Remembering Orpheus in the poems of Aemilia Lanyer

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 1998 by Kari Boyd McBride

Lanyer's choice of these particular poems as loci for poetic profession is telling. As Celeste Schenck has argued, certain genres traditionally serve to articulate a poetic voice: "[C] eremonial poems, even occasional pieces composed under patronage, often bear a vocational subtext, an obsessive concern with the conditions that occasioned them . . . During the course of such initiatory dramas, poets pronounce epitaphs on literary apprenticeship and articulate . . . successful passage to mature vocation."(3) Schenck's understanding of the "vocational subtext" of such poems goes far to explain Lanyer's "obsessive concern" in "Cooke-ham" with the book's commissioning by Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, as well as Lanyer's efforts to establish her connection to female patrons such as Mary Sidney and points the reader to the poems' reliance on features of the initiatory pastoral poem.(4) By invoking these generic forms, Lanyer positions herself in a poetic lineage that stretches from Theocritus through Virgil and Spenser - and beyond Lanyer to Milton. At the same time, Lanyer's use of the pastoral departs significantly from this patrilineage, implying that, if the pastoral were to serve to authorize female poetic voice, the relationship of female to male within the generic conventions would have to be altered and the cultural assumptions upon which the genre rested would have to be rethought from within the genre itself. The result is a new articulation of the pastoral that challenges the way poetic subjectivity and, thus, poetic voice are constructed.

For the purpose of this inquiry, I am not interested in pastoral generic conventions as realized in dramatized conversations between artificial shepherds in an Arcadian landscape (although such a scene forms part of "The Authors Dreame"). Rather I want to focus on the way those motifs of pastoral derived from the Orpheus myth have been traditionally used as a context for claiming a poetic vocation: in particular, Orpheus's poetic lineage, the context of love and loss that engender his poetry, the fragmentation necessary to poetic expression, the power of poetry to charm nature, and the stellification of the poet. While the story of Orpheus itself suggests two of the principal kinds of poetry that commonly mark initiatory pastoral poems - epithalamium and elegy - it is the mythic figuring of Orpheus as urpoet that makes Orphic narrative the stuff of poetic profession. Thus Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion" is more significant to my discussion than his Shepheardes Calender (though the latter work is of course a vocational poem), for it is in the wedding song that he models himself on Orpheus (the poet whom the woods answer) and professes poetry within a genre - epithalamium - whose origins are linked to the Orpheus story. By writing in that genre and by alluding to Orpheus, Spenser claims for himself the status of poet, only secondarily immortalizing his love for his wife.(5) John Milton's "Lycidas" is a fuller expression of the initiatory pastoral form, drawing generically on both epithalamium and elegy, lamenting the death of the poet's friend, a type of Orpheus, and seeming to find consolation in a vision of the marriage scene in the heavenly Jerusalem. What makes Edward King worth a poem of this caliber is not his existence as Milton's sometime friend, but his figuring as poet corpse on whose body Milton can construct a poetic self.(6) Of course, not all epithalamia and elegies articulate poetic profession. But, in the context of topoi derived from the story of Orpheus, both genres serve to construct a poetic self upon the body of the beloved. The strange confluence of these genres is to be found in the Orphic material transmitted by Ovid and Virgil as well as in pastoral poetry from the earliest times. And the poetic convention of mourning the "death" of the virgin and her virginity in marriage has archaic Greek origins (in Sappho, for example). Schenck suggests that the two genres are merely apparently contradictory, that they in fact have "unexpected similarities." Both genres, she says, are "designed to defer closure by ritually marking passage from one state to another," elegy by "ensuring the corpse's resuscitation" through "apotheosis and stellification," and epithalamium by its celebrating the "insemination of the bride and [the] imagined future of her issue."(7)

I would further suggest that epithalamium imitates elegy because some kind of death or loss is the necessary precondition of each: the obvious precursor to lament, but also necessary to epithalamia in the Spenserian tradition informed by the Petrarchan mode where the male self is constructed at the expense of female subjectivity. The object of male desire is, as object, silent and passive (if not dead), notwithstanding the poet's description of his torments at her hands. Indeed, the need to reassert male primacy in the amorous exchange may play a part in the construction of a love "object" by the poet subject. Beatrice may thus be the ideal inamorata, but even Stella will serve, and serve better the more she resembles Beatrice and the less she resembles Penelope Devereux. Studies like Nancy J. Vickers's "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme" delineate the dismemberment of the female love object in the blazon of the Petrarchan tradition. Vickers cites Josette Feral who argues that "Woman remains the instrument by which man attains unity, and she pays for it at the price of her own dispersion." Or, as Vickers puts it, "bodies fetishized . . . do not have a voice of their own; the world of making words, of making texts, is not theirs."(8) Marguerite Waller has also suggested that the self engendered by the Renaissance lyric is always gendered, always male, that "[t]he political economy of sovereign male selfhood is . . . dependent upon reducing woman to the status of an object."(9) Thus both epithalamium, the celebration of love, and elegy, the lament for the dead, destroy the object of love. In both genres, identity is constructed at the expense of affection.(10)


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