The Labyrinth as Style in 'Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.'

By Moore, Mary | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Labyrinth as Style in 'Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.'


Moore, Mary, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


An image of poetic skill and of the circuitous rhetoric of self-delusion in Petrarch's Rime sparse, a monument to craftsmanship that befuddled Daedalus, its architect, in book 8 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the labyrinth symbolized both conscious craft and perplexity during the Renaissance. Lady Mary Wroth's 1621 sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, alludes to these contexts with the opening of the corona that crowns the sequence: "In this strang labourinth how shall I turne?"(1) The temporal and spatial vagaries of "this" and the punning "labour" of Wroth's spelling evoke the poem itself as intricate space and Pamphilia's thought as labyrinthine source of mimetic writing.(2) Like the mazes of classical literature, architecture, and art familiar to Renaissance readers of Pliny, Ovid, and Virgil, Wroth's artifact represents perplexity even as it perplexes. Wroth achieves this effect through syntax and poetic forms that mime two physical traits of labyrinths: enclosure and complexity. The labyrinth and the sonnet are coupled fittingly to these ends. Like mazes in classical literature, the sonnet is identified through metapoetic tropes in English as enclosed space and highly crafted form - as John Donne's "We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms," and "well-wrought urn" testify.(3) Wroth magnifies the confines of the sonnet through contracted syntax that elides articles and pronouns and creates ambiguous referents, suggesting the troublesome fit of meaning to poetic form. Such tricky syntax mimics labyrinthine complexity; difficult to follow and cleverly wrought, it demands pause and standstill. The corona formally embodies enclosure through reiterative opening and closing lines, creating a closed poetic crown, dramatically engaging the reader in the female sense of self that Wroth depicts.

Wroth's labyrinth echoes and alludes to those of her predecessors,(4) but she also voices new meanings through the figure's influence on style and its relevance to gender. In poems by women - whether the "author" is the fictive poet, Pamphilia, or Wroth herself - the tension between form and syntax at least suggests the difficulty of fitting female erotic experience into forms created to suit the shapes of male erotic desire. Wroth's persistent attention to gender issues in the Urania and her evocation in the prose romance's first poem of Echo - a female poet and a figure for the elision of female voice - further support my contention that she depicts female self-representation as problematic.(5)

The labyrinth's enclosure, furthermore, reinforces another trait of Wroth's work - what Jeffrey Masten calls "a movement which is relentlessly private."(6) The lack of blazon and visual description of the beloved help create this effect, as other readers of Wroth have noted;(7) Wroth may even have isolated her speaker intentionally through these exclusions.(8) While Masten rightly notes this fictional privacy, he interprets this movement as countering Petrarchism's creation of subjectivity through mirroring in the beloved and through public display. He suggests therefore that Wroth denies female subjectivity. This reading, however, overlooks the mode's simultaneously public and private nature, on the one hand exaggerating the role of public display, and on the other hand ignoring the ingenious paths women poets found around injunctions against public speech. Pamphilia's fictional privacy, in a variety of ways explored in this article, blurs her transgressive expression of erotic desire. Far from denying female subjectivity, Wroth depicts a female sense of self through the labyrinth - presenting a self that is isolated, enclosed, difficult, and complex.(9)

While scholars have noted Wroth's labyrinth, none has considered how the labyrinth's Renaissance meanings - which differ considerably from its modern ones - made it an image of self-fashioning especially suited to a Protestant woman writing Petrarchan poetry during the period, nor has anyone reflected at length on the image's influence as style.

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