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sonnet urania literary sidney

Mary Wroth, born Mary Sidney, is known both for her family associations as well as for her literary accomplishments. Daughter of Barbara Gamage and Robert Sidney,* whose estate and hospitality are celebrated in Ben Jonson’s* “To Penshurst,” niece to Mary Sidney,* literary patron and translator of Psalms, and to Philip Sidney,* the renowned Elizabethan courtier and poet, Lady Mary was born into, and participated in, an aristocratic literary culture. As an author, Mary Wroth was the first Englishwoman to compose and publish a prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania , to which was appended her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus . Mary Wroth was also the author of a play, Love’s Victorie , and letters to family and members of the aristocracy and royalty, including Queen Anne. As a young woman in the Jacobean court, Lady Mary participated in court entertainments, specifically as an Ethiopian nymph in Queen Anne’s first masque, The Masque of Blackness (1605) and again in The Masque of Beauty (1608).

In 1604, Lady Mary was married to Robert Wroth, knighted in 1603, son of Sir Robert Wroth. Having acquired her husband’s debts upon his death in 1614 and having lost control of the estate to her husband’s uncle upon the death of their two-year-old son in 1616, Lady Mary’s financial situation changed radically. Any hopes she might have had to gain financial independence through the sale of her romance proved fruitless, as the publication (1621) was revoked six months later.

Lady Mary also maintained a love affair with her first cousin, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. After her husband’s death, she bore two children by Herbert, a son, William, and a daughter, Catherine. Although little is known about these children, the Herbert papers establish that William died unmarried. Gary Waller cites a paper delivered by Sharon Valiant, who suggests that Catherine may have been the mother of Aphra Behn. After the revocation of the Urania in 1621 little is heard from or about Lady Mary save documents recording the transfer of land. As Waller further notes, “[H]er death is referred to in passing in a Chancery deposition of 1668” as having most likely occurred in 1653.


As the title of Lady Mary’s romance and sonnet sequence suggests, Lady Mary establishes herself as a literary descendant of her uncle Philip Sidney, as indicated by their nominal similarities between her uncle’s Arcadia and his sonnet sequence, later called Astrophil and Stella , and her Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus . In the sonnet sequence, Lady Mary explores the language and structure of Petrarchism through the creation of her female persona, Pamphilia (‘‘lover of all’’?), and through her reversal of conventionally gendered roles of lover and beloved. Unlike the Elizabethan male sonneteers, Wroth does not catalog the physical attribute of the beloved and uses the language of praise more often in the service of ideal love. While she makes use of the language of the suffering lover, the figure of Amphilanthus, who would conventionally be the source of this suffering, is notably absent. The sonnet sequence’s tour de force is a fourteen-sonnet cycle entitled “A crowne of Sonetts dedicated to Love.” Using the corona structure, where the last line of each sonnet is the first line of the next, Wroth creates an architecture using both the image of the circle and the labyrinth.

Mary Ellen Lamb characterizes the Urania as “loosely structured upon…a series of enchantments, the relationship between Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, and the multiple refractions of events and issues encountered by Pamphilia through dozens of other plots and characters” (144). Wroth makes use of inset stories, inset lyrics, digression, and dialogue in a composition that merges narrative technique with themes of love, identity, and female rule. Throughout, Pamphilia’s constancy is emphasized, as opposed to Amphilanthus’ infidelity, as is the subject of women as authors of, and audience for, romances.

Roberts theorizes that Wroth’s play Love’s Victorie was composed in the 1620s, about the time when she was writing the second (and unpublished) half of the Urania . Roberts draws a parallel between the two, particularly in terms of plot, in which Cupid takes revenge on two lovers and uses pastoral conventions such as the disguised shepherd/poets. The play appears not to have been performed.


As with many early female writers, the history of critical reception is brief and has been written primarily in the last quarter of this century. Modern critical studies of Wroth’s lyric poetry were made possible by the archival and editorial work of the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the forthcoming edition of the Urania and the recent publication of Loves Victory , Lady Mary’s work will be available to a larger audience for study and critique.

To say that Lady Mary was unrecognized as an author in her own time would be inaccurate. Ben Jonson* praises her gifts as a poet in a sonnet in which he claims to have been a better lover and poet. Perhaps the most notorious record of contemporary reception is contained in an exchange of letters between Lady Mary and Lord Edward Denny. Angered by what he believed to be references to family scandal in her Urania , Denny accuses Lady Mary, in verse, of being “hermaphrodite in show/In deed a monster.” He also chastises her for her choice of genres and for not following the example of her aunt, who chose sacred over amorous subject matter.

Lady Mary Wroth’s importance is not simply historical; it is literary as well. As one of the first women to compose, in English, a substantial and complex body of work, she invites us to challenge our ideas of female authorship, genre, and literary history.

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