Lady Mary Wroth Wroth, Lady Mary (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Lady Mary Wroth 1587-1653

English poet and fiction writer. See also Lady Mary Wroth Literary Criticism.

Wroth was the first woman to publish a complete sonnet sequence and an original work of prose fiction in English. While women writers of the earlier English Renaissance had limited themselves to genres such as translation, dedication, and epitaph, Wroth openly transgressed traditional gender boundaries by writing secular love poetry and fictional romance in which the female lover was the pursuer of the male beloved. Her sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), along with the poetry she included in her prose romance The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), are noted for their unprecedented reversal of gender roles, their expert use of the Petrarchan sonnet form, and their often biting biographical sketches of Wroth's contemporaries.

Biographical Information

Evidence from Sidney family correspondence places Wroth's year of birth as 1587. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Sidney and Lady Barbara Gamage, both of whom were well-known patrons of the arts, and the niece of Sir Philip Sidney, a great Elizabethan poet, statesman, and soldier whose tragic death in the Netherlands elevated him to the status of national hero. Wroth was strongly influenced by her family's literary leanings. In addition to her father—who was a minor poet in his own right—and uncle, Wroth's aunt and godmother, Mary Sidney, was a powerful force in shaping her talent and desire to write. Married to Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, Mary Sidney hosted regular gatherings of poets, theologians, and scientists at her country estate. She herself wrote poetry and translations from French and Italian works, which she boldly published under her own name. She also served as the editor of the surviving works of her brother Philip after his death and wrote metrical versions of the Psalms, which are recognized as works of great poetic art. Wroth acknowledged her aunt's influence, offering deeply respectful depictions of her in Urania and in her drama Love's Victory. Following Philip Sidney's death, Wroth's father was appointed to fill his brother's post as governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, where he served during much of Wroth's childhood. He kept in close contact with his family, though, through visits and letters, many of them containing reports from home on the activities of his eldest daughter. Wroth's education was typical for a privileged girl of her time: she studied with a number of household tutors under the guidance of her mother. Negotiations for her marriage began around 1599, and she was eventually wed to Sir Robert Wroth, the son of a wealthy Essex landowner, in 1604. Fundamental differences in temperament and interests became evident between the couple almost immediately, and both are known to have been unhappy with the union, partly because of Mary Wroth's long-term affair with her cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. But her husband's great skill in hunting garnered much admiration from King James I, who frequently visited the Wroths' country homes with his court. This afforded Wroth the opportunity to befriend members of the king's court, many of whom were educated art patrons, including Queen Anne. By 1613 Wroth had begun her writing career, and apparently her poetry circulated in manuscript form years before its publication in 1621 and was admired despite the fact that the sonnet form was by that time long out of fashion. Robert Wroth died in 1614, leaving his wife with a month-old son and a £23,000 debt. When her child died two years later, Wroth's circumstances worsened because much of her husband's estate went to his uncle, John Wroth. Her correspondence from this time indicates that she moved into William Herbert's London home, Baynard's Castle, and bore him two children, William and Catherine. Following her husband's death, Wroth suffered a decline in royal favor, losing her place among Queen Anne's intimate circle of friends, although the exact cause of her downfall is uncertain. Wroth seems to have blamed vicious gossip about her relationship with William Herbert, but it is likely that her husband's debts left her unable to afford to participate in the lavish court entertainments. Wroth thinly fictionalized many of her personal experiences, and those of her family and friends, in Urania. Some, including the courtier Sir Edward Denny, were outraged to find their personal affairs recounted by Wroth. Denny launched a vicious attack against Urania and its author, with his complaints eventually reaching the king. Trying to rally support, Wroth assured the first Duke of Buckingham that she never meant her work to offend and volunteered to stop the sale of it. Following the storm of criticism, the book was never reprinted, but it continued to be read through the seventeenth century. Wroth continued writing a second, unpublished part of Urania and a play, Love's Victory. The later period of Wroth's life seems to have been devoted largely to settling financial difficulties. To forestall her creditors, she repeatedly applied to the crown for warrants of protection, which were granted at regular intervals. The only record of Wroth's death appears in a Chancery deposition of 1668, in which she is said to have died in 1651, but Wroth more likely died in 1653. No literary works survive from the last thirty years of her life.

Major Works

Because Wroth wrote her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus at least ten years after the height of the form's popularity in the 1590s, she had at her disposal for study some of the greatest examples of the form ever written, including her uncle's wildly successful Astrophil and Stella (1591). While maintaining the Petrarchan sonnet rhythms and rhymes, Wroth had to redefine the roles of the lovers since her “hero,” Pamphilia, was a woman. A major theme of the sequence is female constancy in the face of male fickleness. Because of this, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains a note of implicit though repressed anger and sorrow that also sets it apart from earlier sonnet sequences written by men, who, in Petrarchan fashion, portrayed themselves as the impassioned wooers of cold, distant women. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is Wroth's “crown of sonnets,” a group of fourteen sonnets imitating the Italian verse form corona, in which the last line of each sonnet serves as the first line of the next. Wroth's crown of sonnets serves as a central turning point in Pamphilia's inner debate on the joy and suffering of human passion. At the end of the crown, Pamphilia seems to have concluded only that she is as perplexed as ever by love. In addition to the sonnets, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains many pastoral songs in which Wroth envisions an idyllic, innocent love, in contrast to the reality of the corrupt and inconstant affairs she witnessed in the royal court. For women writers of the time, the pastoral mode served as a vehicle to rebuke the sexual politics and masculine power to which they were subject. Many critics speculate that Wroth was addressing in her sonnet sequence her ongoing love affair with William Herbert, whom she could not have married because of the great disparity in wealth between their respective families. Herbert wrote lyric poetry of his own that appears to respond to Pamphilia's fitful questioning of Amphilanthus's fidelity. Pamphilia and Amphilanthus appear again as major characters in Wroth's prose romance The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, written circa 1618 to 1620. While the tension between the lovers is again central to the plot, Wroth assigns far greater significance to the enduring friendship between the two heroines of the story, Pamphilia and Urania. Dispersed throughout Urania are fifty-six poems, including sonnets, madrigals, dialogues, ballads, and pastoral narratives. These poems reveal Wroth's experimentation in a variety of meters, most notably sapphics. Wroth adapted each poem to fit the personality of the character assigned to recite it in the text. She also included poems specifically based on her uncle's The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia, but, as in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth recast the view of woman from a passive subject of love's mastery to an active, controlling artist. Both the prose and the poetry of Urania contain thinly veiled references to actual occurrences in the lives of Wroth's Sidney relatives and her acquaintances in royal court society. These often scathing depictions of scandalous and treacherous love affairs brought much unwelcome publicity to their subjects, some of whom published equally caustic verse in response to Wroth.

Critical Reception

While the scandal over Urania caused Wroth a degree of infamy, it does not appear to have discouraged her contemporaries from reading her works. Sir Aston Cokayne offered his opinion in verse: “The Lady Wrothe's Urania is repleat / With elegancies but too full of heat,” referring to Wroth's frequent allusions to court scandals in her subplots. Among Wroth's admirers was Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson, who praised the psychological insight of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Wroth's works nevertheless fell into oblivion after the seventeenth century, where they remained until the publication of a new edition of the sonnet sequence in 1977, in timely correspondence with the rise in interest of women writers and feminist literary theory. Since that time, Wroth's poetry has been more widely discussed, and critics praise her perfection of form, her criticism of oppressive social customs, and the breadth of emotion she explored.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania 1621 (prose and poetry)

*Pamphilia to Amphilanthus by Lady Mary Wroth [edited by G. F. Waller] 1977

The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth [edited by Josephine A. Roberts] 1983 (letters and poetry)

Lady Mary Wroth's ‘Love's Victory’: The Penshurst Manuscript [edited by Michael G. Brennan] (drama) 1988

*Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was first published as a part of Urania.

†Circulated in manuscript as early as 1605.

Love’s Victorie was written c. 1621.

(The entire section is 71 words.)

G. F. Waller (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, by Lady Mary Wroth, edited and introduced by G. F. Waller, Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Waller presents an overview of Wroth's themes and style in, as well as the publication history of, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.]

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a collection of sonnets and songs written by Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1586-1640), probably in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Lady Wroth's poetry was praised highly by Ben Jonson but has never been collected and published in its entirety. One version of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus...

(The entire section is 13170 words.)

Josephine A. Roberts (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Biographical Problem of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Roberts questions the extent to which Wroth's Petrarchan sonnet sequence was based on her personal experiences.]

Beginning with Petrarch's Canzoniere, the autobiographical elements of the sonnet sequence have remained a constant source of scholarly debate. Does the sonneteer transform actual experience into art? Should the sonnets be read as literary constructs apart from any personal or historical contexts?1 These questions recur significantly in the case of Lady Mary...

(The entire section is 37387 words.)

Naomi J. Miller (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rewriting Lyric Fictions: The Role of the Lady in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 295-310.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses Wroth's reversal of the traditional gender roles in the classical sonnet form.]

Near the end of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Lady Mary Wroth's poet-speaker contrasts the “true forme of love” in her thoughts with those “ancient fictions” that conjure shapes from the stars.1 During the English Renaissance, male...

(The entire section is 6686 words.)

Kim Walker (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘This Strang Labourinth’: Lady Mary Wroth,” in Women Writers of the English Renaissance, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 170-90.

[In the following essay, Walker explores the ways in which Wroth manipulated genre conventions and gender ideology.]

Isabella Whitney's miscellanies and Mary Fage's acrostics manipulate genre so that it can accommodate the work of these industrious women. The writing of Lady Mary Wroth, niece of the Countess of Pembroke, provides us with a rather different but perhaps even more bold manipulation of genre.1 Wroth is particularly significant because she chose to write in courtly genres that were traditionally the...

(The entire section is 10486 words.)

Robin Farabaugh (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ariadne, Venus, and the Labyrinth: Classical Sources and the Thread of Instruction in Mary Wroth's Works,” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2, April 1997, pp. 204-21.

[In the following essay, Farabaugh discusses the classical sources that Wroth used in her works and argues that, as with her subversion of her contemporary sources, Wroth shaped classical elements to further her literary agenda.]

Much has been written about Mary Wroth's use of genres as forms of identification with her famous uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, and her aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Scholarship has begun to examine the ways in which she...

(The entire section is 8616 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Andrea, Bernadette. “Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania.” ELH 68, No. 2 (Summer 2001): 335-58.

Explores the metaphorical cabinet in Urania as the site of both sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women writers' enforced silence and their implicit involvement in European colonialism.

Kuin, Roger. “More I Still Undoe: Louise Labé, Mary Wroth, and the Petrarchan Discourse.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, No. 2 (1999): 146-61.

Discusses the ways in which Wroth and the earlier Renaissance poet Labé successfully “invaded” the male...

(The entire section is 254 words.)