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Lanyer, Aemilia (1569–1645) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

lanyer’s women writing dark

Aemilia Lanyer’s biography has been long confounded with Shakespearean* mythology since A. L. Rowse confidently identified her as the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a woman of dark complexion and bad reputation. Recently, Susanne Woods provides the most reliable account of her life. She was born in London in January 1569, the daughter of Baptist Bassano, a native of Venice and court musician to Queen Elizabeth, and his common-law wife, Margaret Johnson. As a young girl, she served, and was educated in, the household of Susan Wingfield, the countess of Kent. Early in the 1600s, she spent time at the country estate of Margaret, countess of Cumberland, whom she credits with fostering her poetry. Around 1587, at age eighteen, Aemilia became the mistress of Henry Cary, Lord Hunsdon, the queen’s lord chamberlain, a man forty-five years her senior. Apparently upon becoming pregnant by him, she was hastily married to Alphonso Lanyer in October 1592 and early in 1593 she bore a son. Much of our knowledge about Lanyer during these years comes from the diary of Simon Forman, an astrologer whom she consulted several times in 1597. Forman indicates a growing sexual interest in Lanyer, which she declined to reciprocate, and thus the doubtfulness of his accounts of her character (“she was a hore and delt evill with him after” [cited Woods, xxiii]). Rowse, however, used them to substantiate her immorality and hence, her suitability as a candidate for the Dark Lady. In 1598 Lanyer bore—and buried—an infant daughter, Odillya, and Woods suggests that its “name derives from combining ‘ode’ with her own name, ‘Aemilia,’ perhaps reflecting her developing identity as a poet”(xxv). Lanyer’s only published work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), despite its wide net of dedicatory poems, apparently did not succeed in gaining Lanyer needed patrons, and she remained a marginal figure in court circles. Her husband’s death in 1613 resulted in further financial hardship; for the next twenty years, Lanyer was involved in litigation with Alphonso’s relatives over the control of his hay and grain monopoly. In 1617, she founded a school in St. Giles in the Field, a wealthy suburb of London. Unfortunately, we know nothing about the curriculum or her clientele, only that the enterprise was plagued by legal disputes with the landlord and discontinued in 1619. Lanyer outlived her son (who, like Alphonso, became a court musician) and died in 1645, at the venerable age of seventy-six.


Only within the last ten years has Lanyer’s poetry received any serious critical attention. Rowse, committed to the fantasy that Lanyer was the Dark Lady, disavowed any interest in her as a poet. Barbara K. Lewalski has done the most to reclaim Lanyer and to place her work in the context of Protestant poetics, patronage, and feminist criticism. Though Lanyer’s “feminist perceptions can be rendered only in terms of the discourse of Scripture,…they force a radical imaginative rewriting of its patriarchal norms to place women at the center” ( Writing Women , 219). For Wall, Lanyer writes both “within and against an ideologically problematic discourse” (53). Specifically, she refashions Petrarchism and empowers herself as a female poet by presenting the “spritualized and eroticized body of Christ” (64) as the object of the female gaze. On the other hand, Beilin, though she emphasizes Lanyer’s “quintessentially feminine poetic   consciousness” (179), emphasizes the work’s conventional devotional contexts, within which Lanyer presents women as the epitome of Christian virtue. Differing from Beilin, McGrath finds Lanyer’s devotional stance a “coded cover” for her writing project, one purpose of which is to claim for women active subjectivity in their experiences of religion and writing.

Lanyer’s poetry clearly foregrounds women’s virtuous relationships and claims for them a privileged place in the Christian community, while offering alternative, even subversive, interpretations of Scripture and tradition. Further research would situate Lanyer with regard to the emerging tradition of women’s writing in the seventeenth century, uncovering possible references to her work, voices echoing hers, or similar treatment of biblical material. Especially fruitful might be the writings of women involved in sectarian religious activity. Even readers of Paradise Lost have wondered if Milton’s account of Adam’s and Eve’s responsibilities for the Fall in Book IX is in part a response to a subversive exegesis like Lanyer’s. Surely Lanyer’s work participates in—or even inaugurates—a tradition of revisionist, protofeminine scriptural exegesis in the seventeenth century, as well as engaging the centuries-old querelle des femmes .

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