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Three sonnets by Lady Mary Wroth

Read through these three sonnets from Wroth’s sequence “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus” to find out how what happens when a woman writes rather than being written about.
(You can download pdf copies if you wish)

—- How does Wroth rewrite the Petrarchan conventions of:

  • love as a burning passion like fire
  • love as a journey across the sea
  • the lover’s sense of imprisonment, grief and even despair?

Make a note of any phrases or images (word pictures) that you find especially striking (or underline these in your printed copy in one colour).

—- What happens when these characteristics of a male Petrarchan lover are appropriated by a female speaker - who is bound by the cultural conventions of female modesty (silence, stillness and restraint and confinement to the household)?

Make a note of any words which foreground Wroth’s identity e.g. personal pronouns like I, me, my, mine (or underline these in your printed copy) and count them.

—- How does Wroth present the figures of Venus, the goddess of love, and her son Cupid?

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus - Sonnet 1

When night’s black Mantle(1) could most darkness prove,
And sleep (death’s Image) did my senses hire (2)
From Knowledge of my self, then thoughts did move
Swifter then those, most swiftness need require. [4]
In sleep, a Chariot drawn by winged Desire,
I saw; where sat bright Venus Queen of Love
And at her feet her Son(3), still adding Fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above, [8]
But one heart flaming more then(4) all the rest,
The Goddess held, and put it to my breast,
‘Dear Son now shoot,’ said she: ‘thus must we win.’
He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart. [12]
I waking, hoped as dreams it would depart,
Yet since, O me, a Lover I have been.


Notes:
1. cloak.
2. take.
3. Son – Cupid.
4. than.

Sonnet 2

How like a fire doth love increase in me!
The longer that it lasts, the stronger still;
The greater, purer, brighter; and doth fill
No eye with wonder more then (1) hopes still be [4]
Bred in my breast, when fires of Love are free
To use that part to their best pleasing will;
And now unpossible it is to kill
The heat so great where Love his strength doth see. [8]
Mine eyes can scarce sustain the flames, my heart
Doth trust in them(2) my passions to impart,
And languishingly strive to show my love.
My breath not able is to breathe least part [12]
Of that increasing fuel of my smart;(3)
Yet love I will, till I but ashes prove.

Notes:
1. than.
2. i.e. her eyes.
3. pain or injury.

Sonnet 3

My pain still smothered in my grievèd breast,
Seeks for some ease, yet cannot passage find,
To be discharged of this unwelcome guest,(1)
When most I strive, more fast his burthens(2) bind. [4]
Like to a Ship on Goodwins(3) cast by wind,
The more she strives, more deep in Sand is pressed,
Till she be lost: so am I in this kind
Sunk, and devoured, and swallowed by unrest. [8]
Lost, shipwracked, spoiled, debarred of smallest hope,
Nothing of pleasure left, save thoughts have scope,
Which wander may. Go then, my thoughts, and cry:
Hope’s perished, Love tempest-beaten, Joy lost, [12]
Killing Despair hath all these blessings crossed,
Yet Faith still cries, Love will not falsify.

Notes:
1. unwelcome guest - Cupid. Seen here as a cargo.
2. burdens, weights.
3. The Goodwins, a sandbank off the coast of Kent, were dangerous to shipping.
Post a comment sharing what you think about Wroth’s sonnets.
How does her identity as a writer emerge and how does this change the Petrarchan conventions?
How does she represent the relationship between Venus and Cupid and herself?

In the next activity we will look at how Wroth’s relationship with William Herbert is linked to poetry and to the suffering and constancy of the conventional Petrarchan lover.

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This article is from the free online course:

Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

Lancaster University