Aemilia Lanyer Lanyer, Aemilia (Vol. 30) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Work

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Mary R. Mahl and Helene Koon (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Aemelia Lanier: 1570(?)—1640(?)," in The Female Spectator: English Women Writers Before 1800, The Feminist Press, 1977, pp. 73-87.

[Below, Mahl and Koon place Lanyer in relation to her husband's occupation as a court musician and the cultural developments that took place in England during her lifetime.]

When George Ballard wrote in 1752 that he had been forced to omit certain women "of distinguished parts and learning" from his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain because he had "been unable to collect very little else relating to them," his list included Elizabeth Grymeston, Bathsua Makin, and Æmelia Lanier. And today little more is known of...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

S. Schoenbaum (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Dark Lady, A Question of Identity," in Shakespeare and Others, Associated University Presses, 1985, pp. 63-79.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1980, Schoenbaum challenges A. L. Rowse's theory that Lanyer was the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.]

On January 29, 1973, The Times carried a feature article, headed "Revealed at Last, Shakespeare's Dark Lady," by A. L. Rowse. Once published, The Times article was summarized in newspapers and magazines the world over. For weeks afterwards the correspondence columns of the paper reverberated with responses—heated, facetious, or merely informative. Even Dame Agatha...

(The entire section is 1543 words.)

Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Imagining Female Community: Aemilia Lanyer's Poems," in Writing Women in Jacobean England, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 213-41.

[In the following excerpt, Lewalski analyzes the three parts of Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: the dedications, the title poem, and her country-house poem, "The Description of Cooke-ham."]

Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645) was the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of original poems, and to make an overt bid for patronage as a male poet of the era might, though in distinctively female terms. Her volume of (ostensibly) religious poems, published in 1611, was entitled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. The...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)

Salve Deus: The Dedications:

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Salve Deus: The Dedications:

The nine dedications make a bold bid for patronage on a very wide front: they are obviously intended to call Lanyer to the attention of past patrons or acquaintances from her better Elizabethan days, and to attract new ones. She has chosen her targets very carefully, reaching out to all the obvious female power brokers of the court. In the opening dedication to Queen Anne, Lanyer laments that she does not now enjoy the associations and favors of that earlier time, when "great Elizaes favour blest my youth" (sig. a 4v), intimating that the present Queen might like to renew that happy condition. She next addresses Princess Elizabeth, whom she does not claim...

(The entire section is 2802 words.)

The Title Poem:

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Title Poem:

Lanyer's Passion poem, the Salve Deus (in eight-line pentameter stanzas, rhymed a b a b a b c c) proposes Christ as the standard that validates the various kinds of female goodness her poems treat, and condemns the multiple forms of masculine evil. The poem also undermines some fundamental assumptions of patriarchy, in that it presents Christ's Passion from the vantage point of good women, past and present. Lanyer as woman poet recounts and interprets the story. The Countess of Cumberland is the subject of the extended frame, as chief reader and meditator on the Passion, as well as exemplary image and imitator of her suffering Savior. And the Passion narrative itself...

(The entire section is 3082 words.)

The Country-House Poem: "Cooke-ham":

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Country-House Poem: "Cooke-ham":

"The Description of Cooke-ham," in 210 lines of pentameter couplets, presumably executes the Countess of Cumberland's charge, referred to in Salve Deus as not yet fulfilled, to write "praisefull lines of that delightfull place," the "Paradice" of Cookham (sig. A). Although the house and estate do not survive, the area is still a beauty spot. Located in Berkshire a few miles from Maidenhead, it has extensive frontages on the Thames, rich woodlands, lush meadows, picturesque scattered hamlets, and high hills in the west. The poem sustains a gentle elegiac tone throughout, since this is a valediction by author and residents to an Edenic pastoral life...

(The entire section is 2501 words.)

Janel Mueller (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum," in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 208-36.

[Here, Mueller analyzes Lanyer's feminist theology, stating that "in her handling, universalism and essentialism empower a feminism that proves rich, outrageous, and originary by any present-day standard."]

The year 1611 saw the publication, in London, of the first volume of poetry in English written by a woman: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Its title page identified the poet as "Mistris Aemilia Lanyer, Wife to Captaine Alfonso Lanyer,...

(The entire section is 7984 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Beilin, Elaine V. "The Feminization of Praise." In her Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, pp. 177-207. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Examines Lanyer's glorification of women's virtue and spiritual prominence in her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Lewalski, Barbara K. "Re-writing Patriarchy and Patronage: Margaret Clifford, Anne Clifford, and Aemilia Lanyer." The Yearbook of English Studies: Politics, Patronage and Literature in England 1558-1658 21 (1991): 87-106.

Discusses the literary works of Lanyer, Margaret Clifford, and Anne Clifford.


(The entire section is 126 words.)