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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 42, 2002

Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney, and the Doleful Lay

by Pamela Coren

Spenser's Astrophel: A Pastorall Elegie upon the Death of the Most Noble and Valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney opens a collection of seven elegies published with Colin Clouts Come Home Againe in 1595. The second poem, "Ay me, to whom shall I my case complaine," is untitled, but Spenser's pastoral framework presents it as sung by "Clorinda," Astrophel's sister, and refers to the following elegies as "dolefull layes." "Ay me, to whom. . ." thus became known as The Doleful Lay of Clorinda, a title which detaches the poem from its context in a way neither poet nor printer authorizes. I shall refer to the poem as the Lay. The five other elegies in the volume had all been registered or printed elsewhere: only Astrophel itself and the Lay were new. (1) Early Spenser criticism had little interest in the poems, and only recently has the place of Astrophel in the recognition of Philip Sidney as the nation's poet (and Spenser's negotiations with that position) begun to receive attention. (2) These studies have been st imulated by work on the English elegy that has placed Astrophel in the culture of mourning, (3) but have been hampered by a dispute about the Lay's authorship since Gary Waller claimed the poem for Mary Sidney in 1979.(4)

Current discussion of Astrophel and the Lay presents either a double elegy by Spenser, or the Lay as an elegy by Mary Sidney, introduced by Spenser's fiction. The issues raised by this critical tugging at the poem are interesting enough to warrant some disentanglement, offering, as they do, a focus for elusive concerns in sixteenth-century poetry. All arguments to date rest on uncertain ground: Spenser's relationship with the Sidneys (undergoing rapid reduction), Mary Sidney's known writings and possible ascriptions to her, the practice of men writing for women's voices, and, most bedeviling, the notion of the "impersonal" Elizabethan pastoral style, which allows attributions to be dealt and played with speculative generosity. (5)

The Variorum edition of Spenser's works collects judgments on its authorship from Thomas Warton (1728-90) onward, and presents the editors' case for Spenser. (6) Variorum notes a growing recognition that, as "Clorinda," presumed to "be" Mary Sidney, was a writer, Spenser's introductory lines might be an attribution of authorship, yet it charts also a simultaneous development of the claim that it was, nevertheless, Spenser's poem. The Lay remained with Spenser from the Variorum edition until Wailer's detailed case, developed in his doctoral study of Mary Sidney's writings.

Lisa M. Klein, in observing that Astrophel questions the idealization of Philip Sidney, considers the possibility of Mary Sidney writing the Lay as a corrective to Spenser's account, but, otherwise, scholars working to extend Mary Sidney's reputation as a writer have not dealt with the poem, content to accept it as hers on the strength of Wailer's case; her translations and To The Angell Spirit receive most attention. (7) Beth Wynne Fisken, after listing it as one of Mary Sidney's original poems, offers a convincing account of the development of her style that elides the Lay. (8) Margaret P. Hannay refers to "The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda,' once attributed to Spenser, but now acknowledged to be by the countess herself." (9) Betty Travitsky includes a section of the lay and the Astraea dialogue as representative of Mary Sidney's work. (10) In contrast, Louise Schleiner remains open and skeptical on the issue of the authorship of the Lay in her study of Mary Sidney's writings. Her third chapter, "Authorial Iden tity for a Second-Generation Protestant Aristocrat: The Countess of Pembroke" omits mention of the Lay, but a footnote observes: "I am not sure if the 'Lay of Clorinda' is hers, though Spenser's poem explicitly says it is; she could have recast an earlier drafted poem to make it fit his frame stanza pattern--or he could have adopted that pattern because an already existing poem of hers was to be incorporated. Perhaps he heavily edited it. Much of 'The Lay' seems of a piece with Spenser's introductory poem preceding it, and not in tone much like her other known poems (though perhaps generic difference would account for this fact)." (11)

Waller's claim for Mary Sidney has not met with universal acceptance. Since 1979 George Pigman has pointed to numerological evidence for the poem's attribution to Spenser. (12) Anne Lake Prescott adds to and refines Pigman's point in a way that, she claims, "makes Spenser's authorship of both poems likely," and Theodore L. Steinberg makes a strong claim for Spenser in his discussion of Astrophel. (13) William Oram in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser observes that the countess "might well have written a poem like the Lay. But the phrasing and versification recall Spenser's. Perhaps the Lay was a joint endeavor, for, whoever composed it, it is linked to Astrophel in many ways." (14) Oram goes on to describe the relationship between the two poems in terms of Michael O'Connell's 1971 presentation of a double elegy in which Clorinda's lament "presents the Christian consolation and completes the elegy." (15) In this way Spenserian scholarship has kept the authorship question open without obs erving a need for a systematic dismantling of Waler's claim, while many writers on Mary Sidney have accepted that claim without further analysis. I read the Lay as written by Spenser in the convention of the overheard, "rehearsed" lament, and believe that this can be substantiated in a way that pays equal attention to both poets and relates to the gendering of poetic voices in the period. Clearly, any such claim for Spenser's authorship must engage with the details of Waller's thesis rather than just restate the frequently observed Spenserian features of the poem. Since 1979 the Lay has drifted, and been co-opted wherever it was useful. It is worth challenging a literary coup of more than twenty years ago in the hope of a more stringent process and a more certain result.

Strategies of stylistic analysis to determine probable authorship rarely satisfy anyone so much as their creator. The list of "hiccuping parentheses" which results from identifying parallels across a body of work can be off-putting, denying as it does the sense of the text and the controls of genre. Wailer's 1979 thesis usefully queries this kind of work on features of style as offered in the early work by Percy Long, Charles Osgood, and H. D. Rix. (16) Waller attributes the Spenserian feel of the Lay to its genre, using the formula "features common to a host of Elizabethan pastoral elegies." (17) In order to deal briefly with the Lay's Spenserian style, I should like, rather than list individual parallels, to invite the reader's attention to stanzas of the Lay set alongside stanzas from a range of Spenser's minor poems. Those on the left are from the Lay, those displaced to the right from The Teares of the Muses, Daphnaida, An Hymne in Honour of Love, An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie, and The Ruines of Time:

Ay me. to whom shall I my case complaine.

That may compassion my impatient griefe?

Or where shall I enfold my inward paine.

That my enriuen heart may find reliefe?

Shall I vnto the heauenly powres it show?

Or vnto earthly men that dwell below?

(lines 1-6)

What cruell hand of cursed foe vnknowne,

Hath cropt the stalke which bore so faire a flowre?

Vntimely cropt. before it well were growne,

And cleane defaced in vntimely howre.

Great losse to all that euer him did see.

Great losse to all, but greatest losse to mee.

(lines 31-6)

But that immortall spirit, which was deckt

With all the dowries of celestiall grace:

By soueraine choyce from th'heuenly quires select.

And lineally deriv'd from Angels race.

O what is now of it become, aread.

Ay me, can so diuine a thing be dead?

(lines 61-6)

Ah no: it is not dead, ne can it die,

But liues for aie. in blisfull Paradise:

Where like a new-borne babe it soft doth lie.

In bed of lillies wrapt In tender wise.

And compast all about with roses sweet.

And daintle violets from head to feet.

(lines 67-72)

There thousand birds all of celestiall brood,

To him do sweetly caroll day and night:

And with straunge notes. of him well vnderstood,

Lull him a sleep In Angelick delight:

Whilest in sweet dreame to him presented bee

Immortall beauties, which no eye may see.

(lines 73-78)

To whom shall I my euill case complaine,

Or tell the anguish of my inward smart.

Sith none is left to remedie my paine.

Or deignes to pitie a perplexed hart:

But rather seekes my sorrow to augment

With fowle reproach, and cruell banishment.

(The Teares of the Muses, lines 421-6)

She fell away in her first ages spring,

Whil'st yet her leafe was greene, and fresh her rinde.

And whil'st her braunch faire blossomes foorth did bring.

She fell away against all course of kinde:

For age to dye is right, but youth is wrong:

(Daphnaida, lines 239-43)

In purenesse and in all celestiall grace,

That men admire In goodile womankinde,

Shee did excell, and seem'd of Angels race,

Liuing on earth like Angell new diuinde,

Adorn'd with wisedome and with chastitie:

And all the dowries of a noble mind,

Which did her beautie much more beautifie.

(Daphnaida, lines 211-7)

There thou them placest in a Paradize

Of all delight, and ioyous happle rest.

Where they doe feede on Nectar heauenly wize,

With Hercules and Hebe, and the rest

Of Venus dearlings. through her bountel blest.

And lie like Gods in yuorie beds arayd.

With rose and lillies ouer them displayd.

(An Hymne in Honour of Love, lines 280-6)

In which they see such admirable things,

As carries them into an extasy,

And heare such heauenly notes, and carolings,

Of Gods high praise, that filles the brasen sky,

And feele such ioy and pleasure inwardly,

That maketh them all worldly cares forget,

And onely thinke on that before them set.

(An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie, lines 260-6)

But liue thou there still happie, happie spirit,

Not thee that doest thy heauens loy inherit,

And glue vs leaue thee here thus to lament:

Thus do we weep and waile, and wear our eies,

But our owne selues that here in dole are drent.

(lines 91-6)

Mourning in others, our owne miseries.

O noble spirite, liue there ever blessed.

Liue euer there, and leaue me here distressed

The worlds late wonder, and the heauens new loy,

With mortail cares, and cumbrous worlds anoy

But where thou dost that happines enioy,

Bid me. O bid me quicklie come to thee,

(The Ruines of Time, lines 302-10)

That happie there I male thee alwales see.

I see no reason to look for a second poet here. Common epithets, familiar topoi of pastoral elegy, yes, but the syntax, phrasing, and rhythm is Spenser's throughout, with verbal parallels with just that degree of transformation we would expect from a poet as the thought shifts to different impulses. As, for example, "Great losse to all, but greatest losse to mee" for Clorinda, "For age to dye is right, but youth is wrong" for Alcyon; Calliope's "perplexed heart" with its "inward smart" in her wide-ranging culture shock, but Clorinda's "enriven heart" and its "inward pain" of bereavement. The Christian Sidney's spirit goes to its rose and lily paradise "like a new-born babe," but the semi-pagan lovers go to the same paradise "like Gods."

The positioning of verbs and participles, controlling as it does the relation of sense unit to line and stanza, creates an identical pattern in these two passages:

Neuer againe let lasse put gyrlond on.

In stead of gyrlond, weare sad Cypres nowe,

And bitter Elder, broken from the bowe.

Ne euer sing the loue-layes which he made,

Who euer made such layes of loue as hee?

Ne euer read the riddles, which he sayd

Vnto your selues, to make you mery glee.

(Lay, lines 40-6, my emphasis)

Let now your blisse be turned into bale,

And into plaints conuert your ioyous playes,

And with the same fill euery hill and dale.

Let Bagpipe neuer more be heard to shrill,

That may allure the senses to delight;

Ne euer Shepheard sound his Qaten quill

Vnto the many, that prouoke them might.

(Daphnaida, lines 320-6, my emphasis)

While conventional features such as a sympathetic landscape, lasses with garlands, and the breaking of instruments belong to the genre, the shaping of sense units belongs to the poet. The five other elegies in the volume, all pastoral elegies, show no stylistic resemblance to Astrophel or the Lay. The "Spenserian" sound of the Lay is undeniable, and it is the sound of an individual voice as much as of a convention; it is Spenser, or a closely studied imitation. It is time to listen to Mary Sidney's voice and consider that possibility.

In To the Angell Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney, used as prefatory material to the copy of Philip and Mary Sidney's Psalms presented to the queen, Mary Sidney sounds like this:

Oh, had that soule which honor brought to rest

too soone not left and reft the world of all

what man could show, which wee perfection call

This half maim'd peece had sorted with the best.

Deep wounds enlarg'd, long festred in their gall

fresh bleeding smart; not eie but hart tears fall.

Ah memorie what needs this new arrest? (18)

Truth I invoke (who scorne else where to move

or here in ought my blood should partialize)

Truth, sacred Truth, Thee sole to solemnize

Those precious rights well knowne best mindes approve:

and who but doth, hath wisdome's open eies,

not owly blinde the fairest light still flies

Confirme no lesse? At least 'tis seal'd above. (19)

I am not alone in hearing a very different poet here. This experience of a pronounced stylistic difference between the Lay and Mary Sidney's known verse is as overwhelming to many readers as the Spenserian feel of the Lay itself. Michael Brennan remarks of the Lay that "It is in stark contrast to the Countess's other known poetry." (20) Steinberg points to the stylistic difference between the Lay and To the Angell Spirit before concluding: "It is no insult to Mary Sidney to doubt that the same author wrote both of these poems." (21)

Fisken gives this account of the development of the countess's style: "she developed a distinctive style that mirrored the internal conflicts of the psalmist ... she used a complicated conversational syntax, studded with questions, interruptions, parenthetical interjections and exclamations." Fisken describes her as generating "a similar illusion of spontaneity" in To the Angell Spirit by the same means, observing also "an oscillation in the poem between awkward, convoluted questions and qualifications. " (22) Mary Sidney uses parenthesis, interruption, and condensed and abrupt statement and question, both in her translations of the Psalms and of French and Italian originals varying in genre and register. This development of an idiosyncratic poetic voice in the lines of original verse and in the translations somewhat stabilizes the uncertainties of making stylistic comparison between two such different writers. Astraea is the nearest thing to an atypical poem in her output, but even here, in a likely place f or such a mode, she is not "Spenserian":

Sufficeth not no more to name,

But being no less, the like, the same,

Else laws of truth be broken.

(lines 10-2) (23)

Even with so little to go on, it is fair to say that Mary Sidney, though a painstaking poet, does not use imitative experiment other than that involved in translation itself, or demonstrate any overall influence other than Philip Sidney's. Her authorship of the Lay would imply a readiness and ability to slip into a smooth parody of Spenser for this occasion only.

The possibility of imitation occurred to readers as far back as Ernest de Selincourt in 1912, who notes that "If she did write it, she had studied to some purpose the peculiarly Spenserian effects of rhythm and melody." (24) O'Connell ironizes the possibility in trenchant terms: "If the Countess had written this part of the poem, she would have been Spenser's closest student and most exact imitator." (25) But if Waller's suggested generic Elizabethan pastoral style does not account for the Lay's Spenserian feel, and Mary Sidney's authorship is to be upheld, imitation is the only possibility. But to imitate another's style so closely in a lament for her brother? However many years had passed, such an elegy could not be the literary exercise it might be to others. Her To the Angell Spirit is quite rare in being written by the immediately bereaved; Renaissance elegy was most often offered by a friend or client to the bereaved. For the countess to write one lengthy elegy on her brother should be sufficiently int eresting to critics, without our needing her to write two in widely varying styles. The sense of detail and anxiety of To the Angell Spirit (its undoubted energeia, whatever its poetic merits) denies its author's involvement with the detached agenda of the Astrophel volume. We may see examples of witty imitation in a body of work by a member of a male literary circle but such an exercise would be unlikely for Mary Sidney, whose two surviving original poems operate as communication with the queen. If the Lay is an imitation by someone never otherwise "Spenserian," it can only be as a pointed reply to Astrophel, involving an unlikely process of exchanging poems between Spenser and the countess while she engineers her section to fit Spenser's fictional structure.

The dating of the two elegies is uncertain and dependent upon convictions of authorship. To the Angell Spirit dedicates the 1599 manuscript copy of the Psalms presented to the queen. The Lay was published by Spenser in 1595. Either poem may predate these appearances. The period 1590-95 was Mary Sidney's most active as translator and as editor of her brother's works. It was also, of course, Spenser's. There is no evidence to date the writing of either poem. Waller reported that "Friedrich speculates, although without real evidence, that the Countess may have written it in 1587, the year of Sidney's funeral." (26) The Lay, having acquired its title and its independent existence, now acquired a spurious date: "the Doleful Lay of Clorinda, c. 1588." (27)

Waller argues for Mary Sidney's authorship as a primary position: To question her authorship at first sight seems unnecessary, and the Countess' claim was in fact unchallenged until Ernest de Selincourt asserted in his Oxford Standard Authors' edition of Spenser (1908) that the poem was Spensor's." (28) In fact, this "unchallenged" claim was not made explicit before A. A. Jack in 1920, (29) though it has sometimes been assumed, as by William Nelson in 1965. (30) The "claim" derives from these lines:

But first his sister that Clorinda hight,

The gentlest shepheardesse that liues this day:

And most resembling both in shape and spright

Her brother deare, began this dolefull lay.

Which least I marre the sweetnesse of the vearse,

In sort as she it sung, I will rehearse.

(Astrophel, lines 211-6)

It is by no means certain that this is simple code for "the following poem was written by the Countess of Pembroke."

A strong feature of the argument for Mary Sidney is Spenser's recognition of her poetic voice in Ruines of Time (1591), where he aborts his own elegy for Philip Sidney thus:

Then will I sing: but who can better sing,

Than thine owne sister, peerles Ladle bright,

Which to thee sings with deep harts sorrowing,

Sorrowing tempered with deare delight.

That her to heare I feele my feeble spright

Robbed of sense, and rauished with joy,

O sad ioy made of mourning and anoy.

(Ruines of Time, lines 316-22)

These lines support many readings: that Spenser has seen a version of To the Angell Spirit (perhaps the draft that Samuel Daniel had among his papers and which was later printed as his), or a generalized tribute to the reputation of her writing, but it most certainly shows the use of the common topos of women's speaking and singing as ravishing and silencing male speech and reason. (31) The present tense "to thee sings," again, is no simple code for "has written a poem about"; this ubiquitous pastoral-musical trope is notoriously evasive. The passage from Ruines of Time is its elf reminiscent of the disputed poem:

Hath robbed you and reft fro me my ioy:

Both you and me, and all the world he quight

Hath robd of ioyance, and left sad annoy.

(Lay, lines 50-2)

Waller uses the lines from Ruines of Time alongside a letter, with a scribal dating of 1594, from the countess to Sir Edward Wotton, requesting the return of something she had written: "the next is that these [lines] male redeeme a certaine Idle passion which longe since I left in your hands onlie being desyrous to reuiew what the Image could be of those sadd tymes, I very well know unworthy of the humour that then possest me and suche as I know no reason whie yow should yeld me any account of, Yet yf your care of these follies, of such a toy haue chanced to keepe that which my self haue lost, my earnest desire is that I maie againe see it." (32) Waller presents Mary Sidney as here requesting the return of the Lay, presumably in order to pass it on to Spenser for the Astrophel volume, but the request would fit To the Angell Spirit or an unknown piece equally well; it will not do as evidence for the Lay without a definite link between the letter and a specific poem. The terms of her request are suggestive, par ticularly "the Image... of... sadd tymes," but while the modesty topos may account for her disparagement of whatever is referred to, an elegy for her brother seems an unlikely candidate for "these follies, of such a toy," nor is the grief of a particular bereavement likely to be generalized as a "humour." Whatever she refers to, it is something she kept no copy of, but had an earnest desire to see again. This sounds like an episode in the development of a confident writing self, and tells us something of Mary Sidney's commitment to the arts of language, but nothing of a specific text.

Another strong point of Waller's case for Mary Sidney is the printer's layout of the volume: "The 'Lay' is clearly separated by three quarters of a page of blank space from Astrophel'; the running title of Spenser's elegy is discontinued; there are ornamental head- and endpieces to the 'Lay' and an ornamental initial capital to mark the poem's beginning--all of which suggests specific authoritative instructions to or inferences by the printer." (33) The Astrophel collection was appended to Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), though there is no attempt to harmonize the two sections. The elegies appear in this sequence:

Astrophel. A Pastorall Elegie upon the death of the most noble and valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney. Dedicated to the most beautifull and vertuous Ladie, the Countesse of Essex.

Introductory narrative: "Shepheards, that wont on pipes ..." 18 lines in italics:

Astrophel, ending with a narrative link into: (here a blank half-page):

"Ay me to whom shall I my case complaine" itself ending with a 12 line narrative link into the other elegies, naming Thestylis as the next mourner, then "many other moe":

The Mourning Muse of Thestylis

A Pastorall Aeglogue Upon the Death of Sir Philip Sidney Knight, Etc., concluding with the motto "Virtute summa: caetera fortuna" and the initials L.B. (34)

Each subsequent elegy has its own bold title and dedication. The decorative borders seem to be placed randomly throughout the volume: there is a border between Astrophel and the Lay, the third and fourth elegies run on without one, two separate the fourth and fifth, and the fifth runs into the sixth without one. Simply put, some pages of the volume are decorated and some are not. The printer continues the Colin Clout heading several pages into Astrophel, suggesting confusion as to whether he had one work on hand or two (unless material difficulties prevented a change of heading in mid sheet). It is more significant that following the Lay the narrator's voice returns, introducing the next speaker and the rest of the "dolefull Layes," but is not heard again.

There are thus three significant features: the blank space between Astrophel and the Lay, the absence of title for the Lay alone, and the distinction between this first section of the collection, contained within Spenser's narrative frame, and the rest of the elegies. There are two "gaps." The first is the blank half page on which Waller builds his theory of the printer's recognition of another author. In this rather disorganized publication does this space mean anything? If it is to be read, it may offer the recognition of the persona of Clorinda leading the elegiac voices. The second "gap" is the distinction between Astrophel and the Lay and the rest of the elegies. The elegy said to be sung by Clorinda and repeated by the narrator belongs firmly with the Spenserian material, forming a continuous discourse in style and stanza form. If it is by the countess, Spenser does not grant it the authority of an independent poem by a respected colleague as he does the work of his fellow elegists.

In fact, questions of social decorum are raised in imagining Mary Sidney's offering a poem of hers to be published in this commercial publication (as the public would first see the Colin Clouts Come Home Againe volume) especially when her acknowledged elegy to her brother was directed to the queen with a manuscript copy of her Psalms. Mary Sidney did publish, but contained herself within the accepted woman writer's sphere of moral and religious translation. It is an unlikely situation for Spenser too: if this ambitious, middle-class poet had pulled off the feat of obtaining for publication the poem of such a great lady, its appearance unheralded by more than a smooth pastoral link is surprising; such a triumph would have been marked by gratitude on Spenser's part, and celebrated on the title page. (Mary Sidney's Astraea dialogue was published in The Phoenix Nest with an elaborate introduction involving the queen's name as well as that of the countess.)

What is more definite than Mary Sidney's feelings about publication-with-the-boys is the fact that only once, in the Ruines of Time passage, does Spenser acknowledge her poetic activity. Elsewhere in his poetry Mary Sidney is always the living reminder of her dead brother, and a peerless woman among women. In Colin Clout itself we read:

They all (quoth he) me graced goodly well,

That all I praise, but in the highest place,

Vrania, sister unto Astrofell,

In whose braue mynd, as in a golden cofer,

All heauenly gifts and riches locked are:

More rich then pearles of Ynde, or gold of Opher,

And in her sex more wonderfull and rare.

(lines 485-91)

Between Ruines of Time in 1591 and Colin Clout in 1595 Spenser has moved away from reference to her as mourner of her brother. The bland catalog of praise in Colin Clout, in naming her as a muse of Christian poetry perhaps recognizes her Psalms, but makes no reference to her as an original writer. This, in the long poem published with the elegies, is remarkable if one of those elegies is by the countess herself. The tradition of ascribing lyric voice to women is more likely to be present in Spenser's text than recognition of women writing poems for publication. It is as though any awareness of Mary Sidney as a writer was insufficient to undermine, in Spenser's deeply literary mind, the long tradition of male poets writing for women's voice.

Most of Spenser's minor poems operate within constructions that deepen or qualify individual lyrics, each volume offering an echoic space where multiple interrelated voices are heard (the eclogues of Shepheardes Calendar contained by the engravings, headnotes, and mottoes, and the preface and glosses of "E.K.," the narrator framing the complaints of Alcyon in Daphnaida, the female voices of Teares of the Muses and Ruines of Time, and the tripartite structure of Amoretti and Epithalamion). The inference that it is rare for a lyric voice of Spenser's to be heard alone, that his "style" is to resist writing discrete lyric poems, has application here. The Lay, chiming with Astrophel in stanza form, phrase, and syntax, fulfills expectations of Spenserian form. The persona "Clorinda" arises naturally from that of "Astrophel": she is a fiction of Spenser's myth, as is "Stella," in which Spenser's representation of Penelope Rich is taken a great deal further (if not beyond recognition) into the realm of the symbolic . In the double elegy Spenser takes over Philip Sidney's poetic world, including its dramatis personae, his two fantasy soul partners, and makes them serve his own purposes. (35) Writing his belated and ambivalent elegy to Philip Sidney, he moves on to both use and pay his respects to Philip Sidney's sister, ventriloquizing her grief.

The tradition of speaking a patron's grief through a narrator overhearing and reporting lament or complaint, as in Chaucer's Boke of the Duchesse, is important for Spenser, most obviously in Daphnaida and Ruines of Time, but also here in the structuring of the Astrophel volume. It is often pointed out in discussion of the authorship of the Lay that Spenser gives female voices to other elegiac poems, such as the muses in Teares of the Muses and Verlame in Ruines of Time. Related to this broad tradition of moral complaint by weeping female figures (36) is another, appearing fitfully throughout the Renaissance, that of the female voiced complaint poem modeled on Heroides, a convention exemplified by Daniel's Complaint of Rosamund of 1592. (37) This Ovidian mode easily shifts between the erotic complaint of "ruin," to an honest wife's lament for an absent husband, to lament for a dead one. (38) These lyric traditions support the dramatic convention of using women to articulate grief (particularly apparent in the 1590s, from Christopher Marlowe's Zenocrate speaking the elegy over the bodies of Bajazeth and Zabina to Shakespeare's grieving queens). That this literary convention runs counter to social practice, which carefully restricted women's involvement in aristocratic funerals, exemplifies the perverse relationship between gendered literary strategies and historical situation. Thomas Lant's famous engraving of the long procession of Philip Sidney's funeral contains no female figures. (39) His brother Robert, though two years younger than Mary, was his chief mourner, but it is Mary, not Robert, who voices Spenser's emotional lament. Women's "irrational" emotion, which excluded them from the dignity of the ceremonial, becomes representative in literature, just as moral warnings of the seductive power of women's singing voice (and consequent social restrictions on their performance) co-exist with the fetishizing of women's singing voice in love poetry.

In The Faerie Queene, Spenser's writing in this tradition includes both the erotic and the elegiac. Cymoent's lament for her apparently dead son Marinell in book 3 is intercalated and structured in much the same way as Britomart's two erotic complaints in books 3 and 5 and Florimell's in book 4. Cymoent is a sea nymph, neither human nor faery, and thus limited in spiritual scope, and a prey to unqualified emotional distress:

O what auailes it of immortall seed

To beene ybred and neuer borne to die?

Farre better I it deeme to die with speed,

Then waste in woe and wailefull miserie.

Who dyes the vtmost dolour doth abye,

But who that liues, is left to waile his losse:

So life is losse, and death felicitie.

Sad life worse then glad death: and greater crosse

To see friends graue, then dead the graue selfe to engrosse.


Cymoent has no consolatory heaven. Clorinda makes the same gesture but with its appropriate extension and inclusive generalization:

Not thee that doest thy heauens ioy inherit,

But our owne selues that here in dole are drent.

Thus do we weep and waile, and wear our eies,

Mourning in others, our owne miseries.

(Lay, lines 93-6)

The practice of inscribing lament in the female voice and even ascribing it to public figures is seen in less discriminating hands than Spenser's. Penelope Devereux (Rich, Blount) and Mary Sidney were both "celebrated" by the court and its wider circle as public figures of mourning. A case offering a close parallel to the strategy of Astrophel is Giovanni Coperario's 1606 songbook, Funeral Teares for the Death of the Right Honorable the Earle of Devonshire. Throughout this sequence of seven songs the fiction is maintained that the voice heard is that of Devereux. The first six (anonymous) lyrics are spoken by the bereaved female lover, joined in dialogue in the seventh by an authoritative consolatory voice. The volume typifies the Renaissance poet (and musician) making professional capital out of "assisting" women to mourn and directing their grief to proper resignation.

The continuing nature of this appropriation is demonstrated by the lyric "If ever hapless woman had a cause," set in John Bartlett's songbook of 1606, and its editorial history in English Madrigal Verse. The song laments the death of a brother in combat. In 1920 the first editor, E. H. Fellowes, attributed it to Mary Sidney. In 1967 the revisers were cautious: "In previous editions ... it was asserted that this poem was written by Mary, Countess of Pembroke, on the death of her brother Sir Philip Sidney, but there appears to be no evidence to support this statement." (40) A later addenda implies that evidence may not be necessary to reasonable attributions: "To the note to this poem it should be added that Dr. Fellowes's ascription is a reasonable one, in view of Sidney's fame and the fact that his sister was a poet." (41) This modern discourse that allows probability of authorship in terms of a woman's life situation alone without reference to her writing style or profile is not unrelated to Bartlett's cultu re, in which constructed personae and voices proliferated within the location of a woman's sphere as the emotional and erotic.

Spenser, in Colin Clout, names one of the poet's tasks as helping women to mourn: "Helpe, O ye shepheards helpe ye all in this, / Helpe Amaryllis this her losse to mourne" (lines 436-7). Astrophel and its Lay figure this process, while managing the mourning for Philip Sidney as a process within Spenser's laureate development. It is appropriate that he should voice the Lay as "Clorinda," who is Mary Sidney as much as "Astrophel" is Philip Sidney.

Most writers on the Lay disparage it. Waller says: "Some of the 'Lay's' careless or strained lines are hardly up to Spenser's standard of competence, and for Spenser to attempt deliberately to write less polished verse in order to pass it off as the Countess' would have been an insult to her." (42) But Spenser is not trying to "pass it off as the Countess"': that is not what ventriloquizing poets offer. The Lay does what it should for Astrophel, completes the fiction with a "womanish" burst of feeling and orthodox otherworldly direction. Spenser is focusing through his culture's construction of the female voice. Any sense of strain or vacuity locates there, not in an intention to deceive the public. If Spenser had been able to include To the Angell Spirit in Astrophel, it would have been a better volume; Mary Sidney's poem is superior to most of the other elegies. She needs neither the Lay nor the dubious benefit of strained attributions. Close attention to her stylistic register and literary technique both complements and stabilizes the excitement generated by her achievement as a writer in a culture that publicly "voiced over" her own and other women's desire and grief.

Pamela Coren taught medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Leicester from 1989 to 2000. She has published on female persona poems by Donne, Jonson, and Campion, and is researching the place of the printed books of ayres in the transmission and readership of English Renaissance lyric.


(1.) The Lay is printed in its original form and context, along with the nonSpenserian elegies. in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912). All Spenser citations will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically within the text according to poem and line number. For more detailed discussion of the non-Spenserian elegies see Raphael Falco, Conceived Presences: Literary Genealogy In Renaissance England (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 87-94.

(2.) Theodore L. Steinberg, "Spenser, Sidney, and the Myth of Astrophel," SSt 11 (1990): 187-202: and Falco, "Spenser's Astrophel and the Formation of Elizabethan Literary Genealogy," MP 91, 1 (August 1993): 1-25.

(3.) G. W. Pigman III, Grief and English Renaissance Elegy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985); and Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985).

(4.) G. F. Waller, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu, Salzburg Studies in English Literature (Salzburg Austria: Salzburg Univ. Press, 1979).

(5.) Mary Ellen Lamb, "The Countess of Pembroke's Patronage," ELR 12, 2 (Spring 1982): 162-79; and S. K. Heninger Jr., "Spenser and Sidney at Leicester House," SSt 8 (1987): 239-49.

(6.) The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, The Minor Poems, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, C. G. Osgood, F. M. Padelford, and Ray Heffner, 10 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1943), vol. 7.1.

(7.) Lisa M. Klein, "Spenser's Astrophel and the Sidney Legend," SNew 12, 2 (1993): 42-55.

(8.) Beth Wynne Fisken. "To the Angell Spin...': Mary Sidney's entry into the 'World of Words.'" in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne M. Haskelhorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1990). PP. 263-75.

(9.) Margaret P. Hannay, "'Doo What Men May Sing': Mary Sidney and the Tradition of Admonitory Dedication," in Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, ed. Hannay (Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 149-65, 156.

(10.) The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance, ed. Betty Travitsky (1981; rprt. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 21-3.

(11.) Louise Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994), p. 261 n. 29.

(12.) Pigman, p. 152.

(13.) Anne Lake Prescott, reviewing Pigman in SpNL 16, 3 (Fall 1985): 61-3.

(14.) William Oram. "Introduction to Astrophel and the Doleful Lay of Clorinda," in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. Oram, Einar Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 563-8. 563-5.

(15.) Michael O'Connell, "Astrophel: Spenser's Double Elegy," SEL 11, 1 (Winter 1971): 27-35, 32.

(16.) Percy W. Long, "Spenseriana: The Lay of Clorinda," MLN 31 (1916): 79-92; C. G. Osgood, "The Doleful Lay of Clorinda," MLN 35 (1920): 90-6; and H. D. Rix, "Spenser's Rhetoric and the Doleful Lay," MLN 53 (1938): 261-5.

(17.) Waller, p. 92.

(18.) Mary Sidney, "To the Angell Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney," in The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, ed. J. C. A. Rathmell (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963), pp. xxxv-xxxviii, xxxv, lines 15-21.

(19.) Sidney, lines 50-6.

(20.) Michael Brennan. Literary Patronage in the English Renaissance: The Pembroke Family (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 62.

(21.) Steinberg, p. 195.

(22.) Fisken pp. 268, 272.

(23.) Sidney, Astraea, in Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century. ed. Douglas Brooks-Davies (London and Vermont: Dent, 1992). p. 307.

(24.) De Selincourt, Introduction, in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, p. xxxv, n. 2.

(25.) O'Connell, pp. 27-8.

(26.) Waller, pp. 93-4.

(27.) Fisken, p. 273 n. 1.

(28.) Waller, p. 91.

(29.) Adolphus Alfred Jack. A Commentary on the Poetry of Chaucer and Spenser (Glasgow: Jackson, 1920), p. 246.

(30.) William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), p. 70.

(31.) The Complete Works of Samuel Daniel, ed. A. B. Grosart, 5 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), 1:267-9.

(32.) Francis Berkeley Young, Mary Sidney: Countess of Pembroke (London: David Nutt, 1912), p. 56.

(33.) Waller, p. 92.

(34.) Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, facsimile edition (Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969).

(35.) For a more detailed discussion of Spenser's use of these figures see Sacks, pp. 58-62.

(36.) These figures, though not invoked to voice personal loss, are foregrounded as "weeping women." In expressing cultural complaint they provide an alternative mode to the harsher male voices of satire. Spenser's format is imitated by George Chapman's Euthymiae Raptus or The Tears of Peace (1609) with its Peace: "A Lady like a deitie indew'd;/ (But weeping like a woman)" (lines 110-1]. Chapman offers other female voices of complaint or mourning: Musae Lachrimae in his Epicede or Funerall Song for Prince Henry, and Eugenia in Eugenia, or True Nobility's Trance for death of... William, Lord Russell (The Complete Poems of George Chapman, ed. Phyllis Bartlett [New York and London: Russell, 1962]).

(37.) See Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and the "Female Complaint," A Critical Anthology, ed. John Kerrigan (Oxford: Ciarendon Press, 1991).

(38.) See, for instance. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey's "O happy dames, that may embrace" and "Good ladies, you that have your pleasure in exile" (in Selected Poems, ed. Dennis Keene [Manchester UK: Carcanet Press, 1985], pp. 66-9]. This is particularly a song tradition: for example, "Grief, keep within, and scorn to show but teares" in John Danyel's Songs for The Lute Viol and Voice, 1606, and the seven lyrics of Giovanni Coperario's Funeral Teares of 1606. The texts are available in English Madrigal Verse, ed. Frederick W. Sternfeld and David Greer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967). Also relevant is the Lachrymae motif of the Renaissance songbooks, encompassing the erotic celebration of weeping women as well as the more esoteric tears of the nocturne songs.

(39.) Thomas Lant, Funeral Procession of Sir Philip Sidney, Aldrich Collection, Christ Church, Oxford.

(40.) English Madrigal Verse, p. 727.

(41.) English Madrigal Verse, p. 760.

(42.) Waller, p. 92.