Notes and Queries, Dec 1997 v44 n4 p526(3)

'I Exscribe Your Sonnets': Jonson and Lady Mary Wroth. Pritchard, R.E.

Abstract: The speculations over the relationship between Ben Jonson and Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Philip Sidney's niece, have spanned several years. Even Frederick Fleay suggested that Lady Mary must indeed have been the Celia of Jonson's poems. In Underwood 27, the poem to Celia was immediately followed by 'A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Worth.' Of course, according to the editor of Jonson, the order of the poems might not have been Jonson's but that of his friend, Sir Kenelm Digby.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 Oxford University Press

Over the years, there has been speculation as to the relationship between Ben Jonson and Lady Mary Wroth, poet and niece of Sir Philip Sidney. In 1891, Frederick Fleay suggested(1) that Jonson's 'Celia' might have been Lady Mary, noting how Underwood 27,(2) where the poet asks 'Shall not I my Celia bring / Where men may see whom I do sing?', is immediately followed by 'A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Worth [sic]' (of course, there is no guarantee that the order of the volume is Jonson's and not that of his friend, Sir Kenelm Digby, but 'it is tempting', remarks Jonson's editor, 'to see the organization of the early part of the collection, in particular, as revealing Jonson's own design'(3)). There is very little in the Celia poems by themselves to link them with her, and Celia seems very much a conventional, lay figure; however, the barrier between literary convention and life is not absolute, and one may leak into the other.

Juxtaposition and sequence do provide ways of making points tacitly, and other juxtapositions also seem to have possibilities. Thus, Jonson's epigrams 102-5(4) concern, respectively, William, Earl of Pembroke (Lady Mary's cousin and, at some uncertain time, lover), Lady Mary Wroth, Susan, Countess of Montgomery (William's sister-in-law, who took part with Mary in Jonson's Masque of Blackness in 1605, and for whom she named her Countess of Mountgomeries Urania), and Lady Mary again: the three are tacitly linked, as kindred at least. There is a more suggestive sequence early in The Forest (2-5):(5) after 'To Penshurst', praising the Sidney estate and family, comes 'To Sir Robert Wroth', praising the estate and life of Lady Mary's husband, then, 'To the World. A Farewell for a Gentlewoman, Virtuous and Noble', and then the seduction song from Volpone, 'To Celia'.

In considering the possibility that Lady Mary Wroth was in Jonson's mind when writing 'To the World', about an unhappy lady of noble birth leaving public life (a description applicable to her), one might remember how Jonson speaks in Underwood 28 of copying, and learning from, her sonnets:(6)

I, that have been a lover, and could show it, Though not in these, in rhymes not wholly dumb, Since I exscribe your sonnets, am become A better lover, and much better poet.

One sonnet, number 69 of her love-sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, has verbal similarities to Jonson's 'To the World'. The sequence is particularly concerned at this stage with the effects of jealousy and suspicion, both directed at and felt by the speaker, in the context of a Court romance that must be kept quiet.(7)

An end, fond jealousy: alas, I know Thy hiddenest and thy most secret art; Thou canst no new invention frame, but part I have already seen, and felt with woe.

All thy dissemblings which by reigned show Won my belief, while truth did rule my heart, I, with glad mind embraced, and deemed my smart The spring of joy, whose streams with bliss should flow.

I thought excuses had been reasons true, And that no falsehood could of thee ensue, So soon belief in honest minds is wrought;

But now I find thy flattery and skill, Which idly made me to observe thy will: Thus is my learning by my bondage bought.


I quote (with added italics) merely the more obviously relevant parts of Jonson's well-known poem:(8)

False world, good night. Since thou hast brought That hour upon my morn of age, Henceforth I quit thee from my thought . . .


I know thy forms are studied arts, Try subtle ways be narrow straits . . .


I know . . .


Yes, threaten, do. Alas, I fear As little as I hope from thee; I know thou canst nor show nor bear More hatred than thou hast to me. My tender, first, and simple years Thou didst abuse, and then betray; Since stirredst up jealousies and fears, When all the causes were away. Then in a soil hast planted me Where breathe the basest of thy fools, Where envious arts professed be . . .


There do seem to be similarities: the initial abrupt dismissal, 'alas I know / alas I fear', the emphasis on knowing the power of the deceptive arts and how they 'can no more', the theme of jealousy and falsehood, the malign influence of the suspicious court. One question is, who is remembering whom?

In other sonnets, Lady Mary does indeed echo other writers, notably her uncle and her father, Sir Philip and Sir Robert Sidney, but the verbal echoes are much stronger; here, the power of Jonson's language and thought surely would have had a more obvious effect (as did Cynthia's Revels on another poem(9)). On the other hand, there is evidence that her poems were circulating in manuscript by 1613, at least, if not earlier;(10) Jonson acknowledges writing out her sonnets, the poem follows one on her husband and precedes one to Celia. The date of her affair with Pembroke is not certain, but the emotional relationship at least provided material for sonnets by 1613; Wroth himself, described by Jonson in Conversations as 'a jealous husband',(11) died in 1614, which gives a terminus ad quem for the poem to him. That poem remarks how the household provides musical and poetic entertainment, presided over by his 'noblest spouse' (the adjective taken up in 'To the World'). The song 'To Celia', curiously placed next, dates back to 1605, evoking the scene in Volpone of the attempted adulterous seduction of a 'virtuous gentlewoman'. In 'To the World', lines 25-32, where the lady talks of having escaped from a cage or trap and not intending to return, Jonson echoes Horace's Satire II.vii.68-71 warning against the dangers of 'the habituating effect of adultery';(12) one wonders what brought that passage to Jonson's mind.

The poem is for a 'noble' gentlewoman, a term he has used for Lady Mary, it follows one on her husband and precedes an (unsuccessful) invitation to adultery, and itself has an echo or sub-text of a poem on the folly of adultery. It seems to allude to her circumstances. The 'abuse' and 'betray' of line 42 might fit Lady Mary's view of her being married off in 1604 shortly after William Herbert's marriage: in her prose romance, Urania, she writes stories of young women tricked or forced into marriage despite previous attachments. Likewise, the next lines' causeless jealousy would fit well with the 'jealous husband' who nevertheless could 'not take any exceptions to his wife'.(13) The woman is in her 'morn of age' (Lady Mary was about twenty-seven when her husband died), leaving the 'stage' of the 'false world' that sounds very much like the Court, where there are deception, 'jealousies', and 'rumour', and resigning herself (as Jonson may be here advising Lady Mary) to endure a retired life ('at home') - which is very much like Lady Mary's situation after her husband's death, having to cope with financial difficulties (particularly after her son's death in 1616, when the estate reverted to Robert's brother) and possible disrepute at Court.

The poems have similarities, and probably were written within a fairly short time of each other. Jonson's, published in 1616 though perhaps privately available earlier, could have influenced hers, but, by its sheer strength, surely would have had a more apparent and shaping effect. Jonson certainly would have thought about Lady Mary's situation, both during and after her marriage (to say the least), which could underlie the theme of his poem, and brought her poem into his mind. After all, poems have to come from somewhere: such as, reflections on others' life as much as one's own, and other poems. As for the possibility broached by Fleay, it seems probable that Jonson associated Celia with Lady Mary Wroth, and, more specifically, that he had Lady Mary's situation and poem in his mind when composing 'To the World' and putting it in this particular sequence.

R. E. PRITCHARD Swynnerton

1 Frederick G. Fleay, A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642, 2 vols (London: Reeves and Turner, 1891), 1, 327-8; quoted by Josephine A. Roberts, The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 16.

2 Ian Donaldson (ed.), Ben Jonson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 248-9. All Jonson quotations from this edition.

3 Donaldson, 680.

4 Donaldson, 260-2.

5 Donaldson, 282-90.

6 Donaldson, 349-50.

7 R. E. Pritchard (ed.), Lady Mary Wroth: Poems (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996), 91; and see Roberts, 122-3.

8 Donaldson, 288-9.

9 U49, 'If a clear fountain . . .', Pritchard, 181.

10 Roberts, 19.

11 Donaldson, 603.

12 Donaldson, 674.

13 Pritchard, 8.