"Gender and Genre in the Sonnet Sequences of Philip Sidney and Mary Wroth"

Jennifer Laws
University of Otago
Department of English

Deep South v.2 n.1 (Autumn, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Jennifer Laws, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.
A version of this paper was read at the ANZAMRS Conference in Brisbane, January 29/February 2 1996.

Mary Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was printed in 1621 at the end of her prose romance Urania. A glance at the title page of the whole volume establishes the fact that she saw herself writing in the Sidney family tradition. In the first place, the wording of the title, The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania, closely resembles that of the 1593 edition of Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Secondly, Wroth calls attention to the fact that she is niece to "the ever famous and renowned Sir Philip Sidney knight" and to "Lady Mary Countess of Pembroke." With these marked signals of her family connections, we can, I think, assume that, in writing a sonnet sequence, she was not just conforming belatedly to the sixteenth-century fad for that form, but was deliberately following in her uncle's footsteps, seeking to "imitate" Astrophil and Stella. And this impression is strengthened when we look at the formal content of the two sequences: both contain over one hundred intermingled sonnets and songs.

And yet, when I actually read Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, what strikes me is not its similarity to Astrophil and Stella, but its differences, particularly in relation to gender issues. In place of the lively and at times even assertive Stella, there is the passive and victimised Pamphilia who cannot free herself from the perfidious Amphilanthus. Whereas Sidney seems deliberately to break sonnet conventions by creating not so much an idealised representation of remote feminine beauty as a living responsive human being who can act, Wroth allows her woman to remain inactive and helpless, the victim of another's behaviour. And this is in spite of the fact that the woman in Wroth's sequence has become the poet/narrator; no longer an object, she is now the speaking subject. The opportunities one might imagine that this reversal of roles could bring -- either for female wooing or for the scornful rejection of unwanted male attention -- are simply passed by. Pamphilia remains throughout unfulfilled and yet a model of patient constancy.

The question I find myself asking is: why should Wroth, who had the example of Stella before her and who was herself breaking new ground for women by being the first woman writer in England to publish a romance and a sonnet sequence, why should she in her writing fail to establish a strong female speaking subject? The question becomes even more puzzling if we consider Wroth's personal life, for she appears to have been far from the ideal of a passive compliant woman: she took an active part in court life, performing in the masques of Ben Jonson; after the death of her husband, she dared to have an affair with her cousin William Herbert by whom she produced two illegimate children; and, although she was forced to withdraw the published version of Urania following Lord Denny's vicious attack on her, she replied just as viciously, calling him amongst other insults a "drunken beast." But before I attempt to find some answers to this puzzle of an assertive woman presenting the persona of an unassertive sonnet speaker, I need to consider in a little more detail the claims I have just made about these two sonneteers and their sonnet ladies to establish the differences between them.

First Philip Sidney and his presentation of Stella. To begin with, I want to counter two critical standpoints that see Petrarchan poetry as innately inimical to women. The first one can be quickly dealt with; it is that the woman is silent and not allowed a voice. In fact, of course Sidney's Stella does speak, but not much in the sonnets themselves; her voice is mostly confined to a few songs, notably the eighth and the eleventh, and this causes such critics as Nona Fienberg to lament that Stella is not granted a single sonnet and that her attempt at communication through looks rather than words is "marginalised discourse to which her femininity relegates her." I find such a claim quite extraordinary. Surely a lyric poet is not obliged to represent the words of both sexes. We might as well blame Mary Wroth for not allowing Amphilanthus a say. The second critical standpoint is more problematic and deals with the way the lady is presented through the eyes of the male poet. In her essay on Petrarch entitled "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Nancy Vickers claims the male gaze and resulting blazon of the woman's beauty is akin to dismembering her. While this could possibly be true of a description that concentrates exclusively on the physical aspects of the beloved, it is, I believe quite contrary to the spirit of Sidney's sequence. And I want now for a few minutes to look at the portrayal of Stella and the way it either works against the Petrarchan ideal or goes beyond it.

My main contention is that during the course of the whole sequence Stella is more than just an object of adoration and becomes a convincing human being who can assert her own rights. From the very beginning she acquires credibility because Astrophil does not fall suddenly in love with her at the first glance, but, as he puts it in the second sonnet, "knowne worth did in mine of time proceed, / Till by degrees it had full conquest got." Her "worth," which he gradually comes to know, is the important factor, not her physical beauty. As the sequence proceeds, Stella's physical attributes do indeed come to the fore with all the traditional imagery of light and dark, warmth and cold, sweetness and jewels and there are times when, lifted out of context, it would be quite possible to say -- here is a typical Petrarchan lady, with her separate parts described as though she were an unfeeling object. But, intermingled with praise of Stella is criticism of her, sometimes covert and sometimes blatant. For instance, in Sonnet 59, he accuses her of allowing her dog to become her "mate," a word which has some sexual innuendo; and in Song 5, his anger at her refusal to comply with his demands comes to a head as he pours out abuse, calling her a thief, a tyrant, a witch and a devil. The underlying irony of the sequence directed at Astrophil prevents us from taking this view of Stella seriously, but the fact that these different perspectives on her exist, even if they are just within Astrophil's tortured mind, means that Stella appears to be far from a static symbol; rather she is part of a dynamic relationship and so gains some kind of individuality.

But Stella does not just live in the mind of Astrophil. Gradually we gain a sense of her as an individual being in her own right. Circumstantial details enable us to picture her in action: as we have seen, in 59 she plays with her dog; and at other times she attends tournaments (41 and 53), or reads aloud Astrophil's poetry (57 and 58). And she is given a historical reality. This in itself is not unusual for a sonnet lady -- Petrarch's Laura was supposedly an actual woman. But Sidney goes out of his way to connect Stella with Penelope Rich: he puns on the name "Rich" in Sonnet 24; the point is driven home in 35; and in 37, the name "Rich" is spat out six times.

It is, however, in the latter part of the sequence that Stella becomes most fully realised as we hear her own words. The importance of this lies not just in the fact that she speaks at all, but, as Thomas Roche has pointed out, in what she says. And what she says is that she loves Astrophil -- a most extraordinary turnaround for a sonnet lady. We first learn of this in Sonnet 62 in which Astrophil reports her saying "That love she did" and then we hear this sentiment from her own lips in Song 8:

If more may be sayd, I say,

All my blisse in thee I lay;

If thou love, my love content thee,

For all love, all faith is meant thee.

There is, however, a sting in the tail of both these declarations: in the sonnet she ends her statement "that she did love" with "but loved a Love not blind," that is, she is not going to follow Cupid, the symbol of sexual desire, and in the song she refers to "Tyran honour" which insists that she refuse Astrophil. Sidney has humanised the lady, endowing her with responsive feelings which she articulates directly for us, while at the same time maintaining her moral superiority. While Astrophil writhes in the grip of a passion which he cannot control, Stella shows him a possible solution: he can love, but it must be a love subject to reason. Stella thus becomes the controlling agent of the whole sequence: she allows love, but only chaste love, properly governed. Astrophil, unable to comply with this, remains wretchedly unfulfilled until the end of the sequence.

Stella, then, is not a static symbol, but alive and individualised first within the mind of Astrophil, and then later in the sequence achieving an autonomy of her own. She returns Astrophil's love, thus validating the world of human feelings, but she also clearly articulates the right course of action and so controls the relationship. She remains in command, rising above circumstances, not defeated by them.

The overwhelming impression of Pamphilia, however, is that she continues to be a victim of the behaviour of others. She has to endure the inconstancy of Amphilanthus and can only find relief in retreating from the rest of life. In the first section of the sequence up to the end of Poem 55, her world is one of almost unrelieved gloom; as she exclaims in Poem 19, "Butt O on mee a world of woes do ly"; and in poem after poem night and darkness are her preferred companions. In the second section, where an Anacreontic mischievous Cupid is depicted, her pain and grief are still emphasised. But, in the third section, which consists of a crown of 14 sonnets (Poems 77-90), she temporarily forgets her own situation and lauds Cupid, the great god of love, whose flames, instead of bringing pain, have now become "joyes". This gives the reader a welcome relief from the misery of the first two sections, but it doesn't improve the lot of the speaker who continues to circle in despair. The first sonnet in this section begins with the hopeless question, "In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?" And then after all the praise of Cupid, in Poem 90 she comes back to her own heart and concludes that, in spite of her constancy, she is not worthy of Cupid as she suffers, not surprisingly, from "Curst jealousie" and in the last line she returns to her first question, "In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?" Thus the crown of sonnets is seen as depicting love as an impossible ideal to which no one, however "spotles" can aspire. In the last section Pamphilia returns to her former pain and grief, finding little respite until the final sonnet in which she realises it is time to leave " the discource of Venus, and her sunn / To young beeginers." She at last can escape to "Sleepe in the quiett of a faithful love."

Some critics have argued at length that Pamphilia does, in fact, exhibit strength of mind and establish a kind of autonomy for herself. And there is, I think, a certain amount of truth in this view. I don't want to suggest that Pamphilia is a complete wimp -- she undoubtedly shows inner strength in her ability to withstand suffering and endure the pangs of betrayed love. But I see this behaviour as essentially passive -- quite unlike that of the lively and assertive Stella. In particular I want to counter two arguments that various critics have made to support the notion of Pamphilia's strength: one is that her determination to be constant is a sign that she can take the initiative and make decisions; and the other is that her withdrawal from the world is a way of establishing her own female inner space so that she can be free from male domination and thus project a strong female subjectivity.

As far as her ability to make decisions is concerned, it is a fact that Pamphilia frequently states her determination to continue to love the inconstant Amphilanthus. In the face of her burning love she declares "yet love I will till I butt ashes prove" (P 55) -- she can hardly be more constant than that. But the notion that she actually chooses to be constant is undermined by the many references to her being the victim of love. The first sonnet shows her heart "martir'd" by Cupid and Venus and even in Poem 96 Cupid is still "Burning" her heart. In the very last poem, as we have seen, she does escape the torment while still remaining faithful, but by this time the fire has presumably burnt itself out; while it lasted there seems to have been no choice but to suffer it.

The second critical contention that she withdraws from the world to create a space free from male domination is, I think, based on a misconception -- that the world in this sequence is gendered. The response to Poem 26 illustrates the way several critics have imposed a gratuitous gendering on the court. In this sonnet various activities are described:

When every one to pleasing pastimes hies

Some hunt, some hauke, some play, while some delight

In sweet discourse, and musique showes joys might

Yett I my thoughts doe farr above thes prise.

The joy which I take, is that free from eyes

I sitt, and wunder att this daylike night

Soe to dispose them-selves, as voyd of right;

And leave true pleasure for poore vanities;

When others hunt, my thoughts I have in chase;

If hauke, my minde att wished end doth fly,

Discourse, I with my spiritt tauke, and cry

While others, musique choose as greatest grace.

O God, say I, can thes fond pleasures move?

Or musique bee butt in sweet thoughts of love?

In connection with this poem, Nona Fienberg speaks of the "pastimes of the court 'invented' by men" but I see no evidence for assuming that the world in this poem (or in any of the others in this sequence) is specifically masculine. There is nothing in the language of the poem to suggest this. Certainly music and conversation are activities that women took part in at court -- as I mentioned earlier, we know for a fact that Wroth herself performed in masques, and these were for the benefit of the queen as well as the king-- and she no doubt watched hunting and hawking even if she did not actively participate. Pamphilia's withdrawal from the world, therefore, is not a gendered activity, but one common to many literary lovers, like Astrophil in Sonnet 27 who is "most alone in greatest company." To abandon a world that is common to men and women adds to the general dejection and loss surrounding Pamphilia; it does not convey a sense of female strength.

I now come back to my original question: why does Wroth, apparently setting out to imitate her uncle, make her sonnet lady so helpless and passive? In the first place, we might well ask, why shouldn't she? Imitation does not mean slavishly following the master. Just as Sidney used Petrarch as a source of inspiration, but yet made his own adaptations, so surely can Mary Wroth imitate her uncle, but go her own way. We should not be surprised that she is different. But we are, because as twentieth-century readers we expect to see a woman writer asserting the independence of women, especially when she has an immediate literary example to build on, and is herself so obviously an independently minded woman.

What I want to suggest is that, contrary to our expectations, Wroth is not particularly interested in gender issues in this sequence (I am not making any claims about her other writings or her personal values); but in this sequence she appears to be concerned not so much with gender as with genre.

The lack of interest in gender informs the whole sequence. Just as the world is not gendered so neither are the characters of the protagonists. From the beginning, we know, of course, that Pamphilia is a woman, and Amphilanthus a man but, except for one occasion which I will come back to later, these two are not made representative of their sex and no specifically male or female qualities are associated with either of them. In fact, they are shadowy characters; there are no circumstantial details, such as surround Astrophil and Stella, and there is no development in the relationship between the two lovers. The drama is almost entirely internal, within the mind of Pamphilia, and this mind is largely ungendered -- it is the mind of a literary lover that could be male or female. Many of the poems could be written in the persona of a man -- take, for instance Poem 26 quoted above in which there is nothing to mark the sex of the speaker. Nor, throughout the sequence are the qualities of love and constancy gendered. The asexual nature of these qualities is made all the clearer if we consider the two songs that are not spoken by Pamphilia, but which still harp on betrayed love: Poem 7 is in the voice of a shepherdess "who still constant lov'd"; while Poem 60 is in the voice of a shepherd whose constancy is "his chiefe delighting."

Nevertheless, although gender for the most part is not an issue in itself, it does have an effect on the reader. Even if we are seldom reminded of it, we cannot ignore the fact that Pamphilia is a woman and this subtly affects our sympathies. Her lot is more pathetic than that of the rejected male lover because in herself she is a more vulnerable figure: conventionally woman is the weaker vessel. And it is precisely this quality that is mentioned on the one occasion when gender is overtly discussed. In P. 94, Pamphilia asks all male lovers not to betray women because, as she says:

'Tis' nott for your fame to try

What wee weake nott oft refuse

In owr bownty owr faults ly

When you to doe a fault will chuse.

Man is the one who makes the choice; woman is the "weake" one who suffers. What, of course this does is to intensify the position of the sonnet speaker as victim. All sonnet speakers are victims of love -- slaves to their beloved. By using a female speaking persona, who complies with the conventional picture of woman as essentially helpless, Wroth has made her speaker all the more pathetic. Through Pamphilia's weakness, Wroth has been able to create a powerful sonnet sequence that explores the anguish associated with constant but unrequited love. At the same time, by underplaying gender, the anguish has significance for all humanity -- not just for the female half. For most of the sequence we can read the poems and identify with the speaker whether we are male or female.

Wroth, then, I suggest, set out not to explore gender issues but to write as effective a sonnet sequence as she could, one that would be worthy of the Sidney tradition because of its poetic merit and its appeal to all readers. Rather than reflecting a preoccupation with Wroth's own status as a female writer, Pamphilia seems to be a literary construct that asserts the desirability of constant love while at the same time proclaiming its vulnerability. No doubt Wroth put a part of herself into the sequence: she must have known what it is to suffer the infidelities of a lover, for William Herbert was a notorious womaniser; and in her loss of favour at court, she must have known what it meant to feel like a "bannish'd creature" (Poem 38). But for the most part, the patient Pamphilia seems far removed from what we know of Mary Wroth. Pamphilia, however, does resemble, and even outdo, her male counterpart sonnet speakers in conveying the helplessness of human beings in the grip of passion and the impossibility of achieving perfect union with the beloved object.

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