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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 25-41

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Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney, and the Doleful Lay

Pamela Coren

Spenser's Astrophel: A Pastorall Elegie upon the Death of the Most Noble and Valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney opens a collection of seven elegies published with Colin Clouts Come Home Againe in 1595. The second poem, "Ay me, to whom shall I my case complaine," is untitled, but Spenser's pastoral framework presents it as sung by "Clorinda," Astrophel's sister, and refers to the following elegies as "dolefull layes.""Ay me,to whom . . . " thus became known as The Doleful Lay of Clorinda, a title which detaches the poem from its context in a way neither poet nor printer authorizes. I shall refer to the poem as the Lay. The five other elegies in the volume had all been registered or printed elsewhere: only Astrophel itself and the Lay were new. 1 Early Spenser criticism had little interest in the poems, and only recently has the place of Astrophel in the recognition of Philip Sidney as the nation's poet (and Spenser's negotiations with that position) begun to receive attention. 2 These studies have been stimulated by work on the English elegy that has placed Astrophel in the culture of mourning, 3 but have been hampered by a dispute about the Lay's authorship since Gary Waller claimed the poem for Mary Sidney in 1979. 4

Current discussion of Astrophel and the Lay presents either a double elegy by Spenser, or the Lay as an elegy by Mary Sidney, introduced by Spenser's fiction. The issues raised by this critical tugging at the poem are interesting enough to warrant some disentanglement, offering, as they do, a focus for elusive concerns [End Page 25] in sixteenth-century poetry. All arguments to date rest on uncertain ground: Spenser's relationship with the Sidneys (undergoing rapid reduction), Mary Sidney's known writings and possible ascriptions to her, the practice of men writing for women's voices, and, most bedeviling, the notion of the "impersonal" Elizabethan pastoral style, which allows attributions to be dealt and played with speculative generosity. 5

The Variorum edition of Spenser's works collects judgments on its authorship from Thomas Warton (1728-90) onward, and presents the editors' case for Spenser. 6 Variorum notes a growing recognition that, as "Clorinda," presumed to "be" Mary Sidney, was a writer, Spenser's introductory lines might be an attribution of authorship, yet it charts also a simultaneous development of the claim that it was, nevertheless, Spenser's poem. The Lay remained with Spenser from the Variorum edition until Waller's detailed case, developed in his doctoral study of Mary Sidney's writings.

Lisa M. Klein, in observing that Astrophel questions the idealization of Philip Sidney, considers the possibility of Mary Sidney writing the Lay as a corrective to Spenser's account, but, otherwise, scholars working to extend Mary Sidney's reputation as a writer have not dealt with the poem, content to accept it as hers on the strength of Waller's case; her translations and To The Angell Spirit receive most attention. 7 Beth Wynne Fisken, after listing it as one of Mary Sidney's original poems, offers a convincing account of the development of her style that elides the Lay. 8 Margaret P. Hannay refers to "'The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda,' once attributed to Spenser, but now acknowledged to be by the countess herself." 9 Betty Travitsky includes a section of the Lay and the Astraea dialogue as representative of Mary Sidney's work. 10 In contrast, Louise Schleiner remains open and skeptical on the issue of the authorship of the Lay in her study of Mary Sidney's writings. Her third chapter, "Authorial Identity for a Second-Generation Protestant Aristocrat: The Countess of Pembroke" omits mention of the Lay, but a footnote observes: "I am not sure if the 'Lay of Clorinda' is hers, though Spenser's poem explicitly says it is; she could have recast an earlier drafted poem to make it...


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