SHALL I TURN?" Lady Mary Wroth (1621)
Lady Mary Wroth included in her prose romance The Countess of Montgomery's Urania a sonnet sequence "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." Within that sequence, she embedded a "corona," the Italian word for "crown," of sonnets titled "A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love." The crown form demanded that the last line of each poem serve as the first line of the next. By the end of the grouping of poems, the last line of the final poem will be the same as the first line of the first poem, thus forming a crown of sorts. Wroth's corona contained 14 separate sonnets. The use of the labyrinth as the opening imagery compliments this fixed form, which, while set and predictable, proved difficult to execute.
The numbering of the first sonnet in this sequence is 77, the first and title line reading, "In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn?" The labyrinth represents life and passion, the topic that occupies Wroth throughout her romance and sonnet sequence. Pam-philia, a virtuous young woman who grapples with the double standard of proper decorum established in
Wroth's era, insists that her lover, Amphilanthus, abandon the common practice of male infidelity. The labyrinth imagery allows Wroth to comment on the perils present for women in romance. As her speaker enters the labyrinth, she notices that "Ways are on all sides," meaning she has many paths as options, but no guarantee that the option she selects will benefit her. Pamphilia notes that if she selects the path on the right, "there in love I burn: / Let me go forward, therein danger is," and if she turns to the left, "suspicion hinders bliss." None of these possibilities promises a positive result. In addition, shame bids her to turn back and not lose heart when facing adversity. She could also choose not to move at all, but she remarks that "is harder" and will also leave her with regrets.
Pamphilia decides in the final six lines that she must simply choose a way and move on, enduring her doubts, the "travail" or suffering the only reward on which she can depend. Critics point out that in Wroth's original printing, she substituted the word travel for travail and probably had in mind a pun when she later made the change. The sonnet closes with Pamphilia's statement "Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move / Is to leave all, and take the thread of love." As Wroth scholars explain, she is probably alluding to Ariadne's gift of thread to Theseus, which she bid him to unwind as he searched for a way through the labyrinth at Crete. His assignment was to slaughter the minotaur that lived in the labyrinth's center; he could retrace his steps to freedom by following the thread that marked the escape route. Such mythological references in Wroth's work were abundant, helping well-informed readers of her day to understand her meanings through the allusions.
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