Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints

By Becker, Lucinda | The Modern Language Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints

Becker, Lucinda, The Modern Language Review

Write or be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints. Ed. by BARBARA SMITH and URSULA APPELT. Aldershot, Burlington, VT, and Singapore: Ashgate. 2001. xxiii+281 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 1-84014-288-x.

Dramatic Difference: Gender, Class, and Genre in the Early Modern Closet Drama. By KAREN RABER. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 2001. 338 pp. 38 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-87413-757-8.

Write or be Written is a satisfying collection of essays, organized around addressing 'the meaning of poetry in the lives of Early Modern women and the importance of writing as an act of cultural engagement and commentary'. It is divided into four sections, each essay complementing the others and reinforcing the impact of the work as a whole.

The collection opens with Pamela Hammons's concise historical and textual overview of the writing of Katherine Austen, showing her awareness of her role as widow and prophetess, in each case allowing her to be one step removed from the ostensible sources of her power as a writer. This essay will encourage a re-examination of Austen's work within this context. Margaret Ezell's consideration of the historical view of Damaris Masham is also concerned with the role of a woman as writer in relation to others. Ezell foregrounds the female influences in Masham's life, lamenting the relative neglect of her work and arguing persuasively for a re-evaluation of her as an independent thinker who was not merely reiterating a male-constructed discourse. Anne Russell's essay on Aphra Behn reveals her role as a willing vehicle for female self expression. She shows how Behn, while cultivating her own public image, was also able to bring to publication the work of Mrs Taylor, a largely neglected contemporary.

In the second section Clare Kinney's essay on Mary Wroth works well as an examination of the tensions placed upon the conventions of the Petrarchan tradition by a female-authored sonnet sequence. It also leads productively into Jacqueline Pearson's consideration of country-house poetry. Pearson's essay, as with many others in the collection, compacts a wide range of theory, analysis, and authorship into a relatively restricted space. She moves effortlessly from broad theory to close analysis of texts: this is a feature of many of the essays in the book, and one that is successful throughout. Pearson considers the female body, the conflict between nature and culture, the deployment of masculine and feminine rhymes, the depiction of sexuality, and the tension between order and chaos that feature within male- and female-authored country house poetry. Margaret Hannay's exploration of early modern Englishwomen's Psalm discourses is expansive in its range and perceptive in its assessment of why this form of writing appealed to women; this essay enriches Hammons's piece on the doubleness of self expression and self negation employed by early modern Englishwomen.

Joan Pong Linton focuses on the relatively overlooked verse of Anne Askew, with detailed analysis of her poems and 'the way they position Askew between writer and written' (p. 137), while Shannon Miller's essay on Mary Sidney is concerned to explore the strategies that she used within her literary production, reflecting back on some of the issues raise in the earlier essays. In his essay on Katherine Philips, Andrew Shifflett is opening a debate about her theory of friendship which is both complex and rooted in its political age.

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