Aemilia Lanyer Lanyer, Aemilia (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Aemilia Lanyer 1569-1645

(Born Aemilia Bassano) English poet.

The following entry presents criticism of Lanyer's works from 1993 to 2001. For earlier commentary on Lanyer's career, see LC, Volumes 10 and 30.

Lanyer is regarded as an important early English female poet. Her collection of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), is considered by some critics to be the first feminist publication in England. Lanyer's poems, all of which are dedicated to women, are written from a female point of view and celebrate the achievements of the female community. The title poem, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” though centered on Christ's suffering, also extols the virtues of women. Some scholars, however, dispute feminist readings of Lanyer's work, contending her purpose in writing such poetry was to attract patronage from wealthy women of the English aristocracy. The last poem in the collection, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” is sometimes recognized as the first of the “country-house” genre of poems to be printed in English.

Biographical Information

Born in London in January 1569, Lanyer was the youngest child of Baptist Bassano and his common-law wife, Margaret Johnson. Bassano, a musician at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, died when Lanyer was seven years old. After her father's death Lanyer was raised and received her education in the household of the Countess of Kent, Susan Bertie. At age eighteen, after her mother's death, Lanyer began seeking favor at court. She soon became the mistress of the much older Henry Cary, the Lord Chamberlain of Queen Elizabeth. Lanyer's days at court came to an abrupt end in 1592, when she became pregnant by Cary and was effectively banished from court life. Not long afterward she married Alphonso Lanyer, a court musician, and gave birth to a son, Henry. 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 Works

The poems collected in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum praise the qualities of specific women whom Lanyer hoped would act as her patrons. The majority of these works also display religious themes or undercurrents. Most critical 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. 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. Lanyer presents many of these arguments in the voice of Pontius Pilate's wife, including a defense and explanation for Eve. 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 the country-house poem. Written after her visit to the country estate at Cooke-ham, the poem memorializes the noble country estate and the companionship she shared with the inhabitants. Although Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst” is often cited as the first country-house poem, “Cooke-ham,” which was published five years before Jonson's poem, is recognized as being the first country-house poem 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 the woman who was an major inspiration for her work.

Critical Reception

Lanyer's poetry gained the attention of critics during the late twentieth century, a time when many critics began to focus on women's concerns. Many scholars have concentrated on the perceived feminist issues in Lanyer's works, such as her depiction of an idyllic female community and her distinctly female voice. However, some critics contest such readings, arguing that Lanyer was more interested in attracting patronage than in exploring feminist concerns. Related critical concerns have centered on the poet's consciousness of race and class, which a number of scholars view as stemming from Lanyer's status as the daughter of a Jewish father and as an exile from court life. In addition to these issues, Lanyer has attracted critical interest for the role “The Description of Cooke-ham” played in defining the conventions of the country-house poetic genre. One point of scholarly debate involves Lanyer's connection to the “dark lady” of William Shakespeare's sonnets. Although some scholars have argued that Lanyer was the “dark lady,” to whom many of the poems were addressed, most commentators dismiss this idea. Critics will likely continue to debate Lanyer's status as a feminist; however, most agree that she was an important and exceptional female writer of her time.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (poetry) 1611

The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (poetry) 1993

Ann Baynes Coiro (essay date summer 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Coiro, Ann Baynes. “Writing in Service: Sexual Politics and Class Position in the Poetry of Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson.” Criticism XXXV, no. 3 (summer 1993): 357-76.

[In the following essay, Coiro explores issues of gender, class, and authorship in Lanyer's poetry and compares her work to that of Ben Jonson.]

The growing and increasingly central interest in writings by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women is beginning to have some material effects on the literary profession. In the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology (published in 1986), for example, a literature teacher could find a couple of poems by Lady Mary Wroth, one psalm by the...

(The entire section is 8297 words.)

Susanne Woods (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Woods, Susanne. Introduction to The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, edited by Susanne Woods, pp. xv-xli. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Woods provides an overview of Lanyer's life and works and analyzes several of her major poems.]

Aemilia Lanyer's life, like the lives of the vast majority of her contemporaries, is mostly shrouded in the indifference of the past. Various public records offer some information, and we know or can reasonably induce more from two additional sources. The astrologer Simon Forman (1552-1611) kept a professional diary and detailed casebooks about the people who came to him for...

(The entire section is 9581 words.)

Lisa Schnell (essay date March 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schnell, Lisa. “‘So Great a Difference Is There in Degree’: Aemilia Lanyer and the Aims of Feminist Criticism.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 1 (March 1996): 23-35.

[In the following essay, Schnell analyzes feminist criticism of Lanyer's poetry, primarily focusing on “The Description of Cooke-ham.”]

One of the most dramatic changes to the Renaissance canon has been the inclusion of women, both as they are represented (or not represented) in work by male writers and, more significantly, as writers themselves. Fifteen years ago, even Renaissance specialists would have had a difficult time naming a single woman writing between 1500 and 1660. Today,...

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Kari Boyd McBride (essay date winter 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McBride, Kari Boyd. “Remembering Orpheus in the Poems of Aemilia Lanyer.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 38, no. 1 (winter 1998): 87-108.

[In the following essay, McBride examines Lanyer's use of pastoral conventions in her poetry.]

Writing in 1611, Aemilia Lanyer, like other women poets of the era, faced the challenge of professing a poetic vocation in a cultural context that, rather than providing models for female poetic subjectivity, denounced women writers and belittled their efforts, largely reserving poetic profession to men. Lanyer used many means in the Salve Deus Rex Judæorum to countermand this “anti-tradition”: by writing...

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Esther Gilman Richey (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Richey, Esther Gilman. “Subverting Paul: The True Church and the Querelle des Femmes in Aemilia Lanyer.” In The Politics of Revelation in the English Renaissance, pp. 60-83. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Richey argues that Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is a revision of St. Paul's interpretation of Genesis.]

And then the world by womans hands shall rul'd be and obey
But when the widow over all the world shall beare the sway
And cast into the sea the gold and silver with disdayne
And cast the brass of brittle man and yron into the main
Then shall the worldly elements all desolate remain.


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Barbara Bowen (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bowen, Barbara. “Aemilia Lanyer and the Invention of White Womanhood.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, pp. 274-303. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Bowen examines issues of race and womanhood in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.]

“Woman,” in the late-capitalist United States at least, is a racial term. Some of the most powerful work of modern feminism has been devoted to revealing the correlation between race and womanhood that white supremacy must suppress; “all the women are white,” the title of a black feminist collection...

(The entire section is 14583 words.)

Su Fang Ng (essay date summer 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ng, Su Fang. “Aemilia Lanyer and the Politics of Praise.” ELH 67, no. 2 (summer 2000): 433-51.

[In the following essay, Ng contends that Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum illustrates how Lanyer used both religious and feminist rhetoric as a means for securing patronage for her writing.]

The religious core of Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (1611) has been too easily dismissed by some critics as at best peripheral to her true subject of the “commendable qualities of women” and at worst merely self-serving “art for lucre's sake.”1 But compare, for instance, George Herbert's “Submission,” from his very popular devotional...

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Theresa M. DiPasquale (essay date July 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: DiPasquale, Theresa M. “Woman's Desire for Man in Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99, no. 3 (July 2000): 356-78.

[In the following essay, DiPasquale argues that in the poems of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Lanyer questioned the notion that female heterosexual desire implies the willing subjugation of women by men.]

“Let him kisse me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better then wine,” cries the Bride in the Song of Songs (1: 1).1 In the Christian tradition, her desire for her spouse symbolizes the soul's longing for Christ; and poets of the English Renaissance often adopt...

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Debra Rienstra (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rienstra, Debra. “Dreaming Authorship: Aemilia Lanyer and the Countess of Pembroke.” In Discovering and (Re)Covering the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric, edited by Eugene R. Cunnar and Jeffrey Johnson, pp. 80-102. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Rienstra examines the influence of Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, on Lanyer’s writing.]

Twenty years after A. L. Rowse “discovered” Aemilia Lanyer's substantial, peculiar body of religious poetry, her work has recovered from its initial presentation as a Shakespeare-related curiosity to an established fixture in the sub-canon of early modern women's...

(The entire section is 9132 words.)

Patrick Cook (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cook, Patrick. “Aemilia Lanyer's ‘Description of Cooke-ham’ as Devotional Lyric.” In Discovering and (Re)Covering the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric, edited by Eugene R. Cunnar and Jeffrey Johnson, pp. 104-18. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Cook argues that “The Description of Cooke-ham” belongs to the poetic genre of the devotional lyric rather than that of the country-house poem.]

Recent studies of “The Description of Cooke-ham,” the concluding poem of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, have reclaimed Amelia Lanyer's priority in the generic tradition of the English country-house poem. Published in...

(The entire section is 5780 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Jenkins, Hugh. “Petitions for Absolute Retreat: Genre and Gender in the Country-House Poems of Aemilia Lanyer and Anne Finch.” In Feigned Commonwealths: The Country-House Poem and the Fashioning of the Ideal Community, pp. 146-73. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998.

Analyzes “The Description of Cooke-ham” as a country-house poem, and compares it to poems by Anne Finch and Ben Jonson.

Keohane, Catherine. “‘That Blindest Weakenesse Be Not Over-Bold’: Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion.” ELH 64, no. 2 (summer 1997): 359-90.

Examines recent critical interest in Lanyer and...

(The entire section is 153 words.)