Title: COMPLETING THE CONVERSATION ,  By: Quilligan, Maureen, Shakespeare Studies, 05829399, 1997, Vol. 25


To take up the major early seventeenth-century poets together as a cohort, as Paul Alpers once suggested--not divided up into separate schools of "The Sons of Ben Jonson" and of "The Metaphysicals a la John Donne," but to see them in their quite local (new historicist) context--is not only an intrinsically interesting idea but one which has a great deal to suggest to the study of early modern women. To do so would also put us in a better position to be able to consider, for example, Lady Mary Wroth's writing as something other than the mere imitation of family members' outmoded styles, decades out of fashion. To take Wroth up as not merely a member of her family or her gender, but of her generational cohort, promises to add something that heretofore has been missing from our sense of the dominant poets themselves, that is, the other side of the conversation, the women to whom, in fact, they were in part speaking and to whom they may quite well have been listening. My program for the continuing study of early modern women then, is to deghettoize them, and to place them in that local historical context where they, like their male counterparts, are most specifically revealed.

Scholarship has up till now quite rightly emphasized sexual difference by focusing on what early modern women have in common with each other, whether experientially based in local history or essentially formed by the shared characteristics of their common (transtemporal) gender. Both approaches have constructed the early modern woman if not as a fully agented and autonomous subject, then certainly as a subject of study. What is needed now is to fold this new subject back into the old, so to speak, and to let it work its transformation. That is, to change the entire landscape of, for example, early seventeenth-century lyric poetry, not merely by sticking a heretofore unnoticed feature onto the map but by seeing how that new feature changes the relationship among all other features. Another example may help.

The Sidney legacy--a set of influences deriving from her aunt, uncle, and father--may well remain a very powerful context in which to understand Mary Wroth.[1] But the juxtaposition of Wroth to Donne has this effect: it helps retrieve for us a sense of the power of context for him as well as for her. And by this context I mean both their experience of the patriarchally organized traffic in women and also of developing institutions of New World colonization. Their different sexual ideologies were forged through the impact of patriarchal structures on each, and their responses to the voyages to the New World are formulated through gender.

Unusually similar to each other in this matter, Donne and Wroth both appear to have freely risked virtually their entire social position in order to make their own affectionate choices; they both thus transgressed against the rules governing the normal traffic in women in patriarchal society and consequently they both seem to value passionate eroticism over other social goods.

Wroth had fallen in love with her first cousin, and Donne had fallen in love and married the sixteen-year-old niece of the Lord for whom he worked as secretary. As a member of a great household, then, Donne's breach in stealing the affections of a teenage girl without her father's consent is something akin to the trespass against the exogamous traffic in women Wroth also caused when she bore to her first cousin two illegitimate children. Donne's wife's father had him arrested and then went so far as to have Lord Egerton dismiss him from his position as secretary, a scandal from which Donne's career never fully recovered.[2] Both transgressed against the social rules prescribing conduct in the selection of appropriate mates--both then in some profoundly similar sense, transgressed against the patriarchal system run by incest taboos.

In 1621 Wroth published her scandalous romance, The Countess of Montgomerie's Urania; in that same year Donne finally was elected to the position of the Dean of St. Paul's. If both had transgressed, and if both had paid the price, Donne had managed through a long apprenticeship in royal obedience to win his way back to the arena of public power. As is hardly surprising, Wroth never regained her position of favored courtier, but remained in exile. Not surprisingly, both value private passion above career in remarkably similar terms. For example, in lines from "The Canonization" bristling with chiasmus and zeugma, Donne dismisses those who would pursue worldly advancement: "With wealth your state, your mind with Arts improve, / Take you a course, get you a place / Observe his honour, or his grace, / Or the Kings real, or his stamped face." He further flaunts his solipsistic unconcern in the "Sunne Rising": "Goe tell Court-huntsmen that the King will ride ... Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clyme." Similarly Wroth oppositionally lists the other pursuits of lesser pastimes, of far less value than those she prefers, solitude and her contemplation of love:

When others hunt, my thoughts I haue in chase;
If hauke, my minde at wished end doth flye:
Discourse, I with my spirit talke and crye.

While such similarities do not demonstrate direct influence, Wroth and Donne could easily have known of each other's work. Wroth's manuscript verse circulated in the same society as Donne's, and Ben Jonson wrote three poems to her, one a sonnet that describes how he has become a better poet since copying out her verse.[3] While Donne wrote nothing directly to Wroth, he did write verse letters and delivered sermons to Susan Vere, Countess of Montgomerie, Wroth's cousin-in-law and the woman for whom Wroth titled her Urania. James Hay was a great supporter of Donne trying to win for Donne some court position. It was this same James Hay whose problematic marriage occasioned the shocking behavior of his father-in-law Lord Denny, which Wroth portrayed in the scandalous Sirelius episode, for which Denny castigated her before Buckingham and which caused another scandal clouding the publication of the Urania. Lord Herbert of Cherbury was a great friend to Donne and one of Wroth's cousins--for whom he wrote a lovely sonnet honoring the birth of one of the illegitimate children that she bore to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The sonnet extolled her poetry but explained how much better she could be at it than any of the men, because whereas they could make feet in their verse, he charmingly explained, she could add toes to those feet.

Both Wroth and Donne, as members of their circle, also experienced its engagement in one of the most interesting cultural projects then afoot: the colonization of the New World. Donne had tried very hard to be made treasurer of the Virginia company. Had he succeeded rather than failing, he would have been aboard the ship that went down in the Bermudas, the report of which was part of the inspiration for Shakespeare's Tempest. One of the passengers on that ship indeed, who finally did make it to Jamestown, was John Rolfe, who ultimately married Pocahontas and who escorted her on her much heralded visit to James's court in 1616. So too, William Herbert, father of Wroth's two illegitimate children, and the man for whom Amphilantus is named in both romance and sonnet cycle, was a council member of the Virginia Company and was one who, therefore, presumably turned down Donne's petition in 1609. For his part, Donne as Dean of St. Paul's preached to the Virginia company on at least two occasions.[4]

In a sonnet, the central conceit of which is so continuously worked through all the fourteen lines and is so variously displayed that it at least begins to conform to what some critics have made the standard for a metaphysical conceit, Wroth compares herself in love to West Indians worshiping a sun god: This is Sonnet #22 of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus:

Like to the Indians scorched with the Sunne,
The Sunne which they doe as their God adore:
So am I vs'd by Love, for euermore
I worship him, less fauours haue I wonne.
Better are they who thus to blackness run,
And so can onely whiteness want deplore:
Then I who pale and white am with griefes store,
Nor can haue hope, but to see hopes vndone.
Besides their sacrifice recieu'd in sight
Of their chose Saint, mine hid as worthlesse rite,
Grant me to see where I my offerings giue.
Then let me weare the marke of Cupids might
In heart, as they in skin of Phoebus light,
Not ceasing offerings to Loue while I liue.

Compared to Donne's most famous exclamation about the New World in the epigram "On Going to Bed," their differently gendered positions are telling. Whereas Mary Wroth can imagine herself in the same (ungendered) position as the Indians, in the famous exclamation Donne occupies the role of masculine owner of the New World, claiming an absolute sovereignty of the male self-owning subject over the feminized new world.

Oh my America! my new-found-land,
My Kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My Myne of precious stones: My Emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!

(Shawcross, p. 58)

Donne's immediate association of this Pan-European project with the question of bondage, slavery, and freedom and the way in which this thralldom underwrites the privileged position of the sovereign male subject--taking on the position of the king of this new land-causes him to imagine himself in that sovereign position.[5] The lines immediately following refer to this bottom-line boundary, as it were, of masculine subject-hood at this time.

To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.


While Donne refers to sexual foreplay, the language is the language of indentured servitude--the means by which labor in much of the English-speaking New World was organized.[6]

In contrast to Donne's imperial ownership, Wroth's immediate identification is with the Indians. Her speaker envies their totally alien practices at the very point where their otherness seems most obvious: that is, in their idolatrous worship of a foreign deity specifically as that worship has an effect on what was becoming the most obvious marker of racial otherness, skin color.

It might be that Wroth's sensitivity to the whole issue of skin color comes from having played a role--in blackface--in Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness and the sequel, Masque of Beauty, where the central trope demonstrates the miraculous power of the imperial James to do the impossible: to blanch an Ethiope white.[7] Wroth reproduces an aestheticized discourse of racial otherness with a twist--her speaker envies the scorched Indians because they can openly worship their beloved. Troping the already troped Petrarchan turn on the fairness of the beloved, Wroth wishes she had the presumably black mark of her god's response in her heart; she could thus be favored without, punningly, becoming ill-favored, that is, tanned.

Where Donne speaks the language of possession and ownership, Wroth talks about the body's physical boundaries--circling in on the skin, how it feels and what it looks like, and how that skin is a marker of otherness. Nakedness is a witty seduction in Donne; in Wroth it is no less erotic for being engaged in an elaborate conceit that creates out of an idolatrous otherness a newly internalized space for female subjectivity.

Donne's sense of possessing the new world as a naked female body, and Wroth's at least temporary identification with the naked bodies of native others in the scorched Indians sonnet, are an almost textbook demonstration of the differences between male and female subjectivity as Kate Belsey has outlined them in The Subject of Tragedy. Where male subjectivity is marked by unity, fixedness, and autonomy, female subjectivity is marked by what Belsey calls a "discursive discontinuity"; they are unfixed, asymmetrical, slippery (and, therefore, suspect, needing to be policed), their very unfixedness underwriting the sense of automonous fixity on the part of the male subject, whose stable position is obtained through and in contrast to their unstable positions.[8] In Wroth, this very unfixity allows her to imagine an identification with another other, which would allow her the public freedom of expression denied her by her censorious society.

Wroth's use of a term very close to Donne's famous use of another complicated conceit for the mutually constituting relationship between male and female subjectivity may again demonstrate the sexual difference that marks their shared generational experience. Although it does not seem that Wroth is specifically troping Donne's trope, her signal rewrite of her uncle's text also allows us to compare her to Donne's practice. When Urania takes up a lamb and cradles it in her arms in one of the opening scenes of the romance, she is rewriting a scene in the Arcadia, in which Sidney describes a picture of the absent Urania holding a lamb, whose "little foot could have been the circle of her thoughts."[9] In Wroth's romance, Urania meets up with the lamb only after the narrative has opened an interesting internal space for Urania's thoughts:

leaving [her] flocke to the charge of a young Lad of hers, [she] tooke her way towards the rocke, her mind faster going then her feete, busied still, like one holding the Compasse, when he makes a circle, turns it round in his owne center: so did shee, her thoughts incircled in the ignorance of her being. From this she was a little mou'd by the comming of a pretie lambe towards her.[10]

Donne's famous use of a draughtman's compass to describe his union with his wife in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" makes the compass a locus classicus for the constitutive reciprocity of gender at this time:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other doe.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th'other foot obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne.[11]

It is clear that all the talk of circles and feet in Wroth's prose passage directly rewrites her uncle's picture of the paradigmatically pastoral Urania. But is that the end of Wroth's negotiation with a male tradition? What of the compass? It is a navigator's compass, of course, and so is therefore different from Donne's conceit: but that circle the man who carries the compass makes, with himself at the center point, is like the marks Donne's compass makes on papera circle with a dot in the middle, being the alchemical symbol for gold, and so Donne's two images hold together metaphysically. Urania's interior space of subjectivity inscribed by the circle of the compass is as unfixed as that wandering man who tries to figure out where he is. Her self here is "incircled in the ignorance of her being." Urania is as unfixed as Donne insists he is fixed (even though he wanders) by his woman's constituting otherness; she is fixed only to stabilize him. Urania will ultimately be identified when her family is found, and thus even with Wroth, a female identity is speakable only within the containing family. But the terms for the interiority she opens up, within the tableau she borrows and so significantly rewrites from her uncle's text, does seem strangely to answer the conundrum posed by Donne's text about the experience of that flea-squashing, encircled, fixed, but still moving female foot.

It is difficult to compare prose with verse; it is also very difficult to track allusions within a generation of male authors. But not only do we do Wroth and other women writers a disservice by neglecting their place within their contemporaneous cohorts, neither do we serve those cohorts well who sound rather different from before, when we hear them in conversation with their not entirely chaste, obedient, nor silent contemporaries. If, say, we take into account the room made on the Restoration stage for a woman playwright like Aphra Behn, we are in a better position to read the gendered nature of Milton's celebration, in Samson Agonistes, of the imagined triumphant destruction of a carnal theater. New historicism has taught us the remarkably enlivening power of historical context; feminist scholarship has so far made heretofore invisible women visible. Now what we need to do is continue to study early modern women where they belong, in context, understanding that this contextualization will remake the history of early modern English literature.


1. Mary Ellen Lamb has, for example, cogently argued for her place with an argument about--as Lamb's title has it: the relationship between Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle (University Of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

2. R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1970), chapt. 7, esp. pp. 134-35.

3. "A Sonnet, To the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth," Underwood, in The Poems of Ben Jonson, ed. Bernard Dewdigate (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936), p. 129.; Mary Ellen Lamb has interestingly argued that in this poem Jonson imitates the rhythms of his own sexual arousal; such a reading may go too far, but her understanding of Jonson's emphatic response to the poem in terms of its author's gender is insistently correct (p. 155).

4. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. Geroge R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), I, 1, and IV, 10.

5. Donne, of course, is punning on the notion of taking off one's clothes, his "discovery" or "uncovering" of his mistress as the New World, but in making this play, his language resonates with the whole course of discovery narratives that gendered the New World continents female as a means for inducing their economic exploitation. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Gender, Order, Rhetoric (London: Methuen, 1988).

6. Stephen Greenblatt has interestingly observed that Donne's Christian paradox in the holy sonnets could be applied to Columbus's reasoning about the Indians: thus exemplified by Donne's sexualized demand of God in Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart," that for him "except you enthrall me, never shall [he] be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish me," the bondage part of the paradox has a perhaps even more pertinent earlier meaning in the poem on his mistress, referring not to a metaphorical imprisonment in the flesh, as it were, but to a real set of economic contracts having to do with the New World. Marvelous Posessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, 1991), p. 70.

7. As Kim Hall has resonantly argued, the imperial, political program of racial otherness is predicated on the aesthetic discourse of gender as beauty: "Sexual Politics and Cultural Identity in The Masque of Blackness," in Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Poitics, ed. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (University of Iowa Press, 1991), pp. 3-18.

8. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 149-51.

9. I owe this point to Alison Chapman, "The Reworking of Urania: Lady Mary Wroth's Revisionary Writing," unpublished paper, University of Pennsylvania, 1992; Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Maurice Evans, (Penguin, 1977), p. 97.

10. The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania, Brown Women Writers Project, p. 14.

11. The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).