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Don Selby & Diane Boller
Traci Brimhall's Poetry Month Pick, April 3, 2012
from "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus"
by Mary Wroth (1587–1651(?))
When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire
From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftness need require.
In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire
I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of Love,
And at her feet, her son, still adding fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above.
But one heart flaming more than the rest
The goddess held, and put it to my breast.
“Dear son, now shut,” said she: “thus must we win.”
He her obeyed and martyred my poor heart.
I, waking, hoped as dreams it would depart:
Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.
Traci Brimhall Comments:
Lady Mary Wroth was the most prolific female author of the Jacobean era, but more impressive than her body of work was the subversion contained within it. Wroth adopted the Petrarchan sonnet sequence—normally employed by male authors to speak of their passionate fantasies and disappointments—and gave the poems a female speaker. Rather than fixating on the love object, Mary Wroth’s female speaker is yoked to love itself, as is the case in the first sonnet in the sequence “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.”
Pamphilia means all-loving, and the unfaithful beloved she addresses, Amphilanthus, means lover of two. The sequence begins with the sonnet “When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove” and tells the origin story of Pamphilia’s love. Unlike the common Petrarchan trope of the speaker contracting love sickness through the eyes, Pamphilia is claimed in love-bondage during a dream. In sleep, she sees Cupid adding fire to hearts held by Venus. The Queen of Love herself picks out “one heart flaming more than the rest” and orders Cupid to lock it in Pamphilia’s chest. The love triangle that opens the sequence is not a mortal one rife with jealousy and thwarted desire—it is a spiritual enslavement carried out by a mother and son.
Rather than a blazon itemizing the features of the beloved, or pleading with a resistant love object, Wroth makes her first poem about the master and mistress of passion itself. Amphilanthus’ later inconstancy is not the point—Pamphilia’s constancy is. She never sought love; it was a commandment from the gods, and like all unwanted gifts, it is her joy and burden to bear. She is the heroine, the lover, the saint. Pamphilia is cursed with loving to the point of self-sacrifice, like many a martyr. Her poor heart transforms the sonnet sequence from lover’s complaint into hagiography.
Mary Wroth wrote masques and romances in addition to sonnets, and in all genres she subverted expectation by giving agency to women, describing their love entanglements both in and out of marriage. After her first husband’s death, Wroth herself carried on an affair with her married first cousin William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and had two children by him. I am fascinated by the devotion that Mary Wroth writes about—devotion as servitude, which asks for nothing in return. A devotion that may not even be a choice. Love, which should be what’s best in us, comes to Pamphilia as damnation and savior, and I am terrified that it is true that love must always ruin us before it can redeem us.
When I think of Mary Wroth, I think of the Muriel Rukeyser quote: “Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?” Wroth certainly employed the forms available to her, and did so with such verve, such will, such subversive constancy and love.
About Traci Brimhall:
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. She’s currently a doctoral candidate at Western Michigan University.
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