Un-canonizing Lady Mary Wroth?

Lately I often find myself saying “I cut Lady Mary Wroth from my syllabus because the poems are terrible.”

I wonder if that statement reveals a tricky underside of the return to literary criticism and aesthetics, both in the profession generally and in particular in a number of interesting posts by Gregory Jusdanis, Brian Reed, Claire Bowen, Cecile Alduy, Nicholas Jenkins, and Roland Greene, among others. It’s a statement that I think is likewise related to that nagging question: why is essentialism bad?

For those of you who’ve never heard of her, Lady Mary Wroth was quite a character: the niece of Sir Philip Sidney, she wrote a prose romance called Urania modeled on Sidney’s Arcadia (neither book is what I would call a page turner, but they’re ok), and she wrote a sonnet sequence (which was appended to Urania), Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, modeled (like most other English sonnet sequences) on Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (A&S is most definitely a page turner). After her husband died Wroth had a long term relationship with her first cousin the Earl of Pembroke that produced two kids. And she seems to have been a bit of a political player—not entirely surprising given her family connections.

Because Wroth was an interesting person, I have some residual guilt about eliminating her from the syllabus. But that guilt has largely gone away (there are a lot of interesting people in the Renaissance who don’t get mentioned in English 304), because almost everyone that I tell “I’m cutting Wroth out of the syllabus” completely agrees: Wroth’s poems are terrible and really not worth bothering with for undergrads. The Norton anthology calls her the most “impressive female author of the Jacobean era,” whatever that means, but she’s certainly less interesting than Aemilia Lanyer, who is also in the Norton and who wrote a great country house poem before Jonson did.

I used to give a lecture every year that looked at the introductions to Wroth in the Norton Anthology, from her first appearance circa 1985 till now (trust me: they are very entertaining). I used to point out that while she was initially a historical curiosity (a woman who wrote! how odd! how exciting!), Wroth had gradually become canonized, and this was a good thing because it meant that (in, say, 1990s) we were the first generation since the 17th century able to read Wroth—both literally able to read her in the sense of having the poems in front of you in a modern edition (first published in 1983), but also able to read her, rather than use her as an example (unusual woman writer; powerful fighter against misogyny, etc).

But after teaching her for a long time, which is to say trying to read her for a long time, I have cut her out of my syllabus because the poems are terrible. And boring. And repetitive. And terrible. Now I give a brief lecture about how I used to give a lecture about Wroth’s appearance in the Norton, and then—much to the relief of just about every student in the class—we get going with Marvell. The reaction from students has been almost perfectly uniform for a dozen years: can we read more Donne or Marvell or Sidney? I have never had a single student ask for more Wroth (I now teach more Marvell because students, much to my surprise, demanded it. I had always thought undergraduates would find Marvell’s sense of humor too bizarre, but they love him).

Why does this happen? It is a difficult question to answer. As a would-be Hegelian-Marxist-Derridean, I reject any answer that says there is something essentially better about Donne or Marvell or Sidney; more precisely, I find such an answer appallingly stupid. But I am also enough of a committed slow reader to say that slow reading Wroth is as boring as a February night in Toronto.

The reasons to teach Wroth, as far as I can tell, are two. The first, less important, is that she is a classic instance of what used to be called a “minor” author (fairly, or unfairly—the difficulty of saying what counts as “minor” is part of what I’m trying to get at). If you want to know about the sonnet in the English Renaissance, for example, you have to read her, just as you have to read Constable or Barnes or Lok (they are all equally painful, with occasional snappy moments). These sorts of writers are certainly required for any graduate student (the sort of thing that in the record business is called “deeper cuts”), but for undergraduates I’d much rather spend more time on Jonson, because the primary objective when teaching undergraduates for me is always just to get them to read; that said, I do teach Suckling once in a while (who now must count as a minor figure), because I find “A Ballad Upon a Wedding” such a ridiculous and perfect display of snobbery that I can’t resist. I also find Wroth a snob, but she’s a much less entertaining snob than Suckling, so I’m sticking with him.

The second reason to teach Wroth is more interesting. The best article I know of about Wroth (by Elizabeth Hanson—it’s called “Boredom and Whoredom”) argues that you should study Wroth exactly because she is so boring: it forces you to figure out what is (historically, aesthetically) interesting about other writers, about the construction of taste and aesthetic judgment, and about the forces that make and are made by those sorts of judgments. This reasoning is a much more sophisticated version of the first reason (she’s a minor writer): what is a minor writer? How do we decide? How did this question get decided? That was part of what I was interested in doing with the lecture on Wroth’s intros in the Norton.

That said, while the creation of aesthetic taste is a question I always like pursuing, I don’t like doing it with Wroth for a simple if banal reason: the gender politics always get in the way. That is, it seems as if I am setting up a female author for a fall: “please students, notice how boring female-Wroth is compared to male-Jonson”—because believe me, they will notice.

Besides, I doubt that illuminating the history of taste is the reason, or at least the primary reason, that Wroth ended up in the Norton (neither Barnes nor Constable made the cut). She is there, I suspect, because her mere existence and presence is supposed to tell you something about gender in the Renaissance. But when I read Donne or Marvell or Sidney or Milton or Jonson or Shakespeare or Lanyer, I always find that gender is a much more interesting question in their poems. If you read a lot of sonnets, you quickly realize that the one thing that Wroth is supposed to be famous for—reversing the gender positions, so that the woman speaks and the male is the object—is really not new: since Petrarch, the gender of subject and object in sonnets was always a slippery mess—it’s one of the things that defines the genre. Worth’s sequence is just a particularly obvious and clunky version of a common move.

In other words, I suspect that the reason Wroth seems incredibly boring is that while she was initially included to call into question an essentialized narrative (all Renaissance authors were male; authorship itself is always male; maleness and authorship are practically synonyms; women were not part of the Renaissance), the mere inclusion of her poems no longer does that. I suppose there are still a few people in the world who think gender is not really an interesting question in the Renaissance, but I am certainly not one of them. If you want to study gender, Wroth has very little to say on the matter. Teaching her as a way of opening up questions about gender has become counter productive, because her “female authorship” now closes down questions about gender, rather than opening them up. Wroth has not only been canonized—she’s been (probably an inevitable by product of canonization, like sleeping after Thanksgiving) essentialized. And that kills any possibility of reading.

I’d be happy to hear someone tell me I’m wrong and show an interesting way of really reading Wroth’s poems. All I can say is I gave it an honest try, and failed. I wish they would take her out of the Norton and use the free space to include the prose arguments before each book of Paradise Lost (a poem which has a million times more interesting things to say about gender difference than Wroth).

So I wonder: in other fields, in other historical moments—are there authors who were brought into the canon/Norton in the last twenty or thirty years but who now seem, well, not worth it? And if they are not worth it, to what extent is that “not worth it” tied to a renewed focus on something called “aesthetics”?

PS: I posted this slog this morning with the title RIP Lady Mary Wroth, which as I thought about today seemed misleading and sounds smug.  I don't want to kill her; I want to use her to think about aesthetic criteria--what is it that literary criticism is supposed to read?   So I changed the title--not catchy, but more accurate I think.   I should really always write slower, I suppose...

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