Close Reading of Mary Wroth’s Sonnet

January 17, 2018 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In Mary Wroth’s sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth writes in the Petrarchan convention of one to an eternally absent lover, speaking of the love they hold. But the similarities end there, for instead of speaking with abject devotion to her lover, Wroth’s Pamphilia speaks of a more internal and constant love than Petrarchan sonnets. Where Petrarch and his followers, most notably Wroth’s own illustrious family, used sonnets to name and publicly exonerate their lover, Pamphilia loves in private introspection, and Amphilanthus name is mentioned only in the title. Sonnet #40 addresses a very specific loss for a woman, miscarriage, and in addressing this subject, creates a woman’s space for love and loss in a world of poetry dominated by men. Wroth is very aware of her poetic legacy and pushes her poetry past the overblown, exhibitionist sonnets of courtly love to create something new.

Stylistically, while Wroth conforms to the Petrarchan convention of using iambic pentameter and an octave consisting of two quatrains, both the rhyme scheme and the following quatrain and an ending couplet are variations on the practice. The sonnets first quatrain gives us the image of a pregnant woman bearing ‘false hope’. Wroth uses enjambment in the first three lines to make the size of Pamphilia’s loss explicit; her lines are so full they spill over into the next. Forgive the pun, but the lines are absolutely pregnant with meaning. “False hope which feeds but to destroy, and spill/ What it first breeds; unnatural to the birth/ Of thine own womb; conceiving but to kill,” (1-3). Wroth’s word choice enforces this miscarriage theme. ‘Feeds’ has an old English meaning to specifically ‘suckle young’, ‘breed’ and ‘conceive’ still retain their obvious maternal meanings, and ‘spill’ has an old English meaning of ‘to slay or kill’. In the fourth line, ‘plenty’ retains it’s meaning as abundant, but the line sets it in opposition to the old English word ‘dearth’, meaning ‘dearness and costliness’. False hope gives of itself plenty, but at a high price, and in this metaphor the hope of a child is destroyed.

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The word ‘conceive’ has also another meaning, to form in the mind. This is the first inclination that the first quatrain has a double meaning. Mary Wroth’s predecessors being all men annexed the metaphor of pregnancy and birth to mean that their own writings were like children of the mind. ‘False hope’ now takes on a new meaning, that men themselves carry a false hope of taking from women sole creative power. “And plenty gives the greater dearth” (4) can be construed as the prolific amount of male writing being costly to women’s own literary creativity, taking it as ransom for a woman’s natural abilities.

The next quatrain changes subject a bit, elaborating on the theme of men, women and creative production. Wroth makes use of enjambment here again to bleed the two subjects together. The ‘dearth’ line flows into the next which reads “So tyrants do who falsely ruling earth/ Outwardly grace them, and with their profits fill,” (5-6) accords with the reading on male creativity. The ‘tyrant’ means a usurper of power, and considering the convention of the Petrarchan sonnet which personifies women merely as objects to pine over, men were undoubtedly the ‘absolute rulers’ of this form. Male poets were ‘outwardly gracing’ women, and with the ‘profits’ of their writings (not necessarily a monetary profit, but respect and fame) sought to ‘fill’ them. ‘Fill’ has an old English meaning ‘to impregnate’. Referring back to the first quatrain, we know that men’s contribution to the conception process does not guarantee the woman will have a child, but rather he could be giving her ‘false hope’. “Advance those who appointed are to death/ To make their greater fall to please their will.”(7-8) This line ends the second quatrain, and can be read as men advancing miscarriages or women for their own ‘will’, ‘will’ having an old English meaning, ‘carnal desire or appetite’.

Referring back to the speaker use of the word ‘outwardly’, this shows contempt for publicly displayed affection; such is the convention of this sonnet form. This contempt is reiterated in the lines “Coloring evil with a show of good/ While in fair shows their malice so is spent” (10-11). The speaker wants to point out that women do not want a ‘fair show’ of love without a physical manifestation of love, i.e. a child. This ‘fair show’ does not help but hinder women being viewed as people. ‘Show’ means only the outward aspects of a person, and as much as the male sonneteer croons over his lovers ‘coral lips’ or some such nonsense, he fails to penetrate the heart of his lady.

The line “Hope kills the heart, and tyrants shed the blood” (12) is a wonderful line in that it brings our two major themes together, just before the ending couplet. From inside (the heart) and outside (tyrants shedding blood), the speaker believes the convention of courtly love is killing the woman’s space. The ending couplet acts as sort of a ‘moral’ warning. “For hope deluding brings us to the pride/ Of our desires the farther down to slide.” (13-14) The speaker wants to convey that our ‘false’ (deluding) hope creates pride, which in old English had the specific meaning ‘love of display or ostentation’. The hope of men to win hearts by objectifying and wooing publicly will not suffice, but rather is as detrimental to a woman’s heart and love as the pain of losing a child. In this sonnet Mary Wroth has finally given a woman’s voice to a poetic form in which women were portrayed, but never conveyed.


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