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.
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.
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.
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.