- Boredom and Whoredom: Reading Renaissance Women’s Sonnet Sequences
Several years ago, shortly after I’d begun my current (and first) academic appointment, I was invited by the head of my department, who is also one of the editors of a widely-used anthology of English literature, to review the early seventeenth century portion of that volume and to recommend changes that would bring it more up-to-date. I threw myself into the task with both enthusiasm and asperity, driven partly by the heady fantasy of direct intervention in the process of canon formation, but more practically by the fact that the non-fit between commercially available texts and my own pedagogic aims had meant wearisome hours in front of the photocopier, endless hassles with the library reserve room, and student complaints that given the post-modern stresses under which they already labored, my expectation that they read facsimiles of early modern texts was unreasonable. Unsurprisingly perhaps, my zealotry led not to radical reform of the anthology in question but to a heated and exasperated quarrel with the aforementioned editor and head of department. For what was wrong with the anthology from my point of view was everything; its very organization seemed to invest with metaphysical certainty categories such as “literature,” “English,” “periods,” “authors, (major and minor)” which to me were at best historically contingent and at worst oppressive in the discriminations they enforced. From his point of view many of my suggestions were unrealistic and even bizarre, requiring a volume too heavy to lift in order to make available texts that nobody in her right mind would want to read anyway.
Our quarrel proceeded reductively, moving not into analysis of the theoretical grounds of our differences but into symbolic struggle, specifically over the amount of space to be allotted to the poetry of Mary Wroth, Jacobean courtier and niece of Sir Philip Sidney who in 1621 published a prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, to which was appended Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, apparently the first and only Petrarchan sonnet sequence by a woman in the English Renaissance. I argued that because Pamphilia to Amphilanthus represented the only instance of a woman writing, albeit belatedly, in the dominant Elizabethan lyric mode, one whose longevity, as Gary Waller [End Page 165] puts it, “was based on the remarkable extent to which it incorporated the major fantasies of patriarchal gender assignments,” it was an extraordinarily significant text and needed to be excerpted at length, as were Astrophil and Stella and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The reply was that while the text’s uniqueness made it hypothetically interesting, the poetry itself was boring—conventional and repetitious, lacking both the narrative elements and local references that made a text like Astrophil and Stella so much fun to read. In fact, my opponent was mildly incredulous that students could be made to read the sequence at any length. The outcome (if that is what it is) is that where the previous edition offered three sonnets from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the new edition of the anthology offers five sonnets and two songs.
This quarrel will be readily recognized, I think, as a skirmish in the ongoing struggle for hegemony between the old mission of English departments, to develop in readers an appreciation for and understanding of highly achieved and therefore highly valued writings, and a newer agenda, allied to the emergent field of cultural studies, which seeks to reveal the implication of literary texts in a network of social relations inflected by the operations of power and ideology. Sociologist Wendy Griswold has observed that both of these projects take “culture” as their object, but mean something fundamentally different by it, a difference which she usefully summarizes as follows: For the traditional English Department culture is “an archive, a repository of symbolic forms and works accumulated by a people over time. It can be drawn upon, is occasionally replenished, is never exhausted.” For the cultural studies practitioner, in contrast, culture is “an activity...the sum of a society’s current vehicles of expression, constituting a web of clues, a text, a set of data; through the interpretation of culture, one may understand much...