Aemilia Lanyer

Literary Biography

Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645) was born to Margaret Johnson and Baptista Basano. She would become a well known woman and poet years after she published a volume of religious poems in 1611. She grew up in the height of Elizabethan power but lived her adult life under the reign of James I during his move towards a strictly patriarchal society. Aemilia Lanyer was an influential poet because she was the first English woman to have her book of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published. This book challenged the thoughts on gender and ideology of the time.

Little is known about Lanyer’s family or her life. There are multiple leads in her family tree and even their religious background. A.L. Rowse believes Lanyer’s family was actually Jewish based on records he found in the Italian town of Basano, where Lanyer’s family came from (Pacheco 134). Rowse is not in the majority though; most critics believe her family was Protestant because her writing appears to be strongly rooted in Protestant’s traditions and her parents are believed to have connections with the Protestant reform movement (Pacheco 125). Basano was a court musician and died when Lanyer was seven. After his death, Lanyer was sent to Susan Bertie, dowager countess of Kent, where she received five years of humanist education. The skills she learned during her schooling are seen later in her poems; Lanyer’s work clearly showcases knowledge of Latin, classical literature, and the Bible along with rhetorical and poetic skills (Lewalski 214).

In 1587 Lanyer’s mother passed away and 18 year old Lanyer found herself immersed in court life. There, she attracted the attention of Henry Carey, Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin. The affair that bloomed from this relationship lasted until 1592, when Lanyer was found with child and married a musician (like her father) named Alfonso Lanyer. The baby was a boy which they named Henry. When Aemilia and Alfonso decided to have their own children, they ran into difficulties as Lanyer had several miscarriages.

It was these miscarriages which prompted Lanyer to visit Simon Forman, a popular astrologer, in 1597 (Woods 20). Forman kept detailed diaries of his clients and although his handwriting was messy, these diaries give readers a new look on Lanyer and her life. Not only was she worried about miscarriages but also money troubles. When she was at court and involved with her lover Carey, Lanyer had access to large amounts of money and missed this in her marriage (Pacheco 126). She hoped Alfonso would be knighted which would make her a lady and provide more money. As he did with his other clients, Forman attempted to seduce her: he came to her house when Alfonso was at sea and tried to have a liaison with her. Lanyer refused and some critics believed it was Forman’s attempt that prompted Lanyer to write about men’s untrustworthiness in her poems (Woods 27).

Alfonso died in 1613 and left Lanyer with financial woes. These difficulties would stay with Lanyer for the rest of her life. She tried various ventures to earn money such as founding a school in St. Giles in the Field from 1617-1619. Unfortunately, the school was unsuccessful. Not much about her life is known after that. Lanyer’s final record was her death on April 3, 1645; she was seventy-six years old (Woods 33).

Her Poetry

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’) is divided into three parts: nine dedication poems, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” and “The Description of Cookham” (Beilin 182). Together, the three parts create the image of an ideal woman with Christian virtues and explains why women are important to Christianity (Beilin 182).

The first nine poems were dedicated to Queen Anne, Princess Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Kent, Susan (Bertie) Wingfield, and other virtuous ladies (Lewalski 220). These dedication poems are full of flattery; they read like she is aiming to please and to gain patronage and money to support herself. The prime example is how Lanyer writes a poem in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth but dedicates the book to Queen Anne in hopes of gaining favor and patronage (Grossman 193). In “To The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty” she praises the queen and deems herself unworthy of grace. The word “grace” comes up multiple times through her work signaling not only the relationship between Lanyer and her patrons but also the relationship between God and humans (Pacheco 129). Another word that appears throughout the work is “virtue.” Right away, she views virtue and uses the first nine poems to set up what she considers are good traits of a woman: “heroic virtue, extraordinary learning, devotion to the Muses, and high poetic achievement” (Lewalski 221). Lanyer highlights these traits because she is also providing support to why she is writing these poems.

The poem “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” is then divided into four sections: The Passion of Christ, Eve’s Apologie in Defence of Women, The Teares of the Daughters of Jerusalem, and The Salutation and Sorrow of the Virgine Marie (Grossman 2). The narrator of this section is the Countess of Cumberland; Lanyer herself not worthy enough to write the story on her own, relying on the Countess and God to help her (Pacheco 130). The Countess is the narrator because not only is she a perfect lover of Christ, she is a perfect Christian (Beilin 199). Throughout the 230 stanzas there are 123 dedicated to the crucifixion of Christ while the remaining 107 stanzas praise God or the Countess (Beilin 191). This poem confirms female goodness and masculine evil: the women play a major role in the event while the weak men sin and simply watch (Lewalski 226, 229). Women are seen as the defenders and supporters of Christ with Pilate’s wife plays a crucial role by pleading with Pilate to save Jesus‘ life: “But hear the words of thy most worthy wife/Who sends to thee, to beg her Savior’s life” (751-752).

The poem then shifts from the Plea to Eve’s apology through the wife’s eyes (Lewalski 227). She argues that Eve’s sin and the reason behind it is much more acceptable than Adam’s sin. Eve’s sin was based on her ignorance while Adam sinned because of his desire to obtain the knowledge the serpent was offering him (Grossman 119-120). This apology depends on the classic definition that women are the lesser creatures: because Eve was naïve the serpent could easily trick her (Beilin 196). At the conclusion of “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” the Countess is praised and is transformed into a being worthy to stand next to God which is called an apotheosis (Beilin 201).

The final section is, “Description of Cookham,” the first country-house poem to be written. The house is run by two women: Margaret (the Countess of Cumberland and the narrator of “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum”) and Anne Clifford. This iambic pentameter couplet poem provides a contrast to Jonson’s “To Penshurst” as Lanyer shows the world of women during her time while Jonson shows the hierarchy both in gender and class (Pacheco 132-133). Lanyer describes this land as a redeemed Eden where Margaret, Anne, and Lanyer lived happily and had spiritual experiences with God (Beilin 202 and Grossman 194). The poem has a more mournful tone because it is a farewell to Cookham and the poet has to leave this almost utopian world and she knows the place will fall to destruction (Beilin 202 and Lewalski 235). Lanyer’s poem differs from Jonson in that while Jonson talked about a full house of men, women, servants, and others, Lanyer’s paradise is simply a house owned by the crown and inhabited by just three women (Lewalski 237). Throughout the poem, most of the nature Lanyer describes is ungendered except for female personifications of Philomela and Echo, the male sun, Phoebus, and a male cedar tree (Lewalski 238). The tree is to provide shade and shelter for the Countess, an ideal lover protecting her from the sun (Lewalski 238). “Description of Cookham” again shows an ideal world like “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” but instead of only showing the ideal, it shows the sadness of the world’s absence (Beilin 206).

The role of women and their place in society in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum greatly challenged ideology at the time; women are not seen as obedient, silent, and chaste but as outspoken women with heroic virtue, the desire to learn, the ability to praise the Muses, and the ability to write poetry (Grossman 49). After Queen Elizabeth’s death, women were pushed further out of the church by King James; the men believing only they should have a role in the church (Grossman 192). Lanyer took the minor roles women played in the Bible and expanded upon them allowing women an attempt to change the outcome. Instead of watching Pilate take an innocent Jesus away, his wife pleaded with him and spoke her mind. Lanyer praises the women who will read her poetry and describes a place where women run the entire estate with no man in sight.

There are two reasons why Lanyer’s poetry has left such a large impression on readers today. First, it was written and published by a woman for women which had not been done before. Lanyer’s volume of poetry was published under her own name; she was claiming authorship and this was practically unheard of during her time. She broke many barriers by using her name. By using her name, she claimed authority in her poems and gave herself the right to discuss the thoughts of the time. She was also looking for patrons but instead of targeting men, she targeted women. This work was the first long religious poem written by a woman; up until her published work in 1611, only male poets had written long religious poems. Second, although many might believe Jonson’s “To Penshurst” was the first country house poem, Lanyer’s “Description of Cookham” was the first.

Lanyer Today

Up until the 1970s, Aemilia Lanyer was not considered a memorable poet of the seventeenth-century. Not until A.L. Rowse, Barbara K. Lewalski, and Susanne Woods brought her back to life did critics really start to appreciate her poetry (Pacheco 133). She is now considered to be a critical poet of the early seventeenth century.

A.L. Rowse first introduced the idea that Aemilia Lanyer could be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in 1964. Rowse believed this because he discovered an entry in Simon Forman’s diary that Shakespeare’s landlady had visited him. Based on this entry and basic characteristics on what little is known about Lanyer he put them together and claimed Aemilia Lanyer and the Dark Lady to be one and the same. Other literary critics do not believe Lanyer is the Dark Lady because although Shakespeare and Lanyer would have been in similar places during their lifetimes, critics doubt the two would have met up. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is said to have many vague traits which a numerous number of women could fit into. There is no solid evidence that Lanyer and the Dark Lady are one and the same, so Rowse’s work is mostly ignored. What Rowse did do was help to put Lanyer into the spotlight: because her name was brought up, her work was as well and she only became more well known with Rowse’s false identification.

Other critics praise Lanyer for her poetic innovations, the first country-house poem, and for her stance on women — a stance some critics believe makes Lanyer a feminist (Walker 115-116). Susanne Woods believes Lanyer has taken bits and pieces of great seventeenth-century poets and combined them together to create religious verse poetry that helps to fully understand early seventeenth-century poetry (Woods 161-162).

No matter how many poems Lanyer published, her status as a middle class Londoner married to a musician was not going to change; the society stayed patriarchal with women having few rights. But what Lanyer did succeed in doing was creating an alternate world women could live in, one where they were allowed to run a house, play a role in the Passion of Christ, and be considered somewhat equal to men. She was able to publish her poems under her own name, a large feat for a woman of her time. Lanyer paved the way for other women poets by representing a different and positive side of women. Claiming in Description of Cookham: “When I am dead thy name in this may live” (206) Lanyer predicted her poem would have lasting power. Lanyer now stands equally with Jonson and Donne among the poets who founded seventeenth-century English poetry.

Works Cited

1. Beilin, Elaine V. “Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance.” Princeton University Press. 1987.
2. Garett, Cynthia E. "The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum." Renaissance Quarterly 49.3 (n.d.): 666. Gale: Literature Resource Center. EBSCO. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.
3. Grossman, Marshall, editor. Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon. The University Press of Kentucky. 1998.
4. Keohane, Catherine. "That Blindest Weakness Be Not Over-Bold": Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion." ELH 64.2 (n.d.): 359-389. Project MUSE. EBSCO. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.
5. Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “Writing Women in Jacobean England.” Harvard University Press. 1993.
6. Pacheco, Anita, editor. “A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing.” Blackwell Publishing. 2002.
7. Woods, Susanne. Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet. Oxford University Press. 1999.
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