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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 121-136
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Mary Wroth's Poetics of the Self
In Urania (1621), when Mary Wroth describes one heroine's method of self-definition, she also provides a metaphor for her own poetics of the self:
Then was I to worke my end, having no meanes, save mine owne industrie, and strength of mind busied like a Spider, which being to crosse from one beame to another, must worke by waies, and go farre about, making more webs to catch her selfe into her owne purpose, then if she were to goe an ordinary straight course: and so did I, out of my wit weave a web to deceive all, but mine owne desires. 1
Like Arachne of Ovid's Metamorphoses, challenging Minerva's weaving skill, Wroth defied Jacobean constraints upon women as producers of culture. And, like Arachne, Wroth suffered for her bold interventions. But she wove her prose and poetry of strong stuff, attaching it to life at all four corners, and, while not deceiving all, still telling her "owne desires" with skill that readers are only beginning to understand.
So convincing is Wroth's poetic mapping of her interior world that the strong corners attaching Wroth's poetry to her social world have received less attention. I argue, however, that the more profoundly interior our reading of Wroth's poetry, the more her writing reveals its complicity in the negotiations between humanist poetic traditions and the Jacobean social world. This essay accepts Nancy K. Miller's invitation in "Arachnologies," to attend to the "enabling subjectivity of . . . a poetics attached to gendered [End Page 121] bodies that may have lived in history" 2 and is thus part of a larger project to bridge new historicism and feminism in Renaissance studies. 3
Because early modern society sought to constrain women's writing and power, Wroth's poetry "worke(s) by waies," by indirection. Reading the contexts and intertexts out of which she weaves her poetic fabric helps to trace her more nuanced use of the Petrarchan tradition than has been fully realized. Not only does she find the discourse of the "I" in Petrarch, but Wroth attaches the poetic "I" to the life of her native Kent and her political interests. Finally, she turns to the work of a family friend, Anne Cecil's sonnets on the death of her son. Not one in that range of discourses, the Petrarchan, the social, or Cecil's poetry of loss, serves alone as the master discourse of Wroth's poetry which, as she tells us, crosses like the spider's web "from one beame to another" to weave its art.
Since Wroth's poetry addresses early modern ambivalence about women's roles as producers, and their involvement in the social life of the age, its strategy of indirection challenges contemporary readers. Feminist cultural readers such as Merry E. Wiesner and Ann Rosalind Jones broadly define the extent of women's economic and social activities. 4 In Wroth's circle, where access to royal favors was critical, Wroth exercised power through her skills in dancing, in musical performance, and in writing letters to secure court attention and reward. From her youth, when she gained the notice of Queen Elizabeth for her grace as a dancer, 5 to her adulthood when her letters to Queen Anne helped secure money for the repair of the Wroth estate, Loughton Hall, to her widowhood when friends measured her value as a conversationalist at Penshurst in the currency of "a great deal of news from beyond sea," Wroth cultivated the skills that would enhance her own and her family's value in their competitive social environment, skills that constitute strategies of public engagement. 6
But if Wroth's contemporaries valued her grace in dancing, beauty in masquing, epistolary eloquence, and access to information, others challenged her claim, like Arachne's, as a producer of culture. Best known is the exchange between Lord Edward Denny and Wroth following the publication of Urania and Denny's...