1645 Death of Aemilia Lanier

Nicholas_Hilliard_010Aemilia Lanyer is exceptional for her period (honestly, she is exceptional for any period), so in that sense she doesn’t serve as a good example of “typical” output from the period.

Lanier was born Aemilia Bassano in 1569 to a musician of Elizabeth I’s court who was himself of Italian extraction. This meant that she was raised on the fringes of the royal court and throughout her life she maintained connections with those in the highest realms of power. She married Alfonso Lanyer (or Lanier), another court musician, after having had an affair with the Lord Chamberlain to Elizabeth, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon.

At some point in the later part of the first decade of the 1600s, though prior to 1611, she visited Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland at her home at Cookham Dean. Clifford was an intensely pious woman who Lanier praised throughout her poems. The meeting seems to have resulted in a kind of spiritual awakening in Lanier, whose major work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), is both dedicated to Clifford and which ends with a the first “country house” poem published in English, “Description of Cooke-ham.” The Countess was a fervent reformist Anglican, who served as patron to a number of more Puritan minded preachers.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published in 1611 and was explicit about its engagement with literary and devotional coteries that were all-female groups. That is, this was not a text written for a “public,” where that public was understood to be gendered male. It was for women – literally. The dedications alone were given to the most powerful women in the land – the queen, the princess Elizabeth, “To all virutous ladies,” the Countess of Bedford, the Countess of Dorset, and finally the Countess of Cumberland. This was a statement for women, about women’s devotion, and a woman’s sense of God in the world. That said, it was a book published by two men (Valentine Simmes and Richard Bonnian) and sold at the heart of the London bookselling industry – St. Paul’s churchyard.

It is often claimed that Salve Deus… is the first example of a woman writing a book of poetry in English as a professional poet or someone who made money from their poetry. This is a bit contentious. The same kind of statement has also been made about Isabella Whitney, who in the late 1560s and early 1570s, put out a series of pamphlets and poetic texts from which she made money. One can even argue that the prayer books and devotional literature of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s queens, were an example of poetic writing, though she was by no means a “professional poet” – whatever that means.

Now, you may have heard that Lanyer is one of the primary candidates for “The Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Indeed, it was only in 1993 that the whole of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published on its own without any reference to the possibility of her being Shakespeare’s inspiration. You may even have heard some of the more obscure theories that she wrote Shakespeare. (Apparently everyone wrote Shakespeare but Shakespeare.) These rumours are, at best, rumours and, at worst, they seriously detract from the artistic value of her own work.  As Lorna Hutson puts it in Lanyer’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry:

Although there is insufficient evidence to establish the identification it illustrates a tendency that, interestingly, her own poetry strives to overcome—that is, the tendency to read a woman’s emergence into the sphere of public discourse as a form of indecency, signalling promiscuity. The central poem of her volume, which celebrates the ‘worthy mind’ of her patron Margaret, dowager countess of Cumberland, is remarkable for managing to avoid identifying female virtue with chastity, articulating in its place a feminine mastery of those dialectical skills that constituted the humanist ideal of masculine virtue.

As Lanyer’s early life was relatively scandalous (an affair with Lord Hunsdon and a visit to a necromancer among other things), scholars even in a post-second wave feminist world tend to read her work in light of her relationship to chastity. I want you to question this tradition of interpretation and instead see her work in light of her reworking of the story of Eve. Rather than providing a psychodrama of Lanyer’s own life, which is far too easy to dismiss, I want you to think of the excerpt from your text as a philosophical or theological statement.

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