Tuesday, June 23, 2015
STEEP TEA: Aemilia Lanyer
As far as we know, Aemilia Lanyer wrote only one book, but a big and ambitious one. Published at the age of 42, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a Christian defense of women's virtue against interpreters such as St. Augustine. It is made up of several parts but the most interesting for me is an apology for Eve. The defense, imaginative, ranging, and vigorous, may be summed thus: Eve's fault was only too much love. This idea I took as the premise of my opening poem "Eve's Fault," in which Eve has not one but three lovers, God, the snake and Adam.
Lanyer's editor Danielle Clarke is certainly right to point out in her introduction that Lanyer's "feminism" must be carefully understood within the contexts and terms of her time. For instance, a revision of biblical tradition regarding Eve's culpability was not necessarily subversive. Lanyer was in fact very traditional in seeing the representative woman in Eve. My poem does not seek to depict Eve as a universal type so much as a "historical" mother, from whom we inherit our inclination to love too much.
Clarke reads the poem as primarily an act of Renaissance self-fashioning. To claim virtue and authorship, Lanyer had to proclaim virtue and authorship through her long poem, which includes ten dedicatory encomia, all addressed to noblewoman, beginning wth the queen. The personal impulses behind such strenuous effort may be guessed at from the few known facts about her life. Clarke: "... she was raised in the household of the Countess of Kent. She had an affair with Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, bore his child and was married off to a musician, Alphonso Lanyer. She clearly spent time with the aristocratic northern Clifford family (mother and daughter) at Cookham ..., but the circumstances surrounding this are unclear." Illicit love, social disgrace, unhappy marriage, desire for vindication, these are powerful forces propelling the wish to speak.