Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jane Donawerth: “Women’s Courtly Poetry”

Jane Donawerth

Book Review

Lady Margaret Douglas and Others. The Devonshire Manuscript: A Women’s Book of Courtly Poetry. Ed. and intro. by Elizabeth Heale. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, 19. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (Toronto, 2012), xiii + 277. ISBN: 978-0-7727-2128-0. $31.95 (USD)

1> The Devonshire manuscript, owned by Mary (Howard) Fitzroy (c. 1519-1555?) and later by her friend and fellow-courtier, Margaret Douglas (1515-1578), reflects the interests of elite women at the court of Henry VIII. Their hands identify the poems they contributed to the manuscript. The manuscript is important for preserving not only many poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the most popular Henrician court poet, but also for providing evidence of women’s involvement in production and circulation of poetry. For greater access, the poems are modernized in spelling and punctuation. The ladies who contributed to the manuscript began their careers at the court of Anne Boleyn, immersed in its pastimes. In 1536 this idyllic life imploded when the Queen was accused of adultery, based on inferences from the love poetry and reported flirtations at these entertainments. Mary Shelton (c. 1513-1571), another contributor, was specifically rebuked for her “ydill [idle] poeses” (p. 7). Poems were copied into the manuscript, a quarto-sized blank book, during the 1530s and 1540s, with at least one poem from the 1560s, and the binding is stamped with the initials “M. F.” Poems were not only entered page-by-page but often inserted on blank pages throughout.

2> Elizabeth Heale’s introduction offers background on Anne Boleyn’s court, biographies of the three principle users of the manuscript, an overview of the poems and manuscript culture, a brief summary of scholarship, and a note on editorial principles. Biography takes central stage. The first owner, Mary (Howard) Fitzroy, married the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, in November 1533, when they were both fourteen years old. The book was perhaps a gift to Mary from her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, himself a noted poet, and friend of the Duke. The second owner, Margaret Douglas, was daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor. Margaret Douglas married Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, in July 1544, but had been secretly betrothed to Lord Thomas Howard, Mary Fitzroy’s uncle, whose hand appears in many poems. The third female contributor to the manuscript was Mary Shelton, daughter of Sir Ralph and Lady Anne Shelton, betrothed briefly to Thomas Clere in 1545, and married to Sir Antony Heveningham after Clere’s death. There are also poems contributed by Sir Edward Knyvet, brother-in-law of Mary Shelton and cousin of Mary Fitzroy, many anonymous hands, and one later poem inserted by Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, Margaret Douglas’s oldest son, perhaps addressed to his future wife, Mary Queen of Scots. The biographical background is essential to understanding not only the playfulness of courtly verse, but also the “tragic consequences” (p.15). Poem 8 by Margaret Douglas spells out Mary Shelton’s name by acronym and Mary adds a sarcastic comment about its quality after it. The only poem in Mary Fitzroy’s hand (Poem 81) is by her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and probably addresses his wife during his military service in France. Poems 41 to 48 were probably written after Margaret Douglas’s secret betrothal, by herself and her fiancé while both were in the Tower for their offense. Poem 175, by Douglas, is a “testament” or fictional will, justifying death for love. Reading the poems is like reading an early Japanese novel (i.e., Tale of Genji)—full of erotic play, biographical references, advice on courtly conduct, and an edge of danger.

3> Heale’s introduction emphasizes what the poems tell us about courtly culture and manuscript production. Poems are copied randomly, often without attribution, and there is some collaborative authorship. A full third of the poems are by Sir Thomas Wyatt, but many are also passages copied from Thynne’s print edition of Chaucer, which included poems we would not now attribute to Chaucer. Many poems must have been copied from memory, since there are small variants. Copyists also sometimes purposefully changed words in order to make them better fit a woman’s situation (Poem 65). Both male and female authors and voices are represented, suggesting that the court valued wit in both sexes. Some poems are marked as songs; others answer another poem; and some seem related to the controversy about women, as Richard Hattfield’s clever poem (Poem 26), praising or blaming women depending on punctuation. The editor includes illustrations of the hands of the manuscript collection (pp. 45-48).

4> One surprise is how unified the manuscript seems, with poems by other courtly authors and even excerpts from Chaucer (Poems 91 and 18, for example) fitting neatly together with Wyatt’s Italianate themes of despairing love, witty unfaithfulness, and eventual rejection of the world of youthful passion. Poem 56 by Wyatt, for example, is characteristic of the intense self-involvement of these poems, asking a beloved if she cannot love the speaker, may she yet “rue upon my pain.” Poem 115, a dialogue, suggests why this poet might be chosen by female compilers: a lover lectures his lady on appreciating his patience, and on patiently waiting for him; she returns first scorn, and then rejection, remarking that patience is easy now that she has traded him for someone faithful. Many of Wyatt’s poems are variants on Petrarch or other Italian sources (as Poem 135, featuring the metaphor of a ship seeking a haven), and others also draw on Petrarchan sources--Poem 5, for example, full of tears and flames and decrying the cruel mistress who requires a living death. Despairing love, the subject of over half of the poems, is given a female voice in Poem 65, perhaps by Margaret Douglas, about a lover who “is gone and slipped the knot,” leaving the lady to mourn. Illicit love is voiced by both male and female speakers: in Poem 128 by Wyatt, the speaker observes a lady sewing a sampler while he sings and wishes he were the sampler (i.e., in her lap), hoping Cupid will “prick” her; in Poem 152, an adulterous female speaker exults that she wants for nothing because her friend tries to please her, no matter what others think. The ending to the story of despairing love in a court culture of arranged marriages is not happy marriage, but repentance for youthful follies, voiced, for example, in Poem 138 by Wyatt, a farewell to love, and in the anonymous Poem 145, describing young passion and repentance later. Rather than love figuring courtly ambition, the desire for “place” or courtly ambition figures the arduous path of love (as in Poem 21). The style, too, seems unified, the poems overall committed to song-like structures and patterned language full of antithesis, paradox, and the extreme repetition of classical rhetorical schemes. Wyatt’s “My hope, alas, has me abusèd,” Poem 136, with its antithetical paradoxes of mirth and sorrow, faithfulness and comfortlessness, is matched in other clever contributions, such as Poem 29, in which each stanza repeats and plays with words to show the lover does his lady’s will, unlike others whose “words for words in words remain,” and Poem 171, in which a lover lives in denial of his beloved’s betrayal: “I would it were not as I think,/ I would I thought it were not.”

5> Of special interest are the poems attributed to Margaret Douglas and those in a female voice. Poems 60 and 61 in Margaret Douglas’s hand, for example, first mourn the change of a suitor, vowing never to trust again, and then counsel that the only cure is forgetting—an impossibility for the heartsick. The editor suggests that Poems 101 and 102 are a pair: the first by Margaret Douglas claims that her audience would be in tears if she could depict her heart’s grief; the second by Mary Shelton suggests that it’s better to counterfeit and cover grief. Female voices wish for much the same as male voices in these poems: in Poem 9, a lady vows to take a chance and trust, and in Poem 12, a brief version of the tale of Isabella Whitney’s much later “Inconstant Lover,” a female cautions never again to trust a man. Poem 105, in Margaret Douglas’s hand, tells a lady’s grief when she sees her former lover across the room and steels herself not to give in again, after which Mary Shelton has scribbled “hap have bidden/ my hap a-wanting”—fortune has decreed that I’ll lack luck. Although many of the poems in the Devonshire manuscript approach love with cynical good humor, overall, the poems by both men and women concentrate (like current rock lyrics) on lost joys and bleak futures. Margaret Douglas (Poem 83) and Mary Shelton (Poem 87) both enter versions of the same poem that sees “joy decays” and mourns a future of “weary days.”

6> This volume helps us to revise our understanding of the ways that women were encouraged by court culture and friends to read, perform, and author poems. The introduction gives valuable background, and the annotations and index are superb. This is a volume for every library and every scholar’s bookshelf.

Jane Donawerth, Professor of English and Women’s Studies and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland, has published on Shakespeare, early modern women, Madeleine de Scudery, and science fiction by women. She helped found the “Attending to Early Modern Women” conference, and Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Her latest book is Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women’s Tradition, 1600 to 1900.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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