A Martyr to Love: Mary Wroth’s Sonnets in the Early British Literature Survey Course

Laura Alexander, High Point University

In the undergraduate early British literature survey course (beginnings to 1660) that I teach at a small liberal arts university, I like to introduce students to Sir Philip Sidney’s niece, Mary Wroth, also a sonneteer who began writing in 1613. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the first complete sonnet sequence by a woman writer in England, was published with her longer prose work, The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania (1621). Because we study so many sonnets by the conventional writers, Petrarch, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, and Marlowe in the course first, students are aware of basic sonnet forms and conventions before we read her. By this point in the course, they understand the differences between Italian and English forms and notice when a writer significantly departs from established sonnet traditions.

Students often find Wroth interesting because she not only breaks formal rules, she also communicates a distinctively feminist voice in her writing by subverting normative expectations for women. I like to spend a week (two longer class periods) on her sonnets and concentrate on the vivid images, radical ideas, and strikingly irreligious positions she often takes in her verse. Wroth mixes profane and erotic ideas in a way that anticipates the highly experimental Holy Sonnets we read next by John Donne.

Wroth works especially well also in courses that look at later women writers who revived the form in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In courses that are not arranged by period but by mode, genre, or theme (like another course I teach, “Women’s Literary Traditions”) she teaches well alongside Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets, and the sonnet sequence by a late Victorian and lesser known poet, Augusta Webster, whose Mother and Daughter plays with unconventional inspirational models. Webster draws on homoerotic desire between muse and the mother-poet figure, and we can see some overlap between Wroth’s breaking with seventeenth-century conventions for women and Webster’s testing of nineteenth-century domestic ideals of the “angel in the house.” The sonnet could become a site of resistance by women writers, who experiment with different forms of love. After students have read a number of conventional sonnets, they begin to see when writers depart significantly and test boundaries, particularly in the treatment of the muse.

Group Discussions:

I start our unit on Wroth by giving students some background in class about Wroth’s extraordinary life. She belonged to the famous Sidney Circle, had an aunt, Mary Sidney, who was also a poet, and took a lover, William, third Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had two illegitimate children. While we cannot always read biographical details into a writer’s work, I invite students to think about ways that Wroth may have employed her life experiences in her writing.

After a short lecture introducing Wroth, I split the class into small groups. In their small groups, they each tackle one discussion question from a set that I give students prior to class discussion. Any of Wroth’s sonnets could work with the discussion questions I assign, but I typically teach numbers 1 (“WHEN night’s blacke Mantle could most darknesse prove”); 2 (“Love like a jugler, comes to play his prise”); 17 (“Sweet shades why doe you seeke to give delight”); and 19 (“Come darkest night”) during the week we cover Wroth. Part of students’ assigned work for the class is to make notes while they read the sonnets, using the discussion questions as a guide. They know which question they will answer formally in class, though they are expected to prepare each question. After I give a short lecture, a student volunteer reads the sonnet aloud, then we split into five small groups. I arrange small groups in the first two weeks of class, and we do small group activities throughout the semester.

Students spend about five minutes in small groups discussing their question. As a class, we then come back to a larger group discussion and answer the questions together. Sometimes we only work through one set of questions in a class session. If time permits, I start the question set over for a different sonnet. If we have an engaging class session, I let the conversation go beyond the discussion questions. The small groups answer a different question out of the same set each time. Though I assign a different group leader each time to speak for the group, any student may enter the conversation at any time. We generally are able to cover about two sonnets in a class that is one hour and fifteen minutes long.

Group Questions (most of these work for any sonnets by Wroth):

1. How does Wroth’s sonnet imagine the concept of love? Is it like any other writers we’ve seen so far?

2. How does Wroth image religious experience? Is it profane? Do you find examples of piety? Do you think she’s making any radical statement about Christianity, either Protestantism or Catholicism?

3. Sonnets often work with the speaker’s emotions of frustration, sadness, anger, or melancholy. Do you think the speaker is depressed or sad? Angry? Who or what makes the speaker feel this way?

4. Notice the images in the sonnet. Did any surprise you or seem to jar with the tone? What do they convey?

5. What figures populate the sonnet? Does Wroth work with Venus, Cupid, or another child figure? What about a lover?

The discussion questions often lead us to think about conditions for women writing and the implications for their reputations. Students are particularly surprised by how risky Wroth seems when they study the strict expectations for women in the time period. They are particularly struck by the images of the flaming heart that is “martyr’d” in Sonnet One:

WHEN night’s blacke Mantle could most darknesse prove,
And sleepe (deaths Image) did my senses hyre,
From Knowledge of my selfe, then thoughts did move
Swifter then those, most switnesse neede require?
In sleepe, a Chariot drawne by wind’d Desire,
I saw; where sate bright Venus, Queene of Love,
And at her feete her Sonne, still adding Fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above,
But one heart flaming more then all the rest,
The Goddesse held, and put it to my breast,
Dear Sonne now shut, said she, thus must we winne;
He her obeyd, and martyr’d my poore heart.
I waking hop’d as dreames it would depart,
Yet since, O me, a Lover have I beene.

After we tackle the discussion questions, we will do a close reading of the sonnet, reading it aloud again and pausing after each significant image. I encourage students to read very slowly so they do not miss any important sounds. Students find this first sonnet in the sequence to be Wroth’s most provocative, and we think about some of the religious imagery and language Wroth employs to communicate the speaker’s anguish as a frustrated lover. We think about her alternative “religion to love” instead of any specific Protestant or Catholic theology, with Venus as the deity causing suffering to the speaker, martyring herself for the deity of love. Women often draw on childbirth or the mother-child relationship in their works, but Wroth’s depicting of a female deity and her son conveys erotic rather than maternal warmth. It was a radical statement for a woman writer in England during the seventeenth century.

On the last day we cover Wroth, I ask students to consider how Wroth’s gender affects her writing of the sonnet–or if it affects it at all. Because students read other medieval and early women writers in the course, including short selections by Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Aemelia Lanyer, they are accustomed to the alternative ways that women writers access the divine. Only Wroth, however, offers a competing religious framework, replacing God and his Son, Christ, with a female deity, Venus, and her son, Cupid. The child that appears in subsequent sonnets by her often turns out to be Cupid rather than any of Wroth’s real-life children. Students find Wroth’s voice distinctive and often want to understand more about the conditions for women poets during the early modern period in England. Wroth was a “scandalous” woman in her day, unhappily married. She chose to write about the trials of love in her sonnets instead of staying on safer ground and drawing on biblical authority or her experiences in childbirth. Students find her both radical and liberating–she seems modern and rebellious.

One of the first feminist writers in England, Wroth anticipates the erotic fiction of Aphra Behn and the arguments for equality made by Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft. She revises the sonnet to concentrate on a suffering female speaker rather than the sonnet lady-as-love object, a legacy she left to a later eighteenth-century sonnet writers in England who revived the form and employed it to articulate a more humanized “sexual sublime.”

Works Cited

Wroth, Mary. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Ed. Josephine A. Rogers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1983. Print.