Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism

Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism

Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism

Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism


"How do I love thee? Let me mount the ways", wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her Sonnets from the Portuguese. Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism proposes that we attend to the ways that women poets from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries have both echoed and transformed the literary and erotic conventions that strongly influenced their fates as women, wives, and lovers.

Mary B. Moore analyzes and provides context for love sonnet sequences by Italian, French, English, and American women poets in the light of current knowledge concerning attitudes women at the time they wrote. Through close readings of the poems combined with theory and criticism about constructs of women, historical events, and biographical contexts, Moore reveals patterns of revision among women poets that shed further light on the poets themselves, on Petrarchism as a convention, and on ideas about women. She focuses on Petrarchan sonnet sequences by women because the poems serve both as works of art and as documents that illuminate the range and limitations of female roles as erotic subjects (agents of speech, action, knowledge, and desire) as well as their more usual roles as erotic objects.

Combining theory with close reading, Moore enhances the value of many generally neglected poems by women. After a thorough discussion of the Petrachan sonnet tradition, she analyzes the work of Gaspara Stampa, Louise Labe, Lady Mary Wroth, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.


Lady Mary Wroth, Renaissance courtier and niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary, Countess of Pembroke, voices the complexities of female self-representation in her 1621 sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Ampbilanthus, through a Renaissance symbol of complexity, the labyrinth. 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 chapter 8 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the labyrinth symbolized both conscious craft and perplexity during the Renaissance. Wroth alludes to these contexts as the corona of sonnets that crowns the sequence opens: "In this strang labourinth how shall I turne?" (Wroth, Poems 127). the temporal and spatial vagaries of this and the punning labour of Wroth's spelling, a pun Dubrow too notes (152), evoke the poem itself as intricate space and Pamphilia's thought as labyrinthine source of mimetic writing. 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 Donne's "We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms," and his . . .

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