When Nights Black Mantle

Lady Mary Wroth (1621) Lady Mary Wroth began her sonnet sequence "Pamphilia to Amphilan-thus," which she included in her prose romance The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, with Sonnet 1, referred to by its first line, "When night's black mantle could most darkness prove." The speaker is Pamphilia, a young woman of virtue who attempts to convince her lover, Amphilanthus, of the value of responsible and pure living. Wroth extends the metaphor of night and darkness to suggest danger and the inability to see the future of her speaker. The imagery of the mantle in the first line emphasizes the totality of the darkness. The speaker describes sleep as "death's Image," a common reference that suggests the light of life remains in danger during that time. While she sleeps her "thoughts did move" from a conscious awareness of herself quickly, "Swifter than those most swiftness need require." Wroth emphasizes the trepidation that seizes her speaker in repetition of the term swift to indicate how quickly she lost control. Her imagery reflects mythological figures and ideas, as the speaker describes riding in "a chariot drawn by winged desire" and seeing Venus, the goddess of love, with her son, Cupid, god of love. Cupid sits at the feet of Venus "adding fire / To burning hearts," a reference to the belief that Cupid could cause the passion of love by piercing an unsuspecting human's heart. After being shot, the human would fall in love with the next person she saw, losing complete control over who became the object of her affection. The speaker sees Venus hold higher than all of the hearts "one heart flaming more than all the rest," after which she placed it into Pamphilia's breast. Wroth introduces dialogue to dramatize further the scene as Venus instructs Cupid, "Dear, son, now shut . . . thus must we win." The flaming heart is enclosed in Pamphilia, who says that Cupid "martyred my poor heart." When she wakes, she "hoped as dreams it would depart, / Yet since, O me, a lover I have been."

Wroth achieves several purposes with this opening sonnet. She establishes Pamphilia as an innocent young woman, caught up in events beyond her control. She also clarifies Pamphilia's position as a lover, in that she had hoped in vain not to experience the emotions that left her feeling used. The term martyr proves especially effective as a description of the speaker, one who dies for a cause greater than she. Wroth allows readers to identify as humans trapped in the same condition, that is, as victims of our passions.

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