Aemilia Lanyer 1569–1645
(Born Aemilia Bassano. Also Emilia; also Lanier) English poet.
The following entry presents a selection of criticism on Lanyer from 1960 to the present. For additional information on Lanyer's life and works see Literature Criticism from 1400-1800, Volume 10.
A minor seventeenth-century English poet, Lanyer contributed to the limited canon of literature by female writers of the Shakespearean age with Salve deus rex judaeorum, a small volume of poetry considered unique for its feminist recasting of Christ's Passion. Attempting to revise misogynistic interpretations of Christian belief, Lanyer revealed a keen intellect in her argument for women's essential role in perpetuating Christianity. Only recently rediscovered, Lanyer's work provides valuable historical and sociological insight into Elizabethan England.
Lanyer's life is briefly sketched both in Salve deus and in the notebooks of Simon Forman, an astrologer who cast her horoscope. Born at Bishopsgate in 1569, she was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian court musician, whose mismanagement of family funds and death in 1576 necessitated her employment at a young age. While working as a maid in the household of Susan Wingfield, countess of Kent, Lanyer appears to have gained the initial academic background that would eventually include a strong working knowledge of the Bible, Classical literature, and the poetry of such contemporaries as Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke—an impressive scholarly display for any Elizabethan woman, much less one of such modest means and social standing. Sometime during her teenage years, presumably while in attendance upon the countess of Kent, Lanyer met and became the paramour of Lord Henry Carey Hunsdon, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth. Well-kept by Hunsdon, Lanyer, through his connections, became acquainted with the aristocratic ladies to whom she would later appeal for patronage. Upon becoming pregnant in 1592, she was discarded by Hunsdon and married off to a court musician and gentleman soldier, Alphonso Lanyer. Their union was unhappy and they were separated periodically due partly to Alphonso's extended military excursions, but also, apparently, by design. During one such separation, Lanyer resided for a short period with Margaret Clifford, countess of Cumberland, at the Berkshire estate of Cookham. Clifford's influence proved crucial to Lanyer's development as a poet, for while at Cookham Lanyer received additional academic tutelage and experienced a religious conversion, becoming devoutly Protestant. Lanyer attributed her literary endeavors and the religious nature of her subject matter to the behest of the countess, whose patronage may have made it possible for Salve deus to be published in 1611. Not surprisingly, Clifford is the central female character of Salve deus: the dedication, "To the Ladie Margaret," relates her preparation to assume the role of a bride of Christ, almost one-quarter of the title poem addresses the countess's numerous Christian virtues, and "The Description of Cooke-ham" recounts the poet's remembrance of her idyllic life at the Berkshire estate. In 1613, some time after Lanyer had left Cookham, her husband died, leaving her to engage in multiple lawsuits concerning potential revenue from his estate. Aside from a brief record noting Lanyer's unsuccessful attempt to establish a school for young women in 1617 and a court petition indicating her involvement in financial litigation in 1635, little else is known of her life between the publication of Salve deus and her death in 1645 at age seventy-six.
Salve deus rex judaeorum, Lanyer's only known work, is a poetic reinterpretation of Christ's Passion that emphasizes the role Christian women have played in upholding social morality throughout history. Composed of eleven dedications, the title poem, and a short country-house poem, Salve deus is intended solely for women: Lanyer made no attempt to address a male audience, concentrating instead upon enlightening women of all classes to the essential nature of their Christian mission. The dedications, addressed to potential patronesses and typical of Tudor literature, emphasize the exemplary characteristics of each noble woman. The title poem reinterprets biblical history beginning with Adam and Eve, meditating on the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, and concluding with commentary on the state of Christianity in contemporary England. Asserting that Christ chose women to continue his work on earth, Lanyer contrasted the failures of Adam, the apostles, and the male sex in general, with the virtues of the redeemed Eve, the Virgin Mary, and the daughters of Jerusalem. Central to Lanyer's fusion of biblical history with an ideal contemporary society is her admonition of Clifford and other contemporary noble women to prepare to assume honored positions as brides of Christ. Salve deus concludes with the elegiac poem "The Description of Cooke-ham," in which Lanyer painfully acknowledges the discrepancy between her dream vision of an ideal Christian world of women (based upon her experience at Cookham) and the reality of the imperfect world of men to which she must return.
Virtually no criticism on Lanyer's work exists prior to the 1970s. Upon its publication in 1611, Salve deus appears to have attracted little or no attention, and Lanyer was all but forgotten for over three centuries until her work was rediscovered in 1973 by A. L. Rowse. Claiming that Lanyer was the Dark Lady alluded to in Shakespeare's sonnets, Rowse theorized that Salve deus was written as an angry rebuttal to Shakespeare's portrait. This hypothesis, which was quickly refuted by other Shakespeare scholars, brought Lanyer's life and work to light, but also shifted initial attention away from the work itself. Hence the small body of criticism that now exists on Salve deus which has examined the poet's interpretation and presentation of Christian mythology, her technical competence, and the potential sociological value of her work. In general, critics deem Lanyer's feminist portrayal striking and, as Barbara K. Lewalski concludes, "[of] considerable intrinsic interest as a defense and celebration of good women." Lanyer's poetic talents, however, have been variously assessed. While critics praise her work as occasionally brilliant in imagery and acknowledge her basic command of rhyming and iambic pentameter, she is considered but a modestly skilled poet. Most commentators concur with Lewalski's opinion that "'The Description of Cooke-ham' is the gem of the volume," and also with Rowse's assessment that "she was too facile and fluent: she wrote too much, she padded out what she had to say—it [the volume] would have been more effective if shorter." Scholars have begun not only judging the artistic merits of Salve deus, but assessing the work's value as a potential source of historical insight as well.