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ELH 67.2 (2000) 433-451

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Aemilia Lanyer and the Politics of Praise

Su Fang Ng

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 work The Temple (1633), in which the poet pleads before God: "Were it not better to bestow / Some place and power on me? / Then should thy praises with me grow, / And share in my degree." 2 God's grace is figured here in profane terms of earthly advancement. Herbert immediately recants: "Perhaps great places and the praise / Do not so well agree" (S, 15-16). But there is a note of doubt in the modifying "perhaps." The penultimate line too is suggestive in the context of the preceding requests for "place and power": "Only do thou lend me a hand" (S, 19). Herbert does not entirely give up--may even be reiterating--his supplication for divine patronage.

Herbert's poem illustrates how easily can religious devotion in the seventeenth century be expressed in the language of patronage. Conversely, religious rhetoric is used to characterize the patron-client relationship in the early modern period. In her study of early Stuart patronage, Linda Levy Peck points out that Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, reassures his client Charles Cornwallis of his continued support with words charged with religious resonance, such as "election," "vows," and "faith." 3 Sir Walter Raleigh asks James I for mercy by comparing the monarch to God: "the more my misery is the more is your Majesty's great mercy if you please to behold it, and the less I can deserve the more liberal your Majesty's gift. God only your Majesty shall imitate herein, both in giving freely, and in giving to such a one from whom there can be no retribution." 4 Not surprisingly, given the Stuart emphasis on a divine right sovereignty, James I himself says of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham: "Christ had his John and I have my George." 5 Peck writes that in the 1620s petitions to Buckingham, the king's favorite, "requesting his intercession with the king increasingly emphasized the patron as saint." 6 The religious devotion of the genre of dedications is remarked upon even by contemporaries: in the First Folio [End Page 433] of Shakespeare's plays, the actors John Heminge and Henry Condell write in their dedication to William and Philip Herbert that "we have justly observed, no man to come near your L. L. but with a kind of religious address." 7

Viewed in this cultural context, Aemilia Lanyer's merging of religious devotion and secular celebration is no longer anomalous--only that her enterprise is on a larger scale, encompassing an entire poem. Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judæorum would benefit from being situated within the broader context of the Stuart court's political culture, a context in which the linguistic interpenetration of the secular and the religious spheres is common. 8 Such a contextualization, as well as careful attention to where Lanyer conforms to prevalent poetic practices in soliciting patronage and where she departs from them, will allow us to make two important corrections to recent discussions of this poet. It will permit us first to reassess the scholarship of the last decade or so that has read Lanyer as a proto-feminist and second to problematize the straightforward account of Salve Deus and its accompanying "Description of Cooke-ham" as Lanyer's creation of a female community. 9

Aemilia Lanyer published her poem on the Passion of Christ to solicit patronage, not simply to celebrate it. We ought to keep in mind the financial distress that Lanyer found herself in during the decades before and, indeed, after the 1611 publication of Salve Deus Rex Judæorum. Lanyer could not afford to alienate any potential patron. Her husband, Alphonso, had exhausted the...


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