Generating Absence: The Sonnets of Mary Stuart

  • Rosalind Smith
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)

Abstract

In 1996, Jennifer Summit’s article ‘The Arte of a Ladies Penne: Elizabeth I and the Poetics of Queenship’ argued for the first time that the relationship between Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots was played out through the circulation of their texts. Summit constructs an ingenious argument surrounding the writing of Elizabeth I, linking her poetics of queenship with a ‘poetics of covertness’: Elizabeth’s use of the discourse of secrecy to construct public knowledge as private. Elizabeth positions her readers as privileged insiders coveting those secrets, and uses privacy itself to produce the public effects upon which her authority as female sovereign depended. Elizabeth’s complex manipulation of the terms of coterie manuscript poetry is contrasted with a group of Mary Stuart’s texts to demonstrate ‘how both queens adapted poetic topoi to construct a language of female readership’.1 However, in constructing Mary’s poetics, the article briefly discusses one letter and a manuscript poem sent by Mary to Elizabeth in 1568, then focuses its argument for Mary’s textuality not upon her widely circulated body of writing, but upon a collection of her embroideries. Summit reads Mary’s use of Petrarchan figures as conduits of the author’s emotional state, as ‘confessions of her own vulnerability’, and as ‘a means of figuring her own fear and helplessness as effects of desire’.

Keywords

Burning Fatigue Furnace Propa Posit 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Jennifer Summit, ‘The Arte of a Ladies Penne: Elizabeth I and the Poetics of Queenship’, ELR 26 (1996): 395–413.Google Scholar
  2. Despite the rapid development of scholarship on representations of Elizabeth, by Susan Frye, Carole Levin and Helen Hackett, among others, other discussions of Elizabeth’s self-representations have been surprisingly limited. However, the recent scholarly editions of her writing have generated a set of responses: see Constance Jordan, ‘States of Blindness: Doubt, Justice, and Constancy in Elizabeth I’s “Avec l’aveugler si estrange” ‘; and Leah S. Marcus, ‘Queen Elizabeth I as Public and Private Poet: Notes toward a New Edition’, in Reading Monarch’s Writing: The Poetry of Henry VIII, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and James VI/I, ed. Peter C. Herman (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002), 109–153; Janel Mueller, ‘Virtue and Virtuality: Gender in the Self-Representations of Queen Elizabeth I’, Form and Reform, 220–246; Clarke, Politics, 204–208.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In ‘Boredom and Whoredom: Reading Renaissance Women’s Sonnet Sequences’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 10:1 (1997): 165–191, Elizabeth Hanson examines Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and the casket sonnets in order to examine ‘the imperfect alignment of gender ideology and the sources of poetic power’; although it notes ‘rare’ moments of discursive complexity in the casket sonnets attached to key terms of constancy, subjectivity and subjection, the article’s focus on the intersection of Petrarchism and gender produces the familiar narrative of the female sonneteer’s inability to negotiate textual and cultural codes: ‘she effectively deconstructs any position she might occupy’. Lisa Hopkins and Mary E. Burke both offer close readings of the sonnets, with Hopkins discussing the second sonnet only (for reasons of attribution) in terms of its confidence and assumption of authority, whereas Burke analyzes the whole sequence’s negotiation of gender, power and textual agency occasioned by its female sovereign speaker as ‘a mirror of the psyche of a woman battling to reconcile the contrary positions of ruler and woman’. Like Betty Travitsky, neither Hopkins nor Burke discuss the attribution debate fully, but use selective evidence to support their assumptions of authenticity. By contrast, Peter C. Herman’s recent essay ‘ “mes subjectz, mon ame assubjectie”: The Problematic (of) Subjectivity in Mary Stuart’s Sonnets’, in Reading Monarchs Writing, 51–78, is the most detailed discussion of the sonnets to date; although he attributes them to Mary in his analysis, arguing for her complex and often contradictory manipulation of gender politics in the sonnets, he notes their continued significance if forgeries as they ‘testify to the contemporary recognition of a distinctly feminine lyric voice’. Similarly, Sarah Dunnigan’s nuanced and provocative feminist analysis of the sonnets leaves the question of their attribution open. Lisa Hopkins, Writing Renaissance Queens: Texts by and about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 81–83;Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Rosalind Smith 2005

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  • Rosalind Smith

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