Lady Mary Wroth writes using a fairly conventional form of sonnet making, the "Carpe Diem" style. In using this style, she achieves an interesting internal critique of itself as poetic form. Wroth shows how the form is exclusive and at times self-defeating. Wroth exposes these faults by elaborating on images of masochistic love and how this type of love is furthered by the use of military metaphor. Lastly, I will discuss how Wroth's use of double narration and monologue format also serve to problematize the "Carpe Diem" style.
"Carpe Diem" means "seize the day", and this particular translation of the phrase is of particular importance for establishing the validity of Wroth's critique. (Strickland lect. Oct 11 94). These "Carpe Diem" love sonnets usually focused around the narrator trying to seduce a woman into bed or into some type of love relationship. The need to "seize the day was worked in by the narrator in hopes of spurring the woman into action. One good example of this is in Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress". In this poem, Marvell writes: "And the last age should show your heart:/ ... But at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near" (Marvell n.p.). Marvell, as the narrator, is trying to say that he loves the woman very much but because Time is running out, she should give in to him. Marvell further says: "then worms shall try/ That long- preserved virginity:/ And your quaint honor turn to dust." (Marvell n.p.). Here Marvell is saying that virginity and chaste virtue means nothing in death. Marvell also seems to be saying that it would be more pleasant for her if he explored her virginity rather than the worms. Typically, the narrator would say that time was running out and the woman should hop into bed with him the sooner the better. Aside from the crude example I gave above, the form seems to be inherently masculine.
First, this form of poetry was used to express the love, desires, and sexual wants of the narrating poet. From what I understand of 17th century society (and in fact Western society in general) is that it is more socially acceptable for a man to openly express his loves, desires, and sexual wants. For this reason, the "Carpe Diem" style is particularly well- suited to these male poets in that it allows for a concise capsulized proposal that blatantly expresses love,sex, and desires of the men.
A poem seems to be like a small bomb that goes off in the reader's hands. A "Carpe Diem" poem is one particular style of sonnet that takes what it has to say and hurls it at the reader. The "Carpe Diem" poems that we have been reading generally boil down the the narrating poet saying "I want this, this and this from you and you had better give it to me before time runs out". In a Western society, only the male would be of a social position in which this type of command/request would be socially acceptable; and even this notion can be narrowed further which I will attempt later in the paper. This is not to say that women do not have the same wants and desires as men. In fact, I would contend that Lady Mary Wroth has many of the same wants and desires. Wroth has an unrequited love that because she is a woman poet, this love is to be socially squelched. Further, if Wroth's love is to be squelched, the "Carpe Diem" style of sonnet making becomes an inadequate vehicle to express Wroth's desires and loves.
By deliberately using this masculine dominated form of sonnet making, Lady Mary Wroth was able to disturb its role as the quintessential form of love poetry by exposing its inherent sexual bias. That Wroth should expose this bias shouldn't surprise anyone considering that even most canonical anthologies consider Wroth an accomplished poet specifically as a woman poet (Adam, Logan 991). Because Wroth uses the "Carpe Diem" style one can expect some interesting clashes. In fact, if no conflicts occur at all, it would cheapen Wroth's significance as a woman poet in a primarily male dominated league. These clashes of interest manifest themselves in the form of masochistic imagery.
The masochism of Wroth's poems comes out in an interesting mix of images of pain and images of love. These juxtaposed images seem to show what it is like for Wroth to be in love, have desires and sexual wants that cannot be expressed "properly" or as explicitly as Wroth would like.
In sonnet #9 stanzas three and four, Wroth writes: "Yett firme love holds my sences in such band/ As since dispis'ed, I with sorrow marry; /... Dispaire thus governs me (Wroth 91). Wroth laments that she cannot love in the same way that men can, and because of that she will always be in anguish. Wroth is tortured by the fact that she has this unrequited love that she cannot express as openly as she would like. As a contrast, John Donne in his poem "Elegy 19 To his Mistress Going to Bed" expresses a lust for a woman and is able to express it by use of crude sexual metaphors: "The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,/ Is tired with standing though they never fight" (Smith 124).
As a male poet, Donne is able to bypass the social impediments to the extent that he can say (paraphrased of course): My penis is tired of being erect from looking at the woman yet never being able to have sex with her. On the other hand, Wroth's senses are held "in such a band" so that she cannot even acknowledge this same love. Because Wroth has this unrequited love, she is bound by it. Wroth's social inability to use the "Carpe Diem" style to express this love only serves to compound the force by which she is bound. In other words, because Wroth cannot speak of her love, that love becomes even more unrequited and the desire to release that love becomes even more powerful. In this sense, being in love without an outlet of expression is more torturous than delightful.
Another instance of sexually masochistic imagery is found in Wroth's Song 1. In this song, Wroth writes: "Now willow must I weare/ ... With branches of this tree/ I'le dress my haples head" (Wroth 89). The imagery here is Biblical as well as phallic. The image of the Willow tree can be seen as phallic for an ejaculating penis and the image of the crown of branches on Wroth's head can be likened to the crown of thorns worn by Christ. The two images together indicate a type of crucification by a penis. If we extend the biblical metaphor farther, it seems worth considering how much Wroth is comparing herself as a narrator to Christ.
In her Sonnet #1, Wroth is again masochistic when she writes: "I saw: wher sate bright Venus Queene of love,/ And at her feete her sonne, still adding fire/ To burning hearts which she did hold above" (Wroth 85). Wroth is mixing the image of Venus with the image of the Devil. The link between love and torture seems to be more plainly stated in this metaphor. Venus represents love and passion, not unrequited love and suppressed passions. The Devil represents a denial of love and retribution for sinful passions. As one, Venus and the Devil represent on one hand, the giver of love and passions and on the other hand the force that denies these loves and passions. This type of love is so Hellish that Wroth writes in her Sonnet #2 that: "even in hurts are deem'd delights,/ Soe pleasant is ther force! Soe great theyr mights/ As, happy, they can triumph in theyr harmes" (Wroth 86). This is the love that Wroth has, it is at once painful and delightful. This masochistic theme is also carried out in her other sonnets.
Wroth makes her point that the "Carpe Diem" form is insufficient for all those people (men or women) who are capable of being in love. I say men or women because the expression of love by men like Donne, Herrick, and Marvell was done exclusively in aristocratic circles (Strickland lect. Oct. 11 94). So now with this new piece of information, the style of "Carpe Diem" becomes even more exclusive and even more restricting. Because the use of this style was confined to aristocratic men, it would seem to be a exercise in masochism for anyone who wasn't an aristocratic man to write in this style.
Wroth's poems are troubling for the "Carpe Diem" style in that she is not using them to dominate someone else with her passionate writing, instead, Wroth is showing that the use of the "Carpe Diem" style can specifically deny some people from being able to express their desires. The very use of the "Carpe Diem" style implies a certain social standing of the poet. The "Carpe Diem" style is a very bold and forthright style and to use it, the poet must assume that they are of a social standing that would allow them to write this way. This necessary presumption reduces the population of "Carpe Diem" poets to aristocratic men. In this case, the masochism found in using the "Carpe Diem" style may not stem from a male domination of the woman (which would make masochism an exclusively feminine trait) but instead, it refers to the inability to sate one's unrequited love due to the rigid social limits that surround the formation of "Carpe Diem" verse. This particular use of the "Carpe Diem" sonnet specifically to fulfill unrequited love for aristocratic men leads Wroth to lament in her Sonnet #14: "Love first shall leave mens fant'sies to them free,/ Desire shall quench loves flames, spring hate sweet showers" (Adam, Logan 992).
The masochism in Wroth's poems seems to be amplified and clarified by the use of military metaphor. Wroth says of love in Sonnet #14: "And captive leads me prisoner, bound unfree?" (Adam, Logan 992). The images of war, battles, and prisoners all seem to be masculine in origin. The question one should ask is: Who goes off to war? Men or Women? The use of military metaphor is fairly common among Wroth's contemporaries. One in particular was Sir Philip Sidney who, consequently, was her uncle.
In Sidney's Sonnet #41 from his collection, Astrophil and Stella, Sidney uses "his hand" and "lance" to battle the enemy, France. Because of his heroism in battle, Sidney says: "I obtained the prize (Stella)" (Adam, Logan 489). With his phallic lance, Sidney has conquered the heart of his beloved Stella. Germaine Greer in her book The Female Eunuch analyzes the use of battle and war to conquer the hearts of women by stating: "For boys broaching manhood the dominant fantasy of adventure simply expands to include woman as exploit: sex is admitted as a new kind of prowess or hazard" (Greer 186).
John Donne also uses this type of military metaphor in his poetry. In his poem "Elegy 19 To his Mistress Going to Bed", Donne writes: "The foes oft-times having the foe in sight,/ Is tired of standing thought they never fight" (Donne n.p.). Donne also writes: "Upin that spangled breastplate which you wear,/ That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there" (Smith 124-5). The first image involves the hunting of prey and the second image refers to the woman taking off her clothing which the poet refers to as armor. Take off the breastplate so that I can run you through with my sword.
Wroth also makes use of military metaphor. In her Sonnet #14 she writes: "Love shall loose all his darts" (Wroth 94). The darts are to slay the foe that is to be conquered. Greer offers some psychological insight concerning the penis that may help in decoding this metaphor. Greer says: "It [the penis] has become a gun, and in English slang women cry when they want their mate to ejaculate, `Shoot me! Shoot me!'" (Greer 315). Greer also says: "The final clinch of male romanticism is that each man kills the thing he loves;... leaving the hero's status as a great lover unchallenged" (Greer 191). This image that Greer talks about is found in the final conquering of the woman in Donne's "The Flea" and "The Relic" and it is desired by Herrick in his "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time" and by Marvell in his "To his Coy Mistress" (Strickland Eng.215 47, 56, 141, 180).
It seems that the assumption taken by poets in using military metaphor to express unrequited love was that the lover/poet/warrior would ultimately be successful in war, thus winning the heart of the woman. In Wroth's poems, military metaphors are used in relation to love but in a different way. Instead of being the victor, Wroth focuses on being the victim (the loser). If Wroth is trying to express her love in this masculine style of poetry, it would be reasonable to assume that to a certain extent she would need to assume a masculine voice in her narration in order to be successful in getting her love out.
This masculine voice would be necessary both because of the claustrophobic restrictions of the style and because of the social atmosphere of the time. This transfer from an expected feminine voice into a masculine voice is seen in her sonnet #8. In the rhymed couplet at the end of the poem, Wroth writes: "Yet though I dark do live I triumph may;/ Unkindness, nor this wrong shall love allay" (Wroth 91). Even if this person's life is dark, they may yet triumph in love. Put this way, the passage could be referring to a man or a woman. Despite the restrictions (whatever they may be) I will yet triumph. The use of the ambiguous pronoun "I" deliberately refuses to confirm the gender of the narrator.
This use of an ambiguous voice can serve to accomplish Wroth's supposed objectives in releasing her unrequited love while at the same time problematizing it. While the ambiguity of the personal pronoun "I" allows for the social acceptance of the poem, the anonymity of the narrator tends to disseminate the direction of the love expressed. If the love comes from an anonymous source, then how can there be any specific connection between the lover and the loved. Once again, Wroth falls into the pit of masochistic love brought back upon itself.
Another interesting way in which a double narration is employed is in what Wroth is achieves in the poetic form. Wroth uses the "Carpe Diem" style to critique itself as a style. Wroth has a tendency to write poems that are aware of themselves as poems. Good as this may sound, Wroth is caught in a helpless position in which she is using the flawed tools of that style that she wishes to critique. Wroth's critique seems to be that the narrowness of the style in its social context doesn't allow for anyone but an aristocratic man to express loves, desires, and sexual wants. This then can be seen as another manifestation of masochism.
One aspect of Masochism that Leopold von Sacher-Masoch examines in his book Venus in Furs is that masochism could involve the changing of one's identity just as the anti-hero Severin does in changing his name to Gregor. This changing of identity is also found in Shakespeare's play Macbeth when Lady Macbeth asks to be "unsex(ed)". This instance with Lady Macbeth ties the masochistic theme more directly to Lady Mary Wroth. Wroth seems to express this masochistic need in her sonnet #11 in stanza two she says: "Let me once see my cruell fortunes gain,/ At least release, and long-felt woes redress" (Wroth 92). Wroth seems to be saying that the only way her desires could be expressed is if she is released from her sex and allowed to write as an aristocratic man does. But, there is one problem with this, Wroth doesn't write like a man does and neither does she want to. This is true even down the very basic format and motions of the sonnet.
Another aspect of the "Carpe Diem" poetic style that Wroth changes is found in the way her poems are delivered. Most of the "Carpe Diem" poems that I have read are written in a dialogue form; for instance: "To his Coy Mistress" and "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time". Wroth's poems are written in monologue format; "Am I Thus Conquered", and "In This Strange Labyrinth How Shall I Turn?".
In Sonnet #17 Wroth writes: "But O on me a world of woes do lie,/ ... better in Hell to be" (Wroth 95). For Wroth the focus is on the "I" in the poem. The focus is not on the other person because there is no other person and that is Wroth's point. Love is a torment to her because she is not allowed to express love in the effective way the aristocratic men are able to. This internal torment of having unsatisfied love, desires, and sexual wants is what leads Wroth to her critique of "Carpe Diem". As Wroth puts it in her "Song 1": her poems are a "tale of haples mee" (Wroth 89).
First, I believe that more credit should be given to Lady Mary Wroth as a Proto-Feminist poet. It would be ridiculous to think (after reading her poems) that she was not fully aware of the cramped, sexually biased style of the "Carpe Diem" poetry. Wroth's manipulation of masochistic imagery, military metaphor, double narration and the the monologue format are too well placed to be considered accidental. Although I cannot claim to be completely knowledgeable in Feminist writing (being a male) I can only suppose that I have found what I think is there. WORKS CITED
Adam, Robert M. & Logan, George M. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Fifth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1986.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw--Hill, 1970.
Marvell, Andrew. Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems. Elizabeth Story Donno ed. New York: Penguin, 1972.
Smith, A.J. ed. John Donne: The Complete English Poems. London: Penguin, 1971.
Strickland, Ronald. 17th Century English 215 (Course Packet). Normal: Pip Printing, 1994.
Strickland, Ronald. Lecture. Literature of the 17th Century. Illinois State University. Normal, 11th Oct. 1994.
Wroth, Lady Mary. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Baton Rogue: Louisiana St. UP, 1983.