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Yet, I suggest that while Anne Clifford succeeded in life -- she was at last able to join the fellowship at Penshurst and through long life and tenacity to reclaim her lands -- Aemilia Lanyer succeeds in an imaginative vision: out of marginality, out 'of absence, darkness..., things which are not,' indeed out of weakness, Lanyer creates in Salve Deus a remarkable community of strength, present more powerfully and enduringly in her fiction than in life itself. (Pebworth and Summers 46)
This fictionalization of such a "remarkable community" is one aspect of the rigors of life during this period in history that might escape a casual reader today, but the fact that Lanyer was able to craft such a work during such an otherwise bleak era suggests that she did in fact have some compelling reasons beyond money and fame that drove her work.
John Milton's masque "Comus." Because Europe was faced with a population boom, land was in short supply and food was scarce, chastity it would seem would be perceived as an increasingly valuable social trait. Likewise, it would be reasonable to posit that premarital sex was socially acceptable as long as no one knew, no issue resulted, and it was "not with my sister," but this did not stop the sly-tongued Comus from trying by using a lose-it-or-lose-it argument. In his essay, "Milton's Comus, Lines 743-44," Malpezzi (1995) reports that, "Comus attempts to seduce the virtuous Lady by using an argument from Nature: 'If you let slip time, like a neglected rose / it withers on the stalk with languish't head.' Yet while Comus allures, Milton encodes within the language of temptation the rationale for rejecting the proffered potion of Comus and his crew" (194).
As Comus reminds the Lady that life is short and beauty fades," Malpezzi adds, "his words reverberate with the echoes of numerous classical and Renaissance poems. Surely Milton's contemporary audience heard those words in the context of the biblically apocryphal but nonetheless morally sapient Book of Wisdom" (195). This emphasis on the virtues of resisting temptation was not a particularly popular topic during this period in history, though. According to Hunter (1983), Milton's masque Comus has not received a great deal of popular response since its original production at Ludlow Castle on the evening of September 29, 1634 for these two reasons: "The reason is not far to seek: in his play Milton exalts the virtue of chastity. Wondering what will protect from danger their sister, who is lost in the "wild wood" of the opening scene, the younger brother hears from his older sibling that she has "a hidden strength:... 'Tis chastitie, my brother, chastitie" (433-435 quoted in Hunter at 1). Furthermore, Milton maintains that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, no one, "Will dare to soyl her virgin purity"; therefore, at this point in the work, even the act rape holds no power over his older sister: "No evill thing... Has hurtfull power ore true virginity" (446-451), a statement that Hunter argues is "so at odds with the facts of life as to nonplus any audience. Even after the brothers learn from the Attendant Spirit Thyrsis that their sister has fallen under Comus's dread power, the older brother refuses to be overcome by the bad news" (Hunter 1). In the final analysis, Milton provides his audience with a solution to the arguments presented by Comus in the form of a powerful reminder concerning the manner in which spirituality could overcome even these powerful forces: "Milton's lines emblematize Christ crucified, the Rose of Sharon dying on the stalk of the Cross and with languished head surrendering his life for humankind" (Malpezzi 195).
Mary Wroth's "Urania." According to Haselkorn and Travistky (1990), there is a suggestion of the ambivalence in the mind of even a woman writer concerning a woman's role in society in "Urania":
The debate concerning the legitimacy of women's rule did not disappear in the twenty-five-year period that separates Spenser from Lady Mary Wroth, the first Englishwoman to compose an original work of prose fiction, the Countesse of Mountgomery's Urania (1621). The political situation that framed the controversy over gynecocracy changed radically with the transfer of power from a female monarch to James I, a believer in royal absolutism. Under the Jacobean reign women experienced a sudden decline in the areas of education and social freedom. (196)
Furthermore, in a patronage system, offending the powers that be was not something that savvy poets did routinely, and Wroth was also no exception. For example, in her book, Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism, Moore (2000) reports that, "Lady Mary Wroth published a book containing her prose romance, the Countesse of Mountgomerie's Urania, and her sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, but withdrew it from print and never printed the romance's second half because she was accused of slandering a prominent family through veiled topical references (4).
From a strictly pragmatic perspective, it would be reasonable to assert that the influence of patronage and courtly favor on these works on the authors was the reason they were written in the first place. For example, according to Black's Law Dictionary (1990), patronage is a "collective term to describe the customers of a business" (1127). The real "art" involved from this perspective would be how well the written piece satisfied the patron's guidelines while managing to make him or her appear even better than the patron could expect. The ability of these authors to accomplish this component of their business relationships with their patrons was also a way in which they were able to socially advance themselves, because other, similarly situated clientele might well desire their services to help them look better and capture their lives in print for posterity. From this purely pragmatic perspective, these authors were highly motivated for both financial as well as social advancement purposes, with the level of each depending on the individual involved and the patrons for whom they crafted such literary works. There were clearly other forces at play during this period in history, though, including profound religious convictions as espoused by Milton and the proper role of women in society as exemplified by Lanyer.
Briggs, Julia. This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Haselkorn, Anne M. And Betty S. Travitsky. The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.
Hunter, William B., Jr. Milton's Comus: Family Piece. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Company, 1983.
Malpezzi, Frances. (1995). "Milton's Comus, Lines 743-44." The Explicator 53(4):195.
Matz, Robert. Defending Literature in Early Modern England: Renaissance Literary Theory in Social Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Moore, Mary B. Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Pebworth, Ted-Larry and Claude J. Summers. Literary Circles and Cultural Communities in…[continue]
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