Sonnets Revisited: Where Were the Women? or, Here Come the Girls...

in poetry •  last year

Sooo… out of fourteen sonnets, picked to illustrate the form and its evolution in English-language poetry, not one was by a woman. I need to explain myself, if not defend myself.

The history of an art form is the history of that artform from particular perspectives, and it’s undeniable that the history of English poetry is until very recently the history of poems by male writers in forms selected and privileged by those writers and their audiences.

Canons are formed as part of a wider cultural establishment or regime or ideological enterprise. Why does the early canon (say, 1550 - 1700) not include sonnets by women? The first thing to say is that the early canon hardly contains anything written by women!

Did women not write? Well, statistically the answer is no. Studies of literacy rates in England between 1550 and 1700 (look here) suggest that in 1500 pretty much 100 per cent of women were illiterate, and even by 1700 only 25 per cent could read and write.

In that context, it’s hardly surprising that we see huge male predominance in a written art form.

(Although it might be more accurate to say a huge aristocratic male predominance. Most lower class men lived pretty stultified lives too.)

Pre-Reformation, most verbal creativity even among men was in the form of oral storytelling, folksong and ballad-making. A highly-conventional literary form like the sonnet presupposed a formal university-level education (or at least the means to come into contact with those who had such an education) and would be outside the lived experience of the vast majority of the Elizabethan population, male or female. (This recent presentation from Queens University Belfast usefully summarises some of the data.

The form’s pioneers in England, Wyatt and Surrey, were members of the aristocracy. Shakespeare, while he was mocked for his lack of a university education, relied upon aristocratic patronage in a number of ways (and if you believe some writers, the ‘real’ Shakespeare was in fact an aristocrat in disguise!) The knotty, combative rhetorical structure of the early sonnets is carried over from this educational environment, and - even if a woman writer had access to it through imitation or example, it’s not obvious why she would recognise any value in it, let alone seek to practise the form.

Are we saying that women at this early period didn’t write? Certainly not. Have a look at this site's discussion of Renaissance humanism and female literacy. Some contemporary humanists like Thomas More believed in the education of women, but

Humanism, despite its belief in the potential and dignity of Man, was essentially part of a patriarchal social system. Many humanists who believed that women should be educated and allowed to write believed this because it would make them better Christians; women were still very much subordinated to men.

So the culture - including the culture as lived and understood by women themselves - limited what was appropriate expression. (It still does!) Most of what survives from the writings of Tudor and Stuart women are religiously-inspired prose ‘testaments’, strongly linked to emergent Protestantism (the great engine of non-elite literacy is the Bible-reading reformation.) Or they are transgressive 'prophecies', whose authors often suffered punishment as witches and heretics.

Of course, there were highly privileged women who wrote poetry. Take Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who some have suggested actually wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets. And one educated woman in Elizabethan England was, of course, the Faerie Queen herself. Queen Elizabeth I wrote a number of short poems (that we know of) but no sonnets (that have survived.)

Why not? Perhaps the form’s roots in courtly love conventions meant that it was psychologically as well as culturally unsuitable, if not prohibited: the form at this point in its evolution is still very specifically about seduction. (Remember, the great Wyatt sonnet we looked at was about the fatal attraction of Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn.) In this early period of its life in English, the sonnet form has maleness built into it.

But - finally - let’s look at a sonnet by an Elizabethan woman. This is by Anne Locke (c. 1530-c. 1590) I’ve taken this from this interesting site

My many sinnes in nomber are encreast

My many sinnes in nomber are encreast,
With weight wherof in sea of depe despeire
My sinking soule is now so sore opprest,
That now in peril and in present fere,
I crye: susteine me, Lord, and Lord I pray,
With endlesse nomber of thy mercies take
The endlesse nomber of my sinnes away.
So by thy mercie, for thy mercies sake,
Rue on me, Lord, releue me with thy grace.
My sinne is cause that I so nede to haue
Thy mercies ayde in my so woefull case:
My synne is cause that scarce I dare to craue
Thy mercie manyfolde, which onely may
Releue my soule, and take my sinnes away.

Reading this, it strikes me that it’s the religious context and subject matter that free Locke to use a form that’s more usually used in an erotic context, and here retains some of that intensity. (Think St Theresa.) But the Elizabethan wordplay is there in a stilted form. The dialogue that we saw in Milton and Donne is there too. But the volta is lame, the 8/6 proportion blurred to no real dramatic purpose.

So the big question isn’t really why this poem isn’t in anybody’s Best Of... anthologies; it isn’t a patch on any of those in our earlier sequence. Is it worse because its author was a women? Well, yes and no: it’s a dull poem because its author was part of an oppressed social group denied access to the education the form relied upon; and because the form itself was shaped by, and to serve, the interests of elite men.

But let’s see what the coming centuries hold for the sonnet in the hands of Anne Locke’s daughters...

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