Critical Paper #2
Twisting Typical Gender: The Androgynous
Speaker in the Poems of Lady Mary Wroth
In Renaissance England, manners dictated that women be chaste, silent, and obedient. Women were supposed to be birthing a succession of children for their husbands, not speaking publicly. Public voice for women brought a charge of promiscuity. This suppressed women writers from publishing. The were no written laws to that fact, but they were present nonetheless. Denial of autonomy was common, as men were the loci of power within society. The second tenet was the idea that the male and female are binary. Nothing else can exist within this relationship, for there are only two possibilities and the model does not tolerate anything that does not satisfy the two. Lady Mary Wroth flouts convention through the placement of her speaker as feminine, yet possessing characteristics of both male and female, in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. This positioning of her speaker within the previously untampered binary of male/female creates a number of tensions requiring exploration. However, the Lady Wroth does not seek to overthrow and challenge the typical conventions of society nor sonnets; rather she bends the rules that shape the two lovers and then looks at the new view.
The names of the lovers are the first example of tradition flouted. Typically, the names for females within sonnets denote their lack of agency. In Astrophil and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney places Stella as star and Astrophil as star-lover. While there are arguments that Stella gains agency throughout the cycle, ultimately Stella is defined as the object of adoration. Pamphilia’s name denotes all-loving. Her name itself, while feminine, takes on the male role of actively adoring her counterpart, while maintaining a feminine designation. Amphilanthus denotes dual-loving, positioning him as beloved yet also denoting agency. Both become agents within the context of love, which takes the traditional concept of hot lover/cold beloved and twists it into hot lover/hot lover.
Wroth could not simply state herself as eligible to speak and love in a manner reserved for men. She establishes her agency through the use of a dream sequence. “Butt one hart flaming more then all the rest/The goddess held, and putt it to my brest” (P1). By drawing on the goddess-figure of Venus, Wroth justifies her protagonist’s agency in love as being a directive from the Goddess of Love herself. Due to her directive from the Goddess of Love, Pamphilia is now justified not only to seek out her love, but to to actively love Amphilanthus; Pamphilia is not regulated to simply perch upon an alabaster pedestal.
Pamphilia places herself squarely in the position of the courtly lover, mourning her lost love. While her love is lost for a valid reason, Pamphilia engages a discourse of loss and despair. However, Pamphilia is forced to deal with her emotions by herself, since the society will not validate a woman expressing herself within the courtly love context. “Sweet shades why doe you seeke to give delight/To mee who deeme delight in this vilde place” (P19). Her only listeners are the shades/shadows/ghosts who torment her. In this context, love in all its infinite varieties are the shades that torment her, to which she paradoxically reaches out when she expresses herself. Pamphilia identifies this obliquely, through the “torment, sorrow, and mine own disgrace/To taste of joy, or your vaine pleasing sight“(p19). Pamphilia speaks of the tortured pain love exacts to taste its pleasure. She also places Amphilanthus as the face the shades wear. In all of the pain and hurt she endures, she seeks the joy and solace of love. Amphilanthus’ pleasing visage watches as she suffers abuse from the shades. Her endurance in the face of adversity is typical of male heroes in Greek and Roman legend, and Wroth draws on this male characteristic to strengthen her female character.
Night, darkness, and other dark things are the milieu of Pamphilia. Recurrent themes of darkness plague the heroine throughout her journey of loving Amphilanthus. “In night yett may wee see some kind of light” (P55). Seeking some light to guide her, Pamphilia holds hope in the darkness. The courtly love discourse holds that through the sufferings of the heart, the lover finds purity and strength to love his beloved all the more. Pamphilia’s darkness seems without end, yet she withstands the further descent through the dark. Her bravery and mettle, all characteristics through which male lovers are tested in various sonnet sequences, are more firmly grounded in her than in her more famous, male counterparts. Exploring the depths of emotions, Pamphilia finds herself disenfranchised from the joy and warmth that love is supposed to bring. While she despairs that “our best hopes decay/And this (alas) wee lovers often gaine” (P55), she resolutely continues loving Amphilanthus. The perseverance of Pamphilia on her quest is heroically male, yet in the guise of a woman not only strengthens her as a character, but also lends validation to Pamphilia as a female lover.
Pamphilia begins to realize how cruel a goddess Love is as she journeys along. Her journey has not gained her anything but misery so far:
Pamphilia does not realize that her sojourn through the depths of love has netted her much more than a sore heart. However, Pamphilia has noted how she is measuring up less and less as she pours more energy into her quest. She is alone, cold, and any joy she might have along the way is turned into something else. Her emotions are ever changing, and she is confused about her own internal stability as she questions the fortunes she has experienced throughout her journey. This questioning also positions her in a male role and with male agency, since as a woman she would automatically be regulated to a position of helplessness. In a female role, Pamphilia would simply be a spectator to her own drama, not a player in it.Soe ar my fortunes, bard from true delights,
Pamphilia also recognizes the danger in following her quest through:
Love has ceased to be a goddess charging her to love Amphilanthus; rather, Love has not only martyred her heart, but Love has also gloried in the continuous darkness in which Pamphilia has journeyed. Pamphilia seems to realize just how much she has been a plaything of love. However, she exceeds the courtly love discourse because she is able to ascend past her pain and glimpse the “bigger picture.” Pamphilia’s metacognition concerning her role and the tragically comic aspects that Love seems to inflict on her is not typical of a courtly lover.Love like a jugler, comes to play his prise,
In fact, her pain and bondage to darkness because of Amphilanthus’ philandering and her own quest after her lover begins to lift as Pamphilia understands the lessons of her own suffering:
Pamphilia realizes that the jealousy that spawned her journey to regain her lover has to come to an end. She bids "fond jealousy" farewell. That is the "secret art" of Love that has tortured Pamphilia for so long. Now, she is aware of its influence in her life and thought processes toward Amphilanthus. Love’s secret weapon has no teeth because Love’s weapons are all based in jealousy and Pamphilia is not vulnerable to jealousy anymore. Pamphilia’s framing of her emotions within the context of war and weapons is masculine in most discourses, yet she uses this context freely.An end fond jealousie alas I know
Pamphilia’s recognition of the “game” of courtly love causes her some introspection. The tenets of courtly love she donned in her passionate pursuit of Amphilanthus became a cruel game:
Pamphilia felt that the Goddess of Love was charging her to go off on some holy quest like an old-code knight. However, she now realizes the folly of pursuing a lover who would not be faithful. She moved from jealousy, not love, and took Venus’ edict that none can live without love literally. She warped Venus’ edict to suit her purposes and lied to herself, believing she was journeying for love when in essence she journeyed out of jealousy.Folly would needs make mee a lover bee
While this is central to Pamphilia’s realization that her journey has no other possibility but to end in failure, there are two considerations to take into account. Pamphilia, and by extension, Wroth, should not have been able to journey and explore this dark area because women have no agency and no right to authorship in this era. The second consideration is that in a typical courtly love discourse, the lover would not have stopped and considered his plight from a metacognitive perspective. In other words, he would not have evaluated his position after such a long and arduous journey. He simply would have plugged away along a difficult path. Male pride would have dictated that the end be achieved no matter the cost. In this case, there would have been no thought to the journey’s cost outweighing the reward.
Lady Wroth’s Corona of Sonnets details a high and lofty ideal of love. In fact, the ideal is held so high that it is an impossible achievement:
The lack of a blazon in Wroth’s work concerning Amphilanthus and Love makes the blazon here even more potent. By comparison with the more psychological tone of Pamphilia’s laments and the imagery of her psychological journey through night and darkness, the blazon of light used to describe love is much more intense. Pamphilia held herself chaste as any typical lover pining for his beloved. Her spotlessness cannot be questioned throughout her quest through the landscape of emotions.Love is the shining starr of blessings light;
However, despite her faithfulness and purity, her beloved does not become a permanent part of this equation. Amphilanthus’ disdain for her purity leaves her without her beloved:
Amphilanthus rejects her pure heart and the rejection contains an element of conquest: her love taken and then thrown away. Amphilanthus has only stolen her heart to break it. Her inevitable realization is that it is folly playing the courtly lover to a beloved who is unwilling to be part of the dynamic. Her own realization of the foolishness of courtly love also outlines a different ending than the typical courtly love discourse. Typically, the lovers are united, either through love or in death, with the course of eternity to spend with each other.Except my hart which you beestow’d before,
The end to Pamphilia's quest is distinctly different. Though she has completed the quest, it seems that she has failed. Her objective was never close to realization. However, Pamphilia’s sense of success comes from understanding something of the discourse of courtly love:
The Muse that moved her to begin the poet’s journey is resting. Pamphilia’s movement “to rest” her Muse indicates that Pamphilia has risen above supernatural commands and missions. Pamphilia has grown beyond the need to crusade at the perceived need of a goddess. Her peace comes from acceptance of the inevitable, and her negotiation of the dark emotions she explored. She reaches equilibrium with herself and her love for Amphilanthus.My muse now hapy, lay thy self to rest,
In her mind, Pamphilia leaves the beaten paths of courtly love behind. As consciously as she donned the guise of the courtly lover, she also discards it. Yet the gender ambiguity of the speaker never resolves itself. While Pamphilia is distinctly feminine, she shares a wealth of traits with male courtly lovers, including bravery, stamina, and unswerving determination. This "straddling of the fence" allows her to explore the darker tendencies of the courtly love discourse without becoming a victim to it. Courtly lovers tend to die in dramatic ways, but Pamphilia weighs her options and opts for the better part of valor. Her own realizations save her from becoming bitter or cynical concerning love, although Pamphilia, and by extension Wroth, is changed by the experience.
And thus leave off, what’s past showes you can love,
Wroth, Lady Mary. The
Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Josephine A. Roberts, Ed.
Text copyright ©2001
Gabriel Sanchez. All Rights Reserved.
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