International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #2 – Aemelia Lanyer

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645): Poet

My second inspirational woman is Aemelia Lanyer (also called Emilia Lanier), 17th Century poet and first woman to be published as a poet in the English language. (Yeah, we’ve jumped a few thousand years, this is not in any kind of historical order.)

What’s more, her poetry pulls no punches. Her most famous work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a daring account of the life of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted in feminine terms and mankind, but not womankind, is scathingly condemned for his death, most particularly in the section most often referenced:

‘Eve’s Apology’

Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare;
Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.

That undiscerning Ignorance perceav’d
No guile, or craft that was by him intended;
For had she knowne, of what we were bereav’d,
To his request she had not condiscended.
But she (poore soule) by cunning was deceav’d,
No hurt therein her harmelesse Heart intended:
For she alleadg’d Gods word, which he denies,
That they should die, but even as Gods, be wise.

But surely Adam can not be excusde,
Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame;
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refusde,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpents craft had her abusde,
Gods holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being fram’d by Gods eternall hand,
The perfect’st man that ever breath’d on earth;
And from Gods mouth receiv’d that strait command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

And then to lay the fault on Patience backe,
That we (poore women) must endure it all;
We know right well he did discretion lacke,
Beeing not perswaded thereunto at all;
If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?

Not Eve, whose fault was onely too much love,
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all;
If one of many Worlds could lay a staine
Upon our Sexe, and worke so great a fall
To wretched Man, by Satans subtill traine;
What will so fowle a fault amongst you all?
Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay;
But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.

Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether trie,
By all their sinnes the wrath of God to get;
This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
As doth the Sunne, another little starre.

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;
Who did but dreame, and yet a message sent,
That thou should’st have nothing to doe at all
With that just man; which, if thy heart relent,
Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul?
To seeke the death of him that is so good,
For thy soules health to shed his dearest blood.

This is a finely crafted poem, it’s even meter and rhyme structure designed to evoke a sense of reasoned, rational discourse, it’s argument using the very charges laid against women as weapons to condemn men. Men blame women for all the sin in the world because of Eve’s original sin, but, Lanyer argues, Eve’s sin was committed in ignorance; Pilot, meanwhile, has been warned not to condemn the son of God to death, and he ignores that message. So how can men get away with punishing women for Eve’s offense, still (which, Lanyer argues, was really Adam’s fault, to begin with – one cannot be blamed for committing a sin when one does not know the action to be wrong)?

Make no mistake, this poem is dripping with bitterness, but it restrains its anger into this strict structure to say:

    If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

When we do remember the great women of history, we tend to focus on the Joan of Arcs, the Queen Elizabeths – women who are praised for leading men. But we should not overlook our great female writers and poets. Being a woman and a poet in the 17th century was a thankless enterprise. One Aemelia was only able to conduct thanks to her patron:  Lady Anne Clifford. And Lady Anne’s life was no walk in the park, either. Anne and her mother, Margaret, supported Aemelia at their estate, Cooke-ham, for which they engaged in a long and painful battle for inheritance against Lady Anne’s uncle and his son. The battle was ultimately won when the male claimants died, but not before Anne and Aemelia had been evicted from the estate – an event commemorated in Lanyer’s heart-breaking country house poem: ‘The Description of Cooke-ham‘. Which begins:

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content;
Where princely palace willed me to indite,
The sacred story of the soul’s delight.
Farewell (sweet place) where virtue then did rest,
And all delights did harbor in her breast;
Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.
Yet you (great Lady) Mistress of that place,
From whose desires did spring this work of grace;
Vouchsafe to think upon those pleasures past,
As fleeting worldly joys that could not last,

I must confess, I kinda ship Aemelia Lanyer/Lady Anne. Whether it was platonic, or something more, there was clearly deep love and sisterhood, holding to one another and creating a little haven in a world embattled against them. I’m getting teary just thinking about them.

So, this is a woman our children should be reading alongside the umpteen millionth Shakespeare play we forced them through. I’d studied four (and we did Macbeth three separate times and Hamlet twice) by the time I was sixteen, and nobody gave me something like this? Something that might really mean something to me and get my blood boiling? Something that might challenge assumed ideas of male supremacy in the minds of young boys who don’t even know why they think the negative things they do about girls?

Yeah, most people don’t know about Aemelia Lanyer. But they should. Remember her, pouring her heart out with emotion and relentless logic at a time when no other woman dared to call herself a poet.

I remember you, Aemelia. I cannot imagine the strength you must have struggled to find every day, but I admire it.


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