Isabella Whitney (1567) This is the first poem in Isabella Whitney's first book of poetry, The Copy of a Letter. As the title of this poem suggests, the speaker is I. W., or Isabella Whitney, and she is writing a letter to an unfaithful, or "unconstant," lover. She begins by telling her faithless lover that she has heard he is going to be married, in spite of his attempts to keep the fact secret, or "close" (l. 1). Whitney then begins to alternate between speaking as a jilted woman who reminds her lover of what he is giving up by abandoning her and speaking as a counselor offering her former lover advice.
First she says that she always wished him well and always will, and that if he is determined to be a husband, she hopes God will send him a good wife. But then she reminds him that he will always be able to boast about how faithful she was, and she suggests that her love could be his again if he wanted it. She gives up this hope since he is going to marry; however, she suggests that if he needs to marry, he could marry her and so keep the promises he made.
At this point Whitney makes the first of many classical allusions. She tells her love to choose between honesty or "Sinon's trade" (l. 28). Sinon, the Greek soldier who allowed himself to be captured by the Trojans and then persuaded them to take the Trojan Horse into their city, was a symbol of deception and treachery. Whitney also mentions many other treacherous men from classical mythology, such as Aeneas, who abandoned his lover Dido; Theseus, who deserted Ariadne; and Jason, who betrayed Medea after she had saved his life several times. She notes the shame attached to such people, and she advises her lover not to follow such examples, nor to be like Paris, who brought about the destruction of Troy by betraying his host, Agamemnon, and running away with Agamemnon's wife, Helen. Instead, she counsels her paramour to be her Troilus, or her faithful lover, since Troilus, a brother of Paris, died faithful to his lover, Cressida, and became a symbol of constancy.
After this list of unfaithful men, Whitney lists the virtues that she hopes her lover's wife will have so that he will not regret his decision. Again she takes her examples from classical figures, and she hopes that his wife will have the beauty of Helen, the faithfulness of Penelope, the constancy of Lucrece, and the true love of Thisbe. In case he thinks it unlikely for one woman to have all of these qualities, she reminds him that she had all of them except Helen's beauty. She then quickly notes that she is not saying this to turn him from his new love, as he already knows from experience what she, I. W., deserves. She only wishes that she possessed the gift of prophecy, like Cassandra, so that she could foresee the future and prevent either her own misfortune or his, but since she cannot have this, she resigns herself to her fate and prays for God to guide her. She then closes with a few more classical allusions, wishing her inconstant lover the long life of King Nestor, the wealth of King Xerxes, and the gold of King Crresus, along with as much "rest and quietness" as any man on earth may have.
By writing this poem in the form of a letter from an abandoned woman, Whitney is working, as she often does, in the tradition of Ovid's Heroides, which were verse epistles written from the point of view of an abandoned woman speaking to the man who had betrayed her. Whitney's many allusions to classical figures that appear in ovid's Heroides emphasizes this connection. However, as critics have often noted, Whitney does not confine herself to the traditional role of an abandoned woman. She does not simply lament being abandoned; rather, she offers advice to her lover about what he is losing and how he should behave. In offering this advice, Whitney is taking the moral high ground. She not only attempts to correct his mistakes and guide him in a better direction, but she also does not criticize him or the woman for whom he has left her. Rather than portraying herself as a victim, she is portraying herself as a virtuous woman and a morally superior individual who can instruct her weak and inconstant lover. Her wavering back and forth between the role of adviser and the role of the abandoned woman at once mirrors his fickleness and, ironically, emphasizes her own constancy, since she remains faithful and true enough to offer him good advice even when he has abandoned her. Some critics have examined Whitney's work in relation to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, which is also based on the Heroides, particularly in light of the difference between the male and female perspective on faithfulness. See also "Admonition, by the Author, The."
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