3.4: Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645)
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Little is known about Aemilia Lanyer’s childhood and early youth. She writes of having lived for a while in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent (b. 1554). As with most women of that time, Lanyer’s career was expected to be marriage. And she was married to Alfonso Lanyer, a musician and soldier, but only after having had an affair with Henry Cary, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1526- 1596), a member of Elizabeth I’s court and patron of the arts. An ensuing pregnancy determined her future in her marriage to Alfonso Lanyer.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) would note that in a patriarchal society, all women but particularly those not of the aristocracy were destined to silence and obscurity. That did not prove to be entirely the case with Aemilia Lanyer because in 1611 she published a small volume of religious poetry entitled the Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. It was successful enough to have had two editions, or impressions, printed. Of the few copies to survive, one was presented to Prince Henry, the other, to the Archbishop of Dublin, representatives of the two pillars of paternal authority in the seventeenth century, the Monarchy and the Church.
Lanyer, like most women up through the early twentieth century, gained fame as a relative being when A. L. Rowse (1903-1997) on dubious grounds claimed her as the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a claim he made in a modern edition of her own Salve. While her work is now gaining attention for its own sake, she nevertheless finds a place in a male-dominated canon that defines her genre and voice. Her work may converse with those of John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Andrew Marvell, but unlike the work of these male contemporaries, Lanyer’s poetry also converses with women writers, some of whom were also her contemporaries: Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621), and Rachel Speght (b. 1597).
Lanyer’s Salve fits with religious poetry, a genre deemed acceptable for women, but it takes a different focus and attitude than conventional religious poetry. She defends Eve; she animates the tears of the Daughters of Jerusalem; she gives an authentic voice to the Virgin Mary’s sorrow. And she exculpates women from Christ’s crucifixion. This focus may align with her intended audience, delineated in the verses dedicated to all virtuous ladies and gentlewomen, including Princess Elizabeth, Lady Arabella Stuart (1575-1615), and the Countesses of Cumberland (1560-1616) and of Kent (1582-1651). Lanyer exhorts her audience to speak well of all women and not to fall into the institutionalized—cultural and religious— misogyny of the age. This dedication and its implicit plea for patronage seems to be the first such written by a woman—the very word “patronage,” suggests male claims. And in her poetry, Lanyer works within the gendered hierarchical frame of her era but reverses values when she upholds not only herself but also Eve, Pilate’s wife, and other Biblical figures as true Christians and conveyers of Christ’s message.
In her own life, Lanyer strove for her rights independent of men. She inherited from her husband a hay and straw weighing patent. She passed this grant on to her two brothers-in-law, Innocent and Clement, in return for a grant of half the profits. When they did not honor their agreement, Lanyer sued them and won a partial settlement in 1634. For two years, Lanyer ran a school in a wealthy London suburb whose pupils were intended to come from diverse backgrounds. In her later years, she seems to have lived near the family of her son Henry and to have obtained the official status of pensioner, that is, someone with a steady income, or pension. She died in 1645 and was buried at Clerkenwell.
3.05.01: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
3.05.02: Reading and Review Questions