ENGL 204 / ENGL 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Women's Voices:
Poetry and Politics in the 17th Century
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012]

Primary Readings checklist: 


Reread NA from 1358, paragraph starting "The reigns of the first two Stuart kings. . ." through 1367; pay particular attention to the discussion of the respective positions of the Puritans and the Anglicans / Royalists; of the increasing number of women writers; and more generally, of the roles which were thought to be appropriate for women. Then read the headnotes entitled "Crisis of Authority" (NA 1834, top only; stop at "Reporting the News") and "Writing the Self" (NA 1867-68); note comments which suggest how the social upheaval of the revolutionary era from 1640 to 1660 provided women with unusual opportunities for action and expression.  Finally, read the headnotes on "Gender Relations: Conflict and Counsel" (NA 1648-49) and headnotes to all assigned writers. For each of the women writers, know lifespan (dates); marital status / family situation; degree of education; and (especially) religious and political affiliations.  Know which of the women's works were published during their lifetimes and who published them; know titles and dates of publication for full-length works and collections of poetry (don't worry about dates of individual poems, except any that are explictly noted on study guide). Also know title, author, and publication date of Swetnam's misogynistic diatribe (NA 1650-52).

Background Readings checklist: 

NA Introduction and Section Headnotes:
  • Final paragraph of "Jacobean Writers and Genres" (on women writers, NA 1358);
  • "The Caroline Era," "The Revolutionary Era, 1640-60" and "Literature and Culture, 1640-60" (NA 1358-67; see also Timeline, NA 1368-9);
  • Gender Relation: Conflict and Counsel (NA 1648-49);
  • "Crisis of Authority" (NA 1834 top only; stop at "Reporting the News");
  • "Writing the Self" (NA 1867-68).

Women Writer Headnotes/Introductions:

*      *     *

Study Questions: 17th-Century Women's Voices

Most of the women writers whose works we are reading this week are contemporaries of Donne, Jonson and the"Metaphysical" and "Cavalier" poets (aka the "sons of Ben") whose works we recently read. Do the women poets Lanyer, Cavendish, Philips and Bradstreet fit into either the "metaphysical" or the "Cavalier" camp?  Why or why not? As you read, look for evidence of their attitudes toward traditional women's roles (wife, mother, pious Christian, etc.); towards women entering the political or literary arena; and concerning women's education and/or literary activity.  Pay particular attention to the ways in which they characterize their works and justify or explain their status as woman writers. Look also for comments on the various types of love expressed in their works: marital or erotic love, maternal love, love of country or King, love of God, etc. 

As you read, consider whether and to what extent gender plays a role in the women poets' choice of subject matter, imagery, genre and/or form.  How might prevailing attitudes about women writers (see NA headnotes listed above and online introduction to Bradstreet) have affected their works? Recall how Mary Herbert's pastoral eclogue differed from the pastoral poetry with erotic themes of many of her male contemporaries, and how Mary Wroth (who was actually a near-contemporary of the 17th-century women assigned for today) transformed the conventions of sonnet writing to fit a woman's perspective and experience. Do you notice any difference in the relationship between poetic subject (the "I" of the poems) and the objects to whom and about whom they write? Are the topics chosen and concerns expressed by the women writers' poetic personae different from those focussed on by male poets? Are their images and allusions effective in conveying a distinctly female experience (as poet, wife, mother, friend, subject, or in another private or public role)? 

A Woman's Place? The assigned prose selections by Lanyer, Speght, Halkett, and Cavendish add to our understanding of why women took up their pens and of the themes they choose to address in their writing.  As you read these selections, look for evidence of how these 17th-century women writers resist or take issue with socially prescribed gender roles in their works. Consider in particular the various strategies used by Rachel Speght and Aemilia Lanyer to justify their roles as women writers and their spirited defense of women against anti-feminism. Pay particular attention to their treatment of Eve (Lanyer's rehabilitation of Eve in "Eve's Apology in Defense of Women," NA 1433-36; see also Speght's comments on Eve, NA 1653-54); you will want to keep these texts in mind next week when we read selections about Eve from Milton's Paradise Lost! As the headnote to Lanyer points out, "Eve's Apology in Defense of Women" (as well as other pieces in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the poetry collection which Lanyer published in 1611) places her squarely at the forefront of the 17th-century querelle des femmes tradition, the continuation of an ongoing medieval debate over the inherent worth of womankind. 

The querelle des femmes, or "battle about women," pitted "feminists," the defenders of womankind, against "anti-feminists," who claimed that females are inherently inferior to males in every respect, be it biological, intellectual, moral, etc. This polemical tradition has deep roots in the later middle ages.  Some of the better known medieval partipants include the "anti-feminist" Jean de Meun, author of the second part of the Romance of the Rose, and, on the "feminist" side, Chaucer's Wife of Bath and the 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan.  (NOTE: if you find this topic interesting, keep an eye out for ENGL 439, Gender in Medieval Literature, which is typically offered once in every two-year cycle.) When we read our selections from Milton's Paradise Lost, you may wish to consider whether and to what degree he belongs to one of these two campus. 

In addition to the broad questions listed above, consider the following issues specific to the individual women writers noted:

1) Politics: Royalists vs. Puritans. Note the way in which the Royalist women Katherine Philips ("Upon the Double Murder of King Charles," NA 1785) and Lady Anne Halkett (excerpt from The Memoirs, NA 1874-78) enter the public arena to act / speak out about their religious and political convictions. The Royalists saw the regicide of Charles I (and the Puritan overthrow of a monarchy which they felt was founded on "divine right") as "unnatural," an act of rebellion against God's will; consider the connection between rebellion and pride, the first of the Seven Deadly Sins, in works read earlier this quarter (e.g. Dr. FaustusThe Faerie Queene, and Cranmer's "Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion" -- a connection to which we will return with regards to Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost). Paradoxically, these Royalist women, fueled by their sense of duty to God and King, themselves behave in a way their contemporaries might see as "unnatural," boldly entering the public arena through their political acts and public discourse. Is there a connection between the extremity of the political situation and their unorthodox behavior? Notice the role played by cross-dressing in the anecdote from Halkett's Memoirs. This real-life experience recalls the way in which the themes of the "world upside-down," "unnatural" behavior, and madness are linked with female cross-dressing in literary works such as Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night (not read in ENGL 204, but both great plays!). In the private domain, note Philips's statements in "A Married State" (NA 1785) and "To Mrs. M. A, at Parting" (NA 1787-88) concerning the relative desireability of marriage vs. spinsterdom, and of platonic friendship vs. erotic love. Do you see a connection between her unorthodox views on what will make women happy and her personal experiences and political views?  Finally, compare Philips's "On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips" (NA 1788-89) with Jonson and Taylor's poems about the loss of children.  To what extent are they similar?  Do you notice any differences?  If so, to what extent (if any) do you feel that these differences are a function of the writers' gender (rather than, e.g., simply the product of different authorial sensibilities)?

2) A Puritan in America: Anne Bradstreet. (NOTE: follow links to access the online readings; be sure to PRINT OUT these online readings and bring them with you to class!)  Consider Bradstreet's take on the political divide between Royalists and Parliament (Puritans / Roundheads) as expressed in the excerpts from "A Dialogue between Old England and New" (we are reading the abridged version created for ENGL 204 by Prof. Steven Marx).  Don't sweat the details, but notice her anti-Catholic sentiment (comparable to Spenser's in The Faerie Queene), as well as her extremely optimistic attitude about the way the conflict between the Crown and Parliament will play out.  (In this regard, it is significant that the poem dates from 1642, seven years before the execution of Charles I in 1649.) Based on this poem, do you think Bradstreet would approve of the Parliament's decision to execute the king? Why or why not?  Compare/contrast with the Royalist perspective on regicide expressed by Katherine Philips.

"In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen ELIZABETH" expresses Bradstreet's fervent admiration of Queen Elizabeth (who died some ten years before Bradstreet's birth); note her favorable comparison of Elizabeth's public "works" with the literary "works" of e.g. Sidney and Spenser.  For what qualities and characteristics does she particularly admire the late queen? Given that the Puritans tended to support Parliament in its conflicts with the Crown, is there a contradiction between Bradstreet's praise for Queen Elizabeth and her Puritan political beliefs?  Why or why not?  Consider the connection between Bradstreet's admiration for Elizabeth, a successful female monarch in the "man's domain" of international politics, and the way in which Bradstreet characterizes her own poetic output and defines herself as poet in e.g. "The Author to Her Book"  and "Prologue."  Perhaps Bradstreet's admiration for Elizabeth reflects an implicit similarity between them:  Bradstreet too aspires to success in a public arena normally reserved for men, but in her case it is the poetic domain, literary creation, rather than politics.

To what extent does Bradstreet's poetic persona conform to socially sanctioned feminine roles?  In addition to her statements about herself as a poet (in the two previously mentioned poems), note e.g. her eloquent expression of maternal love (the extended metaphor of the mother bird with her nestlings in "In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659") and her fervent (but remarkably chaste) expression of marital love in "To my Dear and Loving Husband" (in which the explicit eroticism of e.g. Donne's poems about his wife is conspicuously absent).  Similarly, consider how "By Night When Others Soundly Slept" focuses on Bradstreet's love of God rather than erotic love (the typical focus when a male poet writes about love in a bedroom setting).  To what extent does this shift in focus recall e.g. Donne's "Holy Sonnets" or the religious-themed works of (George) Herbert or Marvell?  How does Bradstreet's expression differ from theirs (e.g. in imagery, word choice, tone, etc.)? Do any differences you may note seem to be an connected to the poet's gender, or do they simply reflect a different poetic sensibility? 

3) A Feminist Utopia?  Finally, consider the implications of Margaret Cavendish's defiant creation of a literary fantasy world in which women can find the freedom (and free public expression) typically denied them in real life. Does the meditation on the roles appropriate to women in these works intersect with either the "unnatural" political activity of the Royalists Philips and Halkett or with the strategies used by Bradstreet to deflect criticism of herself as a woman writer?

*      *     *

As you read the assigned poems, refer back as needed to the "Hints for Reading the Poems."  You will not have time to go through the full "Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems" for all assigned readings, but you should keep them at hand and use them to analyze one or two assigned poems which you particularly enjoy.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2017

Click here for Sonnets study guide

Click here for Pastoral study guide

Click here for Early 17th-Century Poetry study guide

Click here for An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems

Return to ENGL 204 homepage
Return to ENGL 331 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!