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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 103-119

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Pastoral, Temperance, and the Unitary Self in Wroth's Urania

Amelia Zurcher Sandy

Mary Wroth's Urania is usually described as a "pastoral romance," but there has been little attention given to that qualifying adjective other than to say that Wroth's work is a reworking of Philip Sidney's (at least partly) pastoral Arcadia. 1 Wroth's deployment of pastoral is certainly in part an answer to Arcadia's--one oft-noted example is her decision to open the romance with a declaration of presence by a shepherdess with the same name as she whose absence is lamented so eloquently by Strephon and Claius in the opening of the New Arcadia--but Urania's exploration of pastoral as a narrative tool is also firmly rooted in Jacobean theories of pastoral and tragicomedy. In this essay, I want to read Urania's pastoralism not as a gesture of nostalgia for a dying Elizabethan mode, but instead as an intervention in what critics and historians have recently been demonstrating to be a thriving Stuart debate about the scope and abilities of pastoral. 2 Wroth's romance proposes its version of pastoral temperance as a way for women in particular to embrace an ideal of constancy that allows for both rigor and openness to the flux of experience, and for pastoral itself, in a sometimes hostile climate, to maintain some of its time-honored virtues.

It is a critical commonplace that pastoral is fundamentally about people who have one foot in the pastoral world and one foot in another, and thus are at once both implicated in, and separate from, the place from which they speak. Pastoral as an adjective may describe an entirely bucolic scene, but pastoral as a literary form also implies the presence of some figure, even if only the narrator, who does not entirely participate in its cultural [End Page 103] logic, and therefore has a perspective in some way dual. This idea extends back to Virgil's poet in exile, but the paradox of simultaneous implication and alienation seems to be felt with particular force in the Renaissance. Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia offers its readers an insight that it presents as part ironic joke and part secret--that some of the rhetorical forms and techniques that seem most suited to the life of shepherds in the countryside actually originate in the highly artificial world of the city. What interests Sidney, in his own version of Arcadia, is not so much the literary as the social implications of this pastoral idea. The later Arcadia takes for granted Sannazaro's blurring of the boundaries between natural and artificial, but it wonders, probably partly in response to contemporary criticism about pastoral's decorum, how real shepherds can produce sophisticated literary forms--how pastoral figures can at once be of the countryside and above it. 3 In the first few pages of Wroth's romance, the character Urania makes the quintessential pastoral move of turning herself from actual into metaphorical shepherdess, remarking that she "delighted before to tend a little Flocke," but now that she has learned she is a foundling "am I troubled how to rule mine owne thoughts." 4 When she learns that her real parents are not shepherds, Urania changes from herder of sheep to herder of thoughts, maintaining pastoral ways of thinking even as she leaves literal pastoral action behind. This shift into metaphor signals a bifurcation in identity that at least at this moment Urania perceives as a loss. Upon discovering that she is a foundling, Urania relinquishes both parents and place; no longer subject to the rule of these definers of identity, she in turn cannot rule, herd toward a single end, the thoughts that should properly be her own subjects. Urania is here what Paul Alpers calls a "representative pastoral figure" not only because she figures her thoughts as sheep, not even because she is both of and not of her pastoral world, but because she...


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