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.
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.
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.