes up one yeare?
Is she selfe true and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seaven, or on no hill appeare?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travaile we to seek and then make Love?
Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights,
And let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she is embrac'd and open to most men.

Like his “Satyre III,” this sonnet is a plea that the pilgrim be guided toward the true church. It also offers a distinctively male twist on the Canticles imagery. The speaker identifies not with the bride (as in the Constable poem), but with the bridegroom: “let myne amorous soule court thy milde dove.” The wit of the poem depends on the paradox of a bride / church who is “most trew” to Christ “When she is embrac'd and open to most men.” Donne may have written his “Holy Sonnets” while he was contemplating holy orders, in which case his association with Christ in this poem may have had the particular resonance of priesthood. Conservative theologians continue to argue against women priests by claiming that the earthly gender of Jesus means that only a man can represent the full manhood of Christ's priesthood. Donne assumes a more general male privilege in this sonnet, however (“most men”). Men are like Christ, and in that sense can love (as well as be) the true church.

Lanyer, too, genders Christ by making him, in contrast to both Constable and Donne, specifically the bridegroom of women: of “all vertuous Ladies in generall” (l. 9), of Susan, dowager countess of Kent (l. 42), of Lady Anne, countess of Dorset (l. 15), and most particularly of Margaret, countess of Cumberland (Salve Deus, e.g., ll. 77, 1305-44). Lanyer's women are the correct gender for the traditional Christian allegorizing of the Canticles. Like a mortal bride, they are women and can love the bridegroom without the nervousness Donne's wit betrays. As the bride, they also most particularly represent the true church and can therefore figure salvation to individual souls. This is precisely how Lanyer portrays the countess of Cumberland: she is the true bride, therefore the true church, whose model is salvation for those who would follow her.

… in thy modest vaile do'st sweetly cover
The staines of other sinnes, to make themselves,
That by this meanes thou mai'st in time recover
Those weake lost sheepe that did so long transgresse,
Presenting them unto thy deerest Lover;
          That when he brings them back into his fold,
          In their conversion then he may behold
Thy beauty shining brighter than the Sunne,
Thine honour more than ever Monarke gaind,
Thy wealth exceeding his that Kingdomes wonne,
Thy Love unto his Spouse, thy Faith unfaind,
Thy Constancy in what thou hast begun,
Till thou his heavenly Kingdom have obtained;
          Respecting worldly wealth to be but drosse,
          Which, if abuz'd, doth proove the owners losse.

(ll. 1394-1408)

The countess is no saint or icon, but a living example of the redeemed Protestant soul whose faith accomplishes the redemption of others. Her portrayal brushes closer to Constable's mediating Mary Magdalen, and his picture of blessed union, than to Donne's Calvinist impotency in “Batter my Heart,” and his historical journey in “Show me deare Christ,” yet the countess is also on a pilgrimage. Her exemplary blessedness remains part of an earthly journey, “Till thou his heavenly Kingdom have obtained.”

If a man can be the bride of Christ, a woman (Lanyer suggests) can also defy gender expectations. She can have honor and wealth greater than a king (ll. 1402-3) and can display “Love unto [Christ's] Spouse,” the church as a whole. She is both the “Deere Spouse of Christ” (l. 1170), herself the figure for the whole church, and the lover of both church and Christ, presenting redeemed “weake lost sheepe” (l. 1397) to the sacred bridegroom. Lanyer has taken the opportunity offered by the Canticles to imbue the countess with rich symbolic resonance: she is both priest and bride, mediator in history and image of transcendent perfection.

In the image of Christ the bridegroom, and of the bride as both church and individual soul, Lanyer and Donne offer interesting contrasts in the gendering of religious imagery. Another poem that illustrates gender differences between these near contemporaries is one of the few works by Donne that was printed during his lifetime, An Anatomy of the World (the “First Anniversarie”). Like the Salve Deus, it was published in 1611.

While the Anatomy is a funeral elegy and Salve Deus purports to be a narrative of Christ's passion, both are long lyrics about what Arthur Marotti calls “loss and the need for recovery.”37 Both poems seek patronage by expressing sympathy for a high-born family. In the “Anatomy” Donne offers sympathy to the Drury family for the loss of their daughter, Elizabeth, who died at the age of fourteen in December 1610; in the Salve Deus Lanyer sympathetically laments what the countess of Cumberland has suffered, first, over her separation from her husband and then, after his death, from the loss of her daughter's expected patrimony. Both poems concern the evil and injustice of the world, yet there are interesting differences in how they portray gender and assert authority in the poetic enterprise.

Donne's portrayal of Elizabeth Drury (whom he had never met) as an Astraean perfection whose abandonment of earth signals the world's decay was controversial in its own time. William Drummond of Hawthornden reports that Ben Jonson “told Mr. Donne that if [the Anatomy] had been written of the Virgin Marie it had been something,” an accusation that apparently prompted Donne to reply “that he described the Idea of a Woman, not as she was.”38 The relation between the poet and the woman who is the subject of his poem is never a relationship between John Donne and Elizabeth Drury, but between the artificer and an idea of perfection.

Barbara Lewalski has glossed Donne's use of “Idea” by reference to his sermons, where “the Idea of Mankind” is “the image of God,” or, more particularly in the Anatomy, the figure of Elizabeth Drury represents “the restoration of the image of God in man through grace.”39 Donne has therefore infused enormous symbolic force into an image of virtuous womanhood, which his poem will presumably display as an occasion for admonishing the world against its decay. His presentation of that image and his authority to rail against the world's decay are intertwined, even fused, in the poem.

In a prefatory commendation,40 Joseph Hall comments on the late Elizabeth Drury's good fortune in finding so effective and authoritative an elegist:

And thou the subject of this wel-borne thought,
Thrise noble maid; couldst not have found nor sought
A fitter time to yeeld to thy sad Fate
Then whilst this spirit lives, that can relate
Thy worth so well.

(ll. 11-15)

The young woman has managed to die at a time when she can provide the occasion for this man's pen, Hall suggests, and he goes on to make explicit the virginal page she presents to the worthy pencil:

Admired match! where strives in mutual grace
The cunning Pencill, and the comely face:
A taske, which thy faire goodnes made too much
For the bold pride of vulgar pens to touch.

(ll. 17-20)

Donne's power is sexual, just as Elizabeth Drury's value as an “Idea” depends in large part on her virginity. As Donne notes in an accompanying poem, “A Funerall Elegie,” she “soone expir'd”

Cloath'd in her Virgin white integrity
          For mariage, though it doth not staine, doth dye.
To scape th'infirmaties which waite upone
          Woman, shee went away, before sh'was one.

(ll. 74-78)

To be a woman is to be tainted by sexual conquest. Better to be conquered instead, Hall says, by the masculine authority of the poet.

By lauding her virgin purity, Donne inevitably connects Elizabeth Drury with the Virgin Mary; Elizabeth, too, is a “Queene” for whom heaven is as “her standing house” (ll. 7-8). Not unlike Lanyer's figure of the countess of Cumberland, Donne's Elizabeth Drury is a type of the co-redeemer who would erase original sin, but here it is Eve's sin that specifically needs to be overcome and is (ironically) overcome by her descent to earth as “the weaker Sex”:

She in whom vertue was so much refin'd,
That for Allay unto so pure a minde
She tooke the weaker Sex, she that could drive
The poysonous tincture, and the stayne of Eve,
Out of her thoughts, and deeds; and purifie
All by a true religious Alchimy.

(ll. 177-82)

Donne uses the image of idealized virginal purity to assert his own authority as a poet in terms that suggest important differences between what a man could claim and what a woman, such as Lanyer, might find or claim through her own idealization of another woman. Donne offers his poem on Elizabeth Drury as a tribute to her and to the virtue she represents not only to the penitent soul but to the recorder:

                              … blessed maid,
Of whom is meant whatever hath beene said,
Or shall be spoken well by any tongue,
Whose name refines course lines, and makes prose song,
Accept this tribute. …

(ll. 443-47)

Yet it is not the “Idea of a woman” that authorizes Donne's lines. His right to inscribe the example of perfection, warn against earthly decay, pay tribute to virtue and castigate vice, and to do it all in verse rather than sermon or history, comes from a more powerful inspirational source:

                                                                                … if you
In reverance to her, doe thinke it due,
That no one should her prayses thus reherse,
As matter fit for Chronicle, not verse,
Vouchsafe to call to minde, that God did make
A last, and lastingst peece, a song. He spake
To Moses, to deliver unto all
That song: because he knew they would let fall,
The Law, the Prophets, and the History,
But keepe the song still in their memory.

(ll. 457-66)

God, not Elizabeth Drury, authorizes the poet. Lewalski suggests that we may bridge the gap between Elizabeth Drury as the inspiration for the poem, and the divine authority Donne claims here, by reference to Donne's theory of “Idea”: “for Donne the Idea of a man, or of a woman, is—quite precisely—the image of God. … If, then, Donne declared his intention to praise Elizabeth Drury not as she was but rather as the Idea of a Woman, we may suppose that he undertook to praise the image of God created and restored in her.”41 This would situate the power of God, Donne's ultimate authority, in his subject. But his subject is a deliberate cipher, an unknown woman, and the poem is about decay and disappointment, not about transformed perfection. The woman is gone and was never a “woman” in the first place. Her virginity made her a clean page to write upon; the image of perfection resides in her absence, not her presence. What fills the void is the authorial voice which finds its authority in the same voice that inspired Moses. The poet is made bold by Moses' example, and concludes his poem by asserting the poet's primacy over his subject matter:

… such an opinion (in due measure) made
Me this great Office boldly to invade.
Nor could incomprehensibleness deterre
Me, from thus trying to emprison her.
Which when I saw that a strict grave could do,
I saw not why verse might doe so too.
Verse hath a middle nature: heaven keepes soules,
The grave keepes bodies, verse the fame enroules.

(ll. 467-74)

The example of Moses, God's authority, allows the poet to “invade” and “emprison” his subject in the artifact of verse. What lasts is not the person but the song, not the object of imitation but mimesis itself, not the decaying physical presence but the mnemonic power of the record. Verse “enroules” the fame—but whose fame? In the Anatomy, Donne dominates his ostensible subject and becomes himself the authority for his vision of the world. He becomes God's image, redeemed through a new creation, his own. He engenders his subject and disengenders her as part of the process of asserting his own poetic authority, and he aligns himself with the voice of God.

In Lanyer's work the relation between subject and authority is different. While the godly authority that Donne ultimately claims for himself distances him from his subject, making him a transcendent divinity in relation to his poetic creation, Lanyer merges her authorial voice with the subject(s) and process of her poem, making her an eminent creative force within the territory of her creation. Just as her gender connects her with her great patrons, mediated through “Eves Apologie” in her poem to Queen Anne (ll. 73-78), for example, or through a mutual effort at divine poetry in her poem to the countess of Pembroke (ll. 201-04), so it infuses the gendered point of view she brings to the passion story, including her portrayal of Christ.

The Salve Deus begins where Donne's Anatomy concludes: by claiming the eternizing role of verse. After elegizing the departed Queen Elizabeth (ll. 1-8), Lanyer turns to the living object of her praise, the countess of Cumberland:

To thee great Countesse now I will applie
My Pen, to write thy never dying fame;
That when to heav'n thy blessed Soule shall flie,
These lines on earth record thy reverend name.

(ll. 9-12)

Donne's portrayal of the unknown Elizabeth Drury is hyperbolic and (Jonson at least believed) incidental, but Lanyer's attention to the countess, her virtues and her suffering, is grounded in the living reality of the countess's “sad soule, plung'd in waves of woe” (l. 34). Though the topic of her poem is Christ's passion, the poet pays considerable direct attention to the countess; roughly 500 of the poem's 1840 lines address her directly, describe her situation (e.g., “Thou from Court to the Countrie art retir'd,” l. 161), or praise her virtue and faithfulness. The central passion story is framed by catalogs of women who failed to find the true good or sought it imperfectly, so the countess's own devotion to Christ may be contrasted with, yet gain force from, a historical community of suffering women.

Lanyer's central authorizing strategy is to make the situation of women—the countess of Cumberland, the women in the poem's frame, the women who accompany Christ through the story as Lanyer tells it—inseparable from the passion itself. Even Christ becomes a figure for female experience, both as object of the female gaze and, as Janel Mueller has pointed out, as a feminized character whose words and silences are misconstrued by the men in the poem:

They tell his words, though farre from his intent,
And what his Speeches were, not what he meant.

(ll. 655-56)

A female identification with Christ, Mueller suggests, authorizes Lanyer to interpret Jesus's actions. She cites “the pattern of fundamental misprision exhibited by all of the males in the story, friends and foes alike, while the female poet unfailingly understands what and who Jesus is.” Lanyer's Christ, “like the ideal woman of the Puritan manuals, is silent except when induced to speak, and modest and taciturn when he does; he is gentle, mild, peaceable, and submissive to higher male authorities.”42

Lanyer's authority for her version of the biblical passion—for her anatomy of the world's decay and redemption—lies in her identification with, and ability to interpret, the passion of Christ. She who has the power to understand has the authority to speak, an assumption that runs throughout the Salve Deus. She portrays that understanding as quintessentially female, from the voice of Pilate's wife which moves imperceptibly back to that of the narrator (ll. 749-912), through the tears of the daughters of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the Virgin Mary (ll. 968-1136), to the particular insight of the countess of Cumberland (ll. 1329-68).

For both Lanyer and Donne, authority resides ultimately with God, but Donne identifies with Moses and an Old Testament divinity who imposes law from the mountaintop. Lanyer's identity is with the women of the New Testament who understand a God who enters his own creation in order to save it. If, according to Donne, Elizabeth Drury “tooke the weaker sexe” to redeem Eve's sin (Anatomy, l. 179), by contrast Lanyer claims that her weakness (like Paul's) is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of this humble Christ:43

But yet the Weaker thou [“my deare Muse”] doest seeme to be
In Sexe, or Sence, the more his glory shines,
That doth infuze such powerfull Grace in thee,
To shew thy Love in these few humble lines.

(ll. 289-92)

Lanyer's fusion with her subjects proceeds only up to a point. The creator never disappears entirely into her creation, nor does the claim of weakness abrogate the force of her vocation. As visionary and interpreter of Christ's passion, the poet is the giver who offers the gift of Christ crucified to the judgment of her inspiring patron:

Which I present (deare Lady) to your view,
Uppon the Crosse depriv'd of life or breath,
To judge if ever Lover were so true.
To yeeld himselfe unto such shamefull death.

(ll. 1265-68)

Even more directly, she tells “the doubtfull Reader” in her brief afterword that she was “appointed to performe this Worke.” Still, Lanyer is a divinely called representative of this privileged community of female weakness, rather than an external authority etching a “middle way” between body and soul.

Lanyer sees her Creator as alive in the world, joining his creation through shared humility and suffering, and, as God's image, she joins her own creation, largely through shared gender. Donne, on the other hand, identifies specifically with a masculine authority that shares gender with God. As he would share the bride with the bridegroom in “Show me deare Christ,” so he shares Christ's own incarnational function by mediating between grave and soul at the end of the Anatomy.

Like Lanyer, however, Donne's biblical poetics are difficult to categorize simply in Protestant or Catholic terms. He had a particular appreciation for the Virgin Mary, for example, possibly a heritage of his Catholic background. In “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” Mary is Christ's “miserable mother” (l. 30)

Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of the Sacrifice, which ransom'd us.

(ll. 31-32)

Although she is portrayed as co-redeemer, she still does not intercede or mediate between man's sin and God's grace. Donne's version of the passion emphasizes the distance between Christ's sacrifice and the speaker's abject sinfulness, which can be bridged only by an active grace from God:

O think me worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.

(ll. 39-42)

In “The Litanie,” however, Mary is not only co-redeemer, she is a mediating force whose “deeds” are “our helpes”:

          For that faire blessed Mother-maid,
Whose flesh redeem'd us; That she-Cherubin,
          Which unlock'd Paradise, and made
One claime for innocence, and disseiz'd sinne,
                    Whose wombe was a strange heav'n for there
                    God cloath'd himselfe, and grew,
Our zealous thankes wee poure. As her deeds were
Our helpes, so are her prayers; nor can she sue
In vaine, who hath such title unto you.

(ll. 37-45)

Theologically more like Lock and Greville in the first instance, more like Southwell and Constable in the second, Donne is most like Lanyer in his willingness to take risks with both language and idea. As risk-takers, willing to analyze biblical texts with a new eye and to challenge traditional boundaries of theology and gender, Lanyer and Donne are contemporaries in ethos as well as chronology.


Lanyer may have encountered George Herbert (1593-1633) or John Milton (1608-74) in her long life, though we have no evidence that she met either poet. If she maintained contact with Anne Clifford, it is possible she crossed paths with Herbert, who was installed as rector of the parishes of Bemerton and Wilton (gifts of the Wilton-based earls of Pembroke) in April 1630, shortly after his distant cousin, Philip Herbert, succeeded his brother William as earl of Pembroke. Philip married Anne Clifford in June of that same year, and apparently the former countess of Dorset, and new countess of Pembroke, had a cordial relationship with the poet-priest.44 By 1630 Lanyer was settled in the greater London parish of St. James, Clerkenwell, with her son, Henry, and his family, many miles from Wilton (near Salisbury, in Wiltshire). Since Milton's father was a musician and a Londoner, it is just possible that Lanyer may have met him—and possibly the younger Milton—through her husband, son, or any of her musician relatives, but there is no record of their meeting.

It seems likely that she would have been familiar with Herbert or Milton's contribution to the rich heritage of religious verse of which her own book was an early part. Herbert's Temple was published shortly after his death in 1633, while Milton's Mask at Ludlow Castle and Lycidas saw print in 1634 and 1637 respectively. She died less than a year before the publication of Milton's Poems, which appeared at the very end of 1645; she was buried on April 3.45 Herbert or Milton may have read Lanyer's book of poems, but again we can only speculate. If Anne Clifford still had her copy, she might have shared it with Herbert. If John Milton senior were acquainted with Alfonso Lanyer, he may have seen or received a copy, since we know Alfonso presented at least one copy to a friend, Thomas Jones, Archbishop of Dublin. But Alfonso presumably hoped for some favors from Jones, unlikely from Milton senior. The whole search for acquaintance remains highly speculative in any case.

Although there is nothing to suggest that the two great religious poets of sixteenth-century England were influenced by Lanyer's work or that they even knew of it, her poetry still provides, as it did with earlier poets, a new and useful perspective on theirs. Herbert, like Lanyer, explores images of Christ and the relation between Christ and the redeemed soul, and Milton, like Lanyer, is interested in the ideas of freedom and what constitutes virtue beyond earthly beauty. I conclude with a few comparisons between the earlier poet and the later ones.

Poets in the Catholic tradition (including Constable and Southwell) could appeal to a variety of saintly models and mediators between themselves and God. Mary Magdalen was popular in a penitential climate, the Virgin Mary remained a favorite, and other saints might be cited.46 For a Protestant poet the only mediator was Christ. While not absent from Catholic poetry, the relationship between the soul and its redeemer in life's pilgrimage continued to be a more common concern of Protestant verse. In the early years of the century, the Scots poet Elizabeth Melvill, Lady Culros, wrote Ane Godlie Dreame to explore the relationship between the Christian soul and Christ in the journey of life.47 And Greville's lyric sequence ends with an appeal to “sweet Jesus” to “fill up time and come, / To yeeld the sinne her everlasting doome.”48

The connection between the speaker and his redeemer is central to Herbert's poetry, in which he recognizes and explores many versions of that relationship.49 Lanyer's various and complex portrait of Christ is a worthy backdrop for Herbert's achievement. In the Salve Deus her “Jesus of Nazareth” (l. 499) is, first, a betrayed man (l. 329), a “siely, weake, unarmed man” (l. 551), a humble man who embodies “virtue, patience, grace, love, piety” (l. 958). At the same time he is our “maker” (ll. 41, 420), “our heavenly King” (l. 942), and “Heavens bright king” (1088). Only the weeping daughters of Jerusalem understand the apparent contradictions, perceiving his divine origin, the force of his sacrifice, and his ultimate triumph: he is “their Lord, their Lover, and their King” (l. 982). The piety of women in Lanyer's poem illustrates the proper response to Christ's great sacrifice of mediating love: they grieve, love, comprehend, and respond. He is both “God in glory, / And … man in miserable case” (ll. 1329-30), becoming “the Booke / Wherein thine eyes continuelly may looke” (ll. 1351-52), “the Lord of Life and Love” (l. 1362).

Herbert also explores the apparent contradictions between who Christ appears to be and who he ultimately is. “The Sacrifice” might almost be a companion to the Salve Deus. In Herbert's poem, Christ speaks the passion story and regards the actions of men, asking: “Was ever grief like mine?”50 In Lanyer's poem, when Christ goes to Gethsemane with Peter, James, and John, he struggles to tell them his sorrows. She interjects the apparent uselessness of the task:

Sweet Lord, how couldst thou thus to flesh and blood
Communicate thy griefe? Tell of thy woes?

(ll. 376-77)

Herbert's Christ observes his sleeping companions:

Yet my disciples sleep. I cannot gain
One houre of watching; but their drowsie brain
Comforts not me, and doth my doctrine staine:
Was ever grief, &c.

(ll. 29-32)

Through the betrayal, abandonment, trial, and crucifixion itself, men are relentlessly cowardly or wicked, leading to ironic distinctions between perception and reality. Herbert's Jesus is mocked by soldiers who do not understand they are speaking the truth:

They bow their knees to me and cry, Hail king:
What ever scoffes & scornfulnesse can bring,

(ll. 173-74)

.....Yet since mans scepters are as frail as reeds,
And thorny all their crowns, bloudie their weeds;
I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds:

(ll. 177-79)

There are no women in Herbert's portrayal, even with mention of original sin. It is “the earths great curse in Adams fall” (l. 165):

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climbe the tree;
The tree of life to all, but onely me:
Was ever griefe, &c.

(ll. 201-4)

Generic man may be to blame, but specific women are not cited for particular scorn.

Like Lanyer, Herbert is ultimately concerned with how the redeeming sacrificial act engenders, through grace, the proper response of love. “The Thanksgiving,” which follows “The Sacrifice,” begins, “Oh King of grief!” and seeks an appropriate human reaction to so great a sacrifice, but concludes that the distance is too great: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that— / Alas, my God, I know not what” (ll. 49-50). Poems that follow ask for grace and explore both the nature of Christ and the soul's relationship to its redeemer.

The Protestant triad of “Repentance,” “Faith,” and “Grace” assures the connection between the soul and Christ; most of Herbert's poems explore varieties of that connection.51 As they are in Lanyer's poem,52 the soul's expectations about its relationship with this redeeming Lord are often surprised in Herbert's lyrics. “The Collar” is a familiar example. The speaker wants freedom and abundance and thinks it resides in disorder and resistance, only to find it in the ordered call and submission of the final lines:

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
                                        At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
                                        And I reply'd, My Lord.(53)

Several Herbert poems consider the ironies of human expectation and aspiration in the face of Christ's incarnation and passion. “Redemption” is an allegory of tenant and Lord, in which the speaker knows the Lord's majesty and expects him to be in “great resorts” but finds him among “theeves and murderers” (ll. 10, 13). More characteristic are the many poems that use mind and art to struggle toward the high complexity of the divine, only to recognize a much simpler reality. “Easter” begins with complex stanzas tuning up to praise the great achievement of the resurrection, and concludes with apparently artless simplicity:

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

(ll. 27-30)

“Man” brags on the elegance of the microcosm as a “Stately habitation,” “ev'ry thing,” “all symmetrie,” and asks finally that God “… dwell in it, / That it may dwell with thee at last” (ll. 2, 7, 13, 50-51). The speaker in “Jordan II” begins by “curling with metaphors a plain intention” since “nothing could seeme too rich to clothe the sunne,” only to be told “there is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd” (ll. 5, 11, 17). In setting personal experience against traditional expectations, both Herbert and Lanyer draw surprising conclusions from familiar materials.

Both poets also emphasize the personal and familiar relationship between the soul and Christ. For Lanyer it is found in the Canticles' analogy of bride and bridegroom, which she renders specific to the gender of herself and her dedicatees. Herbert's relationship with Christ is grounded in the loving friendship of a discipleship not specific to gender. “Love III” concludes Herbert's lyric sequence with an image of a (Protestant) memorial meal of love, in which “the friend” keeps overturning the speaker's expectations:

                                                            … let my shame
                                        Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                                        My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
                                        So I did sit and eat.

(ll. 13-18)

Of all the religious poets who wrote during Lanyer's lifetime, Herbert comes closest to a view of Christ like Lanyer's in the Salve Deus. Despite differences in genres, verse forms, style, and voice, they share a tone of confident exploration into the mystery of the passion and portray Christ as a real and vivid presence in their imaginations and their lives. Lanyer displaces much of the sense of Christ's companionship onto the countess of Cumberland, whereas it is the poetic “I” who does “sit and eat” in Herbert's verse, but the feeling of closeness, and of a directness and simplicity that comprehends complexity, is remarkably similar in the work of these two poets. Lanyer presents a narrative about women reading aright the central story of the human condition, and Herbert portrays a man learning to read that same story.

If women are largely absent from Herbert's verse,54 they play a prominent role in Milton's. Lanyer's “Eves Apologie” and her portrait of women generally compare interestingly with Milton's depiction of Eve in Paradise Lost and of women throughout his work. Lanyer's Eve wants to give her beloved the gift of knowledge (ll. 801-2), while Milton's fallen Eve offers Adam the fruit in order to assure she does not die alone (IX.826-31). Milton's Dalila is vain and self-serving and would enjoy dominating Samson in a voluptuous bed (Samson, ll. 920-27). In Lanyer's poem, even temptresses such as Cleopatra and the queen of Sheba affirm great love and seek wisdom (ll. 1441, 1569-78). The shepherd-speaker in “Lycidas,” if he seeks fame both earthly and divine, must reject the temptation “To sport with Amaryllis in the shade, / Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair” (ll. 68-69). By no means does he take “Knowledge … / From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke” (Salve Deus, ll. 807-8).

The debate over Milton and women has been amply considered elsewhere.55 I want to suggest that there is more similarity between Lanyer's and Milton's approach than it might at first appear. Both retell biblical stories and take imaginative liberties with Scripture in order to comment on contemporary practices. Both intrude a personal voice that claims its authority from divine inspiration. And both challenge the traditional understanding of the fall and redemption. While Milton generally follows contemporary teaching about the sexes, including the biblical story of Eve being formed from Adam (Gen. 2:21-23), and of women's consequent secondary status (“Hee for God only, shee for God in him” [IV.299]),56 the two poets nonetheless draw similar conclusions about female beauty as both an emblem of the divine and a serious danger.

Like Milton's Eve, Lanyer's women may be tempted by their own beauty not to look farther than surface loveliness and the satisfactions it can bring. Faire Rosamond's beauty

                    … betraid her thoughts, aloft to clime,
To build strong castles in uncertaine aire,
Where th'infection of a wanton crime
Did worke her fall.

(ll. 227-30)

True beauty, represented by the devoted virtue of the countess of Cumberland, transcends Helen's, “that bred in Troy the ten yeares strife” (l. 209), and cowardly Cleopatra's, who “flies … from him [Antony] when afflictions prove” (l. 1435). Cleopatra's “Beauty wrought the hazard of her Crowne” (l. 1448). By contrast (and in the example of the countess):

A mind enrich'd with Virtue, shines more bright,
Addes everlasting Beauty, gives true grace,
          Frames an immortall Goddesse on the earth.

(ll. 197-99)

Milton's Eve is at first tempted by her own beauty to stay gazing reflectively. Soon after her awakening, she encounters her image in a “Smooth Lake”:

                                                            … there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pin'd with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warn'd me, What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself.

(IV. 459, 465-68)

The voice leads her to Adam, whom she finds “less fair, / Less winning soft, less amiably mild, / Than that smooth wat'ry image” (IV.478-80). She turns back, only to be called by Adam, through whom she learns

How beauty is excell'd by manly grace
And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.


In Milton's version, Eve's fall may hearken back to her vulnerability to the visually appealing. The Serpent is outwardly beautiful (IX.49-505) and his feigned affectionate indignation makes its way into her mind, yet the beautiful fruit is the principal attraction:

Fixt on the Fruit she gaz'd, which to behold
Might tempt alone, and in her ears the sound
Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregn'd
With Reason, to her seeming, and with Truth;
Meanwhile the hour of Noon drew on, and wak'd
An eager appetite, rais'd by the smell
So savory of that Fruit, which with desire,
Inclinable now grown to touch or taste,
Solicited her longing eye.


She is tempted by knowledge, but seduced by beauty and appetite.

While confusing surface beauty and self-love with wisdom and proper desire appears to be paradigmatically female in this section of Paradise Lost, Adam's fall arguably stems from his own inability to see Eve as other than a reflection of himself. The appeal of beauty and narcissism are general, not necessarily gendered, dangers:

                                                            … I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.


After the fall, beauty and desire bring pain, and gender hierarchy is no longer a natural compatibility but an imposed tyranny, as Milton paraphrases God's judgment of Eve (Gen. 3:16):

          Thy sorrow I will greatly multiply
By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring
In sorrow forth, and to thy husband's will
Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule.


Although both poets acknowledge that Eve was tempted and deceived, they write differently the motives and consequences. Lanyer's Eve desires knowledge and has no reason to disbelieve the Serpent who offers it, while Adam, attracted by the fruit she offers him, indulges his appetite.

If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
          No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
          If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?
Not Eve, whose fault was only too much love.
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weaknesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

(ll. 797-808)

In a common response to those who placed the blame for the fall entirely on Eve, Lanyer uses Eve's derivation from Adam as another reason to turn the argument around:

If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all.

(ll. 809-10)

Lanyer's version of the passion does not ignore the gender hierarchy, but valorizes a specifically female piety. Pilate's wife concludes her apology for Eve by implying that Christ's crucifixion will so debase men that women will be liberated from their curse of submission:

          Her weaknesse did the Serpents words obay;
          But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.
Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you do commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it.

(ll. 815-20)

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?

(ll. 825-30)

The virtues Lanyer praises in her women are similar to what Adam learns to value at the end of Paradise Lost. The modest countess of Cumberland embodies the powerful devotion to Christ and to inward virtue that surpasses the achievements of Old Testament heroines Deborah, Judith, and Susanna (ll. 1481-1542). She is constant in “Gods true service” (l. 1516), and spends “that pretious time that God hath sent, / In all good exercises of the minde” (ll. 1566-67). The queen of Sheba, who sought wisdom from Solomon, is a “faire map of majestie and might,” but only “a figure of thy deerest Love” (ll. 1609-10). The countess understands Christ's Passion and redemption:

Pure thoughted Lady, blessed be thy choyce
Of this Almightie, everlasting King.

(ll. 1673-74)

Milton's Adam (and presumably the dreaming Eve [XII.610-13]) learn the lessons that Lanyer's countess of Cumberland already knows. “Henceforth I learn,” he says, “that to obey is best, / And love with fear the only God” (XII.561-62); that God is

Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deem'd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truth's sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.


For both Lanyer and Milton, wisdom and virtue are true beauty, humility true strength, and “Death the Gate of Life.” These cliches of Christian belief arise from different impulses and are differently presented and differently gendered. Yet both poets have a love of liberty, seen as a restored hope for the human condition after Christ's redemptive grace. For Lanyer “libertie” may seem a particularly gendered emancipation from masculine tyranny, which is how it is expressed in “Eves Apologie, yet an idea of liberty underlies the entire poem and is implicitly connected with her advocacy of true beauty as the virtue which chooses the right lover (Christ) and the right course of action. Lanyer blesses the countess of Cumberland's “choyce” of Christ and so inscribes her freedom. Milton was of course a great advocate of freedom, “religious, domestic, and civil,” and in Areopagitica makes a connection Lanyer might have applauded: “when God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing.”57 Lanyer has Pilate's wife ask for “libertie” from the domination of men in a context that praises knowledge and suggests that men have the power to choose against the crucifixion. If they choose to crucify Christ (as historically they did and memorially they might continue to do), that frees women to choose not to submit to men. The first choice must always be, as exemplified by the figure of the countess, for Christ.

Lanyer and Milton both advocate knowledgeable choice; both put God's word and Christ's example ahead of society's rules. Milton excused the killing of a king and advocated representative government.58 Lanyer, by contrast, merely suggested that women have the right to choose their own faith and pursue their own virtue. Milton was read, and risked imprisonment or worse at the Restoration. As far as we know, Lanyer was simply ignored.

Aemilia Lanyer is an impressive and worthy member of the group of poets who founded the great century of English religious verse. Her approach to biblical materials and doctrinal issues is original and interesting, providing perspective and commentary on the varieties of more familiar Catholic and Protestant verse. Her wit and her richly descriptive passages follow both Southwell and Greville and anticipate Crashaw as well as Milton. Her voice triangulates the complex struggle of Donne and the achieved simplicity of Herbert with a view from outside the center of worldly power, inside the center of female virtue. Lanyer was invisible when most of the current generation of professors was in college and graduate school, but it is increasingly difficult to imagine a full understanding of early seventeenth-century English poetry without her.


  1. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), 39-53 and passim.

  2. Anne Lock, “A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner: Written in Maner of a Paraphrase upon the 51. Psalme of David,” appended to Lock's translation of Calvin's sermons Upon the Songe that Ezechias Made after he had been Sicke (1560, in Susan Felch, ed., The Collected Works of Anne Vaughan Lock (Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1999), 62-71); Lanyer refers to the Sidney-Pembroke Psalms, which circulated in numerous manuscript copies in the first part of the seventeenth century, as “rare sweet songs” and “holy sonnets” (“The Authours Dreame,” ll. 117, 121).

  3. From the “Articles of Religion” (“The Thirty-nine Articles”) of the Anglican Church, article 25, “Of the Sacraments.” See also articles 11-14, on justification and works, e.g., from article 11, “Of the Justification of Man”: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” These articles became the official doctrine of the English church in 1571. For a summary history, see Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), 600-1.

  4. Article 28, “Of the Lord's Supper.”

  5. The Catechisme, or maner to teache Children the Christian Religion. Made by the excellent doctor and pastor in Christes Churche John Calvin, (London: Jhon [sic] Kyngston, 1582), sigs. C2-C3.

  6. An Ample Declaration of the Christian doctrine. Composed in Italian by the renowned Cardinal: Card. Bellarmine. Translated into English by Richard Ha[y]dock D. of Divinite (Rouen, c. 1602), sigs. C2. Sig. C2v: [It is as if Christ worked hard to] “gaine so much money, as were sufficient to pay al the debts of this citie, and should put the same in a bank, to the end it should be geven unto al such as should bring a warrant from him: this man had surely satisfied for all … & yet manie might remaine stil in debt, for that they would not, either for pride, or for slouth, or for some other cause, demand his warrant, and carrie it to the bank, to receive the money.”

  7. Diane McColley has captured this distinction neatly in juxtaposing two versions of God the Father's presence in creation by the Flemish engraver Jan Collaert after Maerten de Vos. In the first (more “Catholic” version), the background shows a robed figure lifting up his hands by a seashore, creating the heavens; in the middle perspective, another God figure sits on a rock with his hand pointed toward an array of Edenic animals: and, in the foreground, yet another, a vigorous bearded patriarch, blesses Eve as she emerges from Adam's side. In the second version, published later by a different printer, the scene is the same except that a sun-like oblong inscribed with the Hebrew name for God intertwined with the Latin “Pater” replaces the blessing patriarch, and the figures on the rock and seashore have disappeared. The Protestant version rejects an anthropomorphic God in favor of a more abstract “Word.” Diane McColley, A Gust for Paradise: Milton's Eden and the Visual Arts (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993), figs. 15 and 16 (see also 21-35).

  8. Felch, 65.

  9. James H. MacDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown, eds., The Poems of Robert Southwell, S.J., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 41. All citations are from this edition.

  10. “Queen Anne,” l. 44; “Arbella,” l. 12; “Duchess of Suffolk,” l. 42; Salve Deus, 474.

  11. “Queen Anne,” l. 85; “Ladie Anne,” l. 117; Salve Deus, ll. 319, 411, 572.

  12. “Authors Dreame,” l. 218; Salve Deus, l. 560; “Ladie Anne,” l. 131; Salve Deus, l. 467.

  13. “Vertuous Ladies,” l. 9; “Ladie Anne,” l. 115; Salve Deus, ll. 77, 1018, 1305.

  14. See also Salve Deus ll. 677, 728, 741, 750, 896, 1012, 1017, 1111, 1135, 1143, 1188, 1204, 1254, 1302.

  15. See chapter 1; “The Authors Dream,” ll. 117-32 and sidenote.

  16. Lanyer lauds Sidney in “The Authors Dream,” ll. 138-44, but places the countess of Pembroke “farre before him … / For virtue, wisedome, learning, dignity” (ll. 151-52). Greville's poems apparently circulated widely before being printed in his Works, 1633 (they are mentioned in Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie, 1586). See Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1945), vol. 1, 33-42 (though it is not clear whether the religious verses were circulated early). Citations from Greville are from this edition. Citations from Constable are from Joan Grundy, ed., The Poems of Henry Constable (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1960). Grundy concludes that Constable was probably at court in 1588 and 1589 (26).

  17. For persuasive arguments on aspects of Lanyer's unconventional view of the passion, see Janel Mueller, “The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,’” in Feminist Measures: Sounding in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristianne Miller (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994), and Catherine Keohane, “‘That Blindest Weakenesse Be Not Over-bold’: Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion,” ELH 64 (1997), 359-90.

  18. John King, Barbara Lewalski, and Louis Martz have described and analyzed the richness and variety of the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century biblical poetics which fed the development of religious poetry in early modern English. See John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982); Barbara K. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979); Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962).

  19. Felch, introduction. “Despite her unswerving commitment to reformed and anti-Papist sentiments, Lock's [dedicatory] epistle [to the Duchess of Suffolk] is not iconoclastic. In both its allegorical use of biblical materials and conservative rhetoric, it remains firmly embedded in the venerable tradition of English devotional writings.” Although there remains some question about whether the sonnets are by Lock, Felch argues for her authorship, as have other recent commentators, e.g., Thomas P. Roche, Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 155, and Michael Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1992), 92.

  20. All citations are taken from the Geneva Bible (1560) unless otherwise noted. The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 edition, intro. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969). For the definition of “Protestant” in the sense described, see, e.g., Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 78-83.

  21. All citations are from Margaret P. Hannay, Noel Kinnamon, and Michael Brennan, eds., The Works of the Countess of Pembroke, (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998). Psalm 51, ll. 5-7, transcribed by Noel T. Kinnamon from the Penshurst ms.

  22. Felch, 66.

  23. Bullough, Poems and Dramas, vol. 1, 2-9.

  24. Grundy, Poems of Henry Constable, 24, 150-51, 154-55, 157.

  25. Daniel credits Greville with publicizing his early work, and possibly, as Bullough suggests (19), even introducing him to the Pembroke circle. He became tutor to the countess of Pembroke's sons in the early 1590's and, some years later, to the countess of Cumberland's daughter, Anne Clifford (see chapter 1). In Musophilus, Daniel addresses Greville:

    Thy learned judgement which I most esteem
    (Worthy Fulke Grevil) must defend this course [i.e., Daniel's discursive verse],
    By whose mild grace and gentle hand at first
    My infant Muse was brought in open sight
    From out the darkness wherein it was nursed
    And made to be partaker of the light.

    (ll. 743-48)

  26. Bullough, Poems and Dramas, vol. 1, 18-19; Grundy, Poems of Henry Constable, 146. The sisters were apparently close, and common dedications not uncommon (see, e.g., Spenser's dedications cited in chapter 2, 55). For a summary of the relation between the two sisters, see Victoria A. Wilson, Society Women of Shakespeare's Time (London: The Bodley Head, 1924), 138-43.

  27. Sonnet 98, “Caelica,” in Bullough, Poems and Dramas, vol. 1, 143-44.

  28. Grundy, Poems of Henry Constable, 53-59, 101-2.

  29. Ibid., 187-88.

  30. Ibid., 191-92.

  31. MacDonald and Brown, Poems of Robert Southwell, lvi-lxxvi.

  32. “Certain Sonnets” 32, Sir Philip Sidney, Poems, ed. William A. Ringler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 161.

  33. Sonnet 86, Bullough, Poems and Dramas, vol. 1, 135-36.

  34. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 59-69.

  35. C. A. Patrides, ed., The Complete English Poems of John Donne (London: Dent, Everyman's Library, 1985), 443. All citations from Donne's poems are from this edition.

  36. Patrides, Poems of John Donne, 448.

  37. Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 236 (describing the central theme of Donne's two “Anniversaries”).

  38. “Conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden,” in C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1925-52), vol. 1, 33.

  39. Barbara K. Lewalski, Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 112-13.

  40. Patrides, Poems of John Donne, 326.

  41. Lewalski, Donne's Anniversaries, 113.

  42. Mueller, “Feminist Poetics.”

  43. “And [God] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfite through weakenes. Verie gladly therefore wil I rejoyce rather in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me … for when I am weake, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

  44. F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), xxxvi; citations from Herbert's verse are from this edition.

  45. The date of publication is given as “On or before 2 Jan. 1646” in A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, vol. 2, “The Minor English Poems,” ed. A. S. P. Woodhouse and Douglas Bush (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1972), pt. 1, 6.

  46. See Grundy, Poems of Henry Constable, 185-92, which includes poems to “St. Mychaell the Archangel,” “St. John the Baptist,” “St. Peter and St. Paul,” “St. Katharyne,” and ‘St. Margarett,” as well as the two Marys. Southwell's poems often focus on St. Peter (a second poem called “St. Peter's Complaynte,” “St. Peter's afflicted minde,” “St. Peters remorse,” 29-31, 33-35). See also William Alabaster (1568-1640), who has poems to Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also St. Augustine and St. John the Evangelist. G. M. Story and Helen Gardner, eds., The Sonnets of William Alabaster (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), 19, 42.

  47. Elizabeth Melvill (Colville), Lady Culros, Ane Godlie Dreame, Edinburgh, 1606.

  48. Bullough, Poems and Dramas, vol. 1, 153.

  49. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 294-96: “The speaker is forced to give over his foolish and presumptuous (Catholic) efforts to achieve an imaginative identification with the crucified Christ and to participate in his sacrifice by imitation, turning instead to a proper Protestant concern with the meaning of Christ's sacrifice for his own redemption and his spiritual life. In this interest he explores the relationship which is the theological ground of all the others—Christ as Savior and the speaker as his redeemed. … The speaker is related to Christ also as servant to lord, or sometimes subject to king, and the terms of this relationship are also transmuted by love.” Lewalski also notes Herbert's exploration of the Christ-speaker relationship as “father and child” (295), “but the primary relation explored through these poems is that of loving friends, not fixed in the Canticles' relation of Bride and Bridegroom but exchanging the roles of lover and beloved” (296).

  50. Hutchinson, Works, 26-34. At two points the refrain changes to “Never was grief like mine”: at the moment of God's apparent forsaking (l. 215) and at the end (l. 251).

  51. Hutchinson, Works, 48-51, 60-61.

  52. E.g., when the countess of Cumberland finds the true presence of her Lord in the humble and sick, ll. 1345-68.

  53. Hutchinson, Works, 153-54.

  54. The notable exception is his poem on “Marie Magdalene,” Hutchinson, Works, 173.

  55. See, e.g., Julia Walker, ed., Milton and the Idea of Woman (Champagne-Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991); references to earlier debates run throughout its notes.

  56. Merritt Y. Hughes, John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957). All references to Milton are from this ed.

  57. “Second Defense,” in Hughes, 831a; “Areopagitica,” in Hughes, 733a.

  58. E.g., in “Eikonklastes” and “Ready and Easy Way,” in Hughes.

John Rogers (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Rogers, John. “The Passion of a Female Literary Tradition: Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum.Huntington Library Quarterly 63, no. 4 (2000): 435-46.

[In the following essay, Rogers delineates the social and cultural conditions that influenced the creation of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and regards the volume as an “unprecedented achievement.”]

As the first significant book of original poetry published by an Englishwoman, Aemilia Lanyer's 1611 volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, bears a considerable burden. The volume self-consciously assumes the task of delivering to posterity a new literary tradition, a newly public, because published, tradition of poetry by women. Intimately tied to this unprecedented achievement is the stunning claim for her poetic vocation that Lanyer makes in that volume's title poem, a narration of the Passion, the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. Literary history has traditionally assumed Lanyer's younger contemporary, John Milton, to be the first English poet to ascribe his vocation to his fate at birth.1 But we must ask Milton to relinquish that honor to Lanyer, who offered a bold incarnational narrative near the end of her long poem on Christ's Passion. Addressing the countess of Cumberland as either a real or presumed patron, she writes:

And knowe, when first into this world I came,
This charge was giv'n me by th'Eternall powres,
Th'everlasting Trophie of thy fame,
To build.(2)

Given this book's status as an important literary-historical first, it is no surprise that nearly all of Lanyer's critics in the last ten years have attempted to understand the dynamics of this poet's extraordinary assumption of authority, the agential entitlement she assumes in order publicly to express the bold imaginative achievement that is the Salve Deus. What were the social or cultural conditions that enabled Lanyer to write and publish this work? To what extent are those conditions represented or otherwise made manifest in the text of Salve Deus?

The answers to these questions have been found in the picture of the virtuous community of learned, aristocratic women that Lanyer paints in the many dedicatory poems that preface the work on the Passion.3 The gathering of literary women portrayed in these poems includes Lanyer's presumed patron, Margaret, countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Anne Clifford, both of whom, as Lanyer repeatedly notes, were engaged in a protracted legal struggle to secure Anne's right to inherit the properties left by her late father. The most illustrious figure among the dedicatees is Mary Sidney, dowager countess of Pembroke, who had already established her literary reputation with her metrically experimental translations of the Psalms, lyrics widely circulated but not published in her lifetime. In one poem's dream-vision narrative of an encounter with Mary Sidney, Lanyer honors the countess as the greatest of the learned lady poets and, as Barbara Lewalski has noted, asks Sidney “to recognize Lanyer as her successor in a female poetic line.”4 Conscious of the historical burden borne by the literary milestone that is the Salve Deus, Lanyer struggles to situate this in many ways unprecedented work in a “tradition” whose filiations—whose very existence, in fact—it is the obligation of the Salve Deus to call into being.

Lanyer's fictive projection of the sororal scene of literary collaboration that enabled her venture into print is far more complex than critics have acknowledged. The nature of this tradition and the way in which Lanyer imagines herself the beneficiary of the women writers before her are matters to which this essay will turn later. But in order to appreciate Lanyer's rich sense of her place in a line of women poets, we must first consider seriously the subject matter of the volume's long title poem. The Passion is not, as critics have largely assumed, merely the topic on which Lanyer happened to exercise her poetic gifts or a topic chosen for no other reason than its unimpeachable cultural authority.5 Lanyer's published poetry is not simply about the crucifixion; the justification for its composition is founded on the deep cultural logic of Christianity's understanding of the crucifixion and especially on the theology of justification that necessarily accompanies any early modern consideration of the Passion of Christ.

There is much in the rich traditions of discourse concerning the crucifixion that might seem naturally to draw an early modern woman writer. The already feminized figure of the scriptural Christ offers itself perhaps too readily to a devotional poet seeking an identification with a redeemer whose obligation to chastity, silence, and obedience surpasses even her own. At least since Thomas Aquinas's official association of the crucifixion with the sacrament of matrimony, it has been possible to invoke the Passion as a means of figuring, and justifying, a woman's transition from virginity to marriage.6 Donne toyed with this image of the crucified bride in his parodic “Epithalamion Made at Lincoln's Inn” of 1592, in which the rewards of marriage were dependent on the virgin bride's horrific defloration: lying like a “paschal lamb” on the marriage bed, the bride in Donne's disturbing poem awaits her bridegroom-priest, who “comes on his knees t' embowel her” (lines 88-90)7. In her 1621 Urania, Lady Mary Wroth would offer a related image of marital crucifixion in order to subject the corruption of modern conjugality to a critique. The beautiful Limena confronts an armed man who binds her to a pillar with her long blond hair and fastens a cord around “her soft, dainty white hands … in manner of a cross, as testimony of her cruellest martyrdom.”8 With these images of a figurative crucifixion, writers as diverse as Donne and Wroth could test, or question, the culture's assumption of the virgin's seemingly tragic but ultimately triumphant relinquishment of her bodily integrity, and her liberty, to her husband. But it is not the martyrdom of marriage that Lanyer emphasizes as she explores the social analogies of atonement in her own extended treatment of the crucifixion—a neglect of convention not surprising in light of the boldly feminist critique the Salve Deus launches against any patriarchal system designed to silence female voices or deny female rights.

Much more recently, and in a different vein, Gjertrud Schnackenberg has figured her own incarnation as a poet in an image of self-crucifixion in the 1985 lyric “Supernatural Love.”9 In this extraordinary poem, which invokes the Passion throughout its sixty lines, the four-year-old Schnackenberg, though not herself able yet to read, attempts with needle and thread to embroider the word “Beloved,” when

The needle strikes my finger to the bone,
I lift my hand, it is myself I've sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own.

The atoning triumph Schnackenberg describes in this poem is an incarnation, one that mysteriously follows, rather than precedes, a crucifixion. And while her sacrifice is not figured here as a relinquishment of her body to a greater power, she imagines an incarnation that is also an initiation into language by trying her hand at the art of the needle, which had for centuries embodied the domestic sacrifices to which women are constrained in a patriarchal world.

Far more radical than Schnackenberg, I submit, Aemilia Lanyer does not simply narrate her authorization as a poet by means of an account of a crucifixion. Lanyer rather uses the Salve Deus as a sacramental means to enact her own poetic incarnation. In brooding on the crucifixion and the atonement, she explores the outlines of justification, that line of theological inquiry most concerned with the bounds and latitudes of human agency. For nearly all English Protestant theologians, the elect are justified—rendered just and redeemable in the eyes of God—only by means of a sacrificial substitution. An unworthy sacrifice himself, each individual Christian, incapable of triggering the mechanism of redemption on his own, must depend on a perfect substitute, Christ, who before his death assumes the individual's sinful nature, and whose own perfection and righteousness after his death can in turn be imputed back to the individual.10

The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England saw a great explosion of theoretical activity surrounding the question of justification, as the orthodox Calvinists among both the Puritan and the Anglican camps grew increasingly concerned to defend themselves against “Pelagian free-willers”—all those, such as anabaptists and Roman Catholics, who retained a role in the scheme of salvation for human merit and godly works. The official theological community grew increasingly concerned to articulate the limits of human agency, and the perils of human action, from within an authoritative theological vocabulary.11 Those arrogant individuals proud of their virtue, convinced of the value of their virtuous actions, were for the voluble orthodox Calvinist minister William Perkins, for example, not to be considered true Christians, but “Judaizing” Christians. Not “content with the death and passion of Christ,” anyone convinced of the redemptive capacity of his own virtuous action is to be considered a Jew, a figure for whom repentance and simple obedience, rather than submission to the mystery of sacrificial substitution, are sufficient for justification.12 Not virtuous action but faith in “Christ crucified,” Perkins repeatedly insists, “is the onely thing that justifies a sinner.”13

It is in this context of the attempts by the period's Calvinist ministry to limit the value of human action that Lanyer fashions her own account of the crucifixion and its atonement, anxiously aware that she writes this poem “in other Phrases than may well agree / With [Christ's] pure Doctrine, and most holy Writ” (lines 305-6). She claims, near the poem's outset, that she will “Write … of his glorious Merit, / If he vouchsafe to guide my Hand and Quill” (lines 323-24). But the remarkable representation of Christ in the moments preceding his crucifixion reveals nothing of his merit or perfection, nor even of the voluntary obedience for which she praises him elsewhere (line 529). So far is the Christ of Lanyer's Passion narrative from being capable of acting in any way that might merit his eventual glorification that he is nowhere represented as even willingly consenting to this sacrifice. Consent for Lanyer is a form of action associated exclusively with the privileges of men in the public sphere. Whereas the other men in this poem are entitled to exercise a positive power of consent—as in the case of Pontius Pilate, consenting to the Roman authorities' desire to execute Christ (line 859)—Lanyer's Christ is never seen to consent even to the Father's will in having him sacrificed. Stripped of the already limited power of consent, the Christ of Salve Deus resembles many of the poem's women, whose will exists, it often seems, only to be violated. The legendary Matilda, for example, was raped by King John, notwithstanding her refusal to “consent” (line 240); and a more general disregard of the power of consent beset all women, who, Lanyer argues, “never gave consent” to their subjection to the sovereignty of men (line 833).

Far from consenting, Lanyer's feminized Christ, as she repeatedly insists throughout the narrative, is “content” to submit himself to the inexplicable will of the Father (lines 410, 475, 523, and 1124). Substituting the s of “consent” for a t, Lanyer strips her Christ of the capacity for even the passive agency exerted in the willed consent to follow the word of God. He wordlessly, will-lessly submits to the actions performed upon him, as if attempting to achieve the satisfaction that is atonement by means of the silent satisfaction of contentment. His senses confounded by the “pretious sweat [that] came trickling to the ground” (lines 407-8), her Christ walks through this passion play in a drugged stupor, “well content to have [his] Glory drownd” (line 475), “content” as well “to stoope unto their Lure.” Most Protestant atonement theologies insisted that Christ's glorification rested on his willed and knowing obedience to the Father's law, an active desire to subject himself to the punishment the Father demanded. But the narrative here contains few representations of obedience, choice, or even consent to the will of the earthly and heavenly forces marshaled around him. He “forbears” (line 667), he “endures” (lines 609, 670), but he never acts in any way other than as a passive victim of his father's wrath. Quite distinct from the Jesus of the Gospel narratives, Lanyer's Christ in his acquiescence to the powers-that-be refuses even to speak, venturing no more over the course of the poem than the simple claim, “I am hee” (line 518).

Any exercise of agency—anything construable as purposeful motion or work, and even speech itself—is dismissed throughout the main narrative of the Passion as not only vain but also morally suspect. Christ's enemies are all dismissed as “wicked Actors” (line 612), not simply because their particular actions are wicked but also because action itself, of any kind, in so many instances meets with the poem's stern disapproval. The disciple Peter thinks to defend his Master by drawing his sword on one of the guards, assuming wrongly that performing a virtuous action, at least, is warranted.

But no actions in the poem are proven more fruitless than those of the story's women, women who in spite of their virtue and courage are no less deluded than their male counterparts by a groundless faith in action's value. Pilate's wife, the poem's most powerful speaker, fails, after her long exhortation, to change her husband's mind. The heroic daughters of Jerusalem labor for several stanzas to dissuade the men from complying with the crucifixion, but their speech, Lanyer tells us, is “all in vaine” (line 1001). And while we might be tempted to think that Lanyer is criticizing the patriarchal social conditions that nullify the efficacy of female speech, the poem itself seems largely to question the assumption that female speech—indeed, any original speech—might succeed in effecting positive change.

Surely we are justified in noting the irony of this emphasis on the futility of woman's speech in this long, ambitious poem written by a woman. How does Lanyer reconcile the action she has herself taken in composing and publishing the Salve Deus with her sweeping derogation of the verbal activity of those great scriptural women? The answer is simple: Lanyer does not. Or, at least, she does not until after the poem's narration of the crucifixion and resurrection. In the death of Lanyer's Christ, the will-less passivity that was his hallmark is buried, and in its place rises a new celebration of deliberate and effective speech and action. Lanyer praises a newly militaristic Christ, capable of conquering all of his enemies. She elevates her presumed patroness, the countess of Cumberland, to the role of the Messiah's new champion, capable of healing his wounds with her newly efficacious prayers. She celebrates the heroic women of the Old Testament—Susanna, Judith, Deborah, and Esther—whose feats of courage and strength can only now, in retrospect, be honored as worthy actions (lines 1465-1544). The entire category of verbal action—in fact, a category that the poem had labored to derogate as both Hebraic and feminine—is redeemed, implicitly redeeming the verbal agency of this woman of Jewish descent (if the biographical evidence can be trusted), Aemilia Lanyer.14

Perhaps most important, Lanyer's representation of the Passion enables her retrospectively to assume for herself the right to have written this poem, enabling her to characterize, for the first time, the composition of this poem as work: the poem is now suddenly and unremittingly identified as a “holy work,” as “this taske of Beauty which I tooke in hand” (line 1322). In a postscript she appends to Salve Deus, Lanyer goes so far with this celebration of her own poetic agency as to claim to have been divinely “Appointed to write this work.” And, finally, it is only after the narrative of the Passion that Lanyer permits herself to make that staggering claim noted at this essay's beginning, that hers is a true poetic vocation: “And knowe, when first unto this world I came, / This charge was giv'n me by th'Eternall powres.” So committed is she to the general logic of sacrificial substitution that the atonement has permitted her this final, and most outrageous, assumption of authority: she seizes from none other than Christ himself the presumably singular narrative of Incarnation, the story of Christ's unique journey from heaven to “this world” that she neglects utterly to mention in her narrative of his life but proudly applies to herself once she has secured her narrative of his death. It is as if the only words she had permitted Christ in the entirety of the poem's eighteen hundred lines she were now able to utter herself: “I am hee.” If it is not exactly the case that Christ died so that Lanyer could write this poem, it may well be, I propose, that Lanyer narrates Christ's death in order to effect the sacrificial substitution whereby her womanly obligation to passivity could be traded for the glorious redemptive activity for which the Messiah is typically praised.

But nothing, as we learn from all of the Reformed theologians of atonement, is got for nothing. Much as man's redemption was dearly paid for by the Christian Messiah, so Lanyer's new seizure of active poetic authority is not without its cost. So endemic, in fact, is the logic of sacrificial substitution to the Lanyerian imagination that it structures nearly all of the accounts of her relations to the other figures in the community of virtuous women she imagines. In the generally secular pages of the dedicatory poems, the redeemer who died for the empowerment of Lanyer's contemporaries is not Christ but the late Queen Elizabeth. Lanyer honors the reigning Queen Anne in the volume's first dedication, but she takes care to remind her majesty that she reigns only because a greater queen, Elizabeth, laid down her life. Anne's daughter, the princess Elizabeth, must similarly resign the significance of her being to her royal Tudor namesake, now named by Lanyer as the “deare Mother of our Common-weale.” And in a particularly peculiar dedicatory gesture, Lanyer begins her address to the countess of Cumberland at the opening of the Salve Deus with the suggestion that Lanyer will apply her pen to the never-dying fame of the countess only because the truly worthy honoree, the late Elizabeth, of course, has “ascended to that rest / Of endlesse joy and true Eternitie” (lines 1-2).

All of these accommodations of the rhetoric of dedication to the profounder logic of sacrificial atonement pale, however, in the face of the volume's most significant dedicatory address. This is “The Authors Dreame to the ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembrooke,” addressed to Mary Sidney, the poet whose translations of David's “holy sonnets” seized Lanyer in her sleep, songs she calls “the heavenli'st musicke … That ever earthly eares did entertaine” (lines 129-30). In attempting to figure the idea of a historical line of poets in which she enjoys a preeminent position, she refuses any approximation of the trope of tradition, the traditio whereby literary property would be handed down or surrendered from one poet to another. As Lanyer has occasion at many points to remind the beleaguered countess of Cumberland and her daughter, women have only the most tenuous relation to traditio, that process of authorization founded on the legal conveyance of property from one generation to the next. The form of literary authorization to which Lanyer reverts, therefore, is not the legal form of tradition but the far more mysterious process of substitutive sacrifice. Helpless to authorize herself, to establish her own right to act authoritatively, the woman poet for Lanyer receives her authority by means of what a theologian would call imputation; it must be imputed to her by means of the substitutive process of an atoning sacrifice. The greatness of Mary Sidney, we learn, was imputed to her by her late brother Philip, whose sacrificial death functioned, in Lanyer's disturbing figuration, to glorify his sister (lines 141-56), who as a result is now “farre before him … to be esteemd / For virtue, wisedome, learning, dignity” (lines 151-52). Mary Sidney, of course, was still alive and well when Lanyer wrote her poem, and Lanyer properly refrains from stating outright that she is planning to profit poetically from the countess of Pembroke's own final sacrifice. But the dream vision concludes with Lanyer's request that Sidney contemplate the Christian sacrifice recounted in the Salve Deus; and in asking Sidney to “vouchsafe” her “grace” on Lanyer's faulty Passion poem, she is seeking not only the worldly remuneration this wealthy patron might proffer in this life but also the far more valuable imputation of poetic agency that Sidney might one day be content to relinquish at her death.

Lanyer's passionate theologization of her relation to Mary Sidney may seem all the more strained when we consider that Lanyer's suggestion of any poetic kinship with Sidney may be the most extravagant of this volume's fictions. Lanyer's literary filiation is surely not to the countess of Pembroke, whose psalmic lyricism and metrical virtuosity left no discernable impact on Lanyer's own verse. Even Lanyer's own pastiche of a few triumphant Psalms in lines 73-144 of the Salve Deus bears no trace of the influence of Sidney, whose then unpublished translations of the Psalms it is quite possible Lanyer never read; the long psalmic digression of Lanyer's own poem is in fact an often transparently versified version of Psalms 11, 64, 97, 103, and 104 as they were translated into English for the Henrician “Great Bible” and broadly disseminated through the Book of Common Prayer. Her true poetic forebears are not Mary Sidney and the other literary women addressed in the prefatory poems of the Salve Deus volume. Rather they are the “Great Bible” translator Miles Coverdale, and, more consequentially, as Barbara Lewalski and Janel Mueller have suggested, the male narrative poets she never names, Robert Southwell and especially Giles Fletcher, whose long narrative on the Passion, in an ottava rima stanza close to Lanyer's own, appeared the year before the Salve Deus.15 For a poet as sensitive as Lanyer to the social obstacles barring a woman's inheritance of implicitly male property, it is not surprising that she refrains from seizing a place in the tradition of devotional narrative poets to which she has a justifiable claim. She invokes instead a fiction of a literary matrilineage whose crucial, if symbolic, value for her she figures obliquely as a form of sacrificial replacement.

If Mary Sidney emerges in the imaginative world of Lanyer's “Dreame to the ladie Marie” as a woman poet whose strength might be sacrificed for the public success of Lanyer's own poetry, her sacrificial role is founded on an existent identification of the Psalm-translator as a “Hebrew” poet. Donne had already aligned Mary Sidney with the literary achievement of the Old Testament; in his verses “Upon the translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney, and the Countess of Pembroke his sister,” he had named the gifted sister of Philip Sidney “this Miriam,” the sister of Moses. For Donne in that tribute, the Sidneyan Psalms take their place in a successive line of specifically Hebrew instances of poetic inspiration:

The songs are these, which heaven's high holy Muse
Whispered to David, David to the Jews:
And David's successors, in holy zeal,
In forms of joy and art do re-reveal.

(Lines 31-34)

Going further even than Donne in Judaizing Mary Sidney, Lanyer associates her with the Old Testament David himself, pointing her reader, in one of her marginal subheadings, to the “Psalms written newly by the Countesse Dowager of Penbrooke.” Sidney's Psalms, for Lanyer, are the effects of poetic action and labor that qualify them as “workes”: “your faire mind on worthier workes is plac'd,” she tells Sidney, “On workes that are more deepe, and more profound” (lines 25-16) than the poetic efforts of Lanyer herself. Lanyer carefully identifies Sidney, whose own Calvinism would have led her to recoil from such praise, with that self-willed, merit-based mode of redemption her Calvinist contemporaries would denounce as “Judaizing.”

As a poetic agent implicitly being asked to make room for Lanyer's own emergence as a working poet, Mary Sidney cannot, for Lanyer, function simply as a supportive female contemporary or model for imitation. The right to author her own poetic work can be Lanyer's, it would seem, only once Sidney herself has been transumed, perhaps even sacrificed. The implicit model Lanyer calls on to structure this fantasized process of historical transumption is the biblical hermeneutics of typology, whereby the shadowy “types” of the Old Testament give way to the truth, or the Christian “antitypes,” of the New. Lanyer's consistent characterization of Sidney's texts and ideas as “workes” clearly finds the older poet an unenlightened type within the rigorously diachronic scheme of Lanyer's typological reading of literary history. As a “Hebrew” poet, Sidney is tied to a literary period prior to the Christian dispensation whose atoning origins Lanyer's Salve Deus represents: the “rare sweet songs” framed by “Israels King” and translated by Sidney are shoved back to that benighted point in time “Before [God's] holy wisedom tooke the name / Of great Messias, Lord of unitie” (lines 199-20). This deliberately extreme backdating of Mary Sidney's literary achievement allows Lanyer to emerge not, as Donne might have suggested, as Sidney's poetic successor but to arise, as the “Dreame to the ladie Marie” suggests, as the Christian typological fulfillment of Mary Sidney's Hebraic achievement.

I have suggested that Lanyer gives pride of place to Mary Sidney, whose verse may have been known to her only by reputation, in part to imagine herself subsuming Sidney, much as the Christian antitype necessarily subsumes its chronologically prior but spiritually inferior Jewish type. To argue, as I have, that Mary Sidney functions for Aemilia Lanyer as little more than a symbolic element in a complex typological scheme of literary self-authorization, is of course only to hint at the difficult birth of the trope of a female literary tradition. But it is the work of the Salve Deus volume as a whole, with its derogating praise of Sidney's Old Testament poetic and its own extended narrative of the New Testament Passion, to effect this typological transumption. And it is in light of Lanyer's use of the atonement narrative as the means to authorize her verse as the work of a new woman poet that we can best understand the astonishing title Lanyer bestowed on this first volume of original poems published by a woman. Her title, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, recalls, of course, the Bible's account of the soldier who crowned Christ with a wreath of thorns and mocked him, crying, “Hail the king of the Jews.” So strange is this title, which invites the reader's identification of the poet not with Christ or his champions but with his crucifiers, that Lanyer herself felt compelled to apologize for it in an appended postscript, “To the doubtfull Reader”:

Gentle Reader, if thou desire to be resolved, why I give this Title, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, know for certaine; that it was delivered unto me in sleepe many yeares before I had any intent to write in this maner, and was quite out of my memory, until I had written the Passion of Christ, when immediately it came into my remembrance, what I had dreamed long before; and thinking it a significant token, that I was appointed to performe this Worke, I gave the very same words I received in sleep as the fittest Title I could devise for this Booke.

Surely the title is strange, whatever its visionary origin, in the context of this poem's devotional engagement with its religious subject. But it is at the same time a title almost perfectly suited to a poem that uses a reenactment of the crucifixion as a means of a retroactive authorization of its composition and publication. Lanyer, according to this account, only recalled her dream of the mocking phrase after she had already written her “Passion of Christ.” And it was not until after that composition, and after remembering the dream of the crucifier's cry, that she was able to identify herself as “appointed,” presumably by God, “to performe this Worke.” Shedding any affiliation with the resigned femininity of her text's Christ and appropriating the activity of poetic work associated with Mary Sidney, Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum works to enact, by means of the alchemy of a loosely typological paradigm of literary history, her appointment as a poet.


  1. See Milton's “Ad Patrem” (1631-32), lines 61-62: “si me genuisse poetam / Contigeret.” Abraham Cowley, in the lyric “Destinie,” in the youthful volume Poetical Blossomes (1633), would likewise describe his poetic vocation in a nativity narrative:

    Me from the womb the Midwife Muse did take:
    She cut my Navel, washt me, and mine Head
    With her own Hands she Fashioned;
    She did a Covenant with me make,
    And circumcis'ed my tender Soul, and thus she spake,
    Thou of my Church shalt be,
    Hate and renounce (said she)
    Wealth, Honor, Pleasures, all the World for Me.
    Thou neither great at Court, nor in the War,
    Nor at th'Exchange shalt be, nor at the wrangling Bar.
    Content thy self with the small Barren Praise,
    That neglected Verse does raise.
    She spake, and all my years to come
    Took their unlucky Doom.
  2. Aemilia Lanyer, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, ed. Susanne Woods (New York, 1993), 113, lines 1457-60. All quotations of Lanyer's verse are taken from this edition, cited subsequently by line number in the text.

  3. The foremost treatment of this topic is Barbara Lewalski's, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 213-41.

  4. Ibid., 223.

  5. The exception to the general critical disregard for Lanyer's religious subject matter is the argument, distinct from my own, offered by Catherine Keohane in “‘That Blindest Weakenesse Be Not Over-Bold’: Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion,” ELH 64 (1997): 359-89.

  6. See The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, vol. 3, Supplement (New York, 1948), Q. 42, A.3.

  7. John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (Harmondsworth, England, 1971), 135. Quotations from Donne's poetry are drawn from this edition, cited by line number in the text.

  8. Mary Wroth, Urania, Book I, reprinted in An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Fiction, ed. Paul Salzman (Oxford, 1991), 102.

  9. I am grateful to Langdon Hammer for bringing Schnackenberg's lyric to my attention.

  10. The anxiety aroused by Protestantism's removal from the individual any agency in his own redemption finds its greatest poetic expression in George Herbert's lyric, “The Reprisall.”

  11. The intensified focus on human helplessness among both Elizabethan and Jacobean Calvinist theologians is discussed thoroughly in Dewey D. Wallace Jr., Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525-1695 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), 29-78.

  12. William Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians (1604), ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York, 1989), 349. See also Perkins's A Declaration of the True Manner of Knowing Christ Crucified (London, 1611).

  13. Perkins, Commentary, 538.

  14. Lewalski notes the probable Jewish origins of Lanyer's Italian father's family in Writing Women, 214-15.

  15. See Lewalski, Writing Women, 227; and Janel Mueller, “The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's ‘Salve Deus Rex Judæorum,’” in Lynn Keller and Christianne Miller, eds., Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993), 208-36; revised and reprinted in Marshall Grossman, ed., Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon (Lexington, 1998), 234-54.

Susanne Woods (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Woods, Susanne. “Anne Lock and Aemilia Lanyer: A Tradition of Protestant Women Speaking.” In Form and Reform in Renaissance England: Essays in Honor of Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, edited by Amy Boesky and Mary Thomas Crane, pp. 171-84. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Woods finds connections between the English author Anne Lock and Lanyer.]

Two of the most interesting early modern English women writers are Anne Vaughan Lock (c. 1534-c. 1590) and Aemilia Bassano Lanyer (1569-1645). Lock, a confidant of John Knox, published translations of Sermons of John Calvin, Upon the Songe Ezechias Made after He Had Been Sicke (1560) and (as Anne Prowse) of a treatise by the French Huguenot, Jean Taffin, Of the Markes of the Children of God (1590), each prefaced by a substantial dedication to a noblewoman and followed by original poems. Lanyer, daughter and wife of court musicians and, in her youth, mistress to Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, in 1611 published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (“Hail God, King of the Jews”). This impressive book of poems is centered by a long poem on Christ's passion prefaced by a series of nine dedicatory pieces and followed by the first published country-house poem in English, “A Description of Cookeham.”

On the surface these two women would seem to have little in common. Not only are they of different generations, but the pious Lock, who endured exile in Geneva during Queen Mary's reign and included the famous puritan preacher Edward Dering among her three husbands, is not someone we would immediately connect with the ambitious young Lanyer, who visited the astrologer Simon Forman in 1597 to try to determine whether her husband would be knighted and she be a lady.1 Any attempt to find connections in their literary work might reasonably be seen as part of an almost desperate effort to claim a woman's tradition from the small sample of those women who published in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

Surprisingly, however, there are two major connections between Lock and Lanyer. Anne Lock's only brother, Stephen Vaughan the younger, and his wife were close friends of Aemilia Lanyer's parents. Catherine Brandon Bertie, the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, who, like Lock, fled to the Continent during Queen Mary's Catholic resurgence, and to whom Lock dedicated her first publication, was the mother of the Countess Dowager of Kent in whose household Lanyer was educated. The model of Anne Lock therefore becomes important for understanding a tradition of women writing that Lanyer claims and at the same time challenges. Viewing Lanyer's self-presentation in the light of Lock's own tells us a good deal about the boundaries (and transgressions) understood by two generations of English Protestant women.

The connections themselves are interesting, as they suggest something of the network and impact of the early English Protestant movement. At the dissolution of the monasteries (around 1538) Thomas Cromwell gave Anne Lock's father, Tudor diplomat Stephen Vaughan, the great house and bulk of property around St. Mary Spital, just outside the London city wall in the parish of St. Botolph's Bishopsgate. Vaughan senior rented out several of his “messuages” (houses with surrounding grounds and outbuildings) to Protestant partisans, including Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger.2 When Vaughan died in December 1549, his will provided for his twelve-year-old son to inherit when he reached his majority, which he did in 1558, and also left some income to Stephen's older sisters, Anne and Jane.3 Possibly near the same time as Stephen Vaughan the elder received his property at St. Mary Spital, but more likely around 1552, court musician Baptista Bassano, Lanyer's father, received property nearby in the same parish; this property her mother inherited when her father died in 1576.4 When Margaret Johnson Bassano died in 1587, her eighteen-year-old daughter Aemilia was her mother's executrix and principal heir, but the will's primary overseer was “Stephen Vaughan, Esquier,” and the only bequest outside the family was a ring worth twenty shillings, to “Mrs Vaughan.”5 The two families' proximity in the parish of St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate makes it clear that this Stephen Vaughan is in fact the brother of Anne Vaughan Lock.6

The close connection between the Bassano and Vaughan families, and Anne Vaughan Lock's friendship with Catherine Bertie, the Dowager Countess of Suffolk, perhaps explains how Aemilia Bassano came to be educated in the household of Catherine's daughter Susan, the Countess of Kent. Among the prefatory poems in her volume, Lanyer dedicates a poem celebrating not only Susan's virtue but that of her famous mother, specifically mentioning the Marian exile:

[Your] Faith did undertake in infancie
All dang'rous travells by devouring Seas
To flie to Christ from vaine Idolatry,
Not seeking there this worthlesse world to please,
          By your most famous Mother so directed,
          That noble Dutchesse, who liv'd unsubjected.
From Romes ridiculous prier and tyranny,
That mighty Monarchs kept in awfull feare;
Leaving her lands, her state, diginitie;
Nay more, vouchsaft disguised weedes to weare:
          When with Christ Jesus she did meane to goe,
          From sweet delightes to taste part of his woe.

(“To the Ladie Susan,” 19-24)

In the Countess of Kent's household Lanyer is likely to have received an education in line with the Duchess of Suffolk's Protestant humanist biases (Sir Thomas Wilson and Roger Ascham were both tutors to her children, with Wilson writing his “Art of Rhetoric” and “Art of Logic” while he was in her service).7 When Lanyer turned to write her religious poem and dedicate it to various patrons, most notably the Dowager Countess of Cumberland, she did so not only from a solid education, but also from the model of Protestant women visible in service to God.

Anne Lock is the one female model for Lanyer's public self-presentation about whom we can be certain. The 1560 volume of Calvin's sermons was readily available to her in the Vaughan household, if not her own, and the Taffin translation, dedicated to Margaret, Countess of Cumberland's sister, Ann, Countess of Warwick, may well have registered in Lanyer's consciousness in its second edition of 1608, as she was centering Margaret in her thinking about female community, even if she missed its first publication in 1590.

There are a number of things Lanyer may have borrowed or reacted against in Lock's work. Some of these are standard Protestant materials, although their passage from one woman to another gives them an interesting cast. Both writers praise the life of interior virtue, for example, and both assert the primacy of justification by faith and the piety of godly suffering. Both writers eschew traditional hierarchies, suggesting not only the authority of the unmediated Christian conscience but, subtly at least, the social leveling implicit in the Protestant faith. Both writers see themselves as called to speak, despite the Pauline injunction against women speaking publicly, though Lanyer goes beyond Lock in claiming for women a particular virtue.

Anne Lock's dedications are religious treatises connected in theme with the works they introduce, but distinctly the voice of a woman speaking with authority. The dedication to Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk (1560) which introduces Lock's translations of four sermons by John Calvin, is itself a sermon on the theme of spiritual sickness, and the dedication to Ann, Countess of Warwick (1590), is a short discourse on the topic of suffering for faith.8 Both are concerned with the central question of how the Christian handles affliction. The poems that conclude each volume work as summaries and envois, carrying in the mnemonic ritual of verse, and in a personalized voice, the themes of the prefaces and translations. While Lanyer may have learned something from Lock's poetry, Lock's two prefaces show a more definite influence on Lanyer's dedications to the Countess of Cumberland.

The preface to the 1560 quarto is the longer and more impassioned of the two, and suggests a personal closeness with her dedicatee (“my gracious & singular good Lady”), for whom it was apparently a New Year's gift.9 I quote from this preface at some length, since it so effectively illustrates Lock's rhetorical skill.10

Lock begins by contrasting those who are able to handle great affliction with those who are frustrated by even minor inconvenience, concluding with an observation that retains its psychological validity:

It often falleth out in experience (my gracious & singular good Lady) that some men beynge oppressed with povertie, tossed with worldlye adversitye, tourmented with payne, sorenes, & sicknes of body, and other suche common matters of griefe, as the world counteth miseries & evils: Yet having theyr myndes armed & fournished with prepared patience, and defence of inward understandyng, all these calamties cannot so farre prevaile, as to make them fall, nor yet once stoupe into the state of men to be accompted miserable: but they beare them with such constaunce, as if suche afflictions were not of such nature as other commonly do fele them, or as if those men were suche upon whome those troubles coulde not worke theyr naturall propertie. On th'other side we se some that flowyng in earthly wealth and suffisance, free from fortunes crueltie, healthy in bodye, and every waye to the worldes seming blessed: yet with mynde not well instructed, or with conscience not well quieted, even as upon such small chaunces as other can lightly beare, are vexed above measure with reasonless extremitie. Wherby appeareth that the greves of body and calamities of fortune do so farre onely extende, to afflict, or make a man miserable, as they approch to touch the mind, & assaile the soule.


Lock continues this metaphor of illness and cure, reflecting the topic of Calvin's four sermons “upon the songe that Ezechias made after he had bene sicke, and afflicted by the hand of God,” but also displaying her own wit in the process. In commending both the Biblical texts and Calvin's sermons to her patron, for example, Lock praises them as good nourishment and medicine, concluding:

He, then, that cureth the sicke minde, or preserveth it from disease, cureth or preserveth not onely minde, but bodye also: and deserveth so much more praise and thanke, than the bodies Physician. … This receipte God the heavenly Physitian hath taught, his most excellent Apothecarie master John Calvine hath compounded, & I your graces most bounden and humble have put into an Englishe box, & do present to you.


She assures the Duchess that she need not fear taking this medicine, because her tasters have included Biblical kings (A3v). She then moves toward more explicit theological disputation, contrasting the efficacy of Calvin's concoction with the powerless tonics of philosophers, infidels, and papist ministers, who lack sufficient faith: “This Physicke resteth onely among trewe belevyng Christians, who are perswaded that whatsoever betideth unto us, his hie wisdom that sent it, and that seeth all thynges, sent it of hys good pleasure and decreed purpose, and that for oure benefite if we love and beleve hym” (A4).

Lock's treatise provides a clear and vivid affirmation of basic Protestant theology. Salvation comes from faith. Belief in works, especially the papal doctrine of indulgences, is great folly. Importantly, Lock asserts both of these points on her own authority:

But in heavy case is he, that beynge afflicted with that daungerous disease of the felyng of Gods wrath kindled against him, hath not the conserve of belefe of Gods providence remainyng with him, or being ministred to him either for feeblenesse of stomack can not receive and brooke it, or his oppressed appetite beyng overwhelmed with grosse faithlesse and papisticall humors can not abide the tast of it. Wo is (I say) to them: for theyr disease is daungerous and hard to be cured. … If we thinke the helpe of papistes, to begge and borrowe others Virgins oyle that have none to spare, to bye the superfluous workes of those men that say they have done more than suffiseth to satisfie Gods lawe and to deserve theyr owne salvation, to appease God with such extraordinarie devised service as he never commaunded, and such like unwholsome stuffe as papisticall soulesleaers [soul-slayers] have ministred to Chistian patientes: if (I say) we thinke these good & sufficient medicines: alas, we do nothinge therby, but plant untrew securitie, promise health, & performe death.

(A4v-A5; emphasis added.)

The solution to affliction, according to Lock, is a kind of Paracelsan medicine. Pain that comes from God can only be healed by turning back to God: “beyng stong with the stinge of the scorpion [the belevynge Christian] knoweth howe with oyle of the same scorpion to be healed agayne: beyng wounded with the justice of God that hateth sinne, he knoweth howe with the mercy of the same God that pardoneth sinne to have hys peine asswaged and hurt amended” (A5v).

Lock not only presents the Biblical song and Calvin's sermons upon it as models for successful spiritual cures, she also advertises them as lively stories. In the process, Lock's advertisement becomes more vivid and moving than either the Biblical passage or Calvin's expounding. “So here this good soules Physician [Calvin] hath brought you where you may se lyinge before youre face the good king Ezechias, somtime chillinge and chatteringe with colde, somtime languishing & meltyng away with heate, nowe fresing, now frying, nowe speechlesse, nowe crying out” (A6v). Her imagery becomes even richer over the pains of the cure than over the pains of the disease:

On th'other side for his helpe, you se him sometyme throwe up his gastly eyen, starynge with horrour, and scant discernynge for peine and for want of the lyvely moisture to fede the brightnes of theyr sight. You se him sometyme yeldyngly stretch oute, sometyme struglinglye throwe his weakned legges not able to sustein his feble body: sometime he casteth abrode, or holdeth up his white and bloodles hand toward the place whether his soule longeth: sometyme with fallyng chappes, he breatheth out unperfect soundes, gasping rather than calling for mercy & helpe.11


Lock's assured statements and her rhetorical spins are offered without apology and without appeal to hierarchical authority. Not only is there no mention of her gender, the social distinction between Lock and her dedicatee is scarcely noticeable. She acknowledges her humble position in relation to the duchess, but also implies the democracy inherent in the Christian faith: “Master Calvine thinketh his paynes recompensed if your grace or any Christian take profit of it” (A3-A3v; emphasis added). She admires the Duchess for “your graces profession of [God's] word, your abdying in the same, the godly conversation that I have sene in you” rather than for her high birth (A3v). The only authority offered on the titlepage is the work's licensing by the agents of that perfect role model, a Protestant queen. This publication, we are told, is “newly set fourth and allowed, accordyng to the order appointed in the Quenes Majesties Injunctions. … Cum Gratia & privilegio Regiae majestatis.”

In this book, Calvin himself seems to assert the democratic and genderless world of the new Protestantism, suggesting in the “plaine Englishe” (A8) of Lock's translation that anyone might be called to “guide other” and spread God's word. The first lines of the first sermon begin with the responsibility to publish: “As the name of God is immortall, and we oughte to travail that they which come after us, do cal upon it, and that it be honored and glorified in all times: so is it not enoughe, that during oure lyfe, we endevor oure selves to honor God: but … our care should extende it selfe to the time to come. … But speacilly they whom God hath ordeined in anye estate to guide other, ought therfore so much the more to aplie themselves unto it” (B).

Even without the original (if technically anonymous) poem that concludes the volume, this book is a powerful model for a Protestant woman writer.12 Lanyer's access to it accounts better for the ease of her literary authority than any other known fact of her life. She would have received somewhat less encouragement, but perhaps more of a theme, from Lock's second published preface.

Thirty years is a long time. By 1590 when Lock (as Anne Prowse) published her translation of Taffin, Protestantism had become secure in Elizabethan England, but its institutionalization was not without cost. Allied now with the social and political hierarchies of the rest of society, English Protestantism had very little room for the democratic and gender-blind impulses Lock comfortably assumed in 1560. In a veiled reference to the frustrations of the radical puritan movement, as well as an overt reference to the suffering of “the faithfull of the Low Countrie,” Lock's preface notes that “although it pleaseth God sometimes, for the gathering of his Church, to give unto it as it were Halcyon daies: yet common it is not, that it should any long time continue in rest and pleasure” (A2).

Lock's voice is somewhat more subdued, her approach to her patron less personal, and the preface itself considerably shorter than in her earlier enterprise. Her purpose, she tells the Countess of Warwick (“right Honourable Ladie”), is first to admonish those who are complacent to “applie to themselves whatsoever they heare or reade of the triall of GOD his children, least falselie imagining it to appertaine either to the times that are past, or to other Nations, it fall sodainlie upon them as a theefe in the night” (A3). Secondly, to awaken those who have fallen into lethargy as a result of “the deceavable lusts & vaine pleasures of this wicked world,” and who need to be roused back to “their holie calling and profession” (A3-A3v). And finally, her purpose is to comfort those “whome it hath pleased God to presse downe with sorrowes, and to exercise with the continuall afflictions and calamities of this mortall life” (A3v). There is less exuberance to this list than to the extended metaphor of the earlier preface, but it is sober, subtle, and intelligent.

What follows is a famous passage about Lock's own vocation. The context of the passage seems to reinforce the impression that the democratic and gender-irrelevant ideals of the earlier preface are long gone, as she acknowledges both the social distinction between herself and her dedicatee, and the limits placed on a woman's public role:

And because your Honor hath beene of long time, not onlie a professour, but also a lover of the trueth, whom the Lord (exalting to a higher place of dignitie than many other) hath set up, as it were a light upon an high candlesticke, to give light unto manie, I have especiallie dedicated unto your Honour this my poore travaile, humblie beseeching the Lord to make it no lesse comfortable to your Honour, and to those that shall reade it, than it hath been unto me who have translated it. Everie one in his calling is bound to doo some what to the furtherance of the holie building; but because great things by reason of my sex, I may not doo, and that which I may, I ought to doo, I have according to my duetie, brought my poore basket of stones to the strengthening of the walles of that Jerusalem, whereof (by grace) wee are all both Citizens and members.


Margaret Hannay has seen this as a “clear articulation of gender restrictions,” while Susan Felch has argued that this remains instead an affirmation of Lock's belief in her right to speak.13 What it does illustrate is Lock's decision to be explicit, if not submissive, about both social and gender hierarchy, a definite change from the 1560 preface.

Two important characteristics of the 1560 preface remain in the 1590: the elegance and clarity of Lock's prose, and her ability to take the specific focus of the texts she translates and make them apply generally to all sorts and conditions of people. Near the end of the 1590 preface she does both in what amounts to a prayer that her words, as well as God's, be heard: “The Lord give us wisedome to understand, & grace to heare his voice while it is saide to day, that when daies and nights & times shall cease, wee may (without time) enter into his joye and rest which never shall have end” (A5v).

When Aemilia Lanyer chose a topic for her public self-presentation, she selected the passion of Christ. In some ways it was a logical choice. The figure of Christ speaking directly to the soul was a commonplace of Protestantism, exploited not long before in Elizabeth Melville's Godlie Dream.14 And Lock had placed the story at the center of all discourse about Christian affliction: “no man can attaine to the things that are heavenlie, but by the same way that Christ himselfe attained unto them, which was by the crosse” (1590, A5). Like Lock, Lanyer uses the Christ figure to say something about immediate human suffering. Unlike Lock, however, the real focus of Lanyer's poem is less a general Christian exemplum than it is a personal consolation and tribute to her patron and dedicatee, Margaret, Countess of Cumberland.

Like her sister Ann, Countess of Warwick, the Countess of Cumberland had a reputation for piety and, additionally, for forbearance under affliction. Her husband, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, was a dashing figure, well known for his sexual escapades, and husband and wife were estranged for most of the last several years of his life. When he died in 1605, he left his title and the bulk of his vast estates to a cousin rather than to his only child, Anne Clifford. Margaret spent the rest of her life (d. 1617) fighting along with Anne for restoration of what they both believed to be her daughter's rightful inheritance.15

Lanyer's choice of topic for her long poem represents her effort to offer the portrait of Christ as both the model for all Christian affliction, and as the true husband whose bride Margaret, representing the whole church, becomes. With this poem she picks up the challenge implicit in Lock's 1590 preface: that she who has a vocation to write should do it on behalf of the afflicted, to explain affliction, centering the figure of Christ and the model of a virtuous noble patron together on the public stage. Instead of a treatise and translation, however, the centerpiece of Lanyer's task is a heroic poem in ottava rima.

Lanyer's direct addresses to Margaret within the poem make explicit the themes of affliction and consolation, and at the same time assert the vocation of poetry that Lanyer attributes to herself. She presents Margaret as the perfect example of affliction borne well and disinterestedly out of love of Christ:

The meditation of this Monarchs [Christ's] love,
Drawes thee from caring what this world can yield;
Of joyes and griefes both equall thou dost prove,
They have no force, to force thee from the field:
Thy constant faith like to the Turtle Dove
Continues combat, and will never yield
          To base affliction; or prowd pomps desire,
          That sets the weakest mindes so much on fire.

(ll. 153-60)

Margaret's response to her suffering is heroic constancy and virtue:

Oft times hath he [Christ] made triall of your love,
And in your Faith hath tooke no small delight,
By Crosses and Afflictions he doth prove,
Yet still your heart remaineth firm and right.

(ll. 1337-40)

Yet if Margaret is the heroine of the story, Lanyer is the author of the picture of Christ on which she invites the pious Margaret to meditate:

                              … (good Madame) in your heart I leave
His perfect picture, where it still shall stand,
          Deepely engraved in that holy shrine,
          Environed with Love and Thoughts divine.

(ll. 1325-28)

Lanyer casts herself as the heroic poet, born to blazon the heroic virtues of her (woman) dedicatee, whom she presents as the triumphant exemplar of Christian piety:

And knowe, when first into this world I came,
This charge was giv'n me by th'Eternall powres,
Th'everlasting Trophie of thy fame,
To build and decke it with the sweetest flowres
That virtue yields; Then Madame, doe not blame
Me, when I shew the World but what is yours,
          And decke you with that crowne which is your due,
          That of Heav'ns beauty Earth may take a view.

(ll. 1457-64)

Like Lock, Lanyer publishes to give example and hope to those who are afflicted, that they may see in the suffering of Christ and his triumph and the constancy of Margaret in her affliction heroic models for human faith and patience. Unlike Lock, Lanyer genders her story from the beginning, making a virtue of the humble expectations suggested by Lock's allusion to her “Englishe box” of medicine, or her “poore basket of stones.” “But yet the Weaker [my Muse] doth seeme to be / In Sexe, or Sence,” Lanyer asserts, “the more [God's] Glory shines” (ll. 289-90).

Lanyer pushes issues of gender even further, implying not only that women may speak out about matters of faith, but that they are best able to do so. “Eves apologie” (in the voice of Pilate's wife) blames men for crucifying their savior, therefore committing a far greater sin than Eve's original fall: “Her weaknesse did the Serpents words obay; / But you in malice Gods deare sonne betray” (ll. 815-16). The tears of the daughters of Jerusalem (ll. 968-76, 985-90), the extended discourse on the anguish and triumph of Mary (ll. 1009-96), and the discovery of Christ's resurrection by “the Maries” (ll. 1287-88) all underscore the special place of women. Lanyer makes the case, both directly and indirectly, that it is right to have a woman (Margaret) as the perfect model of the redeemed Christian soul, and, by implication, right to have a woman chronicle the central story of the Christian faith.

But Lanyer's poem is a very different sort of work from Lock's treatises. The most direct comparison with Lock resides with Lanyer's prose dedication to Margaret, which is both like and unlike Lock's dedicatory addresses to her women patrons.16 “Right Honourable and Excellent Lady,” she begins, “I may say with Saint Peter, Silver nor gold have I none, but such as I have, that give I you.” Like Lock's small basket of stones to build the proverbial Protestant walls of Jerusalem, Lanyer brings what she has. Unlike Lock's posture of the humble widow with her basket, Lanyer comes, like St. Peter, presenting Christ himself as a treasure more estimable than alternative rich trappings: “having neither rich pearles of India, nor fine gold of Arabia, nor diamonds of inestimable value; neither those rich treasures, Arramaticall Gums, incense, and sweet odours, which were presented by those Kingly Philosophers to the babe Jesus I present unto you even our Lord Jesus himselfe, whose infinit value is not to be comprehended within the weake imagination or wit of man.”

If her first sentences are reminiscent of Lock's 1590 preface, the rest of the dedication is more like the 1560, beginning with a glance at the health metaphor: “as Saint Peter gave health to the body, so I deliver you the health of the soule.” Further, while class and gender are not as invisible as they are in Lock's 1560 preface, neither do they prevent Lanyer's public writing, since “the sweet incense, balsums, odours, and gummes that flowes from the beautifull tree of Life, spring from the roote of Jessie … is so super-excellent, that it giveth grace to the meanest & most unworthy hand that will undertake to write thereof.”

The differences between Lock's and Lanyer's approach are instructive. For Lock, God is the physician, Calvin the apothecary, and Lock the craftsman who provides the “English box” and presents it to the Duchess of Suffolk. Lanyer collapses the distinctions, with her “delivery” more like Calvin's own. Like him, she presents herself as one “whom God hath ordeined” to extend the Christian vision “to the time to come,” to write down for posterity that which will confirm and renew true faith.

Therefore, good Madame, to the most perfect eyes of your understanding, I deliver the inestimable treasure of all elected soules, to bee perused at convenient times; as also, the mirrour of your most worthy minde, which may remaine in the world many yeares longer than your Honour, or my selfe, can live, to be a light unto those that come after, desiring to tread in the narrow path of virtue that leads the way to heaven.

As in Lock's 1590 preface, however, it remains the heightened dignity of the patron that substantiates and approves the public offering: “In which way [to heaven], I pray God send your Honour long to continue, that your light may so shine before men, that they may glorifie your father which is in Heaven: and that I and many others may follow you in the same tracke.”

The passionate democratic piety of Lock's 1560 preface has given way to the tamer social hierarchy of an institutionalized Protestantism, which Lock both acknowledges and resists in her 1590 preface. The younger woman who grew up near Lock's natural brother and lived in the household of the daughter of Lock's noble sister in Christ took something from both approaches. Lanyer acknowledges and at the same time disregards the confines of gender, and she recognizes but exploits the social distinction between herself and her patron. Reading the two together, Lock is without question the writer with a more thoughtful and sophisticated piety. Lanyer is more ambitious, both for herself and for women generally. But Lanyer is not without piety, Lock not without ambition. They are an interesting pair, and serve well as an identifiable line in the development of a tradition of early modern English women writers.


  1. On Lock, see Susan Felch, ed. Collected Works of Anne Vaughan Lock (RETS, 1998), “Introduction,” and Patrick Collinson, “The Role of Women in the English Reformation Illustrated by the Life and Friendships of Anne Lock,” in Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), 273-87; on Lanyer, see Barbara Lewalski, “Imagining Female Community: Aemilia Lanyer's Poems,” in Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 213-41, and Susanne Woods, “Introduction,” The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). All citations from Lanyer's poems are from this volume, which is based on a copy at the Huntington Library; all citations from Lock's work are from Felch (see also the British Library copy of the Sermons and the Huntington Library copy of Of the Markes, as available on University Microfilms, STC reels 491 and 358 respectively).

  2. Abstracts of Inquisitiones Post Mortem Relating to the City of London, ed. George S. Fry, vol. 1 (1896), 85-87. Wyatt, son of the Henrican poet, is best known for his courageous but doomed march on London with a troop of Kentishmen as part of an effort to protest Queen Mary's projected marriage to Philip II of Spain, and possibly put Elizabeth on the throne in Mary's stead. Wyatt was executed in April 1554. Penry Williams, The Later Tudors: England 1547-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 92-97.

  3. Fry, vol. 1, 178.

  4. PRO Prob.11/58, f. 153. Although Baptista Bassano apparently remained a royal court musician from about 1540 until his death in 1576, he may first have come to England around 1538 to play for Edward Seymour, then Earl of Hertford and later Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, who was an early partisan of English protestantism. See David Losocki, The Bassanos (Brookfield, Vt.: Scolar Press), 7-8 and 26-27.

  5. Guildhall, St. Paul's MS 25,626/2, f.302.

  6. That Stephen Vaughan had been friendly with Baptista as well as Margaret Bassano is attested by Baptista's giving property in the parish of St. Christopher le Stocks “to Stephen Vaughan and John Austen of London, gent., to hold to them and their heirs to the use of Margaret Bassany alias Johnson for her life.” Fry, vol. 3 (1908), 10.

  7. Lady Cecilie Goff, A Woman of the Tudor Age (London: John Murray, 1930), 182-83. In The Art of Rhetorique Wilson describes the Duchess as “Of birth noble, and witte great, of nature merciful to the poore and the godly and especially to the learned, the earnest, and good patroness and most helpyng Lady above all” (cited in Goff, 196). The Duchess was also a friend and contemporary of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (Goff, 179), and through his wife, Mildred Cooke, associated with the educated and influential Cooke sisters. See Mary Ellen Lamb, “The Cooke Sisters,” in Margaret P. Hannay, ed., Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1985), 107-25, and Louise Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994), 34-35.

  8. Felch, xxiii-xxiv, shows that Anne Lock was knowledgeable about contemporary medicine, “probably provided medical care for her friends and family,” and notes “her skill in developing overlapping medical and theological arguments.”

  9. The 1560 preface runs from sigs. A2-A8, while the 1590, in larger print, runs from A2-A5v. To Catherine: “I wishe your grace continuall health of life and soule for your preservation, not onely for this newe yeare, but also for the tyme that shall excede all extent of yeares, besechinge you to accepte bothe my worke and prayer” (1560, A7v-A8).

  10. For an earlier modern printing of the 1590 preface, see Margaret P. Hannay, “‘Strengthning the walles of … Jerusalem’: Anne Vaughan Lok's Dedication to the Countess of Warwick,” ANQ 5:2,3 n.s. (April, July 1992), 71-75.

  11. This vivid focus on the body is also a feature of the poem appended to the volume (see Susanne Woods, “The Body Penitent: a 1560 Calvinist Sonnet Sequence,” ANQ 5:2,3 n.s. (April, July 1992), 137-40. Lanyer writes in similar language about the suffering of Christ in “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” ll. 1153-58. E.g., ll. 1167-68: “His bowells drie, his heart full fraught with grief, / Crying to him that yeelds him no reliefe.”

  12. Felch summarizes a strong argument for Lock's authorship of the sonnets in her introduction.

  13. Hannay, 72; Susan Felch, “‘Deir Sister’: The Letters of John Knox to Anne Vaughan Lok,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 19.4 (1995): 47-68.

  14. Godlie Dreame, compyled by Eliz. Melvill, Lady Culros yonger, at the request of a friend, published in 1606 in Edinburgh by Robert Charteris, “Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie.” This dream allegory in ottava rima makes an interesting comparison with Lock's poem on the 51st psalm, appended to the 1560 volume.

  15. Lewalski, 126-27.

  16. Woods, 34-35.

Sharon Cadman Seelig (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Seelig, Sharon Cadman. “‘To All Vertuous Ladies in Generall’: Aemilia Lanyer's Community of Strong Women.” In Literary Circles and Cultural Communities in Renaissance England, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 44-58. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Seelig explores the community of women described by Lanyer in the poems of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.]

Pondering the question of literary circles in Renaissance England and attracted by the thought of a literary circle in Dearborn, I began to wonder, with Joan Kelly-Gadol, whether women had literary circles. They did, of course: one thinks of the circle of patronage created by the countess of Pembroke at Wilton, of the notables attracted by the light of Lucy, countess of Bedford, whom Donne and Jonson found the “brightness of our sphere”1 (though I note that both these circles were inhabited chiefly by male poets); one thinks of Katherine Philips, who re-created herself as Orinda, supplied her husband and friends with literary names to suit, and thereby became known as “the matchless Orinda,” center of a fictive as well as an actual circle. I thought even of the much humbler An Collins who, in writing her strongly biblical poetry, seems to have addressed a circle of like-minded believers, a community of the faithful. Or one might recall Margaret Cavendish, who, though not particularly adept at relations with other women, was able, by multiplying images of herself in The Blazing World, to create a little circle of her own. But I was also conscious of the circles that were not, of failures of connection and of isolation, of circles that existed in longing and imagination, in particular those of Aemilia Lanyer and the woman who figures strongly in Lanyer's elegiac vision of Cookham, Anne Clifford.

Lady Anne Clifford's diary from the years 1616-1619, for all that it represents a woman of remarkable determination and pluck and for all its connections with wealth and power, includes many striking moments of frustration and exclusion. Prominent, of course, is Anne Clifford's long-standing battle with her husband, Richard Sackville, earl of Dorset, over her inheritance, which she wanted established in her name and he wanted to trade for cash. Besides enlisting the power of the king, the Church, and the patriarchy, Dorset also used the weapon of isolation: Anne Clifford's diary records his frequent journeys, the time he spent at court, in gambling and cockfighting, while she remained alone at Knole. For example, in May 1616 she wrote:

All this time my Lord was in London where he had all and infinite great resort coming to him. He went much abroad to Cocking, to Bowling Alleys, to Plays and Horse Races, & [was] commended by all the World. I stayed in the Countrey having many times a sorrowful & heavy Heart & being condemned by most folks because I would not consent to the Agreement, so as I may truly say, I am like an Owl in the Desert.2

Perhaps even more poignant is the instance of the following year, when a good many of Anne Clifford's friends and acquaintances were assembled at Penshurst, a mere seven miles away, and she, the countess of Dorset, the daughter of George Clifford, third earl of Cumberland, and Margaret Russell, dowager countess of Cumberland, was not allowed to join them. Her entry for August 4, 1617, reads: “In the morning my Lord went to Penshurst but would not suffer me to go with him although My Lord & Lady Lisle sent a man on purpose to desire me to come. He hunted, & lay there all night, there being my Lord of Montgomery, my Lord Hay, my Lady Lucy & and a great deal of other Company.”3 The next few entries record her depression: “I kept my Chamber, being very troubled & sad in mind” on both the eighth and the tenth of the month; “the 12th and 13th I spent most of the time in playing Glecko & hearing Moll Neville reading the Arcadia.” While Anne Clifford's husband enjoyed the life of a courtier, with its manly sports and forms of dissipation, visiting the home of the Sidneys and moving at will and in splendor through the countryside, she could participate only vicariously, finding her chief entertainment in the pastoral romance that originated with the most notable members of that family.

This image of a woman standing outside a social group, vividly imagining it even as she is denied access, re-creating it in a work of fiction, is for me one of the strongest impressions of Aemilia Lanyer's work, in which, not coincidentally, Anne Clifford and her strong and pious mother, Margaret Russell, figure prominently. That impression is created by the elegiac representation of “The Description of Cooke-ham” and is also pertinent to the circle of good and powerful women constructed by the dedications to Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. The circle I describe is literary in a particular sense, that is, it is created by the text itself, as Aemilia Lanyer represents a group of powerful women and places herself in relation to them, sometimes as supplicant, as admirer, and even as instructor, though her own circumstances were far humbler than theirs.

As Judith Scherer Herz has provocatively argued, Lanyer might well be seen as outside the literary tradition altogether, as it is not at all clear that her work, despite its numerous dedications, was read, or that it intersected with or influenced subsequent work. Indeed, one might find an emblem of that exclusion in the fact that “The Description of Cooke-ham,” unlike its near contemporary “To Penshurst,” is restricted to the grounds of the great house; it never penetrates to the warmth of the table and fireside celebrated by Ben Jonson.4 Yet, I suggest that while Anne Clifford succeeded in life—she was at last able to join the fellowship at Penshurst and through long life and tenacity to reclaim her lands—Aemilia Lanyer succeeds in an imaginative vision: out of marginality, out “of absence, darkness …, things which are not,” indeed out of weakness, Lanyer creates in Salve Deus a remarkable community of strength, present more powerfully and enduringly in her fiction than in life itself. In looking at these poems I shall begin at the end with “The Description of Cooke-ham” and then proceed to the initial dedications, leaving Salve Deus itself for another occasion.

“The Description of Cooke-ham” records the loss of the very place and circle it honors. In “Farewell (sweet Place) where Virtue then did rest / And all delights did harbour in her breast” (ll. 7-8), Lanyer bids farewell to something she will never again experience, something that is itself passing away: even Margaret Russell, called “(great lady) Mistris of that Place” (l. 11), is forced to leave Cookham, a royal country estate that was not in her possession but leased by her brother from the Crown.5 Cookham thus becomes an emblem of all that is transitory, even as it persists as an image of the eternal bliss and stability the author longs for:

As fleeting worldly Joyes that could not last:
Or, as dimme shadowes of celestiall pleasures,
Which are desir'd above all earthly treasures.

(ll. 14-16)

Not only the poet but all nature mourns the loss of the countess and her daughter; the same trees and winds that celebrated their coming now lament their departure in a thoroughgoing and dramatic act of pathos:

The trees that were so glorious in our view,
Forsooke both flowres and fruit, when once they knew
Of your depart, their very leaves did wither,
Changing their colours as they grewe together.

(ll. 133-36)

Even more striking is Lanyer's relation to the society she depicts, for she stands tentatively on the margins, claiming relationship even as she acknowledges difficulties. Although she describes Margaret Russell as the source of “Grace” (that is, favor) (l. 2) and attributes to her the impulse of authorship—“From whose desires did spring this worke of Grace” (l. 12)—Lanyer laments the effect of

Unconstant Fortune …
Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame:
Where our great friends we cannot dayly see,
So great a diffrence is there in degree.

(ll. 103-6)

The difference in rank that makes “The Description of Cooke-ham” something like a dream vision also makes Lanyer's connection with the family so tenuous that she claims her parting kiss not from Anne Clifford (“noble Dorset, then a virgin faire” [l. 160]) but secondhand, from the tree from which Anne Clifford “with a chaste, yet loving kisse tooke leave” (l. 165). This line may, unfortunately, bring to mind another image of indirection—the kiss that Thisbe bestows on the wall that separates her from Pyramus—a sign that Lanyer has not found an altogether satisfactory way to represent her connection with the Cliffords, a connection clearly less intimate than she desires.6

Lanyer's claim of relationship has been variously interpreted: Barbara Lewalski asserts that Lanyer's dedications, “though hyperbolical like most of their kind,” nevertheless “reveal something about Lanyer's actual associations,” whereas Kari Boyd McBride argues that Lanyer's portraits subvert “the realities of social position and power to construct her own authority.” Similarly, Lisa Schnell sees considerable ambivalence in Lanyer's attitude toward her patrons and argues that in the act of praising them, she in effect exercises control over them.7 In any case, such control as Lanyer exercises is authorial and textual: she constructs in her texts relationships that include her, even as she laments their limitations in fact.

Yet, Lanyer, who struggles from the margins to earn a place in the story, also establishes a powerful image of community, not just, as has been rightly suggested by Barbara Lewalski, a community of good women, but also a community of strong women, a constellation of heroic virtue.8 In this exclusively female society, the male associates are purely religious or mythological figures; whatever is done is done by women who (as in the argument for women's colleges or cities of ladies) assume all the roles themselves. Margaret Russell sits on a “Prospect fit to please the eyes of Kings” (l. 72), where “Hills, vales, and woods, as if on bended knee / They had appeard, your honour to salute” (ll. 68-69). Margaret's religious devotion brings her into male company of functionally equal terms, as she joins a society drawn from biblical texts:

In these sweet woods how often did you walke,
With Christ and his Apostles there to talke;
With Moyses you did mount his holy Hill,
To know his pleasure, and performe his Will.
With lovely David you did often sing,
His holy Hymnes to Heavens Eternall King.
With blessed Joseph you did often feed
Your pined brethren, when they stood in need.

(ll. 81-82, 85-88, 91-92)

Although engaged in activities that might be gendered feminine—walking in the woods and groves, meditating on scripture, praying and singing psalms, and nurturing the hungry—Margaret Russell is associated with prophets, apostles, patriarchs, and monarchs, and represented as joining in actions analogous to theirs. She is not simply a pious woman but an influential and effective one. Her daughter likewise is depicted in the strong terms suitable to the (male) heir of a great family, as “that sweet Lady sprung from Cliffords race, / Of noble Bedfords blood, faire steame of Grace” (ll. 93-94).9

This presentation of women as strong and in some sense masculine, clearly evident in “The Description of Cooke-ham,” is even more prominent in the dedications to Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. These perhaps extravagantly numerous dedications—nine to particular figures and two more general ones (“To all vertuous Ladies in generall” and “To the Vertuous Reader”)—have occasioned some comment. But as Lewalski notes, citing the seventeen dedications to The Faerie Queene, multiple dedications were not uncommon. Most readers put the number of Lanyer's dedications down to her straitened economic circumstances: she addresses the most prominent female members of the Jacobean court, some of them apparently well known to her, others clearly not.10 But while financial and social support were clearly objectives, more striking to me is the way in which these dedications construct a fictive community that functions as an alternative to the patriarchal structure. Both in number (nine to particular individuals) and in emphasis—on strength of character, intellect, and accomplishment—the dedications suggest a group of female worthies in a sense I will explore later. They are, as Achsah Guibbory suggests, “a female alternative to the male nexus of power, both secular and sacred.”11

While Louise Schleiner sees the dedications as an image of “a lady's circle busy with readings, music, and devotions,” thus emphasizing the feminine activities of this group, and Elaine Beilin stresses the spiritual accomplishments of these women, Lanyer's use of the words virtue (or virtuous), which appears fifty times in the dedications, and worthy (or a variant), which occurs twenty-three times, carries a sense lost to modern readers.12 The most obvious sense of virtue, to us, is goodness, as in the Oxford English Dictionary's definition: “conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality.” But in the years between Lanyer and ourselves, virtue has become an increasingly narrow concept, associated with that peculiarly female virtue chastity (perhaps even silence and obedience). The first recorded use of virtue in the sense of chastity is, interestingly, from Much Ado about Nothing (1598-1599). But this meaning does not seem to be precisely what Lanyer has in mind, and the subsequent shadings of meaning may make us misread her text. To be sure, the women she celebrates are virtuous in the narrower sense thought particularly appropriate to women, but they are also considerably more powerful figures. They remind us that from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries virtue also meant “the possession or display of manly qualities; manly excellence … courage, valour,” and that the root of the English word virtue is the Latin vir, man (Middle English vertu from Old French, from Latin virtus, manliness). Some of this meaning persists in the phrase “by virtue of the authority …”; it may also be seen in the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible: when Jesus, having been touched by a woman with an infirmity, senses that “virtue has gone out of him” (Mark 5:30), he means that he has imparted strength, not that he has declined in goodness.

The nine noble women celebrated in Lanyer's dedications are preeminently figures of influence and power: they are associated with goddesses and with masculine, martial virtues, and even their traditionally female qualities are recast in terms of strength. The dedications are arranged, at least at the beginning, in order of rank, proceeding from Queen Anne to her daughter Princess Elizabeth and thence to Lady Arabella Stuart; they are addressed to particular prominent individuals as well as to those who, like “the Vertuous Reader” and “all vertuous Ladies,” aspire to the standard of perfection here outlined.13 Lanyer represents Queen Anne as an imperial figure who recalls Queen Elizabeth I; Anne combines the qualities of the three goddesses judged by Paris—Juno, Athena, and Venus—listed in an order that emphasizes queenly supremacy (“from Juno you have State and Dignities”) and wisdom (“From warlike Pallas, Wisdome, Fortitude”) over the more vaguely represented beauty and love (“And from faire Venus all her Excellencies”).14 Like those who follow, Queen Anne is a pattern or compendium of virtue (“all royall virtues are in you, / The Naturall, the Morall, and Divine” [ll. 67-68]), the embodiment of a quality that is also recognized by other good women, a mirror of virtue, a book of instruction as well as praise, and a figure powerful enough to “grace” Lanyer's “rude unpolisht lines” (l. 35).15

In the second poem, Anne's daughter Princess Elizabeth is addressed in terms that summon up the memory of her famous predecessor, whose qualities she is said to possess:

Most gratious Ladie, faire Elizabeth,
Whose Name and Virtues puts us still in mind,
Of her, of whom we are depriv'd by death;
The Phoenix of her age, whose worth did bind
All worthy minds so long as they have breath. …

(ll. 1-5)

In this dedication, Lanyer offers two kinds of lineage—the mother-daughter link between Anne of Denmark and her daughter Elizabeth and the connection of a powerful name, from Queen Elizabeth to her namesake, the princess—both of which disregard the male heirs to the throne. And she uses two crucial terms, virtues and worthy, that underscore the notion of models of female strength.16

The seven remaining dedications to specific women are framed by a ninety-one-line poem, “To all vertuous Ladies in generall,” and a final prose address, “To the Vertuous Reader.” In this third dedicatory poem, the most prominent figure is not a member of the royal family but virtue itself, a figure whom Lanyer constructs as a queen waited on by all virtuous women. Lanyer adapts the biblical parable of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom (Christ) to give particular prominence to this female figure; the other eminences of this poem, also female, are the muses “whose Virtues with the purest minds agree,” the “nine Worthies” to whom “all faire mindes resort” (ll. 31, 35).

While the primary reference of the phrase “nine Worthies” (l. 35; reinforced by “worthy ladies,” l. 71) here may be the muses, the use of the term with its specifying number also suggests an alternate female power structure, a counterbalance to those male figures of primarily military accomplishment, the nine Worthies drawn from classical, Judaic, and Christian history. Caxton, in his preface to Le Morte d'Arthur, lists Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar; Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus; and Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. Shakespeare's list in Love's Labour's Lost includes Pompey, Hector, Alexander, and Hercules (5.2). The example of “Those sacred sisters that on Pallas wait” (l. 30) is for Lanyer as powerful as that of military conquerors but “free / From sword, from violence, and from ill report” (ll. 33-34); they are capable of “godly labours” (l. 32) and able to avoid the temptations into which their male counterparts may fall.

There was in fact a tradition of classical female Worthies that arose in the late thirteenth century in the visual arts and persisted into the seventeenth century in written texts.17 The cast of characters varies somewhat, and the division into three eras of history was not universally observed. But in a poem that Lanyer might well have known, Robert Chester's Loves Martyr (published together with Shakespeare's “Phoenix and the Turtle”), Chester sets out a group of “Nine worthie women,” arranged into classical, Hebrew, and Christian.18 Chester's list (Minerva, Semiramis, and Tomyris; Jahel, Deborah, and Judith; and Maude, Elizabeth of Aragon, and Johane of Naples) is not identical with Lanyer's, but it does include four of the same figures, and it stresses the warlike qualities of several of them. Of Minerva we hear that she “many manlike battailes manly fought”; of Tomyris that “From forth her eyes she lightned Honors Brand, / And brandished a Sword, a sword of Fame, / That to her weake Sexe yeelded Hectors name”; Jahel's “uncomprehensible valour in the end, / Did free and set at large her captiv'd Countrie, / … By killing hand to hand her foe great Sisar”; and Judith, “Bringing in triumph Holofernes head, / … got a great and greater Victorie, / Then thousand Souldiers in their maiestie.”19

While Chester's worthies are an important reference point for Lanyer's text, one should note that the women of “To all vertuous Ladies in generall,” though heroic, are not specifically warriors. Although triumphant, urged to “bring your palmes of vict'ry in your hands” (l. 37) to celebrate the ultimate victory of virtue, they have a kind of priestly function similar to that of the women of Cookham; they are urged to “Annoynt your haire with Aarons pretious oyle” (l. 36). And, riding in a chariot drawn by “simple Doves” and “subtill serpents” (l. 49), they are associated with innocence and wisdom: Lanyer's iconography turns away from images appropriate simply to Venus—the doves signifying love—to recall the command of Christ to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), that is, to fulfill the duties of Christians in a dangerous world. One might say that the muses are to women what the Worthies are to men, providing alternate, more feminine models. But Lanyer's dedications, which foreground bold and transcendent behavior coupled with a refusal of violence, create in effect the nine Worthies of a female hierarchy.

In the dedications that follow, which vary in length and in the degree of intimacy or acquaintance asserted, Lanyer emphasizes qualities of strength, learning, and heroism. Arabella Stuart, cousin to King James and potential heir to the throne, is praised as a learned lady, associated with Pallas Athena. Susan Bertie, countess dowager of Kent, described as a bold voyager, a veteran who has “delighted in Gods truth” (l. 3), is depicted as making a heroic and dangerous journey:

Whose Faith did undertake in Infancie,
All dang'rous travells by devouring Seas
To flie to Christ from vaine Idolatry.

(ll. 19-21)

In fact it was the countess's mother, the duchess of Suffolk, who initiated the journey: she fled England during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, taking her child with her. Lanyer represents this action as both a virtuous imitation of Christ and a manifestation of principled courage:

Leaving here her lands, her state, dignitie;
Nay more, vouchsaft disguised weedes to weare:
                                        When with Christ Jesus she did meane to goe,
                                        From sweet delights to taste part of his woe.

(ll. 27-30)

There is also a kind of architecture to these dedications, conveying and implying worth. The longest of them (224 lines, arranged in quatrains) and the one that occupies a central place is that to the countess of Pembroke, with whom, as a poet, Lanyer wishes to be linked.20 In a dream vision that places the poet in the “Edalyan Groves” in search of “a Lady whom Minerva chose” (ll. 1, 3), Lanyer depicts Mary Sidney as associated with the muses and crowned by Fame. But she calls up a more vigorous figure, Bellona, goddess of war and wisdom, “a manly mayd which was both faire and tall” (l. 35), to honor this woman whose behavior is such that “a Sister well shee may be deemd, / To him that liv'd and di'd so nobly” (ll. 149-50), her warrior and courtier brother, “valiant Sidney.” Mary, according to Lanyer, even surpasses Sir Philip in qualities in which men and women may join: “And farre before him is to be esteemed / For virtue, wisedome, learning, dignity” (ll. 151-52). Both in the degree of praise and in the qualities emphasized, the countess emerges as a figure of strength, honored by Minerva and crowned by Fame, a powerful foremother to whom, when the dream vanishes, Aemilia Lanyer intends to present her poems.

The last specific dedication is to Anne Clifford, daughter of the chief dedicatee of these poems, Margaret Russell. The younger woman is celebrated as a defender of a proud heritage that combines traditional masculine and feminine qualities:

You are the Heire apparant of this Crowne
Of goodnesse, bountie, grace, love, pietie,
By birth its yours, then keepe it as your owne,
Defend it from all base indignitie.

(ll. 65-68)

But this heritage has a kind of double valence: to be “Gods Steward” (l. 57), as instructed “by your most worthy mother” (l. 59), and to honor her ancestors, Anne must perform the most traditional acts of Christian charity:

And as your Ancestors at first possest
Their honours, for their honourable deeds,
Let their faire virtues never be transgrest,
Bind up the broken, stop the wounds that bleeds,
Succour the poore, comfort the comfortlesse,
Cherish faire plants, suppresse unwholsom weeds.

(ll. 73-78)21

Virtue here is active, not passive, certainly not limited to female chastity, but Lanyer significantly makes of actions often associated with women the chief acts of the virtuous Christian, valorizing them in a new way. Like Christ and like Peter before her, Anne Clifford is a master builder and a shepherd of the flock.22

He [Christ] is the stone the builders did refuse,
Which you, sweet Lady, are to build upon;
He is the rocke that holy Church did chuse,
Among which number, you must needs be one;
Faire Shepheardesse, tis you that he will use
To feed his flocke, that trust in him alone.

(ll. 129-34)

In acting as builder, shepherd, and guardian, Anne Clifford will, according to Lanyer, “shew from whence you are descended”—in other words, Christ, Peter, and Margaret Russell—“And leave to all posterities your fame” (ll. 81-82).

Concluding the dedications is the prose address “To the Vertuous Reader.” In contrast to the initial “To all vertuous Ladies in generall,” which depicts Queen Virtue served by virtuous women, the latter warns against women slandering women. Yet, this warning prefaces a highly rhetorical elevation of women on the grounds that all men are “begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman,” and that Christ was even “obedient to a woman” (p. 49, ll. 43-44, 45). The women Lanyer praises are not only those who have passively “indured most cruel martyrdome for their faith” (l. 53) but also the more active “wise and virtuous women” appointed by God to “bring downe [the] pride and arrogancie” (ll. 32-33) of wicked men; their accomplishments range from violence to cunning to determined resistance. “[C]ruell Cesarus [was brought down] by the discreet counsell of noble Deborah, Judge and Prophetesse of Israel: and resolution of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite: wicked Haman, by the divine prayers and prudent proceedings of beautifull Hester: blasphemous Holofernes, by the invincible courage, rare wisdome, and confident carriage of Judeth: & the unjust Judges, by the innocency of chast Susanna” (p. 49, ll. 33-39). These are the powerful women who will be celebrated in the body of Salve Deus itself, as “famous women … / Whose glorious actions” overthrew “powrefull men” (ll. 1465-67).23

While the powerful and sometimes violent women of this list, like the women of Lanyer's dedications, are notably chaste, Lanyer's treatment strongly emphasizes their boldness and initiative, virtues that are strength rather than merely endurance. In fact, there is some testing of gender roles as several of Lanyer's worthy contemporaries are set against the suffering Christ who is the subject of the longer poem, and whose passivity and subjugation complement their strength and active engagement. As several critics have argued, Salve Deus presents a Christ who is feminized and women who are by contrast masculinized; in that process Lanyer, putting Christ in the position usually occupied by a female subject, makes him the object of the female gaze.24 Arabella Stuart is urged to

                                                                                spare one looke
Upon this humbled King, who all forsooke,
That in his dying armes he might imbrace
Your beauteous Soule, and fill it with his grace.

(p. 17, ll. 11-14)

Lucy, countess of Bedford, is enjoined to “entertaine this dying lover,” “the true-love of your soule, your hearts delight” (pp. 32-33, ll. 16, 6). To Margaret Russell, countess of Cumberland, Lanyer offers Christ as a jewel surpassing all jewels. To Katherine, countess of Suffolk, and her daughters, Christ is presented as “a Lover much more true / Than ever was since first the world began” (pp. 38-39, ll. 52-53), “In whom is all that Ladies can desire” (l. 85). Later, in Salve Deus proper, Lanyer emphasizes Margaret Russell's having no earthly lover but only a heavenly one, Christ, as “the Husband of thy Soule” (l. 253), who “dying made her Dowager of all” (l. 257). Lanyer depicts women as distinctly heroic and independent, as dominant, placed in relationship to a Christ who is suffering rather than triumphant. Although they may sometimes imitate that suffering, more often they are distinguished by valuing Christ's passion, acting as strong partners to this bridegroom.

In short, the dedications to Lanyer's Salve Deus are not only, as has been thought, a bid for patronage, or simply a circle of reading women, or merely an assertion of female goodness, or simply a collection of the most prominent women of Lanyer's day. Lanyer does bring together a group of women who were powerful at court, distinguished for learning, for endurance and independence, for religious faith and action. But the virtuous ladies she praises are not good merely in our dilute modern sense; rather, they are powerful and exemplary figures. Lanyer's circle of good women is drawn from life: its characters are historical yet fictive in that the associations she forms by placing them together are stronger than those that actually existed. And she reaches beyond these women to address “all vertuous Ladies in generall,” a circle that all her female readers are encouraged to join, a community in part created by Lanyer herself, in part joined and concluded by her readers.

Our search for a literary circle then has led from life into texts, from fact to fiction, and perhaps from fiction back into life. Literary circles in Renaissance England, I suggest, are created not only by presence and contact but also by absence, longing, and imagination. They exist as vividly in texts as in reality. Anne Clifford had difficulty reaching the circle at Penshurst to which by birth and inclination she belonged, yet she created it in her diary; Margaret Cavendish, although she could not be Henry V or Charles II, announced her determination to be Margaret the First, in a world of her own construction; Katherine Philips, through naming, poetry, and letters, created a salon of largely absent friends; and Aemilia Lanyer, even as she lost touch with Anne Clifford, Margaret Russell, and Cookham, created a vivid and enduring image of the circle of virtue and strength assembled there. Her dedications represent a community of powerful women, a cohort of female Worthies worthy of the name of virtue, a circle calculated to elicit—even in the absence of historical documentation—admiration and assent.


  1. I refer, of course, to Kelly-Gadol's essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koontz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 137-64; Jonson's epigram, “To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr. Donne's Satires,” in Poems, ed. Ian Donaldson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  2. D. J. H. Clifford, ed., The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford (Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.: Alan Sutton, 1990), 33. The image of the owl in the desert, a reference to Ps. 102:6, is also used by Lady Arabella Stuart to convey desolation.

  3. Ibid., 60.

  4. Herz, “Aemilia Lanyer and the Pathos of Literary History,” in Representing Women in Renaissance England, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 121-35. Herz raises important questions about “the prior claim the text makes upon us” in distinction to the “things we can do to the text,” the “theoretical and critical moves” that we can make in response to it (127).

    On the relationship between Lanyer's and Jonson's poems, see Lynette McGrath, “‘Let Us Have Our Libertie Againe’: Amelia Lanier's Seventeenth-Century Feminist Voice,” Women's Studies 20 (1992): 331-48; and Ann Baynes Coiro, “Writing in Service: Sexual Politics and Class Position in the Poetry of Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson,” Criticism 35 (1993): 357-76.

  5. Susanne Woods, ed., The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 130 n. All references to Lanyer's poetry are to this edition. As Barbara Kiefer Lewalski notes in Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), this poem must have been composed after the death of George Clifford in October 1605; it refers to a time before the marriage of Anne Clifford (“noble Dorset, then a virgin faire”) in February 1609, a reference that itself indicates a subsequent date (216-17, 396 nn. 21, 28).

  6. “I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all” (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.201). Michael Morgan Holmes sees the kissing of the tree as part of a pattern of homoerotic expression (“The Love of Other Women: Rich Chains and Sweet Kisses,” in Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, ed. Marshall Grossman [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998], 182).

  7. Lewalski, Writing Women, 220; McBride, “Sacred Celebration: The Patronage Poems,” in Aemilia Lanyer, ed. Grossman, 71; Schnell, “So Great a Difference Is There in Degree,” Modern Language Quarterly 57 (1996): 23-35; and “Breaking ‘the rule of Cortezia’: Aemelia Lanyer's Dedications to Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27 (1997): 77-101.

  8. It is Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra who hopes for a place in the story (3.13.46). Lewalski speaks of “a contemporary community of good women who are spiritual heirs to the biblical and historical good women her title poem celebrates” (Writing Women, 220).

  9. “Streame,” the reading silently adopted by A. L. Rowse, might seem the more likely, as in a stream of blood (The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady [New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978]). But Lanyer's printed text clearly reads “steame,” which the Oxford English Dictionary gives as an alternate spelling for stem, as in the scion of a family, a reading also quite plausible in its context. (My thanks to Susanne Woods for alerting me to this point.)

  10. Lewalski, Writing Women, 220. Herz, however, finds the effect entirely different from Spenser's dedications, noting that “in Lanyer's text the margins, crowded with noble readers, take up almost as much space as the text itself” (“Aemilia Lanyer,” 129).

    Rowse cavalierly dismisses Lanyer's “too obviously sycophantic poems” (Shakespeare's Dark Lady, 33). Elaine Beilin offers substantive descriptions of the dedicatees and suggests connections to the Nine Worthies and the seven spiritual virtues (Redeeming Eve [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987], 182-91).

  11. Guibbory, “The Gospel according to Aemilia,” in Sacred and Profane: Secular and Devotional Interplay in Early Modern British Literature, ed. Helen Wilcox, Richard Todd, and Alasdair MacDonald (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1996), 107.

  12. Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 24; Beilin, Redeeming Eve, 177-207. Jonathan Goldberg speaks of the tradition of good women, a tradition whose dangers he also notes (Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], 9).

  13. The complete order is: Queen Anne; her daughter Princess Elizabeth; “To all vertuous Ladies in generall”; Arabella Stuart; Susan, countess dowager of Kent; Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke; Lucy, countess of Bedford; Margaret Russell, countess dowager of Cumberland; Katherine, countess of Suffolk; Anne Clifford, countess of Dorset; and “To the Vertuous Reader.” See Woods, Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, for an account of apparently intentional omissions in several copies (xlvii-li). Schleiner argues interestingly about the decentering that ultimately makes Margaret Russell, rather than the monarch, the focal point (Tudor and Stuart Women Writers, 25). Leeds Barroll sees a considerable error in Lanyer's placing Lucy, countess of Bedford, after the countess of Pembroke (“Looking for Patrons,” in Aemilia Lanyer, ed. Grossman, 40).

  14. Lewalski notes that Pallas was “Queen Anne's chosen personification in masques and addresses,” but the qualities of that goddess are particularly appropriate for Lanyer's list of strong women (Writing Women, 220). In fact, Minerva is the first figure in the list of “Nine worthie women almost equivalent, / With those nine worthie men so valient” given by Robert Chester in Loves Martyr; or, Rosalins Complaint (1601).

  15. The predecessor one might think of here is Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, which, as Pamela Joseph Benson notes, “praised many women for acting with strength, valor, fortitude, and intelligence, that is, for exercising ‘manly’ virtues in traditionally male fields” (The Invention of the Renaissance Woman [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992], xxxvii). But as Benson goes on to argue, Boccaccio's text is actually deeply contradictory in its mixing of kinds of women, in its aims and effects. Janel Mueller, though she does not argue for a direct influence, appropriately creates a “crosscultural and transhistorical perspective” by citing Christine de Pizan (“The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994], 211). See also Natalie Zemon Davis, “‘Women's History’ in Transition: The European Case,” Feminist Studies 3 (1976): 83-103.

  16. In contrast to McBride, who argues that Lanyer emphasizes the childbearing ability of the queen, thus undermining her independent authority (“Sacred Celebration,” 68), I see Lanyer constructing a female line based on names and qualities.

  17. Brigitte Buettner, Boccaccio's Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes: Systems of Signification in an Illuminated Manuscript (Seattle: College Art Association, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 35-36. For a more comprehensive discussion, see Horst Schroeder, Der Topos der Nine Worthies in Literatur und Bildender Kunst (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1971); and Glenda McLeod, Virtue and Venom: Catalogues of Women from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

  18. Beilin notes this instance of the female Worthies (Redeeming Eve, 188).

  19. Chester, Loves Martyr; or, Rosalins Complaint, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1601; reprint, London: New Shakespeare Society, 1878), 29-32.

  20. The other long poems are the first, to Queen Anne (162 lines arranged in six-line stanzas), and the last two, to Katherine, countess of Suffolk (108 lines, also ababcc), and to Anne Clifford (144 lines in ottava rima). In fact, what Barroll sees as a misstep on Lanyer's part (see n. 13 above) may be a deliberate placing of Mary Sidney, whom Lanyer would like to see as a mentoring poet, in the architectural center of these dedications.

  21. The references to “Bind up the broken, stop the wounds that bleeds,” recall Isa. 61:1 (“To bind up the broken hearted”) and Ezek. 34:16 (“I will … bind up that which was broken”) as well as Luke 10:34, the parable of the good Samaritan.

  22. The charge to Simon Peter to “Feed my Lambs” and “Feed my sheep” occurs in John 21:15-17. “The stone the builders did refuse” is that of Luke 20:17.

  23. The list also resembles that found in Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, which suggests, perhaps paradoxically, the very reversal of values at the heart of Lanyer's poems.

  24. Jacqueline Pearson, “Women Writers and Women Readers: The Case of Aemelia Lanier,” in Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Writing, ed. Kate Chedgzoy, Melanie Hansen, and Suzanne Trill (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997), 45-54; Michael Schoenfeldt, “The Gender of Religious Devotion: Amelia Lanyer and John Donne,” in Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, ed. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 209-33; Catherine Keohane, “‘That Blindest Weakenesse Be Not Over-Bold’: Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion,” ELH 64 (1997): 359-89. Wendy Wall says “the eroticized other, … Christ, occupies the same position of powerlessness as the speaker” (“Our Bodies/Our Texts? Renaissance Women and the Trials of Authorship,” in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, ed. Carol J. Singley and Susan E. Sweeney [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993], 67).

Mary Ellen Lamb (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Patronage and Class in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.” In Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, edited by Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson, pp. 38-57. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Lamb views the poems of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum within the context of the patronage system and the socioeconomic structure of the period.]

Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum shows evident, even blatant, signs of its production under a patronage system: eleven prefatory dedications, the tailoring of various states of the text as presentation copies, explicit allusions to Lanyer's fall from former status, lengthy addresses to the countess of Cumberland.1 Yet, although various critics note Lanyer's transparent bids for patronage, until recently, most discussions of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum have bracketed off financial motives as somehow extraneous to the work.2 The notion of compensation seems to sit uncomfortably with what Robert C. Evans has called “a modern urge to enshrine the poet as a creative culture-hero, somehow set apart from and above ambition” (36).

This natural and generous impulse to idealize beloved poets is especially intense regarding women writers, whose works have been devalued and relegated to obscurity for centuries by a masculinist system. To account for Lanyer's “fulsome, self-serving flattery of potential patrons,” Elaine V. Beilin explains that the virtue Lanyer describes for them is actually designed to reveal “the ultimate reality behind the virtuous life” (Redeeming Eve, 183 and 200). Beilin and Barbara Lewalski both respond to Lanyer's flattery of women patrons by discussing a religious sincerity that is surely difficult to ascertain from the text.3 Alternatively, critics advance Lanyer's feminist principles. Susanne Woods, for example, interprets her flattery of women patrons as a feminist celebration of a “community of good women” (xxxi), and Lewalski represents her as rewriting the institution of patronage “in female terms” (Writing Women, 241). But the language of Lanyer's dedications to women was not unusually celebratory by early modern conventions, and by the early seventeenth century women patrons were a standard feature of the patriarchal system of patronage.4

To pass over the various self-announcements of the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as merely standard motions toward patronage or to read them narrowly as protofeminist celebrations is to discount a central feature of the work. As numerous materialist critics have pointed out, a failure to analyze literary works in terms of the historical moment of their production risks the anachronistic tendency of liberal humanism to dissolve historical difference by projecting generalized meanings upon texts.5 Scholars of early modern women writers are not exempt from these universalizing tendencies. The feminist project of recuperating women's texts lends itself to attributing modern feminist values to early modern women, to depict them as bonding together across class boundaries to resist an oppressive patriarchy. These projections are particularly tempting for the Salve, which includes a thoroughgoing critique of gender ideology in its “Eve's Apology,” but the Salve is equally thoroughgoing in its critique of class. Unlike her women dedicatees, Aemilia Lanyer was a working poet. She needed money.6 This asymmetrical power relationship between writer and patron emerges as a primary preoccupation of the text so that, far from erasing disparities in class, the Salve is predicated upon them.

Lanyer's expressions of ambivalence toward the wealth and power of patrons make the Salve a particularly valuable text for the study of patronage. Lanyer's work provides a timely alternative to the conservatism described by M. D. Jardine for models of patronage in both the old and new historicisms. The Salve enacts neither the “willing, idyllic sharing of values and culture … in a conflict-free society” depicted by the old historicism, nor the “power circuit, with art reduced to a ‘cash for propaganda’ level” depicted by the new historicism (287 and 290). Instead, stresses and strains in Lanyer's work expose the complexities of early modern patronage, whose origin in a feudal society set it at odds with a protocapitalistic economics.7 Neither patronage nor the newer market exchange system were working very well for authors in the early seventeenth century. The feudal form of patronage was fast becoming obsolete because upper-class consumption patterns were changing in the shift from a “lineage society” based on a network of kin and clients to a “civil society” based on ties to a centralized government (Stone, 100). Although some poets such as Samuel Daniel had been able to find temporary positions as tutors, aristocratic households were increasingly divesting themselves of retainers, clients, and other extrafamilial ties to retire “from the great hall to the private dining-room,” as Stone demonstrates (95). But the emerging capitalist alternative of selling books to a consumer public had not yet matured enough to support its writers. As Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, writers would remain in a “quasi-amateur status” until the copyright laws were enacted in the eighteenth century (101). Until then, authors sold their works to stationers for a onetime payment no matter how many copies were sold; sometimes unauthorized publications evaded payment of even that fee. Edwin Miller has described how both systems were strained yet further by the increasing number of authors attempting to make money from their work at this time (95-96 and 137-40).

The frustrations of appealing to both systems, neither of which were effective, provided for the Salve precisely that oppositional voice notably unremarked in both old and new historical treatments of the topic.8 Such oppositions to dominant discourses do not happen spontaneously. According to a theorist of culture such as Paul Smith, spaces for resistance emerge from the gaps and discrepancies existing between competing ideologies (xxxiv-xxxv). In Lanyer's case, the contradictions between feudal and protocapitalist discourses of patronage enabled her opposition to dominant class ideologies. Although Lanyer's numerous dedications to noblewomen, beginning with the queen, advertise the Salve as a book appropriate for upper-class readers, passages within these dedications point out the injustice of an economic system in which wealth is distributed by rank rather than by merit. Lanyer creates a multiple female audience in the dedications, which contradicts the meditation's depiction of the countess dowager of Cumberland as its sole reader.

Lanyer's long addresses to the countess dowager evoke the feudal role of family poet writing a work for and even about an aristocratic patron. The countess dowager is not only her sole reader, but her sole subject of writing:

And knowe, when first into this world I came,
This charge was giu'n me by th'Eternall powres,
Th'everlasting Trophie of thy fame,
To build and decke it with the sweetest flowres
That virtue yeelds.


The sheer excessiveness of Lanyer's assertion that God Himself charged the author, at her birth, to devote her life to representing the countess's virtue moves beyond traditional bonds of service to verge on parody of the inflated rhetoric of patronage. This assertion of a lifetime commitment, however unlikely, suggests that Lanyer was soliciting a position within the household either of the countess dowager or of her daughter Anne. This bid for employment was not necessarily confined to writing, for sustained patronage often took the form of household service rather than long-term hospitality. From medieval estates to the countess of Pembroke's country house, writers were often employed in other capacities—as tutors, as chaplains, as personal attendants.9 Allusions within the text reveal that Lanyer had already served in the countess dowager's household, possibly as an attendant or caregiver for the young Anne, in whose sports she “did alwaies beare a part” (135). The grief Lanyer expresses that she can no longer “dayly see” the countess's daughter Anne, recently married to the wealthy earl of Dorset, implies a specific desire to become a member of this newly formed household:10

Unconstant Fortune, thou are most too blame,
Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame:
Where our great friends we cannot dayly see,
So great a difference there is in degree.


The resolution of Lanyer's grief is obvious, and Anne has the power to confer it.

The prefatory dedications operated according to a less feudal system of patronage newly made possible by the availability of printed copies that Lanyer could present to a number of dedicatees, any or all of whom might remunerate the author with a onetime stipend.11 The “Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembrooke” explicitly sets the scene for such an act: waking from an elaborate dream glorifying the countess for her translation of the Psalms, the author is moved to present to her “the fruits of idle hours” (30). Although Lanyer was well acquainted with the countess dowager of Kent, “the mistress of my youth” (18), others she had never met, as she confesses freely in her dedication to the countess of Suffolke: “It may seem right strange, / That I a stranger should presume thus farre, / To write to you” (36). Dedicating works to strangers was a new phenomenon in the early modern period. According to Edwin Miller, “The medieval lord had never found on his threshold an unknown man with a recently printed book replete with effusive dedications—and a hand outstretched” (95). This common practice of multiple presentation copies shows how the printing press worked to loosen bonds between writer and patron. In some cases, authors never intended to present their works to specific patrons at all because dedications served to advertise the worth of a book to the general public (Miller, 130).

Lanyer's multiple dedications to aristocratic women thus not only functioned according to a loosened form of patronage, but also provided an early modern form of celebrity endorsement to sell books to anonymous consumers within the capitalistic system of market exchange. The opportunities and difficulties posed by this faceless audience for Lanyer's work appear in the contradictory representations of that audience in her two dedications to it. Her verse epistle “To all vertuous Ladies in generall” appeals to a consumer mentality invested in advancing or affirming its high location in class. Her much less conventional prose letter “To the Vertuous Reader” appeals to a feminist or protofeminist consciousness that does not rely on class consciousness. Thus, the very anonymity of these women consumers of printed books empowered Lanyer to imagine them in varying terms according to her own predictions or desires. Although buyers and readers were not yet numerous enough to support writers, the fact that they existed at all created a site of resistance that enabled Lanyer's critique of the class hierarchy underlying patronage.12

Lanyer's verse epistle “To all vertuous Ladies in generall” constructs the reading of the Salve as enacting high worldly, intellectual, and spiritual class or status. First, by reading (and presumably buying) the Salve, anyone could become the personal companion of Queen Anne: “Let this faire Queene not unattended bee” (12). This allusion to the immediately preceding dedications to Queen Anne and her daughter creates an additional function for prefatory dedications as a form of advertising by placing typically middle-class readers vicariously within the glittering social register of the time. The epistle then constructs reading the Salve as a sign of intellectual status, also depicted in terms of class, by inviting readers to “let muses your companions be, those sacred sisters that on Pallas wait.” Finally, by seeking out Christ, readers become “in the eie of heaven so highly placed, / That others by your virtues may be graced” (15). With this high rank, readers have attained the power to patronize or “grace this little Booke” of Lanyer's. Employing such terms as “so highly placed” and “grace” to represent rank in heaven, the poem appeals to a language of class that simultaneously reifies worldly status (for those who have it) and subverts it (for those who don't).

The prose letter to “To the Vertuous Reader” constructs an alternative audience for the printed book and an alternative representation of the Salve itself. Mentioned only in the dedication to Queen Anne, the defense of women in “Eve's Apology” now becomes the central point of the Salve. In this dedication, rather than high birth, successful aggression toward men creates status for women. Angered by the wrongs done by men to women, God has sent “wise and virtuous women” to bring men down—women such as Deborah, Jael, Hester, Judith, and Susanna. Status is also conferred by a relationship with Jesus, who was born of a woman, who healed women, who appeared to a woman after his death. The striking absence of almost all allusions to patronage, to class, to Lanyer's financial need, or to the possible “gracing” of her book by its readers creates an egalitarian relationship with her buyer-reader, constructed as believing feminist principles. This buyer-reader was not apparently compatible with the usual aristocratic woman patron. As Tina Krontiris has pointed out, this prose letter and four dedications were removed when the book was reissued, apparently because its feminist statements offended its aristocratic dedicatees (120). The letter's construction of a feminist audience for the Salve suggests that the radical interrogation of gender in “Eve's Apology” was enabled by the buyer-reader of a protocapitalist print culture.

Although buyers and readers were not yet numerous enough to support writers, their very existence created a site of resistance that enabled Lanyer's critique of the class hierarchy in her prefatory dedications to individual patrons. This resistance was waged primarily by means of a religious discourse able to level social distinctions. Lanyer's devotional constructions of reading engage in what Evans has called a series of “micropolitical performances” (29), struggles for personal mastery that often play upon the insecurities of prospective patrons. As Wendy Wall has noted, the dedication's plea to Arbella Stuart only to “spare one looke / Upon this humbled King” constructs the Salve as the body of Christ: to refuse to accept and read this work would be to refuse Christ himself.13 Similarly, the dedication to the countess of Bedford constructs the reading of the Salve as letting Christ into her heart, to “entertaine this dying lover” (33). Who would dare to shut Him out? For “vertuous Ladies” and the countess of Dorset, reading the Salve would mean filling their lamps with oil to be ready, like the wise virgins, for the Bridegroom (12 and 41). Who would risk being a foolish virgin, arriving at the marriage feast only to find the door of the kingdom of heaven shut? These representations of the act of reading imply a spiritual threat to those who do not read the Salve intensely, participating fully in its meditation on Christ's passion.

These devotional constructions of reading unsettle the asymmetrical relationship between needy author and wealthy patron. There is also perhaps something in the act of reading itself that unsettles this power relationship inherent in patronage. In the actual experience of reading, an author's words typically assume an authority, even if only a temporary one, over a reader's thoughts, ordering and directing them to the author's will. This relationship of intellectual authority is diametrically opposed to the author's social experience of patronage—as enacted, for example, in the act of kneeling before a patron to present a book.14 Lanyer's justification of her authorship in terms of the temporary and acceptable authority of a hostess encompasses the radically unstable nature of the author's role. As Lanyer welcomes several of her readers—Queen Anne, Princess Elizabeth, the countess dowagers of Kent and Pembroke, and the countess of Dorset—to her feast (book), she offers them wholesome heavenly food. But what is her role as she invites the queen to feed upon the “paschal Lamb” she has prepared as a “pretious Passeover” (7)? Is she a lowly cook, or does her invitation assume the authority of a priest's officiation at a holy communion or mass?15 This oscillation between divergent roles reflects the complexities of the author-reader relationship.

In this context, it is striking that one of Lanyer's first critiques of class occurs in the imagined scene of the presentation of the Salve to Queen Anne. As her dedication explicitly states, such a scene never in fact occurred, for Lanyer had been barred by “meannesse” from Queen Anne's throne. As her proxy, then, Virtue performs the actions of a poor presenter of a book to the queen:

This holy worke, Virtue presents to you,
In poore apparell, shaming to be seene,
Or once t'appeare in you[r] judiciall view:
But that fair Virtue, though in meane attire,
All Princes of the world doe most desire.


In this version of a Cinderella story, Virtue's “meane attire” does not prevent “all Princes of the world” from perceiving her worth. Why then could not Queen Anne perceive the author's worth, similarly obscured by the “meanness” of her position in class? Within this depiction of the deference of Virtue, “shaming to be seene,” lurks a protest against the queen's evidently shabby treatment of the author, whose value, like Virtue's, cannot be measured by her clothes.

Lanyer extends this disparity between social class and “true” worth by drawing on conservative devotional discourse to destabilize wealth as a reliable signifier of class. In the reference to the “Monarch whose dayes were spent in poverty and sorrow / And yet all Kings their Wealth of him do borrow,” the implied threat in the term “borrow” darkens the representation of the queen's own wealth. Whereas monarchs, presumably including Queen Anne, may someday have to pay back the monies they have borrowed, Lanyer is debt free, and her heavenly finances remain sound. Her “real” rank is much higher than her worldly one:

Yea in his kingdome onely rests my lands,
Of honour there I hope I shall not misse:
Though I on earth doe live unfortunate.


Within the discourse of patronage, an author's assertions of need are never without point. It is up to the queen, this passage implies, to narrow the discrepancy.

Lanyer's most radical challenge to the class system comes, however, in her dedication to the countess of Dorset, to whom she writes “as God's Steward” (43), inverting the traditional assertion that class reveals the innate virtu of aristocrats, whose illustrious ancestors bequeathed them worth as well as rank (Whigham, Ambition, 73-82). She thus asserts, on the contrary, that class is not innate at all, but must be newly constructed in each generation. She thus moves beyond a traditional emphasis upon external show as the enactment of class to align herself with popular protest by claiming the common ancestry of all people.16 As Woods notes in her introduction to Lanyer's poems, this claim echoes the rhyme “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” (40) chanted in popular uprisings:17 “All sprang but from one woman and one man, / Then how doth Gentry come to rise and fall?” (42). Even more radically, Lanyer suggests that unworthy descendants may in fact be illegitimate somewhere along the line:

Whose successors, although they beare his name,
Possessing not the riches of his minde,
Howe doe we know they spring out of the same
True stocke of honour, beeing not of that kind?


Lanyer's personal situation gave this argument special point. Her own son, the illegitimate child of Lord Hundson, did not receive riches or honors from his noble blood but was instead reared as the ordinary child of a musician, Alphonso Lanyer. From this perspective, class hierarchy became highly contingent not on blood lineage but on social convention.18

Lanyer uses this issue to appeal for patronage by proposing that worth (and therefore legitimacy) may best be proven by good stewardship that “must for all the poore provide.” Moreover, she addresses Anne specifically as a steward: “To you, as to Gods Steward I doe write,” as she advises her to “shew from whence you are descended” by bestowing her wealth worthily: “Succour the poore, comfort the comfortlesse, / Cherish faire plants, suppresse unwholsom weeds” (44).

Pleading for patronage was a tricky rhetorical task; outright requests were demeaning for patron and supplicant alike. But Lanyer comes perhaps as close as possible to such a request when she states the significance of Anne's demonstration of her worth (and legitimacy) through her stewardship, presumably especially for Lanyer's Salve: “So shal you shew from whence you are descended, / And leave to all posterities your fame” (44).

Why did Lanyer choose this dedication to the countess of Dorset in which to voice these radical ideas? What possible reading strategies did she assume? Did she have reason to believe that the countess, embroiled in her own suits to inherit lands, would agree with her? The hierarchical and extremely class-conscious view of the world that emerges from the countess's later diaries suggest the unlikelihood of such sympathy.19 Lewalski's supposition that Lanyer behaved as if “privileged to do so by former familiarity” (Women Writing, 224) seems more probable. As Lewalski notes (239), Lanyer was twenty years older than Anne Clifford when she “did alwaies beare a part” in “Dorset's former sports.” Did Lanyer assume for her authorship the authority she may have exercised over Anne Clifford as her tutor or caregiver? Did Lanyer's early contact with Clifford as a very young girl decrease her sense of the deference owed to her? If Lanyer were in fact bidding for employment in Dorset's household, as the “Description of Cooke-ham” would suggest, then she took some significant risks in her placement of this critique of class.

The religious discourse that unsettles class ideology in the dedicatory epistles also surfaces within the meditation itself. Lanyer first seems to endorse this class structure in her claim that Jesus suffered even more than others because of his aristocratic nature:

Yet, had he beene but of a meane degree,
His sufferings had beene small to what they were;
Meane minds will shew of what meane mouldes they bee;
Small griefes seeme great, yet Use doth make them beare.


Yet Christ was “A seeming Trades-mans sonne, of none attended, / Save of a few in poverty and need; / Poore Fishermen” (124). Lanyer portrays the countess's love as superseding apparent class difference when her “heart doth rise” at Christ's appearance as a “good old man” in a “Shepherds weed” (109). She depicts the countess's ministrations to Christ as “sometime imprison'd, naked, poore, and bare / Full of diseases, impotent, and lame” (109). Krontiris's insight that this passage allowed Lanyer to solicit “economic support for herself” (110) gains further force through the allusion to Christ's promise of a heavenly reward for those who fed him when he was hungry, clothed him when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick or in prison. In Matthew 25, a threat accompanies this promise: those who do not tend to the needs of the poor (the latter perhaps including Lanyer) depart into “everlasting fire” (Geneva Bible, Matt. 25:40-41).

Passages such as this one render Lanyer's relationship of authority to her patron-reader deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, Lanyer continually defers to the countess as her sole reader. Her choice of genre itself apparently represents a response to the countess's habit of meditating on the grounds of her estate, “placing his holy writ in some faire tree, / To meditate” (133). On the other hand, her authorship of a meditation creates her as a kind of a spiritual advisor, for the meditation, perhaps more than any other genre, is designed to order the thoughts of readers toward specific ends, to attain specific spiritual fruits (Martz, 14 and 32). As was traditional for meditations on the passion (Martz, 33), the Salve is meant to enliven religious devotion by eliciting sorrow for Christ's suffering from the time of his capture at Gethsemene to his crucifixion. For this meditation to work, the countess must engage in an especially intense practice of reading specific to techniques of meditation. The goal, finally, of this text is nothing less than absolute absorption—the internalization of Christ's image in the countess's heart so that she herself becomes a shrine:

Therefore (good Madame) in your heart I leave
His perfect picture, where it shall stand,
Deeply engraved in that holy shrine,
Environed with Love and Thoughts divine.


To achieve this purpose, Lanyer relies heavily on a common meditative technique of composition in which the reader is made to be imaginatively present at scriptural scenes (Martz, 30). She addresses various characters—by empathizing with Jesus as he is arrested (“But greater horror to thy Soule must rise, / Than Heart can thinke, or any Wit devise” [71]) or by mourning with the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion (“How canst thou choose [faire Virgin] then but mourne” [99]). The narrator models appropriate responses herself by crying out, “Oh hatefull houre! oh blest! oh cursed day!” (72) as the soldiers arrive to capture Jesus at Gethsemene. The daughters of Jerusalem also provide a pattern for practitioners. Watching Christ stagger past as he bears His cross, they weep and cry out, and He turns His head to comfort them. The narrator addresses them as “most blessed daughters of Jerusalem / Who found such favour in your Saviors sight, / To turne his face when you did pitie him” (93). The blessing achieved by these women spectators is the blessing offered by this meditation to any readers who achieve an intense feeling of compassion. A receptive reading confers grace.

The disruptive nature of “Eve's Apology” within this conventional English meditation must not be underestimated. It both critiques gender relations and also validates women's anger. Making herself imaginatively present at Christ's trials, the narrator feels such grief at Christ's pain that she is led to inveigh against his persecutors. She accuses Caiphas, for example, in this way: “Thou rend'st thy cloathes, in stead of thy false heart” (82). Usually presented as a narrative of the redemption of sinners of both sexes through Christ's love, Salve rereads the passion as a narrative of gender relations—of continuing and characteristic male cruelty to Christ and other innocent victims, especially women.20 Lanyer's new version of the passion is a static narrative; there is no change or redemption. In its gender arrangements, the present day remains frozen in the events of Christ's passion. The cruelty of men is unredeemed because male tyranny continues to dominate women in Lanyer's time. Because women did not participate in the crucifixion of Christ, they were not implicated in its sin. They require no redemption because, in their grief, they attempted to prevent it from occurring at all.

Lanyer's retelling of Christ's passion justifies not only women's anger, but also their words. Pilate's sin of condemning Jesus was part of another sin—that of not listening to his wife. The narrator pleads, “But heare the words of thy most worthy wife” (84). This blame represents a powerful counterargument to a prominent reading of the Eve story—by William Whateley's Bride-Bush, for example—as a narrative of the disastrous consequences of endowing women's words with authority (sig. CC4v). Lanyer retells the Pilate incident to argue that, on the contrary, Pilate's refusal to listen to his wife was a primary cause of the crucifixion. Like Whateley, Lanyer generalizes this domestic incident to refer to all men and women: “(Poore soules) we [women] never gave consent” to the crucifixion: “Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all” (87). Addressed in its entirety to Pilate who stands for all tyrannical men, this apology for Eve—deceived by cunning and moved by “too much love” (86) for her husband—culminates in an argument for marital equality: “Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine / Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?” (87).

This radical retelling of the passion story as a tale of domestic tyranny is not limited to the few pages labeled “Eve's Apology.” It also plays an important part in Lanyer's construction of the countess of Cumberland as a reader. Beneath the devotional meditative role offered the countess emerges the subtext of her own domestic martyrdom to a dashing husband who had deserted her for various and notorious affairs at court. The countess's withdrawal into the country revealed her rejection of worldly pleasures (58) but also signified her unhappy separation from her husband.21 Lanyer's comparison of the countess with Matilda, who served Christ as the true spouse of her soul (61), in turn evokes another comparison with the countess's flagrantly untrue spouse of her body. Lanyer's praise of the countess as even more heroic than Deborah and Judith in her battle against sin everyday (114-15) sanctifies her emotional duress. According to Lanyer's narrator, the countess approaches martyrdom in her innocent suffering: “Loe Madame, heere you take a view of those [martyrs], / Whose worthy steps you desire to tread” (128). Most relevant to the countess's domestic difficulties are the excoriations of Antony's mistress Cleopatra as she is informed in three stanzas of personal address that her inner beauty cannot compare to the countess's (112-13). A natural analogue for the Other Women who attracted the countess's unfaithful husband, Cleopatra also appears prominently near the beginning of the Salve in “An Invective against outward beuty unaccompanied with virtue” (59-60). These passages offer “equipment for living”22 to a countess whose “perfit features” resided in “a fading face” (59).

By superimposing a narrative of domestic martyrdom on a meditation of Christ's passion, Lanyer enacts the feudal role of a family poet, addressing the family issues of her patron. This role exists in tension with the authorial power as spiritual guide produced for her in the act of writing a meditation. Writing in the role of family poet, Lanyer inevitably permitted the countess's anticipated reading of the Salve to shape her treatment of the topic. A brief apology near the beginning of the Salve suggests that even as she complied with the countess's wishes, she contested her patron's power over her authorship. Ruffling the smooth surface of deference, this apology presents the meditation as a substitute for what the countess dowager of Cumberland had already requested:

And pardon (Madame) though I do not write
Those praisefull lines of that delightful place,
As you commaunded me in that faire night,
When shining Phoebe gave so great a grace.


If Cookeham was indeed this “delightful place,” then the Salve demonstrates its eventual conformity to the countess's desires with the “Description of Cooke-ham” appended to the meditation. The earlier apology is then rendered oddly unnecessary when, in the appended poem, the meditation is represented as having been written specifically at the countess's request: “from whose desires did spring this worke of Grace” (130). The only function of this apology seems to be to record Lanyer's power to resist the countess's commands even as she obeys them. This assertion of an independent subjectivity, however lightly sketched in, signals Lanyer's resistance to the feudal ideology forming the basis for the traditional patron-author relationship.

Alluding to her resistance to the countess's initial request would not seem to be in the best interests of a poet bidding for patronage. Other passages, especially her discussion of illegitimacy in the dedication to the countess of Dorset, suggest that her search for patronage was not consistently rational. Competing issues of class and dominance apparently got in the way. Patronage was, in the early seventeenth century, an emotionally fraught topic. Although many twentieth-century discussions tend to treat patronage as a form of compensation, to early modern writers it was much more. As Evans has noted, this system was built “on expectation and apprehension, on the deepest hopes and fears,” and involved “more than how writers were paid; it involved … how they lived their lives” (23, 25). Most writers remained unsuccessful in finding sustained literary patronage, but patronage somehow remained a central social construct arranging relations of power throughout early modern culture.23 Central to this construct was the ideal of service, according to which subordinates—servants, wives, supplicants of any kind—voluntarily offered their labor to the figures of authority to whom it was naturally owed. This model of interaction moved into emotional spaces seemingly removed from public power. As John Barrell has astutely pointed out, relations of patronage, including literary patronage, were commonly represented in terms of love (25). More than representations may be at stake. Coppélia Kahn's analysis of patronage in terms of the “infantile dependence on the mother who, it seems to the child, can give or take all away” invests this interaction with deeply psychological roots.24

Lanyer's “Description of Cooke-ham” appeared at a liminal point. Although patronage remained a widespread and powerful model of negotiating hierarchical relationships, it was also experiencing considerable strain: in thirty years, a civil war would renounce this ideal of natural service by cutting off the king's head. A contributing cause to this event, according to M. D. Jardine, was the rising capitalistic economy, through which labor was bought and sold according to a perceived motive of self-interest rather than of service (301-2). The inconsistencies within and between the Salve and its dedications point to the ideological contradictions fissuring the text at a time when writing, like other forms of labor, was also positioned between these competing social formations. “The Description of Cooke-ham” explores the emotional contradictions of patronage as a system that extended far beyond mere compensation to a mode of feeling. In the process, it provides insights into the “discrepancies between the celebrated service ideal … and the conditions of servility which it concealed,” as Jardine has noted, at a time when divergent concepts of the service ideal and patronage system were most apparent (295). Recapitulating the language and gestures as well as the frustrations and anxieties of service, this “last farewell” to Cooke-ham (138) not only expresses the emotional contradictions inherent in patronage, but also mourns its loss.

As part of her bid for patronage in the household of either the countess dowager of Cumberland or her daughter, Lanyer projects the experience of service onto the landscape and creatures of Cooke-ham so that her pleasure in the company of the young Anne Clifford and her expressed pain at its subsequent loss structures the “Description” as a whole. This projection is most explicit in the treatment of the nightingale Philomela, whose identification with the poet is made most evident in the similarity of their literary tasks, which are even described in the same words: “Philomela with her sundry leyes, / Both you and that delightfull Place did praise” (131) echoes Lanyer's description of the countess's demand to write “those praisefull lines of that delightfull place” (51).25 Once the countesses (and their patronage) depart, Philomela's song is silenced—“Faire Philomela leaves her mournefull Ditty, / Drownd in dead sleepe, yet can procure no pittie” (137-38)—and so, it is implied, will be Lanyer's poetry, unless she procures the “pittie” of a countess. The other creatures of Cookeham experience the same heightened emotions conventional to representations of patronage. The birds, flowers, trees, streams, and hills—all express in their own ways Lanyer's “reverend Love” in the joy they experience in the company of the countess dowager and her daughter; they, too, are inconsolable when the countesses depart.

The emotionally overwrought flowers and trees of Cookeham represent a literalization of the gardening metaphor in Lanyer's prefatory dedication to Anne, advising her to show her stewardship (or patronage) by cherishing “faire plants” and suppressing “unwholsom weeds” (44). This metaphor was implicitly tied to patronage by the early modern usage of the word “plant” to mean “to set up a person or thing in some person or estate” (OED). Like the streams and the birds, the flowers and the trees share a goal: to please the countess of Cumberland and her daughter. Explicitly described as servants, the “walkes put on their summer Liveries” (131). The trees turn themselves into canopies to shade the eyes of the countess dowager. The hills imitate the gallant gesture attributed to Raleigh, who supposedly spread his cloak in the mud for the queen to step on:

The very Hills right humbly did descend,
When you to treat upon them did intend.
And as you set your feete, they still did rise,
Glad that they could receive so rich a prise.


These same hills strike the humble posture of a suitor as they kneel before the countess of Cumberland:

Where beeing seated, you might plainely see,
Hills, vales, and woods, as if on bended knee
They had appeared, your honour to salute,
Or to preferre some strange unlook'd for sute.


None of these actions can be dismissed as simple flattery, empty gestures, or even poetic whimsy. Instead, they represent, in Frank Whigham's terms, “repeatable assertions of relation,” necessary to maintain the “class-stratified patronage system” that organized power and privilege in early modern England (“Rhetoric,” 864 and 867). These small gestures of deference from plants enact the large gesture of deference that is the “Description of Cooke-ham” and even the Salve itself. Such gracefully humble demeanor both confirms the class status of its recipient and provides for suitors and writers alike a rhetorical power that attests to their gentility and therefore to their suitability for employment. Drawing from a “feudal vocabulary of personal service” (Whigham, “Rhetoric,” 873), these exaggerated assertions of a desire to please were designed to assure noble employers that interactions in the limited space of a country estate would be easy and pleasant.

Not all of the creatures at Cookeham experience unmitigated joy in the presence of the countess dowager and her daughter, however, and these exceptions hint at a dark side of patronage. With the word “attend” invoking the language of service, the especially anxious need of the birds to gain the countesses' approval suggests the asymmetries of a patronage relationship: “The pretty Birds would oft come to attend thee, / Yet flie away for feare they should offend thee” (132). The patron's power is not merely imaginary. Small animals first wish to display themselves by playing in her sight, but then they cease their games in fear as the countess wields a bow, ready to inflict real damage:

The little creatures in the Burrough by
Would come abroad to sport them in your eye;
Yet fearfull of the Bowe in your faire Hand,
Would run away when you did make a stand.


Lanyer describes herself as taking part in Anne Clifford's “sports”; they no doubt also “sported” under the countess dowager's eye. The echo of this word and of the activity it represents perhaps suggests a fear that such games were in some sense dangerous, possibly because they might incur the countess's disapproval.

Perhaps the worst aspect of patronage, however, was its undependability. Patrons could let employers (and writers) go, and as in the case of the countess dowager and her daughter, they could go themselves. As they depart, the “Description” depicts the countess of Cumberland and her daughter as treating the creatures, both vegetable and animal, as soon-to-be unemployed servants,

requiting each according to their kind,
Forgetting not to turne and take your leave
Of these sad creatures, powreless to receive
Your favour when with griefe you did depart.


The mourning of the plants produces winterlike effects. Trees lose their leaves, and they also weep, “letting their teares in your faire bosoms fall / As if they said, Why will ye leave us all?” (136). The briers and brambles “caught fast your clothes, thinking to make you stay” (138). Although these operatic excesses cannot be taken at face value, their implications for the experience of patronage cannot be ignored. Like plants, poets in service are not invested with the rights to make explicit demands; they can only weep or gesture. Like plants, they are powerless to affect the actions of their patrons, even when these actions have devastating effects on them. Barrell's observation that the discourse of patronage often uses relations of love to “purify and idealise what was always of course an economic transaction” (25) may be only partly true. As anyone unemployed for a length of time can witness, a lack of work can feel like an absence of love; this irrational conflation of love and employment was all the more likely to occur in a feudal system, in which service was depicted as voluntary.

The odd resonances given to the word “chaines” by its placement at the very end of the “Description” gathers together the ambivalences of this complicated poem in a complicated work. Making her own farewell to Cookeham, the author presents her work as commissioned by the countess of Cumberland and then expresses her never-dying devotion to both countesses:

This last farewell to Cooke-ham here I give,
When I have perform'd her noble hest,
Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast,
And ever shall, so long as life remains,
Tying my heart to her by those rich chaines.

On one level, “chaines” certainly can be read, according to editor Susanne Woods's gloss, as chains of the countess's virtues. But “tying” can also modify “I” instead of “virtues.” This grammatical construction releases other possible meanings for “chaines.” Its meaning as a “bond of union or sympathy” (OED) is consistent with representations of patronage in terms of love. Its meaning as a sign of office is supported by the discourse of service: the poet has been and hopes to be invested with such a “rich” chain.

All three meanings are simultaneously possible, but a fourth meaning for “chaines” as “bond or fetter” is most evocative of the Salve's oppositions to the power relationships structuring patronage.26 The adjective “rich” suggests that these fetters are based on money so that “rich chaines” thus devalues the ideal of voluntary service by constructing the poet's bond with the countess dowager as based on remuneration or on hopes for remuneration. This image describes the countess's dominance, based on money, as a constraining fetter rather than as a basis of union. The agency ascribed to the poet “I” in tying her own heart to the countess presents her entry into a patronage relationship as freely chosen rather than as “natural” or ordained by God. This perspective on the patronage relationship was possible for Lanyer because she lived at a time when she could move outside the ideology of service to a capitalistic mode of construing the connection between patron and writer. Yet she may not have been able to abandon the ideology entirely. Although the printing press had provided Lanyer with an alternative way of thinking about patronage, it had not yet provided the financial means by which she could let it go. The sense of loss conveyed by the “Description of Cooke-ham” over the departure of her two women patrons suggests that even if Lanyer could have supported herself through selling her books, the feudal model for interactions, however constraining, still possessed emotional power for her. She might struggle to subvert her power, but she would remain tied to a patron “so long as life remains.”


  1. All citations are taken from Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, ed. Susanne Woods. For individual versions see Woods's “Textual Introduction” (xlii-li) discussed further in Tina Krontiris, Oppositional Voices, 120. Lanyer alludes to her fall from status under Elizabeth in her dedication to Queen Anne (8). I regret that the excellent essays in Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre and the Canon, ed. Marshall Grossman, appeared too late to shape my argument; I can only acknowledge some of them in my notes.

  2. Krontiris engages most directly with Lanyer's use of the dedications and the Salve as a way of making money (Oppositional Voices, 102-20). Various critics dismiss Lanyer's poem for its financial motive: see Muriel Bradbrook's review of Paradise of Women, ed. Betty Travitsky, 92; and A. L. Rowse, Introduction to Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady, 33, who explains the supposedly “stony silence” with which her dedicatees greeted Lanyer's book as caused by the “too obviously sycophantic poems.” Betty Travitsky, in Paradise of Women, notes that Lanyer's “obsequiousness is obvious” for “she had to flatter for favors” (92). More recently, critics have begun to consider her patronage more seriously as a topic. Recent essays contrast the discursive positions of Lanyer and Ben Jonson in a patriarchal patronage system: Ann Baynes Coiro, 357-76; and Susanne Woods, “Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson,” 15-20, and also “Vocation and Authority: Born to Write,” 83-98; Leeds Barroll. See also a discussion of Lanyer's use of religion to undercut the class status of the patronage system in McBride, 60-82.

  3. Beilin, Redeeming Eve, 188; Barbara Lewalski assures readers that Lanyer “appears to have been sincerely, if not very profoundly, religious” (Writing Women, 219).

  4. Strains especially from class difference within this “community of women” are, however, ably discussed by Coiro and Schnell. Krontiris describes the language of Lanyer's dedications as an “institutionalized language shaped by and for men” (Oppositional Voices, 108). For dedications addressed to women, see Franklin Williams, Index, 5, 94 and 211. Edwin Haviland Miller points out that beginning with the countess of Pembroke, both major and minor poets were commonly “mothered” by female patrons (45); see also Brennan, Literary Patronage, 7.

  5. John Barrell, 1-7; Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, foreword to Political Shakespeare; Catherine Belsey, Subject of Tragedy, 1-10; Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, Introduction to Feminist Criticism, xv-xxxix; Valerie Wayne, Introduction to Matter of Difference, 1-27. See also Herz for Lanyer's nonconformance with dominant feminist narratives of women writers.

  6. Lewalski, among others, discusses Lanyer's visit to the astrologer Simon Forman, in which she expresses anger at her reduced circumstances (Writing Women, 215); her husband had apparently squandered the money she had received from Hunsdon. Later, in 1620, a chancery suit mentions that “she … for her maynetaynaunce and releefe was compelled to teach and educate the children of divers persons of worth and understandinge” (Lewalski, Writing Women, 217). After the composition of the Salve, she kept a school from 1616 to 1619 (Lewalski, 218).

  7. Arthur Marotti, “Patronage, Poetry,” 1-26, discusses this change; Edwin Miller claims that “by 1600 patronage like many other medieval institutions was obsolescent, but this fact was not to be widely recognized for almost another century and a half” (94).

  8. M. D. Jardine, 298; see also Krontiris, 105.

  9. K. J. Holzknecht, 179-86; Mary Ellen Lamb, “Countess of Pembroke's Patronage,” 207-26.

  10. The Salve was entered in the Stationers' Register on October 2, 1610 (Lanyer, ed. Woods, xxv); Anne Clifford married the earl of Dorset in 1609 (Lewalski, Writing Women, 127-28).

  11. Miller discusses presentation copies and their abuses and effects (110-29); according to the records of one Richard Robinson, the average remuneration was £2 (126).

  12. Patricia Thomson, “The Literature of Patronage,” 267-84, describes how the “desire to be free from patronage arose before the public could be relied on” (282). See also Marotti, “Patronage, Poetry,” 2 and 25.

  13. Wendy Wall, Imprint of Gender, 324; Krontiris has also made this point (Oppositional Voices, 110), and it is well discussed in McBride.

  14. Werner Gundersheimer, “Patronage in the Renaissance,” 15-16. The frontispiece of the Huntington Library copy of Caxton's Hystoryes of Troye portrays the author kneeling before his patron, the duchess of Burgundy.

  15. McGrath, 104, assumes the latter, as does McBride.

  16. Elias, Court Society; see also Howard Kaminsky, “Estate, Nobility,” 684-709.

  17. Lewalski discusses these “radical egalitarian conclusions” in terms of a female succession grounded on “virtue and holiness” (Writing Women, 225).

  18. Lewalski, Writing Women, 214-15; Rowse also relates this passage to the illegitimacy of Lanyer's own son, calling it “sour grapes” (23).

  19. Lewalski, Writing Women, 130-40; the later diaries are discussed in Mary Ellen Lamb, “Agency of the Split Subject,” 347-68.

  20. This point has been made by various critics, such as Wall, Imprint, 320; Krontiris, Oppositional Voices, 116-18; Mueller, “Feminist Poetics,” 101; and Miller, “(M)other tongues,” 159.

  21. Lewalski points out that Cookeham was a royal manor owned by the countess of Cumberland's brother (Writing Women, 396); and that she probably retired there when she separated from her husband. For his notorious affairs, see 127.

  22. The phrase is Kenneth Burke's, from “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in Philosophy of Literary Form, 293. The prominence of these allusions to Cleopatra has been noted by Beilin, who supposes that she represented a fantasy of worldly power (Redeeming Eve, 200); and by Rowse, who supposes that Lanyer imagined herself a type of Cleopatra (29).

  23. For the centrality of patronage as a social and psychological construct, see, for example, Gundersheimer; Frank Whigham, “Rhetoric,” 864-82; M. D. Jardine; and Evans, 23-30.

  24. Kahn, “‘Magic of Bounty,’” 57.

  25. For a discussion of nightingales as a common figure for early modern women poets, see Mary Ellen Lamb, “Singing with the (Tongue) of the Nightingale,” in Gender and Authorship, 194-230.

  26. Coiro discusses how women were “bound by rich chains of marriage, or service” (373); Holmes reads them as “Platonic love” (183); Berry asks if it is necessary to choose whether these chains are motivated by heaven or profit (224). Mary Sidney uses chains to signify pride in her translation of Psalm 73, ll. 16-18, as discussed in Margaret Hannay's essay in this collection.

John Huntington (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Huntington, John. “Postscript: The Presumption of Aemilia Lanyer.” In Ambition, Rank, and Poetry in 1590s England, pp. 147-53. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Huntington discusses the themes of social ambition and courtly ambition in the Lanyer's poetic work.]

At the time of the publication of Jones's translation of Nennio and Chapman's “Ovids Banquet of Sence” in 1595, some poets could envision a moment of utopian promise when Fabricio's “virtues of the mind” might seem a viable form of cultural capital, when an intellectual might reject both the rules of courtly discourse, which however much they reward style never forget pedigree, and the abrasive opposition of puritan anger, inspired by a claim to reject the social world in the name of a higher truth outside of time, in order to define a space in which learning, wisdom, and even the very refusal to compete in the social arena—to choose to recline like Bussy at the beginning of the play—can be advanced as sources of cultural power. Even Spenser can at moments modestly and cautiously urge a place for an obscure poetic that is outside the court and, even if the court does not recognize it, has dignity. Under James I, however, the possibilities available at the end of Elizabeth's reign seem to close down; the court tends to monopolize social reward, and compared with the earlier decade there are few options for the ambitious intellectual outside that source of cultural capital. Except for some members of the earlier generation who continue to invoke the values and vocabulary of the virtues of the mind, the tone of the age becomes less culturally ambitious and less daring. The routes of success are known and other routes closed.

There is however one new and slightly younger poet who in a subtle and yet clear way pays her homage to those earlier possibilities. Aemilia Lanyer, born Bassano, the daughter of a court musician, “of respectable birth but limited means,”1 appears to have been a bold, adventurous, and creative woman, consorting with powerful men in her youth and with powerful women in her middle age. In 1611, when she was over forty, she produced a single book of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. This is a socially confusing book; while the central title poem narrates Christ's passion, fully one-half of the volume is composed of commendatory poems to royal and titled women. On the surface Lanyer would seem to have abandoned the space of ambition we have been studying and opted for both the other positions sketched at the beginning of this book: religious piety and solicitation of the court and its patronage.2 But, as we saw in the case of Phillip Stubbes nearly thirty years earlier, religious piety finds itself finally in a deep conflict with courtly values, a conflict to which patrons, thanks to the mechanisms of self-congratulation, may be deaf, but which the poet and other people viewing the situation from her vantage will hear with quite a different implication. Lanyer presents herself, finally, not only as a celebrator of courtly piety but as a humble yet important instance of a “woman's wit.” That is, like Chapman she comes before us, without title or fortune, asking to be recognized as a poet.

In the middle of the poem commending Anne, countess of Dorset, Lanyer visits a line of argument with which we are now familiar. After what seem like orthodox assertions that “No worldly treasure can assure … place” and “All worldly honours there [i.e., in heaven, or perhaps, more ambiguously, in God's eyes] are counted base” (18, 20), Lanyer moves to a more politically challenging idea: “Titles of honour which the world bestowes, / To none but to the virtuous doth belong” (25-26). Since this ideal of Nennian justice does not in fact prevail, “Poore virtues friends indure the greatest wrong” (30). Lanyer then raises the issue of whence did nobility spring?

What difference was there when the world began,
Was it not Virtue that distinguisht all?
All sprang but from one woman and one man,
Then how doth Gentry come to rise and fall?
Or who is he that very rightly can
Distinguish of his birth, or tell at all,
          In what meane state his Ancestors have bin,
          Before some one of worth did honour win?
Whose successors, although they beare his name,
Possessing not the riches of his minde,
How doe we know they spring out of the same
True stocke of honour, beeing not of that kind?
It is faire virtue gets immortall fame,
Tis that doth all love and duty bind:
          If he that much enjoyes, doth little good,
          We may suppose he comes not of that blood.(3)

The “indignity” of the world's rewards becomes the unambiguous argument, and the Nennian view of the artificiality of rank becomes explicit.4 Lanyer avoids the insult of a pure Nennian line, however, by fading back into ambiguity in the next stanza and allowing the interpretation—a common one, to be sure, one we see in Jones's own dedication of Nennio to Essex—that the subject of the poem, Anne, countess of Dorset, in this instance will show the nobility of her blood by her doing good. The barb of the last two lines can easily be taken as a compliment by the patron who understands Lanyer to be including her in the “True stocke of honour.” But we may suspect we are back recalling Chapman's scorn for the “blood without soul of false nobility.”

It is the invocation of God's “kingdom” that licenses Lanyer's otherwise insulting assertions of the dignity of virtue. The Christian perspective allows her to dismiss rank, even avowing her disinterest in her own social position, but some strange effects are generated by such a piety. In the opening poem to Queen Anne one finds such strong ironies that if they fail to offend, it is simply because they are so intrinsic to the Christian perspective that royalty has become inured to them. Nevertheless, in the pointed logic of the poem they stand out as challenging declarations. Lanyer begins by observing the rarity of “a Womans writing of divinest things” (4) and worrying that if it is “defective” (5) the queen may take what is intended as praise as something else. After praising the queen for three stanzas, she then reverses the polarity and asks the queen to be the support of the poet's dignity: “To virtue [i.e., Lanyer's intention and poem] yet / Vouchsafe that splendor which my meannesse bars” (27-28). The term “meannesse” would seem to be a recognition of the social gap that defines the patronage situation, but it also opens up a rather different and surprising strategy of social questioning, because Lanyer is not the only “mean” person in the poem. The term recurs over the next six stanzas denoting qualities that identify Christ's virtue: he “tooke our flesh in base and meanest berth” (46); he is “The hopefull haven of the meaner sort” (50); he represents “that faire Virtue, though in meane attire, / All Princes of the world doe most desire” (65-66). The humility implicit in Lanyer's worry about her own meanness turns into the essence of Christian virtue. Again we may think of Chapman's “Mistress Philosophy” who “thus deprest doth knock at heaven's gate.”

The embedded theme of rank pervades the poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum itself, and conventional Christian pieties are presented with a particularly political vigor: “Unto the Meane he makes the Mightie bow, / And raiseth up the Poore out of the dust” (123-24). Christ is repeatedly praised for his “great humility” (473), and being “counted of so meane a birth” (476) allows him “To purge our pride by [his] Humilitie” (480). Mary's “meane estate” (1034) is emphasized. If on the one hand flesh is “Too base a roabe for Immortalitie” (1112), Christ, “for our gaine … is content with losses / Our ragged clothing scornes he not to weare” (1124-25). Christ is a leveler; “He judgeth all alike, both rich and poore” (1646). When a number of times through the poem Lanyer turns to the countess of Cumberland, she praises her for her disregard of worldly wealth and position.

At one point Lanyer seems to invoke a more snobbish sense of the term “mean” when she emphasizes that Christ as the son of God was not mean. But the argument that seems simple in its premises is intricate and it is his very refusal of the privileges that might been seen as belonging to his rank that makes him Christ. At the beginning of the following quotation I italicize the word “mean” to emphasize the pointedness of Lanyer's wordplay:

Yet, had he beene but of a meane degree,
His suffrings had beene small to what they were;
Meane minds will shew of what meane mouldes they bee;
Small griefes seeme great, yet Use doth make them beare:
But ah! tis hard to stirre a sturdy tree;
Great dangers hardly puts [sic] great minds in feare:
          They will conceale their griefes which mightie grow
          In their stout hearts untill they overflow.
If then an earthly Prince may ill endure
The least of those afflictions which he bare,
How could this all-commaunding King procure
Such grievous torments with his mind to square,
Legions of Angells being at his Lure?
He might have liv'd in pleasure without care:
          None can conceive the bitter paines he felt,
          When God and man must suffer without guilt.


It is exactly the difference between Christ and “an earthly Prince,” whose whole definition involves exercising the power that holds off affliction and grievous torments, that comes home here: Christ's nobility entails refusing those very elements that commonly identify the nobility. It is a connection that no one would point to, but the logic of these lines finally argue that earthly princes have “meane minds” for they make “small griefes seeme great.” The opening line of the passage reveals a rather extraordinary meaning: had Christ been of “a meane degre” he would have acted the way any earthly prince acts and called on his army. Mean here, while to a casual reading it speaks to Christ's rank as the Son of God, in fact denies rank and distinguishes not between the great and the mean but between “great minds” and “mean minds.” For Lanyer Christ is very much in the tradition we have been examining: a man who, while he might have appealed to “birth,” earns his title by his virtue, which consists of not making that appeal to the privileges his birth entitles him. And just as Christ is here entirely indifferent to rank, the countess of Cumberland is herself praised for her Christian indifference to earthly rewards.

At moments in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum Lanyer seems to be comforting the countess for her difficulties in preserving her late husband's inheritance for her daughter, Anne, countess of Dorset. It is a nice mode of flattery to praise someone for their indifference to the world and at the same time console them for their suffering in that world. We do not need to think of Lanyer as devious in using such a rhetorical strategy. As poets like Chapman, Jonson, and herself begin to invent the modern idea of cultural capital they express their ambitions in a moral (“virtue” is Chapman's favorite) or pious (“mean” is Lanyer's) vocabulary that refers to such culturally undoubted goods that the social contradictions analysis uncovers do not present themselves as problems. If this means that they do not see their ambitions as “subversive,” it also means they may not entirely understand themselves what they are seeking. Like Faustus, they want their “cunning” to be respected, but what exactly that means is not clear. They shun the vulgar. Chapman addresses a fellow poet—in Bourdieu's terms, he appeals to the judgment of producers, not the titled and idle audience. Lanyer seems more conventional in that she commends royal and titled patrons, but by ignoring men, by recounting in “To Cooke-ham” a moment of feminine intellectual community, and in isolating the women's parts in the Passion, she clearly, just as much as Chapman, puts herself in a position of creating the social space which has not previously existed in which her accomplishment will be valued.

If in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum Lanyer can dignify great women for their virtue apart from their rank, in “The Description of Cooke-ham,” the concluding poem in the 1611 volume, she shows that the consciousness of rank is never entirely absent. The countess of Dorset, who is granted a genuinely Nennian integrity in the poem dedicated to her before Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is now identified more conventionally as “sprung from Cliffords race / Of noble Bedfords blood” (93-94) “to honorable Dorset now espous'd” (95) and a woman of “true virtue” (96).5 Ordinarily, it comes as no surprise that a woman of such pedigree is praised for her virtue, but it does come as a surprise that Lanyer does so when one considers how much she earlier praised Dorset and Cumberland for their indifference to rank and privilege. One may perhaps sense a note of irony in Lanyer's praise of Anne's “virtue” in “Cooke-ham,” and that note is made more plausible by the remarkable and bitter passage that follows, lamenting how their difference in rank now keeps them apart. It is an audacious and moving passage in which Lanyer speaks about the realities of social difference in a way that one seldom hears.6 She blames her separation from the countess first on “Unconstant Fortune,” “Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame: / Where our great friends we cannot dayly see, / So great a difference is there in degree” (104-6). But more angry and personal charges develop when she implies a hypocrisy in the great who are “Neerer in show, yet farther off in love, / In which, the lowest alwayes are above” (109-10).7 This is dangerous territory, and Lanyer quickly retracts the claim: “But whither am I carried in conceit? / My Wit too weake to conster of the great” (111-12). And she then resigns herself to the memory of “pleasures past.” We see here Lanyer's understanding—an understanding that belongs especially to those without power—of the frustrating and inescapable meaning of obscurity. In such unequal relationships as this between a countess and a commoner, the obscure love more not because they are in some mysterious way more loving but because they have more to gain socially by the relationship's continuation.8 Yet, if for a moment ambition drives Lanyer to articulate a complaint about the injustice and inequality of the system, her obscurity also allows a retreat, in Lanyer's case a double obscurity of rank and gender. The reference to her “Wit too weake” takes us back to the opening poem to the queen and her dwelling on the tropes of incapacity: her apology for “My weake distempred braine and feeble spirits” (139) and her calling “presumption” the thought that she might “compare with any man” (145, 148).9 Our age has become familiar with the ironies of such gendered presumption, but the other social element involved—that Aemilia Lanyer, the brilliant poet of common background, could claim any kind of equality with titled women—is a gesture involving considerable risk. What particularly distinguishes Lanyer's complaint is that, despite her economic difficulties, she does not want money from Anne; she wants love. This is a claim of obligation way beyond patronage, but it matches the claims of equality of earlier poets, whose ambition is hard to define but in some sense would be satisfied, not by economic success, but by being accepted by the elite. At this level Jonson's ploy of speaking familiarly with nobility, when it does not stimulate rejection, turns itself into a sign of his success. Contrarily, Barnes's or Gossen's claims of equality with Sidney get taken in a different manner, and quickly become the marks that identify their social inferiority. Lanyer disappears from our view after this poem; we cannot know how her appeal was received, though we do know that Anne, while she raised monuments to Spenser and Daniel, the poets whom her deceased mother, the countess of Cumberland, had patronized, is not on record as recognizing Lanyer.10

More than two decades after Lanyer's poem Chapman will publish his translation of Juvenal's Fifth Satire as a bitter comment on a patronage situation that has, if anything, declined over the years since he first enunciated the hope for a serious poetry. The humiliations of clienthood always entail a difficult rhetorical posture; even Dr. Johnson's great letter to the earl of Chesterfield accounts the earl's belated attention an “honour” and closes with expressions of conventional servility.11 It isn't until the nineteenth century with the further decline of aristocratic privilege and the development of an independent market for symbolic goods that artists can afford to express openly their sense of their own dignity to the class that has hitherto sustained art. In Lanyer's daring gesture of companionship with the countess of Dorset we can recognize the whole world of utopian cultural possibilities that Chapman and his fellows hoped to open up but that will remain for yet another century and a half a source only of teasing hope for obscure and ambitious poets.


  1. Susanne Woods, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 41.

  2. Much of the recent interest in Lanyer has focused on her feminist piety. See especially Elaine V. Beilin, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 177-207; and Wendy Wall, “Our Bodies/Our Texts? Renaissance Women and the Trials of Authorship” in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, ed. Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 51-71.

  3. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, ed. Susanne Woods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 42-43 (lines 17-48). All quotations from Lanyer are from this edition.

  4. Barbara Lewalski reads this stanza as distinguishing “male succession through aristocratic titles” from “a female succession grounded upon virtue and holiness” (“Re-writing Patriarchy and Patronage: Margaret Clifford, Anne Clifford, and Aemilia Lanyer,” Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 21, ed. Andrew Gurr [London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1991], 101).

  5. Anne seems to have been a remarkable woman, though perhaps not the utopian Lanyer invokes. Daughter of the duke of Cumberland, one of Elizabeth's most powerful courtiers, she married two equally powerful courtiers, the earl of Dorset and later the earl of Pembroke. She fought church, court, and king for her paternal inheritance, which she gained, finally, not so much by her tenacity as by the good fortune of having all her male cousins die. She wrote a memoir in the 1650s, and she died after the Restoration, a wealthy matriarch. See Lewalski, “Re-writing Patriarchy.”

  6. As Lewalski observes, Lanyer was twenty years older than Anne Clifford, who must have been a child in her teens during the period Lanyer commemorates in “Cooke-ham,” so “hardly her playmate” (Lewalski, “Re-writing Patriarchy,” 105). Woods thinks the sojourn at Cooke-ham took place between 1603 and 1605, when Anne Clifford was thirteen to fifteen (Woods, Lanyer, 29).

  7. Woods's reading of these elliptical lines seems accurate: “circumstances may place the high and low near to each other, but their devotion is not reciprocally strong; the lower born are more devoted to the high than the reverse” (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 134, note to lines 109-10).

  8. Shakespeare, though often complacent about his friend's rank and emphatic about the continuation of their love, in “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing” (Sonnet 88) seems to have a sense of the problem this unequal dynamic poses.

  9. Numerous recent critics have noted and discussed Lanyer's strategy of humility. Woods argues that “By collapsing her unworthiness as a woman into the general unworthiness of the lower-born in relation to the higher, and by seeking elevation from another woman, Lanyer effectively transcends the gender issue altogether” (Lanyer, 104).

  10. Lewalski, “Re-writing Patriarchy,” 105.

  11. “To the Earl of Chesterfield, February 7, 1755,” Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York: Rinehart, 1958), 2-3.

Michael Morgan Holmes (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Holmes, Michael Morgan. “Rich Chains of Love: Desire and Community in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum.” In Early Modern Metaphysical Literature: Nature, Custom and Strange Desires, pp. 89-105. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following essay, Holmes contends that in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum “the commingling of religious piety, a defence of women, and a celebration of their mutual passion and devotion engagingly denaturalizes customary power relations and gender identities.”]

Aemilia Lanyer devoted herself to God and other women. Her visions of past and future utopian worlds consistently place love of the deity in and through a community of women at the centre of personal happiness and social justice. In her only known work, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, the commingling of religious piety, a defence of women, and a celebration of their mutual passion and devotion engagingly denaturalizes customary power relations and gender identities.1

Scholars such as Barbara Lewalski, Lynette McGrath, and Janel Mueller have discussed the importance of female association to Lanyer's poetry and vision of society. In general, though, they have not considered the relations between Lanyer's work and other seventeenth-century contemplations of love amongst women or the ways in which homoeroticism figures in her treatment of desire. Like John Donne, Lanyer paints the loneliness brought about by the disappearance of affective bonds between women; like Andrew Marvell, she questions the exclusive virtue of cross-gender couplings and depicts the destruction of women's collective happiness at the hands of men. Lanyer goes beyond both poets, however, in detailing the intersections amongst survival, fulfilment, and homoerotic desire. Indeed, prior to the writings of Katherine Philips in the 1650s and 1660s, Lanyer's poems include some of the imagistically richest and most sympathetic early modern conceptualizations of women's homoerotic companionship.2 In this chapter I hope to show that, by drawing together religious devotion and homoeroticism in ways that Marvell glimpsed but did not fully explore, Lanyer presents homoerotic affection as a way for women to overcome the ravages of class divisions and men's proprietary claims, and as a positive ground for real-world communities.

In his discussion of early modern English history, Keith Wrightson observes that community ‘is not a thing; it is a quality in social relations which is, in some respects, occasional and temporary, and which needs periodic stimulation and reaffirmation if it is to survive the centrifugal forces of the inevitable tensions which arise in local society’ (p. 62). While Wrightson is primarily interested in large-scale threats to ideological norms of ‘order, harmony and subordination’, his understanding of community in terms of social relations and tensions also allows room to consider the actions of particular human agents. Texts by early modern women are ripe for analysis along such lines. As Lewalski observes, much of seventeenth-century women's writings in England possessed an ‘oppositional nature’; that is, texts by Lanyer, Rachel Speght, Arbella Stuart and others testify to ‘inner resistance and a critical consciousness’ capable not only of denaturalizing the status quo but also of effecting social transformations (Writing, p. 3).3

These women's insights and reformulations coincide with the various expressions of dissidence that Alan Sinfield finds characteristic of many other early modern texts. As we saw in Chapter 1, rather than looking for outright subversion, Sinfield advocates reading for perspectives that contest received norms by producing ‘alternative, potentially rival, subjectivities’ (see Faultlines, pp. 49, 174-5). Metaphysical literature frequently accords with this understanding of cultural friction. While Lanyer often composed hyperbolic and conceited verse, she qualifies as a Metaphysical author more for her politicized denaturalization of gendered inequality than for the mannerist ingenuities through which she conveys her thoughts.

In Salve Deus Lanyer does more than merely oppose misogynist norms that picture women as weak and corrupt and which mandate their subordination to men. Lanyer's dissidence also involves—to a significant degree through homoerotic desire—the prioritization of female spiritual experience and affective communities of like-minded women. Whatever her personal desires might have been, Lanyer's integration of homoeroticism makes strategic sense given that, as Bernadette Brooten notes, from at least the first century ce love between women has often been regarded as a direct threat to the naturalized principle of gender asymmetry circulated by doctrinal pronouncements (for example, Eph. 5:21-6:9) about women's subordination in and through marriage (pp. 265-6). By facilitating a recognition of the contingency of cultural norms, and by suggesting new ways of viewing such phenomena as class divisions, gender identity, and erotic desire, Lanyer's poems not only make a claim for one person's liberty of conscience but also encourage new ways of configuring human relations.

Salve Deus affords an opportunity to see that, despite the difficulties faced by women who wished to write about their desires for other women, there were certain avenues of expression that could be turned to engaging use. In addition, Lanyer dedicated her work to some of the nation's most powerful individuals who also, as it happened, were women. This political positioning of the text suggests that if we accept that same-gender desire plays a vital role in Salve Deus, female homoeroticism was capable of functioning nearer to the centre of official ideology than is commonly thought.4


John Dixon Hunt contends that Marvell's poems on a nymph's loss (in ‘The Nymph complaining for the death of her Faun’) and a storm-tossed lover (in ‘The unfortunate Lover’) pivot on ‘the recognition of a love larger than the earth allows’ (p. 67). As I attempted to show in the previous chapter, this suggestive remark applies as well to a number of other Marvellian texts. Nevertheless, the recognition of ‘larger’ loves seems rarely to engender in Marvell's work considerations or illustrations of how such desires might circulate in actual society.

With regard to female-female eroticism and companionship, however, Aemilia Lanyer gave voice to dreams of solidarity amongst women that are very much orientated towards present and future aspirations. The differences between their two approaches probably tells us much about historical transformations that occurred in evaluations of same-gender female desire and interaction. Writing forty years after Lanyer, Marvell incorporated into his poem what Valerie Traub has identified in other mid-century texts (and Western culture itself) as an increasing ideological ‘perversion’ of lesbian desire (‘Perversion’, pp. 25, 39-43). Earlier in the century, though, Lanyer was likely less constrained by such prejudice. Indeed, her Salve Deus Rex Judæorum prompts a modification of Traub's suggestion that early modern English writers (all Traub's examples are male) imagined eroticism between women as either tribadic or as a past, temporary stage on the way to normative heterosexual closure (‘(In)significance’, pp. 158-9). Differing from Marvell (although somewhat like Donne), Lanyer resists the tendency to depict female-female love in entirely elegiac terms. In actuality, we know that Lanyer was unsuccessful in her bid to establish an enduring community of supportive friends.5 Her Salve Deus presents proof, though, that it was possible at least to imagine and hope for a loving, companionate future.

Like Upon Appleton House, Lanyer's book emphasizes spiritual erotics in order to address love between women. While other writers found figures such as Ganymede and Apollo useful for representing desire between men, Lanyer drew on classical mythology in order to assert the cultural value of women's relationships. Meanwhile, Christianity's anti-worldly orientation empowered her to think beyond immediate social and ideological restrictions to a condition such as St Paul describes when he says that all sex and gender identities vanish in Christ (Gal. 3:28).6 Lanyer's decision to employ a discourse of Christian devotion makes cultural sense, given that religion was one of the few culturally sanctioned areas of endeavour for early modern women.7 In addition, as Barbara Lewalski observes, because of their emphasis on adhering to the dictates of conscience and on believers' personal relationships with God, Christianity and, in particular, Protestantism, possessed a significant potential for dissidence and destabilization (Writing, p. 8). When, for instance, Lanyer eulogizes Margaret Russell, Countess of Cumberland, as one whose ‘chaste breast, guarded with strength of mind, / Hates the imbracements of unchaste desires’ (SD [Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,], ll. 1545-6), she puts forward her friend as a model of conscientious liberty derived from having led a godly life.8

Christian devotion also provided Lanyer with theoretical leverage to overcome social rank disparity, one of the principal stumbling blocks to the poet's friendships with other women. She does away with public hierarchies by arguing that they are merely products of ‘Unconstant Fortune’ (‘CH’ [‘The Description of Cooke-ham’], l. 103) and are therefore not essential. Love and solidarity between women is possible, meanwhile, if one circumvents Fortune by routing desire through Christ. Whereas Montaigne felt compelled to attempt to sublimate the erotic component of his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie so as to avoid accusations of ‘Greek licence’ (I.199), by turning to women's shared love of Christ Lanyer engaged a discourse that came with its own protective warrant. Because affection for Christ was expected of all true believers, if challenged Lanyer could always fall back on traditional piety as an excuse for her utterances. In her own view, however, a passion for Christ and other women (even ones much further up the social ladder) went hand in hand.

Lanyer's vision of an ideal female community is, like that of Donne's Sappho, predicated on mutuality. Describing the actions of a powerful ancient woman, Lanyer reasons that

Spirits affect where they doe sympathize,
Wisdom desires Wisdome to embrace,
Virtue covets her like, and doth devize
How she her friends may entertaine with grace;
Beauty sometime is pleas'd to feed her eyes,
With viewing Beautie in anothers face:
Both good and bad in this point doe agree,
That each desireth with his like to be.

(SD, ll. 1593-1600)

This stanza ostensibly reveals the Queen of Sheba's motivation to journey to King Solomon's court. On a more symbolic level, Lanyer's Neoplatonic lexicon of sympathy and embraces contributes to Salve Deus's investment in spiritual and physical sameness as the grounds of affection between women. In Sheba's case, the desire to be with another person who was ‘like’ herself prompted a transgression of conventional ‘niceness and respect of woman-kind’ (ll. 1603-4). As a ground for the rejection of normative gender behaviour, the aspiration to coexist with a wise, virtuous, and beautiful friend serves as a paradigm for Lanyer's independent-minded quest for emotional and spiritual fulfilment not in the usual environment of hetero-domesticity, but in the potentially homoerotic company of other women.

Lanyer apparently bases her ‘extraordinary, and unprecedented’ (McGrath, p. 337) step in turning from men to a community of women within which to find inspiration and to fashion an identity on a belief that, with men, mutuality and peace are impossible. She takes it as a given that many men want to strip women of their liberty:

greatest perills do attend the faire,
When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise,
How they may overthrow the chastest Dame,
Whose Beautie is the White whereat they aime.

(SD, ll. 205-8)

By objectifying women, these lines suggest, courtly and Petrarchan social and literary conventions can naturalize violent attitudes and behaviour (e.g., SD ll. 825-32). Lanyer, meanwhile, is interested in likeness and equality. In a sense, she concurs with attitudes such as Montaigne expressed when he claimed that women and men could never be true friends because genuine amity can only be achieved between equals (I.199). As Lanyer and Montaigne knew it, the world showed few signs of developing parity between the genders. Salve Deus, however, clearly rejects the frequently coordinate position that women can never attain true friendship (even with each other) because they possess ‘a rash and wavering fire, waving and divers’, when what is needed is ‘a generall and universall heat’ (Montaigne, I.198). Women's friendships are not only possible, according to Lanyer, but also spiritually and politically laudable.

In an oddly underexamined dedicatory poem, ‘The Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembrooke’, Lanyer draws on an ancient cultural reservoir in order to depict the enchantment of women's community. The text's length (it runs fourteen lines longer than ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’), structural centrality, and unique verse form all suggest its thematic weight. It is therefore no surprise that the poem opens by expressing an aspiration germane to much of Lanyer's work:

Me thought I pass'd through th' Edalyan Groves,
And askt the Graces, if they could direct
Me to a Lady whom Minerva chose,
To live with her in height of all respect.

(ll. 1-4)

Dissidently reinscribing the practice of fathers who assign husbands to their daughters with no regard for emotional complementarity, Lanyer turns to Minerva as a better guardian who will find for her a more agreeable, female partner.9 In ‘The Authors Dreame’, Lanyer's reveries focus on a Lady (that is, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke) who is ‘ti'd’ to her ‘thoughts’ by ‘a golden Chaine’ of Platonic love. This beautiful woman is encircled by ‘nine faire Virgins … With Harps and Vialls in their lilly hands’ (ll. 9-10), a rather Spenserian scenographic indication of the poet's ideal sisterhood and evocative of the lyrical charm Lanyer associates with homoerotic desire.

The events that transpire in ‘The Authors Dreame’ bear out this promise of tranquillity and affection amongst women. First to arrive on the scene is the goddess Bellona, ‘A manly mayd which was both faire and tall’ in whom, Lanyer records, ‘I tooke no small delight’ (ll. 35, 40). Soon after, ‘faire Dictina by the breake of Day, / With all her Damsels round about her came’ (ll. 45-6). Dictina, otherwise known in the poem as Diana, Phoebe, and Cynthia, is invited by the Lady to take her hand and ‘keepe with them continually’ (l. 60), aspirations that Lanyer herself claims to share. In an episode reminiscent of courtly romance, Aurora, goddess of the morning, arrives next and competes successfully with the male god Phoebus for the assembled Ladies' ‘favours’ (ll. 61-76). With women now fully in charge of all aspects of the pastoral landscape, Lanyer recounts that the group moved on to a secret bower with which even Minerva was not familiar, ‘a place full of all rare delights … where Art and Nature striv'd / Which should remaine as Sov'raigne of the place’ (ll. 79, 81-2). Enacting principles of peace and equality, the Ladies quickly decide that ‘T'would be offensive either to displace’ and therefore decree that Art and Nature ‘should for ever dwell, / In perfit unity’ together (ll. 88-90). The ‘sweet unitie’ (l. 96) of these two female creative forces, recognized and affirmed by women, parallels an observation Sappho makes to Philænis in Donne's poem, that ‘betweene us all sweetnesse may be had; / All, all that Nature yields, or Art can adde’ (ll. 43-4). In each case, the perfect, complementary balance between Art and Nature represents a vision of creative mutuality that ideally characterizes women's relationships with one other. In confirmation of this harmony, the sweet sounds of women singing Mary Sidney's ‘holy hymnes’ (l. 116) aurally affirm women's sublime emotional and spiritual unions.

Diana—the goddess invited to hold the Lady's hand—is the classical figure who most clearly represents Lanyer's dual investment in solidarity and eroticism between women. In the poem dedicated ‘To all vertuous Ladies in generall’, Lanyer counsels women that they ought ‘In wise Minerva's paths be alwaies seene; / Or with bright Cynthia, thogh faire Venus frown’ (ll. 25-6). As McGrath observes, here and elsewhere in Lanyer's book Venus is the goddess of ‘heterosexual passion’, whereas Cynthia is ‘specifically woman-identified’ (p. 339).10 While McGrath is probably not using the term ‘woman-identified’ in (as we saw in the last chapter) the eroticized sense that Ann Matter does, the contrast she draws between Dianic and Venerian passion interfaces with my own exploration of desire in Lanyer's book. ‘Of all the goddesses’, Christine Downing notes, Diana ‘is most evidently one who models women's love of women’ in spiritual and potentially sexual terms (pp. 210-11). Traub's commentary on lesbian desire in Thomas Heywood's play The Golden Age (which appeared the same year as Lanyer's Salve Deus) demonstrates that ‘the loving ministrations of Diana's circle’ could signify homoerotic desire, especially when contrasted with harsh acts of ‘heterosexual’ coercion of women by men (‘(In)significance’, p. 161). Primarily surveying visual iconography, Patricia Simons likewise finds abundant evidence that scenes of Diana and her nymphs could, in certain circumstances, offer early modern women images of same-gender erotic and spiritual bonds.

As in other dream visions, such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Booke of the Duchesse, the dreamer must awaken and bring to the quotidian world the lessons that have been learned. In fact, Lanyer claims (in ‘To the doubtfull Reader’) that Salve Deus Rex Judæorum is itself the fruit of a divinely inspired dream. Yet this book is not the product of a Miltonic holy spirit writing through a human amanuensis. Instead, Lanyer takes full responsibility for her dream vision, claiming that ‘what my heart desir'd, mine eies had seene’ (‘Authors Dreame’, l. 174; emphasis added). By taking seriously the enthusiasm and longing that Lanyer conveys in her depictions of female community in a mythic garden of beautiful women, we are better positioned to comprehend the ways in which her panegyrics to Christ and Cookeham also embody homoerotic desire as a key to spiritual and social happiness. Referring to her entire book, Lanyer informs the Countess of Pembroke that ‘I here present my mirrour to [your] view, … My Glasse being steele, declares them to be true’ (ll. 210-12). If ‘Salve Deus Rex Judæorum’ and ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’ mirror the poet's mind, then they also must reflect the desires that inform the visions in ‘The Authors Dreame’.

As ‘The Authors Dreame’ leads one to suspect, the close-knit society of women that Lanyer imagines in ‘Salve Deus’ and ‘Cooke-ham’ is foreshadowed throughout the volume's nine dedicatory poems. In a number of these prefatory texts, Lanyer evokes a world of quasi-Catholic devotion not unlike that which Marvell imagined in Upon Appleton House. Commenting on early modern women's opportunities in life, Retha Warnicke observes that ‘young Protestant females had their future mapped out for them in the words, “women to be married,” for no other occupation was possible for them, the last of the English nunneries having been dissolved at the accession of Elizabeth’ (p. 133). Warnicke's positing of convents as valuable refuges for women whose desires ran counter to domestic ideology highlights a possible cultural source in Roman Catholic devotion and, especially, religious sisterhood for the kind of resistance Lanyer (and later Marvell) imagined.11

Drawing on imagery associated with convent life, Lanyer depicts herself as piously meditating in what appears very much like a nun's chamber when she writes to Queen Anne (a devout Roman Catholic) that she has been living ‘clos'd up in Sorrowes Cell, / Since great Elizaes favour blest my youth’ (ll. 109-10). The queen herself functions as a kind of mother superior for the poet's devotions; Lanyer describes her as a woman who has always taken a ‘holy habite’ in order ‘Still to remaine the same, and still her owne’ (ll. 117-18). With a quite probable allusion to Protestant pressures on the queen to convert, Lanyer finds in Anne's Catholicism evidence of women's ability to remain true to their own convictions and desires. Similarly, although Lucy, Countess of Bedford, was a Protestant, Lanyer deploys rather Crashavian Catholic imagery when she imagines ‘the closet of your lovely breast’ and ‘that Cabbine where your selfe doth rest’ (‘To the Ladie Lucie’, ll. 2, 4). Striking a similar note, in ‘To the Ladie Susan’ Lanyer asks her dedicatee to ‘grace’ Christ's passion, which she describes as ‘this holy feast’ (l. 5), a term reminiscent of Roman devotion. Most Catholic of all, the numerous references to Christ as spouse scattered throughout Lanyer's texts suggest nuns' spiritual marriages to Jesus (see SD, ll. 77, 253, 1170), while her baroque descriptions of Christ's both horrifying and beauteous body have a long history in Catholic poetry and visual art (see ‘To the Ladie Lucie’, ll. 13-14; SD, ll. 1332-6, 1724-40). I do not want to imply that Lanyer was a closet Roman Catholic; my point is that Catholic devotional and symbolic traditions, especially as they relate to conventual companionship, probably appealed to her because they offered a way to imagine happiness with other women devoted to Christ.12 Given what we have seen of Marvell's later practice, it was certainly possible in the seventeenth century to paint a literary picture of the intersection amongst Catholicism, clausura, and female homoerotic desire.

Love of Christ is at the heart of Christian sisterhood as well as of Lanyer's vision of female companionship. Even a cursory examination of her meditations on Christ confirms McGrath's point that ‘The erotic implications of these images are not accidental’ (p. 342). In keeping with conventional language drawn from allegorical readings of the Song of Songs, Christ is repeatedly termed the ‘Bridegroome’ and ‘Husband’ of the various women Lanyer addresses (for example, ‘Ladie Anne’, l. 15; ‘To all vertuous Ladies’, l. 9; SD, ll. 77, 253). More erotically still, Lanyer often directly calls Christ a ‘lover’ (for example, ‘To the Ladie Lucie’, l. 16; SD, ll. 982, 1358, 1398). She even observes that Christ is a better lover than earthly men; for instance, when she describes the Passion so that Margaret may ‘judge if ever Lover were so true’ (SD, l. 1267), and writes to Lady Katherine, Countess of Suffolk, that Salve Deus is intended to enable readers to ‘see a Lover much more true / Than ever was since first the world began’ (ll. 2-3).

The image of Christ as lover is enriched by noting (as a number of critics have done) Lanyer's sustained representation of Christ as feminine.13 In the devotional tradition outlined by Caroline Walker Bynum in Jesus as Mother, Lanyer feminizes Christ, McGrath contends, in order to strengthen women's sense of themselves as ‘active subjects of their own religious experience’ (p. 344). While McGrath's observations are valid as far as they go, they ultimately limit the resonance of Lanyer's poetics by strangely separating an erotic from a feminine Christ. McGrath argues that in Salve Deus ‘gender relationships between Christ and His female followers are slipperily problematized. Christ is an androgynous figure, at once both male lover-Bridegroom and feminine in character’ (p. 343). In terms of McGrath's understanding of Lanyer's or a reader's desire for Christ, however, her sense of conflation vanishes; as she sees it, as a lover Christ can only be male. Yet, Christ's androgynous nature defies simple gender ascription and opens the possibility that ‘he’ may be interpreted and loved as a ‘she’. After all, as Diane Purkiss points out, Salve Deus is a ‘rhetorical project of considerable complexity’, one that consistently problematizes normative ‘protocols’ of interpretation (p. xxxiv). Wendy Wall comments that Lanyer represents Christ ‘in the socially inscribed female position as well as the eroticized position of Otherness’ (p. 67). I would like to take another step and suggest that Lanyer makes possible a combining of the female and the erotic in Christ as a valid way for women to satisfy their spiritual needs, relate to one another, and dissent from misogynist gender ideology. By inserting a supposedly essential boundary between eroticism and religion, meanwhile, McGrath erases the possibility that a woman might find a feminine Christ erotically engaging.14 No such duality, however, exists in Lanyer's poems; in fact, they forthrightly draw eroticism and religion together in such a way as to emphasise the homoerotic potential involved in women's love of Christ.15

Lanyer searches the canon of Petrarchan and Christian ars amatoria to describe Christ's infinite desirability, finding some of her most potent images in the Song of Songs. A sensual blazon based on the Canticles captures the fervour of her devotion:

unto Snowe we may his face compare,
His cheekes like skarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milke, to give the more delight.

(SD, ll. 1307-10)

In the next stanza, the erotic implications of the imagery intensify; Christ's hair is described as being

Blacke as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like skarlet threeds, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew,
Or hony combes, where all the Bees doe meet;
His lips, like Lillies, dropping downe pure mirrhe,
Whose love, before all worlds we doe preferre.

(SD, ll. 1313-16, 1319-20)

Like the Canticles themselves, Lanyer's descriptions generally defy strict gender classification. As Woods remarks (Salve Deus, p. 107n), at one point Lanyer deploys an image that, in the bible (Song, 4: 3), is used specifically of a female figure; by portraying Christ's lips as ‘skarlet threeds’, Lanyer draws attention to the femininity of Christ's mouth.16 This reinscription carries especial weight when one notices (as in the above passage) the persistently oral quality of Lanyerian spirituality. Elsewhere, Lanyer writes that Christ's blood and tears are ‘Sweet Nectar and Ambrosia’, as well as (again) ‘hony dropping dew of holy love, / [and] Sweet milke’ to be ingested by devoted lovers (SD, ll. 1735, 1737-8). Christ and his female devotees are thus linked through a mutual feminizing of the orifice responsible for the numerous ingestions of salvific and erotic spice, milk, honey, nectar, and dew that flow throughout the text and lubricate women's bonds.

For Lanyer it is only a small step from an erotic appreciation of Christ to imagining him as the locus of triangulated eroticism between women themselves. Woods comes closest to acknowledging the point I want to make here when she observes that Margaret Russell is ‘the location for Lanyer's sensuous vision of Christ’ (‘Introduction’, p. xxxviii). Woods quotes the following quatrain in support of her contention:

in your heart I leave
His perfect picture, where it still shall stand,
          Deepely engraved in that holy shrine,
          Environed with Love and Thoughts divine.

(SD, ll. 1325-8; cf. 180)

Margaret is no mere passive vessel, however; the following stanzas indicate that Lanyer imagines her to be an active lover:

There may you reade his true and perfet storie,
His bleeding body there you may embrace,
And kisse his dying cheekes with teares of sorrow,
With joyfull griefe, you may intreat for grace;
Oft times hath he made triall of your love,
And in your Faith hath tooke no small delight,
Your constant soule doth lodge betweene her brests,
This Sweet of sweets, in which all glory rests.

(ll. 1331-4, 1337-8, 1343-4)

Such encounters with Christ are not limited to the Countess of Cumberland. Throughout ‘Salve Deus’ Lanyer deploys imagery of internalization and privacy in order to express the most intimate moments of devotion and erotic engagement between Christ and her female lovers. By routing desire through Christ, women's mutual love acquires a truthfulness that is unavailable in conventional female-male relations.17

As the focal point of various women's religio-erotic desires, Christ is the locus amoenus in which they can all share love for one another. Lanyer imagines herself and her female companions on a ‘friendly’ progress to God. While Christ is in Margaret's heart, in a loving envoi to ‘Salve Deus’ Lanyer speaks of the Countess as existing inside of her. ‘Your rarest virtues did my soule delight, / Great Ladie of my heart’, writes Lanyer in Petrarchan language. Not unlike Philip Sidney's Astrophel, who eulogizes his beloved as the ‘star of heavenly fire, / Stella, lodestar of desire’ (‘Eighth Song’, ll. 31-2), Lanyer celebrates Margaret as the ‘Great Ladie of my heart’ and ‘the Articke Starre that guides my hand’, assuring her that ‘All what I am, I rest at your command’ (SD, ll. 1836, 1839-40). Like Chinese boxes, Aemilia, as poet and lover, contains her friend Margaret who, in turn, shelters Christ. The trio are now primed to discover and enjoy the fruits of homoerotic love and devotion.


The final portion of Lanyer's book that I want to discuss is ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’. In this text Lanyer explores most incisively the fissures between ideals and reality, at the same time as she makes explicit that the perfect real-world fulfilment of her spiritual reveries would be mutually respectful cohabitation with one or more women. Because her poem contemplates the harsh realities of life for women who are dependent on men's economic favour, it comes closest to embodying the elegiac strain Traub notes in early modern female-female homoeroticism. Lanyer attests to ‘Memorie … [of] Those pleasures past, which will not turne againe’ (ll. 117-18), and she describes Anne Clifford's ‘preservation’ of the natural world's affection as taking place through ‘noble Memory’ (ll. 155-6). Whereas the examples Traub cites, however, exist irrecoverably in the past and give way to heteronormative closure, Lanyer draws on the mind's power to overcome loss by presenting comforting remembrances of former happiness between women.18

As she makes clear in ‘Cooke-ham’, remembering is not about repeating the past in exactly the same forms as it was once known. Rather, Lanyer undertakes a creative manipulation as, for instance, in her description of Anne in terms of Neoplatonic perfection: her ‘virtues did agree / With those faire ornaments of outward beauty, / Which did enforce from all both love and dutie’ (ll. 100-2). Lanyer also requests her Memory to ‘Remember beauteous Dorsets [i.e., Anne's] former sports’ and informs the reader that, in these recreations, ‘my selfe did alwaies beare a part, / While reverend Love presented my true heart’ (ll. 119, 121-2). As Lewalski notes, because of differences in age and social rank it is unlikely that Lanyer actually ever participated in her noble friend's ‘sports’ (Writing, p. 239). Yet, this is an egalitarian fantasy of love which, through the ameliorative power of nostalgia, can easily mingle aristocratic and common hearts in a garden of pleasure.

In ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’, Lanyer's deepest sympathies are for Anne's mother, Margaret, a woman only nine years older than herself who had also experienced less-than-entire happiness in her married life. Lanyer paints a reverent but fanciful portrait of Margaret as a goddess of Nature for whom ‘The very Hills right humbly did descend, / When you to tread upon them did intend’ (ll. 35-6). As a part of this idealization process, Margaret acquires a distinctly Dianic identity, for example when Lanyer addresses her as holding a ‘Bowe in your faire Hand’ (l. 51; see Woods, ‘Introduction’, p. 132n). The formerly dream-state figure of a divine huntress who protects other women resurfaces in Lanyer's imagination at a moment when, attempting to ease the pain of real-life separation, such a woman-identified deity is needed most.

One scene in particular captures the erotic element of Lanyer's devotion to Margaret. Returning to the tree ‘Whose faire greene leaves much like a comely vaile’ (l. 63) had so often sheltered her from the sun when she had walked abroad as Dianic mistress of the park, Margaret guides Lanyer to the site of her former happiness:

To this faire tree, taking me by the hand,
You did repeat the pleasures which had past,
Seeming to grieve they could no longer last.
And with a chaste, yet loving kisse tooke leave,
Of which sweet kisse I did it soone bereave:
Scorning a sencelesse creature should possesse
So rare a favour, so great happinesse.

(ll. 162-8)19

In this episode, which Elaine Beilin notes is ‘the single dramatic event of the poem’ (p. 205), Lanyer posits her own belief in the worthiness of homoerotic love and companionship. Lewalski comments, however, that, with the theft of the kiss, ‘the scene turns sentimental’ (Writing, p. 240); Coiro, meanwhile, suggests that while readers ‘are moved by the act of sisterhood’ which the theft entails, Margaret's kissing of a tree is ‘at once gaspingly funny’ and demeans her character (pp. 372-3). Despite their differences, these two responses characterize the majority of critics' reluctance to consider seriously the eroticism of Lanyer's confessed transgression. This evasion contrasts with, as noted above, their willingness to address the erotic (albeit supposedly hetero-) component of Lanyer's portrayals of Christ. It is not coincidental, however, that Lanyer's stealing of the kiss, her fantasies of Christ's embrace and oral delectableness, and her dream of an all-female pastoral bower pivot on homoerotic intimacy. They all, in fact, involve a recognition that women's desires are neither exclusively heteroerotic nor are they invariably orientated towards marriage and procreation.

Labelling Lanyer's action as merely ‘sentimental’ misconstrues not only her earnest expression of friendship but also her rebuttal to patriarchal gender ideology. The ‘faire tree’, after all, was the site where Margaret and her daughter had gone to ‘take the ayre’ and read books together (ll. 157-61). In her memory, Margaret ‘repeat[s]’ those past ‘pleasures’ and bestows a kiss on the tree as a sign of nostalgic affection. However much sympathy Lanyer may have for melancholic plants, she places her own desires first when she steals Margaret's ‘sweet kisse’. As Lanyer admits, her action has brought about a participation in Fortune; yet, in a larger scheme, she has also imaginatively triumphed over Fortune's habit of erecting class divisions and prescriptive gender norms that separate women from one another. ‘[N]othing's free from Fortunes scorne’ (‘CH,’ l. 176), Lanyer attests; by fantasizing about an egalitarian community of loving women, she nevertheless strives to make Fortune survivable.

The sestet that concludes ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’ intertwines Salve Deus's various strands of desire:

This last farewell to Cooke-ham here I give,
When I am dead thy name in this may live,
Wherein I have perform'd her noble hest,
Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast,
And ever shall, so long as life remaines,
Tying my heart to her by those rich chaines.

(ll. 205-10)

While Lanyer draws on the familiar conceit of poetry's ability to effect immortality for its subject, her more pressing concern is to testify to Margaret's continued presence in her living ‘breast’. At the end of ‘Cooke-ham’, Lanyer looks back to ‘Salve Deus’ and echoes her own earlier figuration of desire and mutuality: Christ is inside Margaret who is again thought of as within Aemilia. The ‘rich chaines’ of love that unite Margaret and Aemilia's hearts echo the ‘golden Chaine’ of Platonic love which joins together the poet and Mary Sidney in ‘The Authors Dreame’ (l. 7; cf. Woods, ‘Introduction’, p. 21n). Whereas in her dream world Lanyer sought to live with the Dowager Countess ‘in height of all respect’, in the real world she articulates her wish to remain with women whom she actually knows and cherishes.


It has not been my purpose in this chapter to argue that Aemilia Lanyer, late of the parish of St James, Clerkenwell, was a lesbian. Although I would not want to rule out the possibility that, at the time she composed Salve Deus, Lanyer's principal erotic desires were for other women, that is not my interest here. I hope to have shown instead that Lanyer found images of same-gender desire to be useful and emotionally engaging vehicles through which to express religious devotion, as well as to explore and document solidarity and love between women as a remedy for worldly vicissitudes brought about by people of both genders. Homoeroticism enabled Lanyer to negotiate the complex relations between social hierarchies and gender identities; it also assisted her in moving beyond a mere rebuttal of patriarchal ideology to envision the psychological groundwork for a classless, affective community between women. Finally, like other Metaphysical authors we have encountered, homoeroticism provided her with a symbolic repertoire with which to intervene in the naturalization of gender norms by positing the agency of desires that do not conform to normative definitions of female identity and destiny. As Montaigne remarks in his essay on friendship: ‘our genuine libertie hath no production more properly her owne, than that of affection and amitie’ (I.198). Salve Deus Rex Judæorum indicates, I believe, that this ancient association between freedom and homoerotic desire was far from lost on Aemilia Lanyer.


  1. Salve Deus Rex Judæorum is a composite book made up of nine dedicatory poems, two dedicatory epistles, a long central verse meditation bearing the same name as the volume, a final poem entitled ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’ (the first country-house poem published in England), and a brief prose coda.

  2. See Arlene Stiebel for a discussion of Philips's homoeroticism.

  3. Merry E. Wiesner's international and interdisciplinary survey of women and gender in early modern Europe discusses at length women's opportunities to achieve self-expression and to question prevailing norms. See especially her chapters on ‘Women and the Creation of Culture’ (pp. 146-75), and ‘Gender and Power’ (pp. 239-58). Hilda Smith's Reason's Disciples usefully complements Wiesner's work.

  4. Lanyer provides dedicatory poems to Queen Anne; Princess Elizabeth; Lady Arbella Stuart; Lady Susan, Countess Dowager of Kent; Lady Mary, Countess of Pembroke; Lady Lucy, Countess of Bedford; Lady Margaret, Countess Dowager of Cumberland; Lady Katherine, Countess of Suffolk; and Lady Anne, Countess of Dorset. These dedications should not be construed as unproblematic assertions of the middle-class poet's comfort with a hereditary social hierarchy. As Ann Baynes Coiro shows, Lanyer numerous times questions the privileges and authority of a matriarchy that she, in part, resents (pp. 365, 369-73). Coiro overstates the case, though, when she claims that because of Lanyer's criticisms Salve Deus is a ‘subversive’ (p. 372; cf. p. 369) ‘radical manifesto’ (p. 370; cf. p. 365).

  5. Susanne Woods argues that through Salve Deus Lanyer attempted ‘to make a bid for restoration of her place, however peripheral, among the great’ (p. xxvii). Woods's introduction to her edition of Salve Deus outlines fully what is known of Lanyer's life and the virtually unnoticed publication of her book (see especially pp. xxv-xxvii). See also Woods's account of Lanyer's understanding of her role as a public poet within the confines of a patronage system (‘Vocation and Authority’).

  6. Henricus Cornelius Agrippa's allusion to this biblical warrant for equality in the conclusion to his Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex (p. 96) highlights the importance of St Paul's promise to generations of defenders of women's rights.

  7. On religion's special role in women's lives, see McGrath (p. 341), Mueller (‘Feminist Poetics’, pp. 222-3, 228), Roper (passim), Warnicke (140), and Woods (Introduction, p. xxxi).

  8. If it is unclear from the context which of Lanyer's poems I am quoting, I parenthetically give before the line numbers either SD for ‘Salve Deus Rex Judæorum’, ‘CH’ for ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’, or a shortened title, such as ‘To the Ladie Lucie’.

  9. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, is an apt guide for women who seek other women's love through contemplation, study, and art. In Jorge de Montemayor's romance La Diana, for instance, the temple of Minerva near the river Duerus is the site of a yearly celebration in which young ‘Shepherdesses’ and ‘faire Nymphes’ from the neighbourhood gather, free from men, ‘to celebrate the feast, and to make merry with one another’ (p. 33). De Montemayor's depiction of the complicated relations between Selvagia and Ismenia, which involve ‘mutuall imbracings’ and ‘loving speeches to one another’, brings to the fore the homoeroticism of Minerva's shrine and festival.

  10. In his continuation of Christopher Marlowe's epyllion Hero and Leander, George Chapman makes a similar distinction between the two goddesses (see IV. 315-44). I am indebted to Claude Summers for this observation.

  11. Wiesner discusses at length the appeal of convents (as well as less-structured religious communities and anchoritic conditions) for women during and after the Reformation and the Tridentine reforms (pp. 192-201; see also Roper passim). Because, as Wiesner points out, the relative openness to women's writings and political involvement during the early years of the Protestant Reformation contrasted with a rapid vanishing of opportunities to publish and speak (pp. 186-9), it is not surprising that Lanyer turned to Catholic-inspired imagery as a way to express women's solidarity and power.

  12. The fact that Lanyer's father, Baptist Bassano, was a Venetian (Woods, ‘Introduction’, p. xv) and her husband, Alfonso Lanyer, a Roman Catholic (Coiro, p. 362), might suggest Lanyer's awareness of, and interest in, Catholic devotion. Lanyer's portrayal of the Virgin Mary—a figure who possesses particular resonance in Roman Catholicism—in the polyvalent roles of mother, wife, daughter, subject, servant, and nurse (SD, ll. 1023, 1087) may also indicate a fascination with opportunities to use religion in order to unsettle women's traditional, unitary identifications and desires. It is clear from ‘Salve Deus’ that Mary's lack of ‘desire’ for ‘any man’ symbolized for Lanyer the coupling of perfect virtue with absolute freedom from male tyranny (see SD, ll. 107-78).

  13. On Lanyer's Christ as feminine, see McGrath (pp. 342-3) and Mueller (‘Feminist Poetics’, p. 222).

  14. Richard Rambuss explores a similar bifurcation in critical responses to the poetry of seventeenth-century men such as John Donne, Richard Crashaw, and George Herbert. My reading of Lanyer's work accords with Rambuss's contention that readers should not ‘turn away from regarding the body as always at least potentially sexualized, as a truly polysemous surface where various significances and expressions—including a variety of erotic ones—compete and collude with each other in making the body meaningful’ (p. 268). Although Michael C. Schoenfeldt reads all eroticism in Donne and Herbert as heteroerotic, he also contributes to an understanding of the ways in which these poets meld the erotic and the religious.

  15. Christ, of course, also appears in Salve Deus as a humanized ‘man’ (e.g., the ‘good old man’, l. 1347). I am not arguing for the exclusivity of Christ's femininity or women's homoerotic appreciation; Lanyer's spiritual homoeroticism is but one vital way for women to love God and other women.

  16. Lanyer's feminization of the ungendered biblical raven (Song 5: 11) also contributes to her portrayal of Christ.

  17. See, for example, ‘To the Ladie Susan’ (l. 42), ‘To the Ladie Lucie’ (passim), and ‘To the Ladie Anne’ (ll. 118-20, 143). Though she does not note its erotic component, Mueller points to internalization as fundamental to Lanyer's religious devotion (‘Feminist Poetics’, p. 222).

  18. Achsah Guibbory's discussion of Donne's use of memory in The Anniversaries to ‘counter … the degenerative process of time’ (see pp. 88-95) helps one to understand Lanyer's own use of memory as an important restorative and, paradoxically, future-orientated faculty.

  19. Margaret's taking of Lanyer's hand when she guides her to the tree may echo Mary Sidney's offer to take Diana's hand in ‘The Authors Dreame’, a parallel that, by turning the poet into a Dianic figure herself, would similarly make her an eroticized protector of women.

Barbara E. Bowen (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Bowen, Barbara E. “The Rape of Jesus: Aemilia Lanyer's Lucrece.” In Marxist Shakespeares, edited by Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, pp. 104-27. London: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Bowen analyzes Lanyer's inclusion of a quote from Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece in the title poem of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.]

The terms of the national debate have subtly, insidiously shifted. What used to be called liberal is now called radical; what used to be called radical is now called insane.

(Tony Kushner, “American Things,” in Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, A Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer: 1995)

My question is how to recognize moments in early modern writing when revolutionary change is imagined. Without assuming that we know in advance what form that change would take or that its understanding of class, gender and other social relations would be automatically recognizable, I am struck by how difficult it has become to ask that question, particularly about women's writing. Everything from the supposed discrediting of communism in 1989 to the right-wing attacks on political correctness to the formation of Renaissance studies itself contributes to the inhibition we may feel in approaching the outlines of utopian desire or the possibility of collective struggle in early literature. It is significant that both cultural materialism and new historicism are more clear-sighted about the limits than the possibilities of radicalism in cultural texts: along with the bracing focus on the individual's encounter with ideology has come a shift of attention away from collective social movements and how they may be made thinkable by the deep grammar of literary texts. At the same time, Shakespeare studies, like other disciplines, has been deformed in the last decade by the restructuring of American higher education along neoliberal lines. Early modernists have yet to register how neoliberalism's substitution of a reified “market” for all other measures of value has left its imprint on the intellectual map of our field. We pay a price in loss of forward momentum for the collapse of the academic job system, which has removed a whole generation of young scholars from full-time work just at the moment when the field was being remade by feminism, queer studies and historicist scholarship. One casualty is the full critical attention that should be given to early women writers; another is the integration of the growing knowledge about women in the period into the study of canonical male authors, above all Shakespeare. As the traditional university melts into air, we face deepening epistemological loss: fewer and fewer questions about radical possibility will be asked if half a century of expansion in higher education is reversed and the university excludes the populations of students who have historically demanded and produced new knowledge.1

This essay is an attempt to concentrate attention on a radical political imaginary in early modern literature, recognizing that such a discussion is enabled by the work of the past two decades that it hopes in some ways to challenge. I want to start by taking seriously the proposition that the literature produced at the period of transition to capitalism would bear, in addition to the deep scars of consciousness that capitalism still delivers, some openings for resistance to its already visible oppressions, some imagining of collective agency.2 Important work on this subject has already been done by Rosemary Kegl and Richard Halpern, in very different books on the relation of Renaissance literature to the early formation of capitalism. My aim is to work, as they do, in the tradition of Lukács and Jameson, on the deepest reaches of literary form, but to extend the discussion to texts by women.

Women's writing is critical to such an inquiry, though not because it is automatically progressive or because it occupies a transparent political position. As is well known, women in early modern England were enjoined specifically from public speech, with the authority for the prohibition located in Genesis by Paul: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I permit not a woman to teache, nether to usurp autoritie over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, & was in the transgression” (Geneva Bible, 1969: 1 Tim. 2: 12-14). Thus even a woman who wrote “of divinest things,” as Aemilia Lanyer described herself (1993: 3), to some extent threatened a cornerstone of a system of subjugation based on the premise of women's inferiority to men. Whether violating one major tenet of an obscenely hierarchical society would have made women writers more likely to question others, or to understand their individual acts of resistance in relation to a larger system of oppression, are questions with which feminist criticism continues to wrestle.3 Kim Hall reminds us that the acquisition of what Elizabeth Cary called “public voice” fostered contradictory drives for English Protestant women: on the one hand, to consolidate one's own power at the expense of even more marginalized groups—such as servants, laborers, Turks, Africans or Jews—and on the other, to understand related structures of oppression more fully (1995: 178-82). Other recent feminist work has also stressed how carefully we need to theorize our assertions of the political in these texts: Margaret Ferguson's review essay (1994) is a seminal discussion of women's agency; critical also is the work of scholars of the Civil War period, who have argued that Renaissance women's writing might best be understood in a trajectory that looks beyond 1625 to the pre-Civil War escalation of publishing by women (Hinds 1996: 2-3).4 Thus while early women wrote from a variety of sometimes contradictory political positions, their writing remains a vital site for an inquiry into utopian expression or oppositional consciousness in the period. Positioned as radically speechless, these writers necessarily violated the prohibition that rendered them non-subjects, even when their class, religious or political affiliations dictated that they not understand their writing as a challenge to larger structures of oppression. And it seems likely that women's writing from the 1590s to the 1640s would bear especially vivid traces of epistemic violence and the will to overcome it, for this half-century formed a pressured interval during which the prohibition against public speech was still strongly in force but was increasingly being flouted. The decades of the emergence of a women's print culture in England—and I would argue that such a culture did begin to exist in the early seventeenth century5—make a claim on us as a locus of subjugated knowledge, if only because they gave women intellectual access to each other for the first time in spaces beyond the domestic and religious.

In The Rhetoric of Concealment, Rosemary Kegl studies four male authors and traces the power of rhetorical gesture to “make unimaginable any sort of collective struggle for social change” (1994b: 9). I want to ask what sort of rhetorical gestures might make collective struggle imaginable, or at least disrupt a political imaginary that actively engaged in preventing organized resistance to subordination by women of any social position and by the new sector of wage workers, who were both women and men. How could literary texts by women, for instance, allow women readers to understand their subordination as the result of a political structure in which they might have agency? Could literature offer a subject-position from which the shape of the emerging political economy was visible? Richard Strier, who also examines the space for radical politics in Renaissance literature but from a “post-Marxist” position, is nevertheless surely right when he says that accusations of ahistoricism are used to limit the political potential of literary readings (1995: 6); in a sense this essay courts the charge of ahistoricism in order to open up a more usable reading of women's writing within history, one that attempts, as Walter Mignolo writes, “to speak the present by theorizing the past” (1995: xiii).

My hope in this essay is to bring together the feminist impulse to clarify and enlarge our reading of early women with the Marxists' attention to literary form. I have argued elsewhere that despite the groundbreaking work on early modern women writers produced in the past few years (especially on Aemilia Lanyer, where the scholarship is very rich6), women's writing still tends to be read as if it were less complex, smaller, than it is. A more useful sense of the political work of these writings might follow from an expansion of the literary claims we are willing to make for them. What if we restored to women's writing the real drama of their reading? Imagine an analysis that assumed the woman writer's overdetermined encounter with the male-authored literary tradition, her full engagement with the debates of her time, her knowledge of male writers like Shakespeare but also Nashe, Christine de Pizan and Augustine, her curiosity about visual and musical traditions. Would an expanded sense of women writers' political thought emerge? This essay is a kind of thought-experiment in response to such questions: I am not interested at this stage in arguing in detail for Lanyer's knowledge of any one of the sources I shall cite, nor do I want to suggest that it would be simple to determine exactly what editions of earlier writers she might have had access to, even as a woman on the periphery of the court who was mistress to Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain. My aim is rather to discover whether another kind of reading of women writers is possible if we were to lift what I see as a form of self-censorship in our readings of their work.

The focus of my discussion will be a single line in Aemilia Lanyer's 1611 religious narrative poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in which is embedded a quotation from Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. I shall assume in approaching this passage that Lanyer had read every account of the Lucretia story available in seventeenth-century England—from Livy to Ovid to Salutati to Machiavelli to Christine de Pizan to Chaucer to Edward More; that she was aware of the history of controversy about Lucretia's suicide—a debate initiated by Augustine and vigorously taken up by Tyndale and other English Reformers—that she could offer a critique not only of Shakespeare's poem but of the tradition of representations of rape to which it belongs; that she might have known of the visual tradition of depictions of Lucretia; that she had read widely and deeply in the Calvinist passion narratives with which her poem is in dialogue; that she has a reason for invoking the story of the Roman matron who was raped and then committed suicide in the context both of the crucifixion and of her own volume's preoccupation with female solidarity and the arbitrariness of class; and that her poem has something to say about rape in early capitalist England, about the gendered body in pain, about the link between the crucifixion and rape, and about the connection between wounds to women's bodies and the possibility of female agency in transforming public, political life.

The reference to Shakespeare occurs at a pivotal moment in the account of Christ's passion that forms the center of Salve Deus; it marks the threshold of Lanyer's most transgressive revision of Christianity's master narrative.7 As a writer of Christianity's central mystery, and especially as a woman writer, Lanyer does not have the freedom to alter the story; instead she creates a counter-discourse, weaving in and out of the evangelical text a rich mix of addresses to women either biblical or contemporary, an undersong of allusion and quotation, and an explosion of female voice. Pilate's wife, mentioned only in Matthew, has to be a central character for such a project, for unlike the other women present at the passion, whose mute witness serves to validate male suffering, the wife of Pilate claims suffering as her own and transforms it into speech: “Have thou nothing to do with that juste man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dreame by reason of him” (Geneva Bible, 1560: Matt. 27: 19). Achsah Guibbory describes the speech Lanyer invents for Pilate's wife as an act of literary recovery, as if Lanyer were retrieving the words that “went unrecorded in Matthew … [and correcting] the silencing of women's words by the men who wrote the Gospels” (1998: 199). The appearance of Salve Deus in the same year as the King James Bible has led several critics, including Guibbory, to speculate on whether the poem is a conscious attempt to write a new Bible, undertaken as the Authorized Version was in progress—a deliberately unauthorized version, perhaps, dedicated pointedly to Queen Anne rather than overseen by the King. The “recovered” speech by Pilate's wife is famously a defense of Eve. As several readers of the poem have shown, the outline of the defense follows other contributions to the contemporary print debate about the virtue of women (Richey 1997: 106-28; Jordan 1990: 22-6, 122-7), but Lanyer's innovation is to put pressure on the meaning of the crucifixion through a re-reading of the Fall. The link between the two events is patriarchy: Pilate's wife names the Fall, at least as it is interpreted within Christian doctrine, as the source for the ideology of patriarchal oppression. With considerable psychological subtlety, she urges her husband not to condemn Jesus because it would mean the end of male supremacy: the crucifixion, she warns, will be the Fall of men.

Condemne not him that must thy Saviour be;
But view his holy Life, his good desert.
          Let not us Women glory in Mens fall,
          Who had power given to over-rule us all.
Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare.

(Lanyer 1993: 84)

Pilate is being asked to save male sovereignty, not to save Jesus: the wife's argument is that men will no longer be able to “over-rule us all” if one man commits an “indiscretion” so much greater than Eve's. The slippage in tense and voice here is critical—“Till now your indiscretion sets us free.” A certain fluidity of syntax is not unusual in Lanyer, but the apparent illogic of this passage bears close investigation. Readers of the poem have argued over whether the voice here is Pilate's wife's or the poet's own, whether the time period jumps into the present or remains in the biblical past. For if the condemnation of Jesus leads to the freedom of women, then the liberation should already have happened: “the fact that [Lanyer] is also writing in seventeenth-century England and protesting the continued subjection of women suggests that Christ's redemption … has yet to be enacted on earth,” as Guibbory writes (1998: 201). She explains the paradox by suggesting that Lanyer anticipates some of the radicalism of the Civil War Protestants; this seems clearly right, especially when we see in a few lines that Lanyer, like the Quakers, envisions sexual equality as the prelapsarian condition (“let us have our Libertie againe”). But Guibbory attributes Lanyer's radicalism finally to Christianity's own “revolutionary spirit” (1998: 201). I would argue instead that the paradox of the liberation in the past that remains in the future points to something like Juliet Mitchell's “longest revolution”: the knowledge of defeat that accompanies this expression of utopian desire is part of the story Salve Deus wants to tell.

Although provocative and even facetious defenses of Eve had been a feature of gender controversy writing since the 1540s,8 there is nothing playful in Salve Deus's assertion that Adam, not Eve, “was most too blame” (85). In the first dedication to the poem, Lanyer draws attention to “faire Eves apologie” and challenges the reader “To judge if it agree not with the Text” (6). Her poem is a serious exercise in exegesis. Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford's history of early modern women reminds us of what was at stake: “The Genesis narrative was understood not only as a symbolic representation of gender roles in marriage and the family, but as a concrete event in the past which accounted for women's loss of power and independence in the secular world” (1998: 33): to revise it was to rewrite history and challenge the text that supported an immense architecture of subordination. The argument in Matthew for Christ's innocence here becomes an argument for Eve's, with the substitution of a woman for a man presaging the more radical substitution to come. Heretically and spectacularly, Pilate's wife compares the excusable transgression of Eve—committed out of “ignorance,” desire for “knowledge” and “too much love” for Adam (84-6)—to the unforgivable sin about to be committed by Pilate:

          Her weaknesse did the Serpents words obay;
          But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.
Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether trie,
By all their sinnes the wrath of God to get;
          This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
          As doth the Sunne, another little starre.
Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
          If one weake woman simply did offend,
          This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

With the claim that the crucifixion is a gendered crime, committed by men, and a greater crime than Eve's, Lanyer's poem repudiates the entire exegetical tradition. Yet the poem's revisionary project extends further. The pace of allusion quickens as Salve Deus reaches its central moment, and Lanyer's text not only reads Scripture against itself but rewrites the language of secular verse. That the two literary traditions share a masculinist rhetoric and support each other in undergirding what Lanyer calls “tyranny” is one of the poem's most far-reaching insights. The connection emerges in the final couplet of the passage, which includes a quotation from Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. In Shakespeare the phrase occurs as Tarquin argues with himself about whether to go through with the rape of Lucrece, the wife of his fellow soldier and friend, Collatinus:

‘Had Collatinus killed my son or sire,
Or lain in ambush to betray my life,
Or were he not my dear friend, this desire
Might have excuse to work upon his wife
As in revenge or quittal of such strife.
          But as he is my kinsman, my dear friend,
          The shame and fault finds no excuse nor end.’

(Shakespeare 1997b: ll. 232-8)

No excuse nor end: the phrase sounds as if it might be proverbial, but extensive inquiry has not been able to find any reference to it as a proverb. Even if the expression were found to be proverbial, however, Lanyer's positioning of the phrase makes it clear that her poem is remembering Shakespeare's, which was widely circulated after 1594 and had been reprinted four times before the publication of Salve Deus in 1611.9 She places the phrase in exactly the same position Shakespeare does—at the end of a couplet that concludes a stanza—and within a line whose rhythm and pattern of monosyllables precisely mirrors his.10 Her ottava rima stanzas simultaneously veer away from and recall Shakespeare's seven-line rhyme royal in Lucrece. Quotation in Lanyer is never casual; Salve Deus is a profoundly citational text, as self-conscious an appropriation of Scripture as Paradise Lost. The whole project of the poem is revisionary, thus every allusion, especially one at this extraordinary break in exegetical orthodoxy, demands attention. The turn in Lanyer's line away from The Rape of Lucrece, enacted in the substitution of second-person plural address (“This sinne of yours” rather than “The shame and fault”) marks a distance from Shakespeare and creates the space for a new political imaginary.

The moment Lanyer quotes from Lucrece depicts the male rapist hesitating to commit the crime not because of its effect on Lucrece but because of his political and affiliative ties to another man. As Nancy Vickers has shown (1985: 95-115), rape in Shakespeare's poem, like the crucifixion in Lanyer, is a negotiation between men: rape is the punishment women incur for being praised by men; its result and its goal is women's silence.11 Lanyer is in a sense the anti-Lucrece; she breaks the silence and speaks Lucrece's part, which is drowned out in Shakespeare by Lucrece's concern with the pollution of her husband and then displaced in the long meditation on Hecuba. That Lanyer borrows the voice of the rapist, however, for her condemnation of the crucifixion suggests the delicate negotiation in her text with the rhetorical traditions for the representation of violence. Debora Shuger's analysis of the contemporary passion sermons shows how these texts interpellate the (male) reader to identify with the torturers as well as the tortured Christ (1994: 89-127); by inviting the reader here to identify with the voice of Tarquin, as spoken by Lanyer's female character, Salve Deus reveals a similar process at work in narratives of rape. Through what Lorna Hutson calls “the incriminating display of the female body” (1992: 168), fictions of rape present the female victim as erotic object even as the reader is asked to condemn the rapist: Lucretia, in Stephanie Jed's phrase, “has returned innumerable times to the witness stand to describe, to a jury of humanistic readers and writers, the experience of things a man did to her body” (1989: 4). Lanyer's double-voiced character—at once the rapist Tarquin and the feminist wife of Pilate—exposes the contradictions in the subject-position offered by traditional narratives of rape and suggests that the same position may be offered to the male reader of the passion. If one project of the poem is to free the discourse of rape from the masculinist rhetoric of display, another—equally urgent—is to reimagine the passion for women.

The stanza in which the line from Lucrece is embedded starts with a call for the end of female subordination and ends with a reference to rape; not only does it insinuate that the violation of Lucretia is a crime of the same magnitude as the crucifixion, it connects women's loss of liberty to their inscription in a rape culture. If male “Sov'raigntie” is maintained ideologically by reliance on the story of Eve, it is maintained physically and institutionally by rape. The buried narrative of Lucretia, surfacing at the one moment in the poem where the speaker directly names women's subordination and men's agency in perpetuating it, allows Salve Deus to connect a political economy that subordinates women to the apparently individual act of sexualized violence. Now, twenty-five years after Susan Brownmiller's Against our Will, the relation between rape and patriarchy as a political system may seem obvious, but it was deeply occluded in early modern English culture. Other early women writers, notably Christine de Pizan, Marguerite de Navarre and Gaspara Stampa, had developed resistant readings of the patriarchal discourse of rape,12 and as we shall see, the legal definition of the crime was beginning to shift in ways that suggested an awareness of the systematic oppression of women, but Lanyer is aiming for something different here: the passage both implicates rape within patriarchy and moves toward a political imaginary in which resistance to patriarchy is possible.

For the rape of Lucretia, as Stephanie Jed's work has made us aware, is a political story as much as a sexual one. In her book Chaste Thinking Jed shows that the story of Lucretia was “a founding myth of liberty” for Renaissance humanism: just as the murder of Jesus allowed for the establishment of Christianity, so Lucretia's rape and subsequent suicide were understood to have prompted the expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome and enabled the establishment of the Roman republic (1989: 5). Lucretia was constructed as the sacrificial victim whose willingly accepted death ushers in a new order; her violation became for Florentine humanists the Benjaminian document of barbarism that made Roman, and later, their own culture possible. In versions that came down to the Renaissance from Livy and Ovid, the legend unravels the mystery of how political change is possible: the overthrow of tyrants by citizens can occur only in the aftermath of sexual violence. Like the story of the Fall, the rape of Lucretia is an attempt to explain the inexplicable through domestic narrative. Rome had been under Etruscan occupation and was ruled by Tarquin, who, as Shakespeare writes in the Argument to his poem, “had possessed himself of the kingdom … contrary to the Roman laws and customs, not requiring or staying for the people's suffrages.” Shakespeare drops almost all interest in the political meaning of the events in the poem itself, but the Argument makes the key connection between the woman and the city. Raped by the son of the king, Lucretia becomes a figure for Rome under occupation; her “liberation” through suicide presages and enables the liberation of Rome.

It is Jed's purpose to show how deeply the liberationist reading of the legend of Lucretia is entwined in the consolidation of absolutist patriarchal power in Renaissance Florence. When I suggest that the liberatory meanings of the story are in play for Lanyer, I do not mean to imply that the historical transition to a slave republic in Rome was anything like a revolution in the Marxist sense. But I would argue that the tradition of reading this story as a prologue to a liberatory political change, available to an early modern English reader in versions from Machiavelli, Salutati and others, was a critical part of its appeal for Lanyer. It is significant that Salve Deus voices an indictment of rape culture through a narrative that has historically been read to mean that oppressive political systems can be challenged by violent collective struggle. Consider again how Pilate's wife ends her defense of Eve: “If one weake woman simply did offend, / This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.” But the speech does not stop there; the next two lines are for me the political hinge of the poem:

To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all.


This is the most radical expression of female solidarity in Salve Deus, and significantly it is the point where the poet's own voice has most often been heard within or above the wife's. Who is telling Pilate to “witness”? Is it the wife's own voice that speaks of herself in the third person and calls for her husband to occupy the traditionally female role of witness while she seizes the role of speaker? Or is it the poet's voice, calling to her character to be more attentive and to her audience to focus on this central moment of the poem? Answers to these questions are less important than the claim to speak for all. The passage argues that while women never consented to the crucifixion they have a collective interest in voicing their dissent. Without being a blueprint for social struggle, the lines plant an image of female collectivity in the center of the poem and at the height of its engagement with a narrative of political change. Perhaps what we hear in the urgency of the plea to Pilate is the desire for rather than the achievement of collectivity; even so, the importance of this passage, coming where it does after a call for freedom, is its suggestion that gender functions as a political identity and that it can form the basis for collective action.13

But what would it have meant in the early years of the seventeenth century to imagine political action in the name of women or even to think about rape? These are questions that obviously need longer discussion than I can provide here, but recent scholarship suggests that the truism about women's lack of agency in the political sphere needs to be re-examined. Mendelson and Crawford remind us “that women's expressions of political consciousness were unlikely to be noted in official documents unless such women were considered unusually threatening by authorities”; they discuss a range of forms women's political action did take: claiming participatory rights such as voting; proselytizing as some Leveller women did for separatist congregations; engaging in “mass political movements,” during the 1640s and 1650s; conducting and sometimes leading public protests as both women and workers (1998: 146-7). Displaced from the land by enclosure and starved by the spiraling inflation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women were particularly active in the series of enclosure and grain “riots” that accompanied England's entrance into capitalist modernity. Women were present, as John Walter has established, “in almost every food riot in the period, and some riots were exclusively feminine affairs” (1980: 62). The largest recorded participation of women in popular protest in the period was in 1629 in Essex, where they responded to famine by drawing on their own informal networks and shared knowledge—as well as their ambiguous position under the law—to effect political change. Enraged by the government's refusal to protect local grain markets and the freedom of foreign merchants to buy up English grain for export, a hundred women from several local towns convened with their children on a Flemish ship and forced its crew to fill the women's caps and aprons with the grain intended for export. The authorities responded by arranging for some distribution of grain and imposing only mild punishment on the women. Three months later one of the participants, Ann Carter, had begun to call herself Captain Carter and was touring the local clothmaking towns to gather support from unemployed male workers for another assault on a mercantilist grain ship. This time there was a crowd of three hundred, men as well as women, and the reaction was different: Carter and three men were hanged (Walter 1980: 52-64). That women from different towns could act together, however, and that they understood famine not as a natural condition but as a result of political policy suggests both a broader definition of politics than has traditionally been assumed and a stronger possibility that gender was being mobilized as a public identity. Dorothy Berry, one of the protestors, when asked by local authorities who had incited her to riot, replied, “the Crie of the Countrey and hir owne want” (Essex ROD/B3/208, no. 14, quoted in Walter 1980: 54).

Whether rape was normally understood in terms of gender identity is less clear: Salve Deus is ahead of the period's emerging discourse on women's legal rights in its examination of rape in the context of patriarchy. The closest analog is probably The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights, a 1632 guide to the law for women, which begins with a list of the consequences of what it calls “Adams sinne” (“that Women have no voyse in Parliament, They make no Lawes, they consent to none”), and ends with an analysis of rape. The discussion centers on the distinction between “rape”—what we would call abduction—and “ravishment,” a crime of sexual violation but not theft. It defines ravishment as “a hideous hatefull kinde of whoredome in him which committeth it, when a woman is enforced violently to sustaine the furie of brutish concupiscence: but she is left where she is found, as in her owne house or bed, as Lucrece was” ([Edgar?] 1632: 377-8).14 The distinction between rape and ravishment began to appear in English law only in 1555; until then the rape statutes recognized little difference between the abduction of property and the abduction of a woman. The severity of the punishments for rape (still a capital offense in the seventeenth century) was the result of a need to protect the property of the ruling class, not to safeguard women; as late as 1487 the law on rape articulated that women were “like Goods, oftentimes taken by Misdoers,” and served to protect families in which the daughters chose to marry men not sanctioned by their fathers.15 The tension expressed in The Lawes Resolutions between women's status as property and their status as persons points to a deeper fissure in the conception of female subjectivity, one that is at issue both in the legal text and in Salve Deus. As a crime that depends on the acknowledgement of a woman's “capacity to give consent or exercise will” (Hartman 1997: 79), rape produces a legal and ontological crisis in a culture that grants agency to women only selectively. Lanyer's invocation of rape in the same breath as her call to restore women's “Libertie” suggests a reconceptualization of female agency, one that does not depend on women's consent being violated in order to assert that it exists.

During Lanyer's lifetime rape as a crime of non-consensual sexual intercourse was nearly invisible in the legal system, except for the spectacular case of the Earl of Castlehaven in the 1630s: during the entire reign of Elizabeth, for example, the Sussex assize courts handled only 14 rapes, compared to 1,000 cases of larceny and 100 of murder. The conviction rate for rape was also extremely low, especially when the victim was not a child: whereas 80 per cent of people tried for burglary in Kent in the second half of the sixteenth century were found guilty, only 20 per cent of the rape trials resulted in convictions. Rape is not absent from the legal record, however, but it most often appears as the hidden narrative in other cases—frequently when a woman is sued for defaming a man's character—and most often in cases involving women in domestic service.16 Richard Halpern writes that “the capitalist state secures and reproduces political dominion precisely by not exercising violence or class power, save in exceptional circumstances, and by limiting the right of others to do so. If this is a form of power, it nevertheless lacks points of application or surfaces of transmission” (1991: 7). Rape may be the exception to this theory of relative autonomy, because at least in this period it did provide a surface for transmission of power, as the class of women displaced from the land and forced to work as servants was policed both by the threat of sexual violence from their “masters,” and by sexual violence itself. We are just beginning to understand the routine use of sexual violence within relations of domestic service: Miranda Chaytor's research has shown how frequently women's rape narratives cite the interruption of their work rather than the harm to their bodies or psyches as the damage done by rape. Women's honor, Chaytor writes, was “metaphorically transposed from the sexual body to the body that worked” (1995: 404). How visible this history would have been to a woman of Lanyer's class is difficult to determine, but Lanyer's own experience as the public mistress of a powerful man might well have sensitized her to the sexual abuses of service.

If the social history of rape in early modern England, as one historian has recently argued, “could be described as a non-history, a history of absence” (Walker 1998: 1), the literary history, though extensive, exhibits its own form of silence and displacement. Lucretia was a signal figure in the discursive and visual traditions of rape, but the rape itself is often occluded—as it is in Shakespeare—and replaced by meditations on chastity or suicide. That Lucretia's story could be told as an example of heroic female suffering rather than sexual violation is a key to its appeal as the canonical account of rape, and at the same time to its reappearance as a tale of sainthood or even crucifixion. Lanyer was not the first to see in Lucretia's rape/suicide an image of the crucifixion, and while she may not have been aware of all the developments that preceded her—though I don't want to foreclose that possibility yet—it is clear that her invocation of Lucretia within the passion is part of a hermeneutic tradition. One starting point might be Augustine's acid question: “If she is an adulteress, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?” (quoted in Donaldson 1982: 28, from City of God, Bk. 1, chap. 26). Augustine's unwillingness to accept as heroic a woman who survived a rape lies behind one of the two competing interpretive traditions around her legend; as Ian Donaldson shows in The Rapes of Lucretia, the tradition that venerated Lucretia as an emblem of chastity was countered by an almost equally vigorous one that derided her as an example of immorality. Tyndale wrote in 1528 that Lucretia's death was attributable not to chastity but to pride—which “God more abhoreth than the whoredom of any whore”—while writers of legends of good women debated whether her death might have been a holy sacrifice. The interpretive conflict is made explicit in George Rivers's 1639 book The Heroinae: in a section entitled “Contra Lucrecia” he wonders whether “in the nick of the act” she yielded “to some secret enticement [that] might staine her thought”; while in “Pro Lucrecia” he writes that at the moment of her death, “her soule too pure for her bodie, diclogg'd it self of clay, and broke the vault of all mortalitie” (56-7). The elevation of Lucretia continues in the work of the Jesuit Pierre Le Moyne: in his 1647 poem “Lucrece parle” Lucretia offers the Christ-like explanation that she has to die many times in paintings to convince unbelievers of her death (1647: 169). More suggestively, Le Moyne meditates on Lucretia's wound in terms that are instantly evocative of Christ's passion (1647: 165): “son innocence et la pureté de son coeur se voyent par la playe: et sa playe luy est comme une nouvelle bouche, qui crie aux yeux, et persuade en silence” (“her innocence and the purity of her heart are revealed by the wound, and the wound itself is like a new mouth, that cries out to the eye and silently persuades”). Compare this to a poem like Crashaw's “On the wounds of our crucified lord,” where the trope is used, more conventionally, for Jesus.

O these wakefull wounds of thine!
Are they Mouthes? or are they eyes?
Be they Mouthes, or be they eyne,
Each bleeding part some one supplies.

(Crashaw 1972: 11, 1-4)17

The terror and beauty of Christ's wound—which renders his body open, expressive, penetrable, generative—supplies one of the links between his death and Lucretia's. The need for a female sacrificial figure, an analog to the rich portrayals of St. Sebastian and even to Christ, supplies another. The parallel is developed most explicitly in the visual tradition, where male Renaissance and Baroque artists exhibit the same double vision of Lucretia as the Rivers Heroinae, but with the added urgency of finding a visual language for rape. “The actual portrayal of rape can best be understood as a form of visual taboo,” writes Brigitte Beuttner in a study of illustrations of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus: “as such, it is bound up with cultural thresholds that established what was acceptable, or not, for representation” (1996: 40).18 Although there are important sixteenth-century depictions of Lucretia that focus on the rape itself, such as Titian's of 1551, even these portray the moment just before the sexual violation, as Lucretia struggles to resist Tarquin's advances. In the “monologic” treatments of the subject that followed the discovery of a Roman statue of Lucretia in the early sixteenth century, suicide and rape tend to be collapsed into a single moment, and Lucretia is regularly represented in the nude (Hults 1991: 215). The nudity, however, makes her available as both object of desire and symbol of heroic Christian martyrdom. Lucas Cranach's thirty-five versions of the subject in the mid-sixteenth century test the limits of the voyeuristic approach; in his paintings of a seductive, nearly-nude Lucretia, rape and suicide are suggested simultaneously, the knife blade poised at Lucretia's breast standing in for the rapist. In Cranach's Lucretia paintings rape becomes seduction, even masturbation, and the viewer, imagined as heterosexual and male, is invited to understand the female body as penetrable. While Cranach's fascination with the image gave rise to some of its most startling, compressed depictions, the more somber versions by Dürer and Raphael were influential throughout early modern Europe. Linda Hults's important article on Dürer's 1518 Suicide of Lucretia shows that his depiction of a solitary, unseductive female figure, strangely unmoved by the blade she is about to insert in her side, recalls the image of the virgin saint (1991: 224). Hults also speculates that Dürer may have known and been influenced by Cornelius Agrippa's De nobilitate et praecellentia sexus foeminei, a strong candidate for the source for Lanyer's defense of Eve, which was circulating in manuscript in the same circles in which Dürer was working on his panel (1991: 230).

Probably the most widely known version in the period, however, was Raphael's, which was based on the Roman statue and achieved currency throughout Europe in the form of Raimondi's much copied 1510 engraving (Shoemaker and Brown 1981). Donaldson, Hults and others have argued convincingly for the reference to the crucifixion in this beautiful image; “As odd as it seems,” Hults remarks, “Lucretia was often compared to Christ” (1991: 224). For Donaldson, the engraving “daringly summons up a central Christian image,” its outstretched arms reminiscent of arms in the crucifixion, its expression of “surrender rather than self-destruction” evocative of Christ's death (1982: 27). The paired woodcuts produced the following year by Hans Baldung Grien, Dürer's star pupil, may represent a reading of the Raimondi engraving. Baldung makes the Lucretia/Christ parallel inescapable: Lucretia is given an inscription above her head to match the “Ecce Homo” of Christ; her eyes, like his, focus away from her body, as if she had no part in her own stabbing; her halo of hair echoes his crown of thorns. The strangest detail is the binding of her wrist, for which there is no support in the narrative; it must be designed to link her to Christ, but also perhaps to imply that she was restrained during the rape and thus innocent of adultery.

In all of these representations, the key passage is the wound, which in Dürer's 1518 panel is placed exactly in the traditional position of Christ's, on the right side. Completely gratuitous in the story of the crucifixion and inflicted after Christ had already died, the wound renders the body of Jesus, like Lucretia's, radically open in extremis. “But when they came to Jesus, and sawe that he was dead alreadie, they brake not his legges. But one of the souldiers with a speare perced his side, & forthwith came ther out blood and water … For these things were done, that the Scripture shulde be fulfilled … Scripture saith, Thei shal se him whome thei have thrust through” (Geneva Bible, 1560: John 19: 32-4). The mysterious image of blood and water may well lie behind Shakespeare's puzzling account of the blood flowing from Lucrece's body after death: “And bubbling from her breast, it doth divide / In two slow rivers” (1736-7). Lanyer's allusion to Lucrece may thus represent a subtle reading of Shakespeare, even a tribute to The Rape of Lucrece, at the same time as it registers opposition to Shakespeare's poetics of rape.19 For Lucrece, the wound in the side takes the place of the unrepresentable wound of rape, for Christ it suggests the abjection and the power of his body under torture.

If Salve Deus expands the meaning of the passion—in part through troubling the issue of Christ's gender, in part through reading the crucifixion as a scene of sexual violation—it joins deep currents within Christian devotion and contemporary spirituality. As Caroline Walker Bynum's work has shown, Christian thought had long included the idea of a feminized, nurturing Christ—the Jesus as mother who appears frequently in late medieval affective spirituality (1982). A hybridity of gender also surfaces in medieval and early modern understandings of the crucifixion, as the disturbing openness of the body on the cross suggests both male and female, both strength and vulnerability. The eroticism of this expressive masculine body for a male reader had also been explored in the devotional literature, especially in the ecstatic poetry of Lanyer's male contemporaries: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan and Traherne. Reading Lanyer as part of the “experimental expressive project” (Rambuss 1998: 1) of seventeenth-century religious poetry, rather than within the category “woman writer,” has the immediate effect of liberating our analysis: it becomes clear that her invocation of rape contributes to and extends an existing dialogue on the eroticism of the passion. For male writers of Reformation passion narratives, as Debra Shuger has brilliantly argued, the crucifixion's terrifying spectacle of “the destruction of manhood” (1994: 96) prompted a discursive crisis of masculinity which it was the project of the passion narrative to manage. That the story of Christ's death was a primary site for the invention of subjectivity is a central insight of recent work on medieval and Renaissance passions; Shuger illustrates how male subjectivity is at stake in the work of Calvinist writers such as Joseph Hall, Nicholas Breton and Thomas Nashe, who emphasize simultaneously the degradation of Christ's body and the power of his oppressors.

Lanyer's occupation of a different narrative position in Salve Deus, one that insistently identifies with the crucified Christ and never with the torturer, represents an effort to reconceive the crisis of subjectivity in the passion for a female readership. Her volume is emphatically addressed to women in a series of eleven dedicatory epistles, and the idealized female reader Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, is figured throughout the poem. As many of Lanyer's critics have stressed, female readership is inscribed throughout Salve Deus. The immediate occasion for the poem is a property battle over a woman's right to inherit land in which Clifford and her daughter notoriously engaged for over forty years: the passion is offered as consolation for her loss and mirror of her suffering at the hands of an evil world.20 If the male passion narratives of the seventeenth century attempt to recover from the contemplation of “this figure of abject vulnerability” (Shuger 1994: 99) by offering consoling visions of Christ as knight or as the Bridegroom of Canticles, Salve Deus presents wholeness and heroism in a contemporary woman alongside rich images of female collectivity: the community of women readers, an allegorical vision of the Countess of Pembroke surrounded by nymphs and enshrined with Art and Nature, the closing lyric on Clifford's country house, an all-female world of learning and virtue. In Salve Deus there is none of the attraction to violence that characterizes the Reformation passion narratives by men; Lanyer's poem refuses to dwell on the brutality of the crucifixion because it locates power elsewhere—in the repudiation of patriarchal hermeneutics, in the existence of alternative forms of social organization, in the possibility of collective oppositional voice. (Pilate's wife “speakes for all” women; Dorothy Berry hears “the Crie of the Countrey.”) Salve Deus is among other things a passion for women: it finds in the crucifixion a model for female heroism and suffering, an epic whose hero assumes the traditional feminine role and where passion rather than action constitutes the heroic.21 But it is also part of an early feminist imaginary that hopes to find something beyond suffering as the space of female agency: Salve Deus unlocks a deep discourse of struggle as well as critique when it allows the woman's raped body to irrupt into the sacred scene of the crucifixion.

Lanyer's own site of struggle, and one that she imagines as a radically collective project, may be expressive culture. Her poem is as much engaged with the traditions of representing rape as it is with rape itself; its angriest moments occur when it takes on the masculinist literary tradition in which rape has been articulated. There is a second allusion to The Rape of Lucrece in Salve Deus, and it directs us toward what Saidiya Hartman calls “the discourse of seduction”: the institutions of culture that protect male violence against women under the name “seduction,” and that locate women's value in a “beauty” that makes them rapable (1997: 81). For Lanyer the sign of this discourse is the obsessive poetics of red and white: she enunciates her own poetic ambitions by attacking the conventional praise for women's complexions and arguing for an alternative, inner quality, for which she can find only the name “virtue.” The passage in which she cites Shakespeare's red and white is also the only moment in her poem that directly names Lucrece; both references are part of an assertion of what her poem is not that allows her finally to express what it is.

The reference to Shakespeare summons up the opening moments of The Rape of Lucrece, as a blazoning contest leaves Tarquin inflamed with lust for “Lucrece the chaste.” Collatinus, the husband of Lucrece, makes the mistake of boasting that his wife possesses the impossible combination of beauty and virtue:

Haply that name of “chaste” unhaply set
This bateless edge on his keen appetite,
When Collatine unwisely did not let
To praise the clear unmatched red and white
Which triumphed in that sky of his delight.

(Shakespeare 1997b: ll 8-12)

Lanyer directly answers this opening passage before she allows us to read her account of the passion. In a passage described in the marginal gloss as “An Invective against outward beuty unaccompanied with virtue,” the poet announces:

That outward Beautie which the world commends,
Is not the subject I will write upon,
As for those matchlesse colors Red and White,
Or perfit features in a fading face,
Or due proportion pleasing to the sight,
All these doe draw but dangers and disgrace.


Given her poem's interest in The Rape of Lucrece, the sharp phrase, “As for those matchlesse colors Red and White,” appears to be an answer to Shakespeare's “unmatched red and white,” the words that introduce one of the organizing tropes of his poem. Red and white are woven in and out of the fabric of Lucrece, personified as beauty and virtue in the “heraldry” of Lucrece's blushing face, and invoked in the metaphor of the “white fleece” that stands in for the action of the rape itself. By quoting—and contesting—the first appearance of the colors in Lucrece, Lanyer signals her oppositional reading of Shakespeare's poem and its project of displaying the woman's raped body.22 The blazoning of Lucrece's red and white, Lanyer suggests, leads directly to her rape (“All these do draw but dangers and disgrace”); her project is to find a language for beauty that delinks it from violence.

Immediately afterwards, Lucrece herself appears:

Twas Beautie bred in Troy the ten yeares strife,
And carried Hellen from her lawfull Lord;
Twas Beautie made chaste Lucrece loose her life,
For which prowd Tarquins fact was so abhorr'd.


Helen, Lucrece and then Cleopatra—three of the primary classical female exempla—are followed in the next few stanzas by the two women from English history, Rosamund and Matilda, and finally by Christ. Both of the English historical figures had been the subject of male literary works in the 1590s—Samuel Daniel's Complaint of Rosamund in 1592, and Michael Drayton's Matilda in 1594—and all three of the classical women had appeared in numerous plays and poems in the preceding years—Heywood's Lucrece as well as Shakespeare's poem, Mary Sidney's Tragedy of Antonie, Chapman's Homer and others. These are women whose lives were ruined by beauty as it is defined in the masculinist rhetoric of Petrarch and of Shakespeare's Lucrece. Now it becomes clear why Lanyer quoted the lines in Shakespeare's poem where the rapist names the reason he will not rape Lucrece; in part her aim is to stop the action before it can go forward to its Shakespearean conclusion, to write another ending for the story. Lanyer's own literary project is voiced in the lines that follow the list of women represented in men's writing: “His Death and Passion I desire to write.” Her “taske of Beauty” (108), as she calls it near the end of the poem, is to discover a way to write womanhood outside of the discourse that has positioned male readers with the rapist; she seeks to disrupt what Jed describes as “our own agency in making this rape occur over and over again” (1989: 6). Lanyer's Muse is Icarus, whose “poore Infant Verse must soare aloft,” where it will no doubt fly too close to the sun, “Where thou wilt perish in thine own desire” (63). If the Muse does not perish, however, Salve Deus will have succeeded in finding a language in which women can be loved without being objectified, and the only language for that she knows is the celebration of Christ's body on the cross.

Rape in literary texts, write the editors of Rape and Representation, appears over and over “as an absence or gap that is both product and source of textual anxiety, contradiction, or censorship” (Higgins and Silver 1991: 3). Elaine Scarry has argued that pain is both unsharable and inexpressible because it is “resistant to language” (1987: 4). What if Lanyer were inventing a language for pain, specifically for the female body in pain and subject to the invisible wound of rape? “His joynts dis-joynted, and his legges hang down, / His alabaster breast, his bloody side, / … Anguish and Pain doe all his Sences drowne” (101). I am proposing that Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is a work about rape and the historical representation of rape at as deep a level as it is a work about the crucifixion. But I would also suggest that the articulation of pain and the projection of bodily disintegration onto a male sacrificial victim enables the female subject to imagine political agency. The legal theorist Drucilla Cornell claims in The Imaginary Domain that the first necessary condition for “the chance to transform ourselves into individuated beings who can participate in public and political life as equal citizens is bodily integrity” (1995: 4).23Salve Deus is an imaginative restoration of bodily integrity to women and others who are dispossessed—as a precondition for entrance into public life, political struggle.


  1. I am indebted to Anthony O'Brien's invocation of Marx in a discussion of university restructuring that “is being made to seem like capitalist modernity itself” in The New Caucus Response to the Schmidt Report (1999).

  2. See Halpern for a provocative discussion of the way “the absolutist state anticipated the forms of a more advanced capitalist state and thus created many of the juridical, political, and even economic presuppositions of capital” (1991: 10). Without entering into the debate on transition here, I refer to what Rosemary Kegl, thinking of Marx, calls “the long tradition of understanding sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England as, in some way, a transitional period” (1994b: 179).

  3. I am drawing here on Kegl's sense of what is missing from “pro-women” writers of the period: “they argue that Renaissance women's subordination tended not to be experienced as oppression, and that gender tended not to serve as a political identity—particularly as an identity that might organize any sort of collective politics” (1994b: 9).

  4. Among the many important commentaries on the political valences of Renaissance women's writing are the comprehensive studies by Lamb (1990), Krontiris (1992), Hobby (1988) and Lewalski (1993).

  5. For discussions of the emergence of a women's print culture, see Sanders (1998) and Wall (1993).

  6. For a comprehensive listing of this scholarship, see Nelson (1998). My understanding of Lanyer is indebted to the whole range of work cited by Nelson, although the discussion that follows will be able to make only some of these debts explicit.

  7. In an earlier article on Lanyer I mention the reference to The Rape of Lucrece but focus on other issues in her work (Bowen 1999: 278-9).

  8. The most playful and original of the defenses of Eve in the gender controversy is Cornelius Agrippa's De nobilitate et praecellentia sexus foeminei (1509). For a range of other defenses, see Woodbridge (1984: 18-48).

  9. Lucrece, as the first edition was titled, was first printed in 1594. Other editions quickly followed: one in 1598, two in 1600 and one in 1607. Not until the 1616 edition, however, did the title-page read The Rape of Lucrece, although the phrase had appeared as the running-title as early as the first edition. For a discussion of early editions, see F. T. Prince in Shakespeare (1976: xii-xiii). Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was entered in the Stationers' Register on October 2, 1610, and, as Susanne Woods argues (Lanyer 1993: xlvii), probably printed that year, even though the first edition is dated 1611. Internal evidence suggests that the final, pastoral section of Lanyer's poem was written after February 1609, although there is no firm date for the composition of the passion narrative.

  10. I am not, of course, suggesting any particular agon on Lanyer's part with Shakespeare, certainly not a biographical connection, nor am I arguing that she singled him out for contestation among the other numerous contemporary writers she quotes. Lanyer's most spectacular revision is not of Shakespeare but of the Gospels. On the canard of Lanyer as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, see Woods in Lanyer (1993: xxx) and Bevington (1998: 10-28).

  11. For other important feminist readings of the poem, see Kahn (1976, 1991). Throughout, I am working with Diane Wolfthal's definition of rape as “a crime in which one person forces another to engage in sexual intercourse” (1999: 2), although it will be important to my argument that men as well as women can be raped.

  12. On transformations of the Ovidian myth of Philomela as a site for rethinking the representation of rape, see Jones (1991: 263-77). For Marguerite de Navarre's sustained attention to rape in the Heptaméron, see Cholakian (1991) and Freccero (1991). Christine de Pizan's commentary on rape occurs in the course of her discussion of Lucretia; for a discussion, see Gravdal (1991).

  13. See Jean Howard (1991: 305-11) for an argument that in the early modern period gender could provide a basis for women's affiliation, alliance and sometimes political action.

  14. On the history and authorship of this work, see Prest (1991). Many other contemporary legal treatises include discussions of rape; see, for instance, Dalton, The Countrey Justice (1635): “to ravish a woman where shee doth neither consent before nor after; or to ravish any woman with force, though she do consent after, it is a felony … Now Ravishment is here taken in one and the same signification with Rape, which is a violent deflowring of a woman, or a carnall knowledge had of the body of a woman, against her will” (281). Despite the sophistication of this discussion of women's sexual consent, Dalton also includes the commonplace that “[i]f a woman … do conceive with childe by the Ravisher, this is no Rape, for a woman cannot conceive with childe except she do consent” (281).

  15. The most sustained treatment of the subject is Bashar (1983). See also Post (1978).

  16. See Gowing's discussion of the suit against Susan Turton for defamation, brought by her master in 1624: “she was sometymes out of breath to resiste him and [he] did throwe her upon a bed and strived with her by pulling up of her Cloathes” (1994: 37). In 1630 a landlord, William Garrad, sued his tenant Dorcas Newton when she accused him of “lying with her against her will in ye malt room at her dwelling house” (ibid).

  17. Rambuss discusses this epigraph as one of Crashaw's “persistently surrealist figurations of Christ's wounds as dilated eyes and kissing mouths” (1998: 30). Woods cites Crashaw as an analog to some of Lanyer's “richly sensuous biblical poetics,” but argues that the two poets have little in common (Lanyer 1993: xxxix).

  18. But see Wolfthal for examples of depictions of rape, which was not entirely unrepresentable, especially in illustrations of war, in the seventeenth century. Wolfthal argues that there was a greater production of “heroic,” sanitized rape scenes in the Renaissance than in earlier or later periods (1999: 180-1).

  19. Shuger comes close to suggesting that Lucrece is a Christ figure in her discussion of the closet drama Iphigenia in Israel, in which she also sees an analog to Christ: “as in Shakespeare's Lucrece, it is the female victim who grasps the sacrificial law of the father” (1994: 148). Shuger also argues that the rhetoric of Shakespeare's poem is similar to that of the Calvinist passion narratives (1994: 230, n. 55), but she does not include Lanyer in her discussion of passion narratives.

  20. On female collectivity and its connection to the image of the mirror, see especially McGrath (1991).

  21. The idea of the importance of heroic suffering in Salve Deus was suggested to me by Mary Ellen Lamb; I am grateful to conversations with her. See also Lamb (forthcoming in Donawerth [ed.]).

  22. More specifically, Lanyer enters into conversation with the fetishizing of whiteness so prominent in Shakespeare's poem: Margo Hendricks (1998) has written about the ways the multiple meanings of “race,” still an unstable term in the 1590s, are being explored in The Rape of Lucrece.

  23. I am grateful to Ann Wallace for suggesting the connection between Scarry and Cornell. See Wall for an important discussion of the way both Lanyer and Sidney deflect “corporality onto a male figure who cannot be reprimanded for public display” (1993: 329).

I am grateful for the responses of colleagues and of feminists in early modern studies who heard earlier versions of this essay: Theodora Jankowski and Susan O'Malley; Shari Zimmerman, Joan Hartman and Cristina Malcolmson; Jennifer Summit, James Saslow and Eileen Krest. Jean Howard and Scott Shershow have been exemplary editors.


Lanyer, Aemilia (Vol. 30)