(1640-1641) Ben Jonson's Elizabethan sonnet "A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth" appeared in his group of poems known as The Underwood, published after his death. Lady Mary Wroth was a member of the distinguished family that included the poets Philip Sidney and his sister, Mary Sidney Herbert (countess of Pembroke). As did others including George Chapman and Jonson's friend William Drum-mond of Hawthornden, Jonson sought Wroth's patronage and praised it publicly. Jonson also publicly declared Wroth's mother a generous woman and praised her hospitality; he had experienced much kindness in patronage by the extended family. In addition to this sonnet he appended to his popular play The Alchemist a Dedicatory Epistle to Wroth. He extended to her a high compliment by writing of her judgment, "(which is a Sidney's)." He later expressed his opinion of Wroth's husband, Sir Robert Wroth, labeling him "jealous" and implying what later came to be known as accurate, that the forced marriage was not a happy one. He would, however, also dedicate a poem to Sir Robert, "To Sir Robert Wroth," later labeled by critics Jonson's countryside poem. Some scholars have suggested that Jonson had Lady Mary Wroth in mind when writing about a secret romance in his drama To the World; Wroth probably had an affair with her cousin, William, earl of Pembroke. Wroth had a crucial connection to the sonnet format as the first English woman to compose a sonnet sequence, appended to a prose romance.
Jonson begins by praising that sequence. His speaker opens the poem by noting that while he has been a lover, he became both a better lover and a poet by copying Wroth's sonnets: "Since I exscribe your sonnets, [I] am become / A better lover, and much better poet." He adds that neither he nor his muse is
To those true numerous graces, whereof some
But charm the senses, others overcome Both brains and hearts.
Jonson praises Wroth's verses not only for engaging the reader's imagination, but also for engaging their intellect. The speaker describes Wroth's verse as encompassing "all Cupid's armory," referencing the god of love. He explains that Cupid's "flames, his shafts, his quiver, and his bow, / His very eyes are yours to overthrow." In other words Wroth trumps Cupid at his own game.
To prevent readers from imagining Wroth as a masculine warrior type, the speaker adds a reference to Cupid's mother, Venus, whose beauty was well known, comparing Wroth to the mother, as well as the son: "But then his mother's sweets you so apply." This leads Jonson into the traditional closing sonnet couplet, designed to summarize the 12 lines preceding it:
Her joys, her smiles, her loves, as readers take For Venus' ceston every line you make.
The ceston was Venus's girdle, which supposedly gave the one who wore it power to inspire love in another.
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