During the Early Modern Period, many women were unable to achieve the necessary skill set in order to write poetry due to their lack of education. However, it was those of an elite social status that were fortunate enough to have access to an education and yet, they too were suppressed from reaching the potential as poets or authors due to the expectances of women during the time. Women were expected to stay in the home and only to care for their families, leaving men to provide for the family. It was because of this that women were required to submit to the superiority of men, providing a sense of weakness on their part in order to pursue some involvement in writing. However, there were some women who were capable of releasing their works into the world, exploring the many topics such as religion and romance, something which had never been considered as proper for a woman to write about. However, as the number of women in the area of writing rose, so did the independence of women to write what they wished without being ridiculed for it. For this essay I intend to delve further into the writings of Lady Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer and compare their works against the distinctiveness of male poetic tradition during the early modern period.
From the beginning of the early modern period, male voices dominated the poetic front with many forms of poetry such as sonnets being represented by the voices of male. Because of this, it was increasingly difficult for women to showcase their own talents in writing to the world. However, for women such an Wroth and Lanyer, they belonged to the group of women connected to families with wealth and prestige, enabling them to achieve the education needed to begin their writings in relation to religion and eventually, romance. This transition is not entirely followed in Wroths’ works, an example of which can be seen in ‘Sonnet 1’. In this sonnet, Wroth speaks of cupid enthralling her in which she hopes to be a dream, his mother Venus telling him to shoot her with an arrow in which ‘He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart’ (Wroth 1116). It is within this sonnet that we can see her association of romance being shown as she and cupid engage in their relationship as a seemingly innocent association. Wroth manages to describe her poetry with a sense of tenderness, the repetitive themes of seduction and erotic nature usually present in the writings of men taken out.
However, the seductive element missing from the works of Wroth can distinctively be seen in poems such as ‘’The Ecstasy’’ (Donne 936). In this poem, Donne speaks of two lovers who have not yet been intimate with one another yet, the thought is very prevalent in their minds. His intertwining of both erotic and religious tendencies create a definite distinctiveness from that of Mary Roth, her poetry seeming almost innocent from that of what is described throughout Donne’s. Donne believes that the topic of love is a spiritual affair in which two souls unite but, they must also unite their bodies to complete that connection. It is through this analogy that we can conclude that this poem is a metaphysical poem, Donnes linkage of the spiritual and the physical contradicting each other entirely as they are both the opposite of each other. This idea can be seen once more in ‘’Air and Angels’’ (Donne 930) in which Donne refers to his lover as an angel that had been sent to him, ‘Still when, to where thou wert, I came, some lovely glorious nothing I did see.’ (930), the linkage between the spiritual and the physical being portrayed once more through the vision of his newfound lover. This technique was mainly used by Donne as it was an unconventional technique in which others were baffled by it, the use of contradictory terms making it seem as though it was a pointless feat.
While Donne had cemented a newfound technique of metaphysical conceit in his poetry, Mary Roth manages to create a distinct persona throughout the beginnings of her writings. It would have been a difficult process for women to begin writing at the time as the only example of writing would have been from the view of a male. Yet, Wroth was capable her moulding her writings to fit her view of what women were, giving a more accurate and distinct description through her gentle yet powerful characters in her poems and stories, the character of Pamphilia being the example. As believed by Marion Wynne Davies, ‘’Wroth was the first English woman to write a sonnet sequence, a prose romance and a dramatic comedy’’ (Davies 166). As I have stated above, sonnets were usually associated with the voices of men as women were unable to attempt these writings due to the prejudicial complaints against them if they had done so. In addition to this, Wroth’s participation in courtly affairs at the time were distinctively shown throughout her works in ‘ From Pamphilia to Amphilanthus’ (Wroth 1116) as her political favour of Protestantism provided her with a distinctive promotion during the reign of James I who was rumoured to have been of catholic faith (Bassnett 112). This open opposition to the political system enable her to create a self-sufficient identity for herself, giving her a distinctive voice as many male poets, including Donne, did not openly oppose religion in their works.
The distinctive voice of Aemilia Lanyer can be seen in her volume of poetry ‘’Salve Deus Rex Judaeroum’’, her feminist views seen through her various letters to those such as Queen Elizabeth I. In a letter to the queen, Lanyer narrates her as ‘…great queen, fair Eve’s apology, which I have writ in honor of your sex’ (Lanyer 981), her reference to Eve as the symbol of all women creating a sense of respect and admiration for the queen. Again in ‘’Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’’ (983), Lanyer defends the actions of Eve in the garden of Eden following the consumption of the forbidden fruit, Lanyer claiming that it was because of her love and devotion to Adam that resulted in her ignorance, ‘But surely Adam cannot be excused; Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame’’ (984) showing us that her reluctance to excuse a man promoting her feminist ideology. This spiteful attitude can be attributed to her forced marriage to Henry Carey following her pregnancy, her own wishes to be unmarried until she made the choice for herself. This distinctive attitude towards men contributed to her popularity among some of the greatest writers in history due to the fact that men would not have written so prejudicially against their own gender in the way in which she had done so.
Donne’s works take a different path from those of Lanyers’ as he continues to explore the erotic natures of the characters in ‘’Elegy 19’’ as he compares to his lover to that of discovering America for he seemingly enjoys the sight of it. (Donne 921). Again, Donne shows his metaphysical conceit as he says ‘O my America! My new-found land, My kingdom, safelist when with one man mannered’ (944), the description of his lover being compared to that of America with her being the country in which he is to rule over, attributed further to the erotic nature of the poem. While this isn’t essentially considered the norm for poetry at the time, Donne manages to promote the greatness and power of men over women through the use of the poem, the woman having no choice but to succumb to his wishes. In addition to this, if she did not exist then he would not be able to have anything to rule over, forcing him to relinquish his title of king. As we have seen before, Lanyers’ views differ greatly from those of Donne’s as she strives for the recognition of women as leaders, not simply the subordinates male poets make them out to be in their works. She strives for females in her works to be distinctive from their male counterparts, for example, she wishes for Adam and Eve to be equal in their roles, not for just Adam to have superiority over Eve.
In contrast to ‘’Elegy 19’’, Donne focuses his feelings on a different approach in ‘’The Apparition’’ (Donne 935), in which he has been hurt by his lovers betrayal with another man. The tone of this poem changes drastically to that of a cynical tone in which, following his death, he wishes to haunt the woman for her infidelity. He only manages to focus on the hatred and hurt of himself rather than the forgiveness of the one who had wronged him, his vengeance following him after death. The feeling of hurt can be seen in Wroth’s ‘’Sonnet 68’’ (Wroth 1119 ) in which she strives to be rid of the pain in her heart from a previous love which seemingly worsens the more she tries to fight it. These two poems intertwine in their meanings as both of the main characters are suffering from their loves and yet, they cannot do much about it. Wroth successfully portrays the struggles of many women who too have experienced the effects of unrequited love, similarly to the unrequited wish for women to speak their mind through the use of poetry and stories. It is through her writing that Wroth can communicate the struggles of women at the time distinctively to those who chose to read her work, her work providing a prevalent realisation of the injustices suffered by women as inferior to the male writer.
This essay manages to delve further into the struggles of women during the early modern period to provide a distinctive voice to rival that of male poets. Throughout the essay I have explored the many features associated with that of the writings of Lady Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer in which they strive to further distance themselves from the male poetic tradition that would rather them not to write and to stay at home, where women were believed to have been. Through the comparison of John Donne’s works against these two poets I can conclude that while there are a few similarities between the two genders, these women manage to create an impenetrable conclusion that female poets have created a distinctiveness in the writings from their male counterparts. Through the various themes of love and religion, I can conclude these women manage to add a feminine approach to the women in their writings, giving them more of a say in what they do and how they react, something in which they cannot replicate in the real world.