- Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance by Elizabeth Hodgson
In the summer of 1616, Lady Anne Clifford wrote in her diary of how she had received “news of my Mother’s death, which I held as the greatest & most lamentable Cross that could have befallen me” (p. 28). Although these words appear to describe in simple terms the title of Elizabeth Hodgson’s Grief and Women Writers in the English Renaissance, the book uncovers a much more complex understanding of how Renaissance women wrote about grief. Indeed, Clifford’s words are a good example of this complexity since, while she certainly grieved the “lamentable” loss because her mother was much-loved, she also would have regretted the loss because of the support her mother could have provided in Clifford’s tortuous battle to claim her inheritance. Clifford’s grief, therefore, was personal and political, emotional and economic. Such multiple and divided patterns of grieving are deftly uncovered by Hodgson as she examines the “complex connection between the dead and the living who mourn them” (p. 2). These models of lamentation are carefully located within their historical context so that both the crucial shift from Catholic to Protestant mourning rituals and the varied social and medical discourses of the period are delineated. However, the real strength of this book lies in its close reading of works by four women writers: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke; Aemelia Lanyer; Mary Wroth; and Katherine Philips.
Chapter one explores the “nexus of mourning and inheritance” in the poetry of Pembroke (p. 2). Unsurprisingly, Hodgson focuses upon those works that mourn the death of Pembroke’s brother, Philip Sidney: “The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda” (1595), “Even Now That Care” (1599), and “To The Angell Spirit” (1599). Beginning with a description of Sidney’s funeral, Hodgson argues convincingly that Pembroke constructed her poetic lamentation not only to express intimate grief but also to lay claim to her brother’s poetic inheritance: “Pembroke is thus depending heavily on the inheritance-rights of the mourner, as politically and socially experienced in her own aristocratic world, to explain and enable her literary work” (p. 47). This alliance between personal and public gestures of grief [End Page 267] is sustained by Hodgson in chapter two, through her analysis of Aemelia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611; Hail, God, King of the Jews). Lanyer was from a different social milieu than Pembroke so rather than focus upon a noble inheritance that could never be hers, Lanyer invokes the discourse of patronage and “hopes to be rewarded by the human saints to whom she prays in her mini-epic” (p. 50). Intriguingly, Hodgson identifies a link between Lanyer and Pembroke, in which Lanyer asserts that the aristocratic poetic inheritance of Pembroke imbues Pembroke with a “peculiar power as a writer” so that the noble discourse is allowed to filter through to middleclass poets (p. 60).
In some ways, chapter three’s focus upon Wroth’s prose romance The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621) and her sonnets from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) would appear to follow seamlessly from the personalized grief of her aunt, Pembroke, and the awareness of aristocratic lamentation discourses employed by Lanyer. Nevertheless, Hodgson identifies a crucial difference in Wroth’s writing: the poetry and prose is not so much about representing the experience of grief but rather about how those emotions may be translated into literary forms. Supremely aware of the power of the sonnet, Wroth evokes a “melancholic voice that is more extremely mournful than the usual Petrarchan frustration,” which finds its sole embodiment in the “testament of verse” (p. 99). In chapter four, Hodgson jumps almost fifty years to the politicized mourning poetry of Philips’s Poems: 1667 (1667). In this collection Philips includes intensely personal works, such as “Orinda Upon Little Hector Philips,” alongside political polemics, such as “Upon the Double Murther of King Charles.” Hodgson deftly interweaves these two seemingly disparate discourses, showing how Philips gives “a domestic gloss to her...