Body Language; Wroth, and the Female Condition
Good now be still, and doe not me torment,
With [multituds] of questions, be at rest,
And onely let me quarrell with my breast,
Which stil lets in new stormes my soule to rent.
Fye, will you still my mischiefes more augment?
You saye, I answere crosse, I that confest
Long since, yet must I euer be opprest,
With your tongue torture which will ne're be spent?
Well then I see no way but this will fright,
That Deuill speech; alas, I am possest,
And madd folks senseles are of wisdomes right,
The hellish spirit, Absence, doth arrest.
All my poore senses to his cruell might,
Spare me then till I am my selfe, and blest.”
Mary Wroth, Pamphilia, to Amphilanthus (Orig Pub. 1631)
Mary Wroth, a 16th century British female poet, her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus being the second known published one by a woman, uses the body as a language for understanding the Self in Sonnet 45 of the sequence (an often neglected role for women in Renaissance poetry); through such an exploration her likeness to Italian poet Petrarch, over 200 years her senior, complicates the sonnet’s internal landscape by pushing back on Petrarch’s position of women as only the objects of his poetry, whereas Wroth positions the woman as the subject. There is tension between what it means to be a woman of Petrarch versus a woman as Petrarch, and this tension is exemplified by the use of the body as a form of discussion for the effects of such a struggle. In pioneering new space for women to occupy in poetry, Wroth’s work gestures towards the larger consideration of what it means for the Self to be limited by social constructs.
Sonnet 45 opens up with a command, though it is not another person the speaker is addressing but rather what the speaker calls “Good”. Wroth is appealing to “Good” for reprieve from the constant questions it is accused of asking the speaker. This is our first indication that the speaker sees itself as possessing a perspective, by way of having the ability to converse with something else and express a command or desire for something to change. The plea Wroth offers Good in the subsequent line, “And only let me quarrel with my breast”, is the first moment where the body becomes the language for understanding the self. By using a possessive pronoun, Wroth posits the quarrel inside the breast owned by the speaker. This means that the breast, a body part, is the container for the quarrel (the inner torment of the Self by endless questions, as explained in the previous two lines of the poem), thus making the breast the form where the quarrel can take place. In the following line, Wroth treats the breast as a gatekeeper of “new storms” that tear apart her soul: “Which still lets in new storms my soul to rent”. This furthers the evidence that the body is being used as a language for the self because the breast is a perimeter around the inner self, against the outer “storms”. To iterate in more succinct terms, the breast is Wroth’s attempt at trying to elucidate something that does not yet have “norms” of language. That something being a woman speaking of herself as a subjective being.
As the sonnet leans on body parts to represent its boundaries of the self, it also leans on the structure of conversation to further employ discussion of the self. Wroth addresses someone that seems to reply but is never represented in words themselves. They can only be seen in the reactions of the poem’s speaker. This next section is a great example: “Fie, will you still my mischiefs more augment? You say I answer cross”. We as the reader are left wondering what the person that the speaker is addressing has said that prompted this response. The poem takes a sudden outward turn here, and in doing so challenges the possibility that the poem is taking place entirely inside the speaker. This is an important challenge because Petrarch, the poet Wroth’s work is trying to reimagine, was markedly interested with poetry that never left the speaker--that “courtly love” that always practices from afar. When one thinks of Wroth’s dilemma as a question of the woman as Petrarch, one must acknowledge this key difference between their interpretations. Petrarchan poetry as imagined by the woman in the role of Petrarch is presented by Wroth as breaking the seal Petrarch uses to keep himself separate from the love he pines for.
Wroth continues to flesh out the woman’s place in a Petrarchan domain by focusing on the woman as Petrarch, contemplating the pains and woes of the self through the use of body parts. The body makes its return in the next lines: “With your tongue-torture which will ne’er be spent?” The ‘tongue-torture’ being the “multitude of questions” from the first lines, their inability to exhaust themselves recalling the “storms” that already torment the speaker inside. These questions can then be understood as having the same torturous effect upon the self as the mercurial nature of the speaker’s own quarrels with their breast. With that in mind, the “tongue” in this line transforms into the physical matter upon which the torture is inflicted; if the “torture” is of the self, then the tongue is language for the self.
The second half of the poem is where the speaker takes control of the effect these questions--these relentless prods at the self--are having on inner torment. This comes in the piteous exclamation, “I am possessed!” The self has been fully compromised here, indeed evacuated by these tortured lamentations of tireless questions embattling the speaker. Wroth goes on to explain what drives her possessed nature: “The hellish spirit, absence, doth arrest/All my poor senses to his cruel might”. Not only does Wroth identify the true violence upon the desires of the speaker as absence, she uses senses--physical experiences employing the body as their medium--to exemplify what absence suppresses. Thus a reading emerges here of the self once again being understood through discussion of body parts (and consequently bodily sensations). However, something more interesting is happening here. This is a moment where the poem’s consciousness introduces tension between being a woman of Petrarch (an object of aggrandized inner desire) versus being a woman as Petrarch (the subject experiencing the desire) that is working through the speaker’s temporary loss of the self due to absence. It is the contradiction of the first half of the poem’s desire to be left alone and the second half of the poem’s lamentation of absence--of being alone--that creates this tension. The speaker is struggling to map out a way to both ache for solitude and ache in solitude: it is difficult to fathom both, because the two desires seem to be mutually exclusive, or at least intuitively so.
There is an implicit demand by the poem here for a way to reconcile these moving parts (the questions, the inner torment, being possessed by absence) that is not being met by the poem’s conclusion: “Spare me then til I am myself, and blessed”. The speaker is resigned to let pass this temporary suspension of the self, thus stew in absence until the self can return. Wroth uses a conjunction in this last line to imply that while the self is gone, one is not blessed. This could be a subtle jab at those who criticized Wroth for not sticking to writing about religious themes as her aunt did. There is a way this last line can be read, then, as Wroth bemoaning the restrictions placed on her as a woman standing on the shoulders of Philip Sidney, of her aunt, and in some ways of Petrarch. She momentarily slips into the same muted existence as a woman of Petrarch, as an object only observed and never able to participate, as utter absence.
Wroth artfully combines the sorrow of too much (“multitude of questions”) and too little “the hellish spirit, absence”) using the body as language to understand their boundaries, while pushing back against the use of Petrarchan style to illuminate the male perspective on love. Sonnet 45 leaves the reader altogether unsure by the end if the speaker ever stepped outside of their own mind, but it is this ambiguity that already separates Wroth from Petrarch, and from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence: with Petrarch, it is clear that the poet indulges courtly love (distant and idealized), however with Wroth one is able to make out the shadow of a presence, perhaps ironically through its absence, in the lines where the speaker responds to an exchange we as the reader do not observe, however that absence clearly overtakes Wroth by the end of the poem: this is the oscillation between the woman as Petrarch and a woman of Petrarch. Though Wroth skillfully explores what it would mean for the woman to inhabit the role of the subject, of the one observing outward desires, she still falls victim to the muted absence of being the object, of being Petrarch’s ‘Sonnet Lady’. It is fitting to remind of the inner torment the speaker feels proliferated by Good’s questions: the breast is a cage and the tongue is a torture device that both come together to assail the self all while somehow making space for something that could not have stood before.
Pınar Yaşar is a Boston-based Kurdish diaspora writer, poet, and instructor. She holds a degree in English Literature from Tufts University and, while there, was published in the Tufts Cannon Literary Magazine. Her work also appears in La Bruja Roja, Cyberhex Press, and Haverthron Press.