Peake, Charles. Poetry of the Landscape and the Night: Two
Eighteenth-Century Traditions. Columbia: University of
South Carolina Press, 1970.
LANYER, AEMILIA (1569-1645) Records indicate that Aemilia (also spelled Amelia and Emilia) Lanyer was christened at St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, on January 27, 1569. While her father was the well-known English court musician Baptista Bassano, little is known regarding her mother, Margaret Johnson. The Bassanos became court musicians after emigrating from Venice as Henry Vlll's reign came to a close. None of Aemilia's three siblings, Angela, Lewes, and Phillip, survived to adulthood, and Bassano died when she was only seven. She became an orphan with her mother's death in 1587 and, according to evidence from Lanyer's later poetry, was probably taken in as a foster child by Susan Bertie Wingfield, countess dowager of Kent. She later became close with the family of Margaret, countess of Cumberland, and knew her daughter, Anne Clifford, whose writings regarding her family's legal dealings later became an important part of the early women writers' canon. Lanyer would pay tribute to the countess and Clifford by writing one of the first poems of place about the family estate of Cookham Dean in "The Description of Cooke-ham." This poem predates "To Penshurst" (1616) by Ben Jonson, long credited as the first country house poem. Her writing indicates some education, probably gained through time spent at the court of Elizabeth I.
As a young woman, Lanyer became mistress to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, 45 years her senior. Hunsdon apparently provided well for Lanyer, who may also have been, according to A. J. Rowse and other historians, mistress to William Shakespeare. Little evidence exists to support that theory, or another, which claimed Lanyer was the "dark-eyed lady" of Milton's sonnets. At age 23, Lanyer conceived a child with Hun-sdon, who apparently paid her a large sum for her silence. She then married her cousin, Alphonso Lanyer, a musician for Queen Elizabeth. Alphonso had been one of five members of a recorder consort founded by Lanyer's father and his family and enjoyed a royal stipend originally paid to Lanyer's father. He volunteered in the Essex Islands Voyage (1597) and served in Ireland. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth's adviser William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Alphonso played at the queen's funeral and received a position as the sole weigher of hay and straw, for which he received a commission per pound. The couple probably enjoyed a comfortable income, enough to own a house. Lanyer again was left without immediate family when Alphonso died in 1613. She signed over the weighing monopoly to Innocent Lanyer, Alphonso's brother, and was supposed to receive a commission. However, the financial agreement would later be disputed, and she received little income from what had been her husband's business.
Lanyer may have had several miscarriages, and she claimed to have borne at least two children. Her first, the son of Lord Hunsdon, she named Henry; her daughter, Odillya, born in December 1598, died when 10 months old. Henry became a court flautist, married Joyce Mansfield in 1623, and then died 10 years later. Lanyer later wrote that she had to provide for two grandchildren, suggesting that her daughter-in-law had also died.
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Lanyer began consulting an astrologer named Simon Forman in 1597, and much of the information known about her is from him. Because he was a man who had a tendency to jealousy and possessiveness, that information cannot be completely trusted. He apparently hoped that he might become romantically involved with Lanyer, but no evidence exists that such a relationship developed. She apparently rejected his advances, leading Forman to wonder whether she was sexually competent and to label her a "whore." Lanyer lived at that point in a fashionable area of Westminster.
Lanyer first published at age 42, issuing a volume of poetry in iambic pentatmeter titled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) (1611). She added two prefatory pieces and an afterword in prose. Her later famous description of Cookham was probably written between February 25, 1609, when, according to several sources including Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Anne Clifford took her married name, Dorset, by which Lanyer refers to her friend in the poem, and October 2, 1610, the date of recording of the poem in the Stationers' Register. The book went through a second issue, but confusion remains regarding its exact publication history. one version, which may be formed of parts of both issues, contains 11 addresses to figures of note in its preface. Some critics find the addresses curious and even overreaching, as Lanyer enjoyed neither their position nor wealth. They include Queen Anne; Princess Elizabeth; "all vertuous Ladies in gener-all"; Arabella Stuart; Susan, countess of Kent; Mary Sidney Herbert (countess of Pembroke); Lucy, countess of Bedford; Margaret, countess of Cumberland; Katherine, countess of Suffolk; Anne, countess of Dorset; and "the vertuous reader."
Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum became important to feminist criticism during a later revival of early writing by women by virtue of its radical theological and political stance arguing for religious and social equality for women. It also contains an attack on class privilege in the poem to Anne Clifford. Of great interest to feminist critics is Lanyer's "Eve's Apology in Defense of WoMEN," in the book, which offers a revisionist view of the Eden mythology, which had for centuries proclaimed women guilty for the suffering of all mankind. Lanyer argues that Eve acted in innocence, while men later proved far more culpable in their crucifixion of Christ. She makes a remarkable statement in the entry "To the Virtuous Reader," warning women not to support male misogyny by speaking against their own gender. In this small excerpt, she explains why she decided to write her "small volume, or little book, for the general use of all virtuous ladies and gentlewomen":
And this have I done, to make known to the world, that all women deserve not to be blamed though some forgetting they are women themselves, and in danger to be condemned by the words of their own mouths, fall into so great an error, as to speak unadvisedly against the rest of their sex; which if it be true, I am persuaded they can show their own imperfection in nothing more: and therefore could wish (for their own case, modesties, and credit) they would refer such points of folly, to be practiced by evil disposed men, who forgetting they were born of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all, do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred, only to give way and utterance to their want of discretion and goodness.
Lanyer supported herself by operating a children's school in a leased house owned by Edward Smith, an attorney, in summer 1617. Records show the two became involved in a lawsuit over repairs for which Lanyer had herself paid and sought recompense. Smith reacted by having Lanyer arrested, probably causing the immediate withdrawal from school by most of her pupils. She remained in the house for two years and was arrested again when she departed in 1619 without paying rent. Those legal records, along with ones that recorded her attempts to sue her brother-in-law for income owed her, add to Lanyer's scant official history. Apparently Innocent had passed the income from the weighing business along to another brother, named Clement, who was ordered by King Charles I to pay Lanyer her due; however, she had to sue again, and it is not known whether Lanyer ever received her rightful
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income. She did enjoy a regular pension, information recorded at the time of her death in 1645.
Whatever the true facts about Lanyer's personal life, her publication proved critical to the history of early writing women. For a woman whose works were never mentioned by a contemporary, she has assumed a markedly important place in the consideration of writing by women of her era. Her revision of the common myth regarding man's fall from God's grace remains remarkable for its period, as does her bidding to women to support and protect one another. An obviously intelligent and spirited woman whose works for too long did not receive their due, Ameilia Lanyer made a contribution to writing about women that cannot be overestimated in importance.
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