Aemilia Lanyer Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum 1611

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

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Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Tina Krontiris (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6591 words.)

Jonathan Goldberg (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)....

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Marshall Grossman (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6534 words.)

Achsah Guibbory (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Susanne Woods (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Rogers (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5163 words.)

Susanne Woods (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Sharon Cadman Seelig (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Mary Ellen Lamb (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Huntington (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Michael Morgan Holmes (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Barbara E. Bowen (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 479 words.)