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Cousins in Love: Penshurst Mount Poems

Find out how Lady Mary Wroth and her cousin William Herbert reacted poetically to the consummation and loss of their young love.
You asked me about how important Penshurst Mount was to Mary Wroth and to her first cousin, William Herbert. Well, Penshurst Mount was incredibly important. Not only, I think, because of the relationship and the imaginative relationship between the two cousins, but also because it’s where they first had sexual intercourse when they were quite young. And we didn’t know that, not for a very long time. But recently, Ilona Belle and Steven May have re-edited Wroth’s manuscript poems in Pamphilia to Amphilantus manuscript and print. And now we have access to the companionate poems written by William Herbert and Mary Wroth, where they quite explicitly discuss the sexual encounter on Penshurst Mount.
So I’m going to read to you first a little bit of the poem Elegy by William Herbert, which is in The Huntington. This is when he is describing how their relationship has ended. So about halfway through the poem. “Thou solemnly did swear that from the time thou gavest the spoils to me, though woulds’t maintain a spotless chastity, and un-profaned by any second hand from sport and Love’s delight remove its stand. Till I, whose absence seemingly was mourned, should from a foreign kingdom be returned. Of this, thou made religion and an oath. But see, the frailty of a woman’s truth. Scarce of the sun, to many rooms assigned, and thrice within the changeful ways confined.
And I, scarce three days’ journey from thine eyes, when though new love didst in thy heart devise, and gave the relics of thy virgin head upon the easiest praise as could be be set.”
If we look a little more closely at the passage that I just read to you, you can see that William Herbert is talking about the fact that they had sexual intercourse. “–the spoils to me,” and that about the spoils of her virginity, her spotless chastity. And then he talks about the person to whom she now has transferred her love. And again, it is quite sexually explicit. “–the relics of thy virgin head.” That’s the remainders of her maiden head. There’s nothing there. Now it’s really, quite dark poetry. But William Herbert is clearly hurt, and he believes that Mary Wroth has transferred her love from him to someone else, maybe Robert Wroth.
Mary Wroth, however, had a very different view of the breakup of their relationship. And here I’m going to read some of her poem Penshurst Mount, which is a manuscript in the British Library. “You tell me that I first did hear no love, and maiden passions in this room did move. Oh, why is this alone to bring distress without a salve, but tortures in excess? A cruel steward you are to enrol my once blessed time of purpose to control with eyes of sorrow, yet leave me undone by too much confidence my thread thus spun. In conscience, move not such a spleen of scorn and swelling my despairs are born.”
That’s quite important, that in that first line that I read you, she says that she “first did hear no love.” And that’s a specific reference to the poem’s title, to Penshurst Mount. And it’s where she lost her virginity. She says about her “maiden passions.” And this is the moment that they first make love. But what she sees as something that was a treasured memory, which is “blessed time”, “my once blessed time,” he has turned into something dark. And she said specifically, “don’t use that spleen of scorn,” which we heard so clearly in William Herbert’s poem. She begs him don’t do that, because that is how her despair is born.
So in some ways, what Mary Wroth’s doing is she’s saying, you’re misreading the situation. I don’t have control over who I had to turn to when you left. And so I didn’t– I still love you. I still consider those times blessed, but I’m not able to control who I marry. And we know she went on to marry Robert Wroth.

In this step we will find out how Lady Mary Wroth’s writings about love, including the sonnnets you have just read, are intimately bound up with her real-life romance with her cousin, William Herbert.

Wroth’s love for her cousin seems to have been consummated by a clandestine marriage contract and a series of night time lovers’ trysts at Penshurst Mount, to the north of the family estate, just before each of them were married – within a week – to other people in 1604. Their feelings about the secret love-making and the sudden breaking off of their relationship are expressed poetically in the manuscript versions of their two poems about Penshurst Mount, as critics Ilona Bell and Steven W. May have pointed out.

In this video, Professor Marion Wynne-Davies reads from extracts of William Herbert and Lady Mary Wroth’s poems about Penshurst Mount. She discusses how they reacted poetically to the consummation and loss of their young love.

Watch the video and think about how this biographical insight helps us to understand Wroth’s sonnets. Post a comment with your thoughts. You can find the extracts and further reading in the downloads section.

In the next activity, you will find out more about William Herbert and his poems.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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