Continuing the series of guest blog posts on overlooked poets, I am delighted to welcome John Field of Poor Rude Lines to these pages.
I knew that bookshops and reading lists were the gatekeepers of good taste and that unknown and unread writers were unknown and unread with good reason.
I knew that the likes of Spencer, Shakespeare and Sidney had earned their plinths in the pantheon because history separates wheat from chaff with a cool, detached impartiality.
I knew that women in the 1600s were not writing (anything worth reading) because they were largely illiterate and too busy dying in childbirth to snatch the quills from their husbands to dash off some tasty sonnets.
I picked Aemilia Lanyer’s name at random from the reading list of Renaissance women poets thrust at me by a university tutor whom I partly despised because she was responsible for the creation of a MSt (Master of Studies) in Women’s Studies. Where, I wondered, was the MSt in Men’s Studies? I was too stupid to realize that most students passing through most courses were studying for one of these already. Having heard of none of the names on that list, I picked Lanyer’s because the ‘Ae’ diphthong in Aemilia made her sound prettier than Mary Wroth, who sounded like a severe old puritan.
Then I opened Lanyer’s 1611 poem, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, and started reading. Eve’s been copping it since that smooth-talking serpent persuaded her to pluck the apple from the bough of the tree of knowledge but Aemilia Lanyer has had enough of that scriptural justification for womanly moral infirmity:
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 to frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poor Eve had either life or breath.
A few lines later, the poem pulls back to the present moment with the impassioned plea, ‘Then let us have our Libertie againe’. Lanyer was close to the court. I like to think that she knew what was going down – her poem was published in 1611, the year that the King James Bible hit the bestseller list. She knew that a generation of readers without Latin – women – were going to read Eve getting it in the neck again. I like to think that her poem offers an audacious corrective: Adam, Pontius Pilate, St Peter are presented as Muppets one and all. Christ reads like the beefcake in the Diet Coke adverts, flexing his pecs to Etta James’ ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’, in Lanyer’s reboot of The Song of Solomon – the fruity bit of the Bible that we like at weddings:
Black as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like skarlet threeds, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew,
Or hony combes, where all the Bees doe meet;
Yea, he is constant, and his words are true,
His cheeks are beds of spices, flowers sweet;
His lips, like Lillies, dropping downe pure mirrhe,
Whose love, before all worlds we doe preferre.
The Diet Coke ad isn’t such a fanciful comparison either. Lusty chaps like John Donne were sharing handwritten copies of their saucy poems. Yet again, women were objectified. They were reduced to poetic tokens of exchange and passed around circles of salacious friends. Salve Deus opens with a series of dedicatory poems to a community of female readers – and Lanyer’s Christ is passed between them and her description of Christ is arresting.
Look deeper though and Lanyer’s Christ is certainly erotic, but more trans. The first metaphor, ‘Black as a Raven in her blackest hew’, feminizes Christ. At one level this is shocking. If Donne and pals are exchanging poems on the female body, why would Lanyer try to play along? Why exchange a feminized body when she could exchange something more masculine? Perhaps she’s reminding the reader, yet again, that the best of Christ – his gentleness, his passivity – are not typically celebrated as manly virtues. If her society could only see women’s closeness to Christ, perhaps they would see fit to reappraise their position within it. There’s also something wonderfully dangerous and erotically charged in Lanyer’s refusal to think in reductive binary terms. The ‘lips like skarlet threeds’ come straight from The Song of Solomon… where they describe the bride.
I was seduced from the get-go. The questioning of smug, safe establishment lists of worthies strikes me as both politically and aesthetically urgent and, for anyone who doubts the validity of studying the Arts in schools and universities, hear this: reading and writing challenges and changes minds. It reshapes our society for the better. Had I the spare cash and time, I’d gladly enrol on that MSt in Women’s Studies and blogs like Fiona Moore’s Displacement are asking the right – awkward – questions. How can under a third of the poetry collections reviewed by the Guardian between 2014 and 2016 be by women?
By night, John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines, reviewing contemporary poetry, and has worked for the Poetry Book Society, writing about the 2015 TS Eliot Prize shortlist and the 2014 Next Generation Poets. He has also written for Forward Arts and was blogger in residence at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, 2013. By day, he teaches English at secondary school.