Mary Wroth: Sonnets Background

Mary Wroth: Sonnets Background

Mary Wroth’s cycle of sonnets Pamphilia to Amphilanthus consists of 83 sonnets and 20 songs. Each of the entries in the cycle are written from the point of view of Pamphilia which in its original Latin means something along the lines of full of love. The overarching thematic narrative intent of each sonnet is an expression of love by Pamphilia to rather unreliable Amphilanthus. The meaning of his name is fairly indicative of the conflict here: a lover of two.

Pamphilia and Amphilanthus have no legally or even spiritually bounding contract, but nevertheless she aches for and urges her lover to remain constant and monogamous. After all, she has made that decision. Clearly, then this cycle of sonnets has an ideological agenda—some might well consider it a proto-feminist agenda—that rails against the historical timeline and complicit acceptance of the double standard which allows men to act in the very same way that would be earn a woman the defining characteristic of promiscuous.

Such an agenda created a literary paradox for Wroth: the style of sonnet she chose—the Petrarchan—generally took as its subject a man in pursuit of a rather coldhearted and unyielding woman. So ingrained into the structural composition of the Petrarchan sonnet was this theme that Wroth rejected even the attempt to simply the process by merely reversing gender and writing of a woman pursuing an unyielding man. In basically rejecting a foundational belief in the equality of the sexes, Wroth ultimately was inspired to challenge the literary sexism she faced in perhaps the most poetic and lyrical manner possible: since the conventions of courtship itself were the aspects serving to define gender roles, simply jettison those rituals and engage the elements of metaphor to transform unrelated subjects into representations of ritual.

In a rather surprising bit of irony, this sonnet cycle that questions the validity of the double standard and takes the form of addresses from a constant woman to an inconstant man may have been based on Wroth’s own affair with her first cousin William Pembroke. Both were married to others as they indulges in an affair curiously distant from the themes and content of her most famous literary work.

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