Academic journal article
By Hecht, Paul J.
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 53, No. 1
This essay argues that the features of poetic style that have been criticized as abstract and repetitious in Mary Wroth's sonnets should be considered in the context of a punk aesthetic: one that eschews a sense of formal mastery, includes syntactic breaks as distortion, includes the deliberately ugly, uses a pared-down and telegraphic vocabulary, and displays aggressive eroticism, albeit eroticism reliant on a set of idiosyncratic keywords.
Though Lady Mary Wroth's sonnets were written 400 years ago, they have only been the subject of serious and sustained scholarship for about thirty years. following the publication of the first scholarly edition of the poems by Josephine Roberts in 1983. (1) That edition remains the standard one, but the absence of explanatory notes at the many points of syntactical ambiguity that appear throughout Wroth's poems is striking. The breaks that frequently occur in Wroth's syntax are stronger and stranger than those found in earlier English sonneteers, and as a stylistic feature they pose many challenges and uncertainties for readers. Despite the illuminating work of a number of superb scholars of early modern poetry, many uncertainties still remain.
As a stylistic feature, disruptions in syntax. uncertainty about how to put sentences together and what refers to what, have consequences beyond the immediate understanding of a particular sentence: they are disruptive of a sense of tone and of the composure and stability of the poetry, as well as of the craft and intentions of the poet. Scholars who have written about the sonnets have attempted to integrate their interpretation of the style and tone of the poems into a plausible and unified vision of not only the fictional character Pamphilia, who in the published version of the sonnets is presented as the speaker of them all, but also a unified vision of the biographical figure of Mary Wroth. (2) But as all Wroth scholars note, the vast majority of these poems are not explicitly linked to either Pamphilia or Wroth. Furthermore. the way the poems are to be understood as a body. sequence. or group has lately come further into question. Other than the corona of sonnets, linked by last lines, there are many unresolved questions about the development. organization, and unity of the sequence entitled Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. (3)
Not all critics have presented a unifying vision of the sonnets, and a small number (two, to be exact) have looked at Wroth's sonnets and come to the conclusion that what we see here is aesthetic failure, that the syntactic breaks in particular and the difficulty of the sonnets in general are symptomatic of what is going wrong in the poetry and signal Wroth's limitations as a poet. (4) These arguments are not easily set aside. Even if we accept that they might be true, we are forced to recognize that, thirty years out, we may not yet know not only how to take certain central aspects of Wroth's style. but also whether these aspects are stylistic features at all or evidence of Wroth's artistic shortcomings.
This essay offers a different interpretation of the difficulties of Wroth's poetry, along with features that make it seem "abstract and repetitious" relative to other sonnet sequences. (5) In the face of an encounter with a strange and unstable aesthetic object, this essay suggests that we reconsider our sense of aesthetic success and explore what happens when we read the sonnets as following an aesthetic that eschews a sense of formal "mastery," includes syntactic breaks as a sort of sonic and informational distortion, includes deliberately ugly and harsh phrases and articulations, and uses a pared-down and telegraphic vocabulary in which one must be familiar with the key terms specific to the sequence in order to catch certain significances. especially the erotic. Broadly, this essay claims that Mary Wroth's poetry is to the English Petrarchan tradition what a certain brash musical-cultural movement was to the baroque, overproduced popular music of the late 1960s and early '70s. …