67 Mary Wroth: Selections
by Suzzy Fiattor and Annieben Momin
Lady Mary Wroth (née Sidney) was born into a famous and well-connected literary family in 1587. Growing up, she was surrounded by writers and works of great literature, as her father, Sir Robert Sidney, was not only a Governor of Flushing, he was a poet as well (“Lady Mary Wroth”). In fact, many of her relatives were also well-respected authors: namely Philip Sidney, her uncle, was a preeminent poet of the Elizabethan age, and her aunt, Mary Herbet Sidney, whom she was very often around, was a greatly respected writer in the 16th century, as well as her aunt’s husband, Henry Herbet, who was also a well-known Elizabethan Poet and the second Earl of Pembroke (Salzman). During Mary Wroth’s time, most women were illiterate and had little opportunity to obtain an education. Due to the wealth she was born into, Mary was able to get an education. She had tutors who would teach her how to read and write in the comfort of her own home as was customary for aristocratic children. Mary’s father’s fortunes also landed her in the inner circle of King James I’s Court, where she mostly resided (Salzman). Mary not only had a love and talent for literature but other forms of art as well, such as dancing. With the help of her mother, Mary became a performer and entertainer. She famously performed a dance for Queen Elizabeth I in 1596. The painting of her dancing in front of Queen Elizabeth is currently on display at Penshurst, the ancestral home of the Sidney family (Salzman).
At the age of 17, she entered into an unhappy, twelve-year marriage to Robert Wroth. Soon it became apparent that Robert was an alcoholic and a gambler (Salzman). During their marriage, Mary started receiving recognition for her literature though her life was far from easy. Her husband passed away suddenly from gangrene and her only son passed away shortly thereafter which caused her to lose any claim to her late husband’s estate. Shortly after the tragedy, Mary began an affair with her cousin, William Herbert. They both took an interest in literature and her relationship with William, and their two illegitimate children, were often mentioned in her work. Mary’s works slowly became popular among readers, though many scholars believed she revealed too much about her private life and relationships and people were outraged by her disclosure of personal affairs (Witten and Anne). As a woman, it was seen to be quite inappropriate at the time for her to write about romance. In Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, she mentions miscarriage which was a taboo subject in her time. Mary’s lover, William, was a favorite of Queen Anne, and due to this attraction, William was able to become the King’s Lord Chamberlain. Mary became quite jealous of Queen Anne, and portrayed her jealousy in her famous writing Urania, where she writes of an evil queen, whom most assume was Queen Anne. Mary continued to get pushback; Urania was removed from shelves and was no longer allowed to be sold due to the scandal it caused (Witten and Anne). Her lover William Herbert left her shortly after she left King James’ court. Much of Mary’s literature ended there; not much is known about Mary’s life during these rough years involving the scandal. Mary passed away in 1652 and left her honorable literature behind for the world to read.
Love’s Victory is a play about the goddess of love, Venus, who commands her son Cupid to bring suffering upon shepherds and shepherdesses for not giving her enough appreciation. The main characters, Musella and Philisses, represent what Venus thinks love is about: loyalty, friendship and respect. Although the characters had a difficult time finding love in the beginning, thanks to cupid and Venus, they eventually do. The characters in this play were able to find love in the midst of miscommunication and jealousy which seems to have parallels to the difficult marriage with Wroth and the tumultuous affair she experienced with Herbert at the time. The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania is a romance between Queen Pamphilia and Emperor Amphilanthus. These two, who are first cousins, have to keep their relationship a secret. It is mainly about how Queen Pamphilia remains faithful to her lover despite him having an affair outside their relationship. In Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Pamphilia goes through a series of emotions about her feelings for Amphilanthus. She reaffirms her love for him in the end.
Salzman, Paul. “Mary Wroth.” Early Modern Women Research Network. c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/emwrn/marywroth
“Lady Mary Wroth.” Poetry Foundation. N.d. Web. 28 June 2019. www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-wroth
Witten, Hannah, and Margaret Anne. Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania: the Work and the Tradition, University of Auckland, 1978. researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/1441
- What is the common theme throughout Mary Wroth’s selections?
- What autobiographical allusions do you see in these selections?
- Why do you think some of her works weren’t well-received?
- Would you say Urania was about her relationship with William Herbert?
- What is Mary Wroth trying to teach her audience through her works?
- An audiobook version of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (Full Text)
- A podcast covering Wroth’s loss of popularity, and controversial writings (from the “Neglected Women” BBC series)
- A video clip on Mary Wroth’s life as a woman in the 16th century and her inheritance
Reading: Mary Wroth (Selections)
From The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania
” When the Spring began to appear like the welcome messenger of Summer, one sweet, (and in that more sweet) morning, after Aurora had called all careful eyes to attend the day, forth came the fair Shepherdess Urania, (fair indeed ; yet that far too mean a title for her, who for beauty deserved the highest stile could be given by best knowing judgements ) Into the mead she came, where usually she drave her flocks to feed, whose leaping and wantonness shewed they were proud of such a guide : But she, whose sad thoughts led her to another manner of spending her time, made her soon leave them, and follow her late begun custom ; which was, (while they delighted themselves) to sit under some shade, bewailing her misfortune ; while they fed, to feed upon her own sorrow and tears, which at this time she began again to summon, silting down under the shade of a well-spread beech; the ground, then blest, and the tree with full and fine-leaved branches, growing proud to bear, and shadow such perfections. But she, regarding nothing, in comparison of her woe, thus proceeded in her grief— ” Alas, Urania,” said she, “the true sen-ant to misfortune, of any misery, that can befall woman, is not this the most, and greatest which thou art fallen into r Can there be any near the unhappiness of being ignorant, and that in the highest kind, not being certain of mine own estate and birth ? Why was I not still continued in the belief I was, as I appear, a Shepherdess, and daughter to a Shepherd ? My ambition then went no higher than this estate ; now flies it to a knowledge ; then was I contented, now perplexed. O Ig norance, can thy dullness yet procure so sharp a pain > And that, such a thought as makes me now aspire to knowledge ? How did I joy in this poor life, being quiet ? Blest in the love of those I took for parents ; but now by them I know the con trary, and by that knowledge, not to know myself. Miserable Urania, worse art thou now than these thy lambs : for they know their dams, whilst thou dost live, unknown of any.” By this were others come into that mead with their flocks : ,but she, esteeming her sorrowing thoughts her best and choicest company, left that place, taking a little path, which brought her to the further side of the plain, to the foot of the rocks, speaking as she went, these lines, her eyes fixed upon the ground, her very soul turn’d into mourning.
Unseen, unknown, I here alone complain
To rocks, to hills, to meadows, and to springs,
Which can no help return to ease my pain,
But back my sorrows the sad Echo brings.
Thus still increasing are my woes to me,
Doubly resounded by that moanful voice,
Which seems to second me in misery,
And answer gives hke friend of mine own choice.
Thus only she doth my companion prove ;
The others silently do offer ease :
But those that grieve, a grieving note do love ;
Pleasures to dying eyes bring but disease :
And such am I, who daily ending live,
Wailing a state, which can no comfort give.
In this passion she went on, till she came to the foot of a great rock ; she thinking of nothing less than ease, sought how she might ascend it ; hoping there to pass away her time more peaceably with loneliness, though not to find least respite from her sorrows, which so dearly she did value, as by no means she would impart it to any. The way was hard, though by some windings making the ascent pleasing. Having attained the top, she saw under some hollow trees the entry into the rock : she fearing nothing, but the continuance of her ignorance, went in; where she found a pretty room, as if that stony place had yet in pity given leave for such perfections to come in to the Heart as chiefest, and most beloved place, because, most loving. The place was not unlike the ancient, or the descriptions of ancient, hermitages; instead of hangings, covered and lined with ivy, disdaining ought else should come there, that being in such perfection. This richness in Nature’s plenty, made her stay to behold it, and almost grudge the pleasant fullness of content that place might have, if sensible, while she must know to taste of torments. As she was thus in passion mixt with pain, throwing her eyes as wildly as timorous lovers do for fear of discovery, she perceived a little light, and such a one as a chink doth oft discover to our sight. She, curious to see what this was, with her delicate hands put the natural ornament aside, discovering a little door, which she putting from her, passed through it into another room, like the first in all proportion ; but in the midst there was a square stone, like to a pretty table, and on it a wax candle burning; and by that a paper, which had suffered itself patiently to receive the discovering of so much of it, as presented this Sonnet, as it seemed newly written, to her sight.
Here all alone in silence might I mourn:
But how can silence be, where sorrows flow
Sighs with complaints have former pains outworn,
But broken hearts can only true grief show.
Drops of my dearest blood shall let Love know,
Such tears for her I shed, yet still do burn,
As no spring can quench least part of my woe,
Till this live earth again to earth do turn.
Hateful all thought of comfort is to me;
Despised Day, let me still Night possess!
Let me all torments feel in their excess;
And but this light allow my state to see.
Which still doth waste, and, wasting as this light,
Are my sad days unto eternal night.
” Alas, Urania !” sighed she, ” How well these words, this place, and all, agree with thy fortune ! Sure, poor soul, thou wert here appointed to spend thy days, and these rooms ordain ed to keep thy tortures in ; none being, assuredly, so match lessly unfortunate !”
Turning from the table, she discerned in the room a bed of boughs, and on it a man lying, deprived of outward sense, as she thought, and of life, as she at first did fear, which strake her into a great amazement: yet having a brave spirit, though shadowed under a meane habit, she stepped unto him, whom she found not dead, but laid upon his back, his head a little to her wards, his arms folded on his breast, hair long, and beard disordered, manifesting all care; but care itself had left him: curiousness thus far afforded him, as to bee perfectly discerned the most exact piece of misery; Apparrell hee had suitable to the habitation, which was a long gray robe. This grievefull spectacle did much amaze the sweet and tender-hearted Shepherdesse; especially, when she perceived (as she might by the help of the candle) the tears which distilled from his eyes; who seeming the image of death, yet had this sign of worldly sorrow, the drops falling in that abundance, as if there were a kind strife among them, to rid their Master first of that burdenous carriage; or else meaning to make a flood, and so drowned their woeful Patient in his owne sorrow, who yet lay still, but then fetching a deep groan from the profoundest part of his soul, he said.
Miserable Perissus, canst thou thus live, knowing she that gave thee life is gone? Gone, O me! and with her all my ioy departed. Wilt thou (unblessed creature) lie here complaining for her death, and know she died for thee? Let truth and shame make thee doe something worthy of such a Loue, ending thy daies like thy self, and one fit to be her Seruant. But that I must not doe: then thus remain and foster storms, still to torment thy wretched soul withall, since all are little, and too too little for such a loss. O deere Limena, loving Limena, worthy Limena, and more rare, constant Limena: perfections delicately faign’d to be in women were verified in thee, was such worthiness framed only to be wondered at by the best, but given as a prey to base and unworthy jealousy? When were all worthy parts ioyn’d in one, but in thee (my best Limena)? yet all these grown subject to a creature ignorant of all but ill, like unto a Foole, who in a dark Cave, that hath but one way to get out, having a candle, but not the understanding what good it doth him, puts it out: this ignorant wretch not being able to comprehend thy virtues, did so by thee in thy murder, putting out the worlds light, and mens admiration: Limena, Limena, O my Limena.
With that he fell from complaining into such a passion, as weeping and crying were neuer in so wofull a perfection, as now in him; which brought as deserued a compassion from the excellent Shep∣herdesse, who already had her heart so tempered with griefe, as that it was apt to take any impression that it would come to seale withall. Yet taking a braue courage to her, shee stept vnto him, kneeling downe by his side, and gently pulling him by the arme, she thus spake.
“Sir,” said she, “hauing heard some part of your sorrows, they have not only made me truly pity you, but wonder at you; since if you have lost so great a treasure, you should not lie thus leaving her and your love unrevenged, suffering her murderers to live, while you lie here complaining; and if such perfections be dead in her, why make you not the Phoenix of your deeds live again, as to new life rais’d out of the revenge you should take on them? Then were her end satisfied, and you deservedly accounted worthie of her favor, if she were so worthie as you say.”
“If shee were? O God,” cri’d out Perissus, what devilish spirit art thou, that thus dost come to torture me? But now I see you are a woman; and therefore not much to be marked, and lesse resisted: but if you know charitie, I pray now practise it, and leave me who am afflicted sufficiently without your companie; or if you will stay, discourse not to me.”
“Neither of these will I do,” said she.
“If you be then,” said he, “some furie of purpose sent to vex me, use your force to the uttermost in martyring me; for never was there a fitter subject, then the heart of poor Perissus is.”
“I am no furie,” repli’d the divine Urania, “nor hither come to trouble you, but by accident lighted on this place; my cruel hap being such, as only the like can give me content, while the solitariness of this like cause might give me quiet, though not ease, seeking for such a one, I happened hither; and this is the true cause of my being here, though now I would use it to a better end if I might. Wherefore fauour me with the knowledge of your grief; which heard, it may be I shall give you some counsel, and comfort in your sorrow.”
“Cursed may I be,” cri’d he, “if ever I take comfort, having such cause of mourning: but because you are, or seem to be afflicted, I will not refuse to satisfie your demand, but tell you the saddest storie that ever was rehearsed by dying man to living woman, and such a one, as I fear will fasten too much sadnesse in you; yet should I deny it, I were too blame, being so well known to these sense∣lesse places; as were they sensible of sorrow, they would condole, or else amazed at such cruelty, stand dumb as they doe, to find that man should be so inhumane.”
Love what art thou? A vain thought,
In our minds by fancy wrought,
Idle smiles did thee beget
While fond wishes made that* net
Which so many fools have caught.
Love what art thou? light, and fair,
Fresh as morning clear as th’air,
But too soon thy evening change
Makes thy warmth* with coldness range
Still thy joy is mixed with care.
Love what are thou? A sweet flower
Once full blown, dead in an hour,
Dust in wind as staid remains
As thy pleasure, or our gains
If thy humour change, to lour.
Love what art thou? Childish, vain,
Firm as bubbles made by rain,
Wantonness thy greatest pride,
These foul faults thy virtues hide
But babes can no staidness gain.
Love what art thou? Causeless cursed
Yet alas these not the worst,
Much more of thee may be said
But thy law I once obeyed
Therefore say no more at first.
From Pamphilia to Amphilanthus
When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire*
From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftness need require:
In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire
I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,
And at her feet her son, still adding fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above.
But one heart flaming more than all the rest
The Goddess held, and put it to my breast.
‘Dear son, now shoot,’ said she, ‘thus must we win.’
He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.
I waking hoped as dreams it would depart;
Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.
Am I thus conquered? Have I lost the powers
That to withstand, which joys to ruin me?
Must I bee still while it my strength devours.
And captive, leads me prisoner, bound, unfree?
Love first shall leave* men’s fancies to them free,
Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers,
Cupid shall lose his darts,* have sight, and see
His shame, and Venus hinder happy hours;
Why should wee not love’s purblind charms resist?
Must we be servile, doing what he list?
No; seek some host to harbour thee: I fly
Thy babyish tricks, and freedom do profess;
But O my hurt makes my lost heart confess
I love, and must: so farewell liberty.
Like to the Indians, scorched with the sun,
The sun which they do as their God adore,
So am I used by love, for ever more
I worship him, less favour* have I won,
Better are they who thus to blackness run,
And so can only whiteness’ want deplore
Than I who pale and white am with grief’s store,
Nor can have hope, but to see hopes undone;
Besides their sacrifice received’s* in sight
Of their chose saint: mine hid as worthless rite;
Grant me to see where I my offerings give,
Then let me wear the mark of Cupid’s might
In heart as they in skin do* Phoebus’ light,
Not ceasing offerings to love while I live.
Sweetest love return again
Make not too long stay.
Killing mirth, and forcing pain
Sorrow leading way:
Let us not thus parted be
Love, and absence ne’er agree;
But since you must needs* depart,
And me hapless leave,
In your journey take my heart
Which will not deceive
Yours it is, to you it flies
Joying in those loved eyes,
So in part, we shall not part
Though we absent be;
Time, nor place, nor greatest smart
Shall my bands make free
Tied I am, yet think it gain;
In such knots I feel no pain.
But can I live having lost
Chiefest part of me
Heart is fled, and sight is crossed
These my fortunes be
Yet dear heart go, soon return
As good there, as here to burn.
Take heed mine eyes, how you your looks do cast
Lest* they betray my heart’s most secret thought;
Be true unto your selves for nothing’s bought
More dear than doubt which brings a lover’s fast.*
Catch you all watching eyes, ere they be past,
Or take yours fixed where your best love hath sought
The pride of your desires; let them be taught
Their faults with* shame, they could no truer last.*
Then look, and look with joy for conquest won
Of those that searched your hurt* in double kind;
So you kept safe, let them themselves look blind
Watch, gaze, and mark till they to madness run,
While you, my* eyes enjoy full sight of love
Contented that such happinesses move.
False hope which feeds but to destroy, and spill
What it first breeds; unnatural to the birth*
Of thine own womb; conceiving but to kill,
And plenty gives to make the greater dearth,
So tyrants do who falsely ruling earth
Outwardly grace them, and with profit’s fill
Advance those who appointed are to death
To make the greater* fall to please their will.
Thus shadow they their wicked vile intent,
Colouring evil with the mask* of good
While in fair shows their malice so is spent
Hope kills the heart, and tyrants shed the blood.
For hope deluding brings us to the pride
Of our desires the farther down to slide.
Love like a juggler, comes to play his prize,
And all minds draw* his wonders to admire,
To see how cunningly he, wanting eyes,
Can yet deceive the best sight of desire:
The wanton child, how he can fain his fire
So prettily, as none sees his disguise;
How finely do his tricks, while we fools hire
The mask* and service* of his tyrannies,
For in the end, such juggling doth he* make
As he our hearts, in stead of eyes doth take
For men can only by their sleights abuse
The sight with nimble, and delightful skill;
But if he play, his gain is our lost will:
Yet childlike, we cannot his sports refuse.
My pain, still smothered in my grieved breast,
Seeks for some ease, yet cannot passage find
To be discharged of this unwelcome guest;
When most I strive, more fast his burdens bind,
Like to a ship, on Goodwins* cast by wind
The more she strives,* more deep in sand is pressed
Till she bee lost; so am I, in this kind
Sunk, and devoured, and swallowed by unrest,
Lost, shipwrecked, spoiled, debarred of smallest hope,
Nothing of pleasure left; save thoughts have scope,
Which wander may: Go then, my thoughts, and cry
‘Hope’s perished; Love tempest-beaten; joy lost
Killing despair hath all these blessing* crossed.’
Yet faith still cries, ‘Love will not falsify.’
LOVE, a child, is ever crying;
Please him, and he straight is flying;
Give him, he the more is craving,
Never satisfied with having.
His desires have no measure;
Endless folly is his treasure;
What he promiseth he breaketh;
Trust not one word that he speaketh.
He vows nothing but false matter;
And to cozen you will flatter;
Let him gain the hand, he’ll leave you
And still glory to deceive you.
He will triumph in your wailing;
And yet cause be of your failing:
These his virtues are, and slighter
Are his gifts, his favours lighter.
Feathers are as firm in staying;
Wolves no fiercer in their preying;
As a child then, leave him crying;
Nor seek him so given to flying.
From A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love
In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn?
Ways are on all sides while the way I miss;
If to the right hand, there in love I burn;
Let me go forward, therein danger is;
If to the left, suspicion hinders bliss,
Let me turn back, shame cries I ought return
Nor faint, though crosses with* my fortunes kiss;
Stand still is harder, although sure to mourn.
Thus let me take the right, or left hand way;
Go forward, or stand still, or back retire;
I must these doubts endure without allay
Or help, but travail* find for my best hire;
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move
Is to leave all, and take the thread of love.
My Muse, now happy, lay thyself to rest,
Sleep in the quiet of a faithful love,
Write you no more, but let these fancies move
Some other hearts; wake not to new unrest,
But if you study, be those thoughts addressed
To truth, which shall eternal goodness prove;
Enjoying of true joy, the most, and best,
The endless gain which never will remove.
Leave the discourse of Venus and her son*
To young beginners, and their brains inspire
With stories of great love, and from that fire
Get heat to write the fortunes they have won,
And thus leave off:* what’s past shows you can love,
Now let your constancy your honour prove.
Wroth, Mary. “The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania.” Restituta, edited by Sir Egerton Brydes. T. Bensley, 1815, is licensed under no known copyright.
— Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love. Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition, La Trobe University, 2012, is licensed under no known copyright.