The gendered imagination of property in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English women's verse.
Analyzing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English women's verse about dwelling places reveals that each poet's personal investment in power bears significantly on how she represents her speaker's relationship to property and to her place in poetic tradition--a tendency that differs radically from male poets' penchant for figuring themselves possessively in relation to property regardless of their actual riches or rank. Furthermore, women's poetry of dwelling place is typically grounded in the loss or ruin of the physical site being represented: Cavendish depicts Bolsover Castle ravaged by war; Whitney takes playful possession of London only in imagining her own death; Anne Bradstreet portrays her house destroyed by fire. However, despite the common emphasis on dispossession or destruction, there is a crucial difference among these women's poems: the stronger a woman poet's investment in power (because of her rank, wealth, social prestige and connections, or proximity to estate ownership), the weaker her representation of her relationship to property and her claims for poetic prominence appear to be. More powerful women construct their poetic speakers so that they seem to conform to constraints imposed by early modern English legal theories, such as coverture, and the expectations for proper feminine behavior associated with country house discourse. (2)
Recent cultural and historical accounts of early modern women's economic status--in particular, their ability to own or to control property--suggest that they had more financial agency and power than has been believed previously. Despite legal theories emphasizing married women's economic dependence, for instance, and upholding the ideal vision of women as vehicles or temporary storage for wealth that would be transferred ultimately from one man to another, practical realities dictated that women had some control over property, real and moveable. (3) Responding to the call for inquiries into relations between subjects and objects issued by Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, Natasha Korda explains that her "aim is ... to unfold the complex history and dramatic representation of women as subjects, as well as objects, of property." (4) Korda fulfills her goal by examining how Shakespeare represents the possibilities for early modern women's control over and ownership of property in his plays. This article, by contrast, contributes to the general investigation into relations between subjects and objects, and the specific inquiry into women's relations to property--especially real property--by focusing on early modern women's self-figurations as subjects of property in their poetry. While examining how male-authored texts portray women in relation to property provides insight into patriarchal anxieties about women's potential economic power, analyzing women's self-representations reveals their creative negotiations of the cultural pressure to appear economically disempowered.
The striking differences among women's poems about dwelling place suggest that how women with some measure of social or economic power position themselves in relation to real property, in particular, in their verse might be more important in terms of their necessary conformity to expected feminine behavior than the fact of writing itself or other transgressions, such as Cavendish's sartorial style and intrusions into male spaces. High-ranking, wealthy women positioned to control vast estates were potentially threatening enough that it was strategic for them to downplay property ownership in their verse. For a powerful woman like Cavendish, it was necessary to resort to encoded means even to gesture towards female ownership in a poem about real property--particularly when the estate in question was eventually stipulated as part of her jointure. By appropriating the literary conventions of country house verse innovatively in a poem that is not--technically speaking--a country house poem and by playing with her audience's gender expectations, Cavendish both erases herself and hints at her ownership of Bolsover Castle in "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr." To understand the significance of Cavendish's complex depiction of Bolsover in relation to herself in context, it will be helpful, first, to consider the fundamental difference between men's and women's poetry of dwelling place and, second, to analyze crucial distinctions among women's verse.
Not surprisingly, early modern male poets fashion more explicitly possessive representations of their speakers in relation to dwelling places than do women poets despite differences in rank or riches. Bricklayer's stepson Ben Jonson creates a speaker in "To Penshvrst" who feels right at home at Sir Robert Sidney's table, which he figures as very rich and luxurious, despite the fact that Sidney was not as financially secure as Jonson suggests. (5) Jonson not only celebrates the fact that Penshurst's "liberall boord doth flow, / With all, that hospitalitie doth know," but he represents himself as an honored recipient of that country house's hospitality, "Where the same beere, and bread, and selfesame wine, / That is his Lordships, shall be also mine." (6) This speaker's first self-reference is "mine" (64), and he fantasizes about occupying a king's privileged place: "all is there; / As if thou, then, wert mine, or I raign'd here" (73-74). Although Jonson uses conditional language, his speaker clearly feels regal, and the poet reinforces this idea through the juxtaposition of lines 75 and 76, which indicate that Penshurst offers the speaker the same hospitality that it gave King James.
While Robert Herrick's "His Grange, or Private Wealth" emphasizes the simplicity of his country residence, it does not portray it as a ruin as many women's poems would, and it highlights the speaker's possession of his modest domestic goods. The speaker inventories his household, repeating "I have" and "I keep," and lists "A maid (my Prew)" between his cock and hen--revealing where women fit into Herrick's vision of property ownership. (7) Although he concludes that his possessions "are / But toyes, to give my heart some ease," he portrays them and their attendant pleasures as securely his (29-30). Furthermore, Herrick confidently puts his speaker on the same plane as Mildmay Fane, Earl of Westmorland, in "The Hock-cart, or Harvest Home":
Come Sons of Summer, by whose toile, We are the Lords of Wine and Oile: By whose tough labours, and rough hands, We rip up first, then reap our lands. (1-4)
Along with the earl, this speaker is one of the "Lords of Wine and Oile," and the lands in question are "our[s]." Whether depicting his grange or the earl's estate, Herrick creates poetic personae at ease with direct assertions of possession.
In Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House," the speaker adopts a masterful stance towards Fairfax's estate, taking pleasure in it (especially at lines 369ff) and displaying a possessive attitude. (8) Exploring the woods, he asserts, "But I have for my music found / A sadder yet more pleasing sound: The stock-doves" (521-23): he expects the estate to entertain him, and it does. While he imagines himself a denizen of Nature at Fairfax's estate--"Give me but wings as they, and I / Straight floating on the air shall fly" (565-66)--he also commands it:
my signs The bird upon the bough divines; And more attentive there doth sit Than if she were with lime-twigs knit. No leaf does tremble in the wind Which I, returning, cannot find. (569-76)
Being like a bird metamorphoses into controlling and inventorying aspects of the estate--behaviors characteristic of country house owners, not their guests.
If it seems easy for Jonson, a bricklayer's stepson, to imagine reigning at Penshurst, it should be unsurprising that Fane can unabashedly describe in "My Hock-Cart or Reaping Day" his virtually uncompensated laborers. Possessives abound in Fane's poem: his speaker hopes for "no more rain to dash our plenty" and prays to Ceres to "bless / With full increase / Of golden ears our well filled corn." (9) The poet's reference to "our comforts" (13) contrasts markedly with the physical labor by which his tenants "reap and bind and load [his] hock-cart home" (32). Edibles such as "furmety" and "bacon pease" seem less compensation for the workers' exertion than fuel (20, 26). There is no hesitation, ambiguity, question, or guilt about Fane's ownership of his estate or its implications for others. Perhaps more telling than Fane's secure self-representation as a subject of property, however, is the similarity between that representation and Jonson's, despite the differences between the two in rank and wealth. Fane is the absolute king of his estate; Jonson is a virtual king of Penshurst.
Thomas Randolph's "On the Inestimable Content He Enjoys in the Muses: To Those of His Friends that Dehort Him from Poetry" illuminates how securely a male poet can represent his speaker's proper place, even when revealing his lack of wealth and status. In his revision of the country house poem, Randolph replaces an emphasis on the estate and its virtuous, elite owner with a focus on the speaker's moral superiority. While criticizing the evils associated with great riches, Randolph argues for his own material plenitude--because he has enough, he is effectively rich--and for the power of his poetry. (10) He tells the rich country house owner, "Thy flocks of sheep are numberless to tell; / And with one fleece I can be clothed as well" (63-64). Furthermore, he will rule more effectively over his family than will a rich estate owner: his son will not wish him dead in order to inherit early (113-22). After detailing how he incorporates all the servants of a country house into his own body (15-58), he asserts, "This is my manor-house, and men shall see/I here live master of my family" (57-58). Finally, in his most striking difference from women poets, Randolph uses his poem as Jonson does: to reinforce his prestige as a poet. In the same way that Jonson asserts ownership over his poetic idealization of "Penshvrst," Randolph declares, "Methinks I now possess th'Elysian field" and "Th'Hesperian orchard's mine; mine, mine is all: / Thus am I rich in wealth poetical" (172, 175-76). The power of his poetry overwhelms the power other men derive from estate ownership.
Not only do male poets figure themselves possessively in relation to property regardless of their actual financial status, but they also tend to imagine female ownership as loss. In "Upon Appelton House," for instance, Marvell portrays property in exclusively female possession as ruins. When William Fairfax steals Isobel Thwaites from the nunnery, "The wasting cloister with the rest / Was in one instant dispossessed"; after this "demolishing," "this seat / To Fairfax fell as by escheat" (271-72, 273-74). Male ownership recovers female property that deserved its destruction.
In portraying a seemingly complimentary relationship between a woman and her possessions, Robert Flecknoe's "On the Duchess of Newcastle's Closet" ultimately imagines away the duchess altogether. (11) Flecknoe first praises Cavendish by depicting her not only as properly feminine, but also as an extraordinary woman with masculine virtues. Her closet, which "Looks like some sacred cell" (1), associates her with appropriate religious behavior for a Renaissance woman. Yet, the speaker is astonished because her closet does not contain the items he expects to signify female possession. He wonders, "Is this a lady's closet?" (5), because "nothing here of vanity we see, / Nothing of curiosity, nor pride, / As all your ladies' closets have beside" (6-8). Instead, one finds in Cavendish's closet "books, the mirrors of the mind" (10), which point to masculine ownership, according to Flecknoe's implications. This portrait, however, makes the status of books in her cell ambiguous: "Nor is't a library, but only as she / Makes each place where she comes a library, / Carrying a living library in her brain" (11-13). Her books are reflections of her mind (17-18), but her mind consists of books. The possessions Cavendish keeps in her cell are simultaneously inside her: Flecknoe blurs the line between her and those objects. Empty of objects of stereotypical feminine vanity, empty of a library--other than the books inside her head--the duchess's closet is ultimately empty even of her living body; it becomes her tomb: "hail sacred place! / To which the world in after-times shall come / As unto Homer's shrine, or Virgil's tomb" (22-24). While Flecknoe's monumentalizing of Cavendish as a great writer alongside Homer and Virgil probably appealed to her, his rumination on her most intimate, personal dwelling space leaves her out. Imagining Margaret in relation to her closet at Welbeck and her personal possessions collapses into an empty space.
For early modern male poets, envisioning themselves as masters of property--regardless of their actual rank or wealth--seems an easy exercise, while conceptualizing female ownership seems an impossibility. For women poets, imagining themselves as subjects of property is neither an easy exercise nor an impossibility: it is instead a matter of careful, strategic self-figuration that relates crucially to each woman's particular social and economic circumstances.
While legal concepts such as coverture and primogeniture theoretically created great obstacles to women's ownership of property, Amy Louise Erickson highlights the distance between these ideas and actual practice: "In practice," she writes, "wives maintained during marriage substantial property interests of their own." (12) She hypothesizes that "it is unlikely that wives stopped thinking of certain property as theirs simply for the duration of the marriage" (150). Furthermore, Erickson claims that "women of all social classes ... leave remarkably little indication that they perceived of themselves either as property or as conduits for men's property" (235). Women poets, nonetheless, are much less assertive of ownership in their poetry of dwelling place than men. Most strikingly, women with more personal power distance themselves in such verse further from direct claims to possession than do women with less power. Given Erickson's observations that early modern English women maintained a sense of proprietorship over their belongings, women poets' self-distancing from explicit possessiveness in verse about dwelling places--whether focused on real or moveable property or both--suggests that constructing a self-image grounded in property ownership was potentially more transgressive than was writing itself. Calling attention to women's economic power was especially disruptive of early modern notions of proper femininity, and thus, women with actual economic power strategically encoded hints of agency into their poems about property. Meanwhile, socially and economically disenfranchised women were freer to make bolder, more explicit claims to possession in their verse.
Impoverished Isabella Whitney's "The Manner of Her Will" makes jesting use of the great distance between her speaker and the material world that she describes--a world she can easily will away because, in truth, she possesses none of it. Like Jonson, Whitney creates a speaker who fantasizes about owning vast possessions. Declaring her will, she asserts,
I first of all to London leave, because I there was bred, Brave buildings rare, of churches store, and Paul's to the head. Between the same, fair streets there be and people goodly store; Because their keeping craveth cost, I yet will leave him more. (13)
Unlike Jonson's "To Penshvrst," however, Whitney's "The Manner of Her Will" humorously calls attention to its representation of the speaker's access to exaggerated paradisal plenty as a fantasy and reminds the reader of the speaker's actual poverty. (14) As Whitney's speaker admits, she makes her last will and testament while "but very weake in Purse ... for feare it wyll be wurse" (41, 43).
Aemilia Lanyer was a daughter of a court musician who once had some property and money. While her fortunes varied across her life, she was a marginal court figure who longed for greater status and riches. (15) In Lanyer's "The Description of Cooke-ham," the speaker distances herself multiply from ownership of the estate she describes: she does not own Cookham (nor does the Countess of Cumberland, her patron), and she no longer has access to it. (16) While Jonson's speaker happily dines at Sidney's table, Lanyer's recalls the lost joys of Cookham, lamenting, "Never shall my sad eies againe behold / Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold." (17) While the poem's first half details the pleasures of Cookham in traditional country house terms, the second reverses them to portray an estate afflicted by grief at the countess's departure. The speaker explains, "when they [the countess and her daughter] went away,/ ... everything retaind a sad dismay" (129-30):
Each arbour, banke, each seate, each stately tree, Lookes bare and desolate now for want of thee The Sunne grew weake, his beames no comfort gave, While all greene things did make the earth their grave: The house cast off each garment that might grace it, Putting on Dust and Cobwebs to deface it. All desolation then there did appeare, When you were going whom they held so deare. (191-92, 195-96, 201-03)
Jonson leaves us with an idealized view of the Sidneys' dwelling at Penshurst; Lanyer leaves us with a vision of a decaying, empty estate. While Lanyer does not assert Jonsonian mastery over Cookham, she does depict her speaker as having enjoyed some of its pleasures: "Remember beauteous Dorsets former sports, / So farre from beeing toucht by ill reports; / Wherein my selfe did alwaies beare a part" (119-21). This characterization makes her more assertive in figuring her speaker in relation to the estate--regardless of her considerable self-distancing from it--than some women poets of greater means or rank. Likewise, despite this self-distancing, which includes her depiction of Cookham as derelict, she still uses the poem--much as Jonson appropriates Penshurst--to elevate her status as a poet by making an explicit claim to fame: "This last farewell to Cooke-ham here I give, / When I am dead thy name in this may live" (205-06). This daughter of a court musician, writing about somebody else's land, makes a more explicit, assertive claim for a place in the English poetic tradition than will Cavendish in writing about a castle ultimately included in her jointure.
Anne Bradstreet's family was wealthier and had more prestige than Whitney's and Lanyer's, and her poem, "Vpon the Burning of Our House," concerns the house Governor Bradstreet owned, where Anne lived with her family. (18) Yet, she was not nearly as powerful as Margaret Howard or Cavendish, whose verse I discuss below. Occupying this middle position among women poets writing about dwelling places, she composes verse mixing the poetic confidence displayed by Whitney and Lanyer with the extreme displacement from property evident in Howard's and Cavendish's poems. Her speaker takes a possessive stance towards the house, referring to it as "my dwelling place" and writing of "my goods." (19) In the style of Whitney's cataloguing of London, she inventories her domestic possessions: "Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest; / There lay that store I covnted best" (25-26). Despite this direct self-figuration in relation to domestic property (perhaps most similar to Herrick's in "His Grange, or Private Wealth"), Bradstreet ultimately foregrounds the destruction of her property. Whitney distances herself from owning London insofar as she imagines her death in order to enable her vision of possessing the city; Lanyer displaces herself from Cookham by highlighting the fact that the estate--which even her patron did not own--is derelict and lost to her forever. Bradstreet's speaker, meanwhile, asserts possession of and memorializes her house and its contents only after detailing its apocalyptic ruin. She writes, "My pleasant things in ashes lye, / And them behold no more shall I" (27-28), and she mourns the pleasures of hosting now lost to her (29-34). While Robert Sidney's financial situation was more desperate than "To Penshvrst" suggests, Jonson creates an idealized image of perfect hospitality at the country house; in contrast, Bradstreet invokes the hospitality once offered in her house to emphasize its utter destruction. Although she positions herself directly--even possessively--in relation to her home and goods, she never lets the reader forget that those things are not merely inaccessible to her--as Cookham becomes to Lanyer--but destroyed.
Ultimately, her poem becomes a puritan lesson about the vanity of all wordly things (13-17). She not only relinquishes possession, but she also acknowledges God's justice in taking back "his own" (17). Bradstreet thus distances herself further from property to which she was in greater proximity than Whitney or Lanyer. Nevertheless, she also employs a rhetorical strategy at her poem's end that allows her to reassert a kind of possessiveness. She consoles herself with the idea that while "All's Vanity" on earth (36), greater things--literally--await her in heaven:
Thou hast an house on high erect Fram'd by that mighty Architect, With glory richly furnished, Stands permanent: tho' this bee fled. (43-46)
Bradstreet's speaker renounces ownership of her ruined house, but she revels in the promise of a heavenly mansion which is "purchased, and paid for" and is "A Prise so vast as is vnknown" (47, 49). She can imagine herself the unabashed recipient of a splendid, spiritual dwelling place; however, in writing about her earthly possessions, she chooses to portray them as ruins.
Howard's "Now that ye be assemblld heer" contrasts greatly to the other women's verse that I have discussed so far. She wrote it around 1537 after her first husband died in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for marrying her against Henry VIII's wishes. Unlike Whitney and like Cavendish, Howard was a very powerful, high-ranking woman. She was half sister to King James V of Scotland and niece to Henry VIII; she was the woman of highest rank in England when Henry VIII deemed Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate. When Howard wrote her poem, she was imprisoned in Syon House. (20) It compares instructively to Whitney's "The Manner of Her Will" because it also uses the language of a will. Although it does not employ as much detail in its depiction of place as Whitney's poem, it announces itself as concerned with property. "Now that ye be assemblld heer" imagines relatives assembled to hear the speaker's last will and testament:
Now that ye be assemblld heer All ye my ffreynds at my request Specyally you my ffather dere That off my blud ar the nerest Thys vnto you ys my request That ye woll pacyently hyre By thys my last words exprest My testement yntyer. (21)
Like Whitney, Howard envisions her death. While the poem sounds like it will convey her wishes regarding how her property should be distributed, it reveals that her last "testement yntyer" (8) is the threat of suicide. Ultimately, the only property over which her will asserts authority is her body. Since her last "testement yntyer" claims control over her body--the power to deprive it of life--and given that her husband is dead, it is unsurprising that she addresses this claim to her father, a person likely to consider her body his property. Interestingly, however, this gesture also subtly serves as an act of resistance by denying Henry VIII's power over her body--the very power that imprisons her.
That Howard's poem announcing how she will distribute her property after death only asserts control of her body, nevertheless, reinforces my claim that more powerful women downplay property ownership in their verse. Like Whitney, Howard makes it sound like the space she occupies is hers and under her control, but she does not will it to others. Instead, she claims she has barred the thick doors so that no one can interrupt her suicide:
And thynk not to ynterrupte me Ffor syche wyse provyded have y That thogh ye welld yt woll nat be This touer ye se ys strong and hye And the dooris fast barred have y That no whight my pairpose [me] let shold For to be quen of all Ytaly Not on day lenger leve I wold. (9-16)
The final stanza makes her intimation of suicide explicit by asking her father to "Ber thys my deth with pacyence" and to "frely pardoun myn ofence" (18, 20). While Whitney playfully imagines her death in order to fantasize about being in a position to bequeath the vast material wealth of London, Howard invokes the language of a will to highlight her imprisonment and the fact that she has been reduced to stealing her body (especially from Henry VIII). Ultimately, in writing from and about her place of confinement, Howard --a woman powerful enough to threaten Henry VIII--displaces her portrait of herself further from property ownership than does the penniless Whitney.
Margaret Cavendish's "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr" provides the most revealing example of how a woman poet's personal power relates to her portraits of family properties. While Cavendish shared many of Fane's privileges and confidently printed her poetry, she does not share his self-assured stance in relation to real property in her verse, despite Whitaker's characterization of her as "a shrewd money manager" and Mendelson's observations of her "domestic machinations for financial self-aggrandizement," which "became increasingly prominent in the late 1660s, although it had been evident since her marriage to Newcastle in 1645." (22) While one might assume that her poetry would reveal at least as much ease in asserting property ownership as bricklayer's stepson Jonson or the impoverished Whitney, a close examination of "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr" reveals otherwise.
Cavendish's self-displacement from Bolsover is particularly meaningful in its contrast to how poets like Jonson, Fane, Lanyer, and Whitney position themselves in relation to property because one would expect her personal circumstances to have led her to figure herself as a powerful agent of possession. She had an important model of female property ownership and estate management in her mother, Elizabeth Lucas; she lived much of her life in great comfort and splendor; she "manipulated the finances of her husband's vast estate"; and she was not shy about expressing her ambitions for fame in print. (23) Despite these circumstances, however, she appears at first glance to erase herself
from "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr" and to avoid explicit claims to poetic prominence. This striking phenomenon suggests that for an already powerful woman to position herself boldly in relation to real property, in particular, over which she might have some actual influence might have been more disruptive of notions of proper femininity than printing one's writing on secular subjects, wearing masculine clothes, or venturing into men's spaces, like the Royal Society. However, it is possible to glimpse Cavendish subtly transgressing even this important boundary in her "Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr."
Before analyzing her poem in detail, it is important' to understand Cavendish's relation to the property in question, Bolsover Castle: on "2 October 1662, [William] assigned her ... a life interest in Bosover Castle." (24) In the early 1650s, however, when Cavendish composed her poem, Bolsover was not part of her jointure, and William was fighting to retain possession of it. (25) Sixteen fifty-one was an especially bad year for the Cavendishes. (26) Nonetheless, in 1652, as Whitaker explains, "Sir Charles Cavendish ... managed to buy back the two family houses at Welbeck and Bolsover for his nephew Charles, viscount Mansfield" (148). One might be tempted to believe that "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr" refers simply and transparently to the situation of the Cavendishes between 1651 and 1653. Since William was having difficulty regaining Bolsover and it was ruined by the wars, perhaps it is not surprising that Margaret's poem downplays herself in relation to it and highlights its damage.
I propose, however, that the poem is more complex than such straightforward assumptions reveal. First, since Margaret probably wrote the poem between 1651 and 1653, it is possible that Sir Charles had already bought Bolsover back by the time she did so, in which case, her distancing techniques are all the more significant. Given this scenario, she did not choose to celebrate the family victory in regaining the estate by idealizing and monumentalizing it, which would conform to the tradition of seventeenth-century country house poetry; instead, her poem memorializes its ruin. Second, in 1663 she revised the poem and reprinted it in 1664. (27) A comparison of the 1653 and 1664 versions reveals only minor changes in word choice, syntax, and punctuation that do not alter the meaning. The most significant change to the 1664 version is that Cavendish adds an asterisk after "Castle" in the poem's title and glosses it in the margin as "Bolsover Castle," which was, at this time, part of her jointure. The fact that she retains in the 1664 revision the distancing techniques that I discuss below--despite the rebuilding of Bolsover during this period, its inclusion in her jointure settlement of 1662, and her active estate management in the 1660s--suggests that the immediate, actual state of Bolsover Castle in 1651 did not completely determine her artistic choice to emphasize ruin and self-distancing techniques. She uses the poem not only to promote sympathy for William and the royalist cause, but also to downplay herself as a threatening, powerful woman. Yet, despite such distancing techniques, Cavendish still finds creative, encoded means to assert her agency in relation to Bolsover.
Because "A Dialogue between a Bountifull Knight and a Castle Ruin'd in Warr" has not been extensively discussed and is not widely available, I will analyze it in detail. In it, Cavendish presents a conversation between a knight, who refers at least in part to her brother-in-law Sir Charles Cavendish, and a castle, which refers to Bolsover Castle. Cavendish reports this dialogue as if it were part of a play script, without ever inserting a first-person speaker. She further distances herself from the castle by including merely one indirect reference to her husband (8). However, the most interesting form of self-distancing that she uses--one also evident in Bradstreet's "Vpon the Burning of Our House"--is that she figures the estate during its greatest ruin. Because she writes of a destroyed castle, her readers should be less likely to accuse her of celebrating material wealth to which she is in close proximity. Although Cavendish sacrifices her own self-representation in relation to Bolsover, and with it, she also relinquishes explicit claims to prominence as a poet, she uses the occasion to play upon country house conventions and gender expectations in innovative ways.
Her poem begins with the Knight addressing the Castle to remark upon its transformation from a place of beauty to one of decay: (28)
Alas, poor Castle, how great is thy Change From thy first Form! to me thou doest seem strange; I left thee Comely, and in perfect Health, Now thou art Wither'd, and Decay'd in Wealth. (1-4)
The terms in which the Knight describes the Castle's present state relate to themes usually employed in country house poetry. In such verse, the estate is often conflated with the family who owns it, so that the positive attributes of people and place become associated with each other. (29) This is the case in the Knight's address to the Castle. Personifying the Castle makes it easy for Cavendish to conflate the attributes of the family with those of the place. Her choice of "strange" in describing the war-ravaged estate in line 2 suggests that something is wrong. Since a country house poem usually makes the house "familiar" in the sense of reinforcing the centrality of the family to the character of the place, an estate that has become "strange" and has done so in the eyes of a family member--if, for the moment, we take the Knight as Sir Charles Cavendish--has altered in a fundamental way; it has been severed from its foundational ties to the family who owns it. That the Castle has lost its "perfect Health" further plays upon the connection between people and place typical of country house poetry: this ruined estate no longer has its health, and it cannot contribute to the health of its owners by providing them with a paradise on earth, as would the typical country house. That the place is no longer "Comely" but "Withered, and Decay'd in Wealth" perfectly undermines the ideal vision of a country house, which should be a beautiful, monumental site, full of material abundance.
Cavendish further emphasizes Bolsover's ruin by having the Castle describe its former traits--traits that are again conventional for country house poems. In fact, one could argue that lines 5-16 serve as a country house poem, if entirely in the past tense. As if in answer to the Knight's comment about its "strange[ness]," the Castle first speaks by locating itself in relation to the Cavendish family:
O Noble Sir, I from your Stock was Rais'd, Flourish'd in Plenty, and by all Men prais'd; For your most Valiant Father did me Build, Your Brother furnish'd me ... (5-8)
While poems like Jonson's "To Penshvrst" imply that the virtues of the owner are responsible for the Edenic state of the land and house, Cavendish literalizes the idea that the owners are responsible for the estate's physical merits. Thus, Margaret gives her father-in-law and husband credit for having made Bolsover what it was in its glory days. Despite the Castle's appropriate self-locating within the Cavendish genealogy, however, the poet continues to make the estate "strange," as the Knight initially observes. For, after this account of the Cavendish men building the castle, it becomes strangely empty of people. Instead of housing an owner and his family, the personified Castle takes on traits that a poet would normally ascribe to the owner. Cavendish asserts that "on this pleasant Hill he set me high, / To view the Vales below, as they do lye" (11-12). (30) Usually, the prospect is a central feature of a country house that gives the master of the house an elevated position--worthy of his elite status in this socially conservative genre--from which to subject all that he owns to his gaze. However, here, the Castle itself, apparently empty, takes pleasure in this masterful view instead.
Cavendish's final use of country house conventions to set in relief the current state of Bolsover is her mention of its past, paradisal plenty:
... like a Garden is each Field and Close, Where fresh green Grass, and yellow Cowslip grows; There did I see fat Sheep in Pastures go, And hear the Cows, whose Bags were full, to Low. (13-16)
Bolsover used to be so like Eden that all its physical surroundings were "like a Garden"; its plenty is indicated through shorthand observations that the sheep were "fat" and the cows ready for milking. Its association with a garden also invokes femininity: Wynne-Davies reads Cavendish's depiction of Bolsover as "personified as a distressed lady" and notices rape imagery, especially in "how the penetration of her walls, earlier described as a 'girdle,' by the male garrison ... left her 'destroyed."' (31) Cavendish's reference in line 13 to enclosure recalls the parallel between it and the patriarchal containment of women, reinforcing the idea that real property and women are analogous as objects owned or controlled by men. Thus, through both her revision of country house conventions and her feminizing of the Castle, Cavendish distances herself from explicit claims to ownership of Bolsover. As we will see, however, she also employs gender ambiguities--in relation to the Castle and the Knight--to imply covertly her desire to be a subject of real property.
Although Cavendish borrows from idealizing country house conventions, she does so to highlight the fact that they no longer apply. Her dialogue might be called an anti-country house poem in that she refers to enough of the conventions to invoke the genre, but the primary purpose of that invocation is to highlight how far from the idealized estate usually represented in a country house poem Bolsover has come. This tactic enables Cavendish to criticize the civil wars from her royalist perspective, for she clearly associates that conflict with the destruction of the traditional bond between aristocrat and land. Writing about her husband's property at the moment of its ruin allows her to celebrate its ideal attributes retrospectively, thus creating some distance between the estate and herself while simultaneously finding occasion to display her facility with country house conventions. Furthermore, her distancing strategies enable her to write a critique that would be appreciated by men whose opinion she would value. Situating the Castle in relation to male family members emphasizes that she locates the property in relation to appropriate--that is, male--hands.
Despite this careful situating of Bolsover, Cavendish inscribes into her poem a subtle challenge to patriarchal possession--a challenge she effects by introducing gender fluidity. At line 28, we learn that the Castle not only suffers from having been converted into a garrison and by having had its windows broken, but its ruin also results from a serious loss of water. The Castle complains,
With Dust I'm Choak'd, for want of Water dry: For those small Leaden Pipes, which winding lay Under the Ground, the Water to convey, Were all Cut off ... (28-31)
The Knight reveals that this is a problem that he can help to solve:
Alas, poor Castle, I small help can bring, Yet shall my Heart supply the former Spring, From whence the Water, of fresh Tears shall rise, To quench thy Drought, I'l spout them from mine Eyes. (37-40)
The Knight can provide enough tears, presumably from the sorrow he feels upon seeing Bolsover ruined, to restore the estate's water supply. This allows Cavendish to return, in an especially innovative way, to a convention central to country house poetry. Here the Knight's sorrow and tears, his emotional and physical attributes, directly contribute to the recovery of the estate. This is analogous to the way in which country house poems usually derive an estate's positive qualities from its owner and his family. Cavendish's use of the Knight's tears for the purpose of restoring the Castle returns us to its initial words, when it paints a retrospective vision of itself before the war. Cavendish therefore emphasizes the restorative power of the Knight's tears by suggesting--if only briefly--their ability to transform her verse into a country house poem, in which Bolsover's past becomes its present.
Ultimately, however, the Knight's tears have an additional resonance that resists this kind of closure. The Knight indicates his ability to help the Castle is limited:
... to restore thy Health, and build thy Wall, I have not Means enough to do't withal; Had I the Art, no Pains then I would spare, But all what's Broken down I would Repair. (43-46)
While the tears provide an innovative route back to the country house genre, they also feminize the Knight. Cavendish's insistence on calling her characters "Knight" and "Castle" reinforces the socially conservative idea that there is a natural link between the elite and the land. However, in naming the human speaker "Knight," Cavendish also calls attention to his profession as a military man. That he can only cry (and use his wealth to restore the Castle) highlights what he cannot do: he cannot personally fix Bolsover's physical structures.
In fact, in emphasizing the Knight's tears, Cavendish highlights their contrast to the water imagery she associates with the Castle. Although she feminizes the Castle in part, she also gives it masculine characteristics. Bolsover--which should stand tall as a sign of its owner's wealth and power, a physical manifestation of elite virility--suffers a loss of water specifically because its "small Leaden Pipes ... Were all Cut off" (29-31). Not only does this loss of water mean that the Castle cannot support the daily lives of its owners (which severs it from the poetic tradition of monumentalizing great estates in country house poetry), but it symbolizes a loss of seminal power, a destruction that strikes the very foundations of aristocratic patriarchal power: the Castle has become a sign of Cavendish castration. Furthermore, the poem emphasizes that the Castle was ruined through military action--action from which this particular Knight apparently could not protect it.
The subtle feminization of the Knight arguably has two important consequences. (32) First, the tragedy of the weakened relationship between Knight and Castle reinforces Cavendish's royalist critique of the devastations she attributes to the parliamentary cause. The disempowered, tearful Knight in conversation with the ruined Castle creates a sympathetic vision of the victimized royalist. Second, however, the feminization of the Knight--especially when read in context with Cavendish's cross-dressing military heroines in other works--also allows Cavendish to create a poetic perspective that is not simply and straightforwardly male. While the Knight refers to Sir Charles Cavendish in part, it need not refer only to him. Wynne-Davies imagines adjusting the poem's references to the Castle's "male lineal descent" by acknowledging "a broader female range" and thereby emphasizing Bolsover's connection to William's grandmother, Bess of Hardwick. In this fantasized revision, "Bolsover / Welbeck greets Margaret Cavendish (who went with Charles to see William's lands and is, after all, writing the poem)." Wynne-Davies concludes, however, "this is not, of course, the poem that Margaret Cavendish chose to write." (33)
I propose that Cavendish may have come closer to writing Wynne-Davies's imagined poem than it might at first seem: there is reason to read the Knight as referring to Margaret as well as Charles. This possibility is especially valid given her portraits of cross-dressing heroines elsewhere, her interest in military culture, and her exposure to Henrietta Maria's martial activities and the artistic trend towards depicting armed heroines. (34) Cavendish's interest in gender-bending military motifs is evident in several of her works, such as Assaulted and Pursued Chastity (1656) and the second part of her play Loves Adventures (1662). In the play, Lady Orphant cross-dresses as a boy to serve the general, Lord Singularity, whom she loves. Under the new name Affectionata, she argues with Lord Singularity about being allowed to follow him into battle:
AFFECTIONATA weeps. LORD SINGULARITY. What, do you crie! and yet desire to be a soldier? AFFECTIONATA. A valiant heart, my Lord, may have a weeping eye to keep it company. LORD SINGULARITY. If no persuasion can stay you, you must go along with me. (35)
Affectionata undoes binary gender expectations by seamlessly uniting in one body "A valiant heart" that signifies martial masculinity and a feminine "weeping eye," which first makes Lord Singularity question Affectionata's strength but then becomes the force that persuades him to let her / him follow him into war. While Cavendish uses many strategies to distance herself from Bolsover, she still provides a glimpse under the Knight's armor hinting that he may be, at least in part, she.
Whereas Lanyer asserts her ability to immortalize Cookham through the power of her verse (205-06), Cavendish makes no explicit claims in her dialogue for a place of prominence for herself in literary tradition. However, in the Castle's final lines, it prays, "Most noble Sir, you that me Freedome give, / May your great Name in After-ages Live.... And may great Fame your Praises sound aloud" (47-48, 51). If we take the Knight as a cross-dressed heroine--a persona for Margaret in disguise--then she marks covertly her place in poetic tradition while she also inscribes her possessive relation to Bolsover.
Early modern English men had far more economic power and property rights than women. Legal theory was skewed in favor of male ownership--especially of real property. The ideal woman contributed to the wealth of her male relatives by passing riches from one man to another. However, as historians such as Erickson have demonstrated, even married women had more agency with regard to ownership than has often been assumed. I have highlighted the complex relationship between the masculinist ideal that women be economically dependent and the ways in which women in different socioeconomic situations figure themselves poetically in relation to property. While their male contemporaries, regardless of rank or riches, assert an explicitly possessive relationship between their speakers and the dwelling places they depict, early modern women poets create distance between themselves and property by portraying it as lost or ruined, and they also downplay their control over or ownership of property in directly inverse proportion to their social and economic power. This striking difference among early modern English women poets becomes especially visible when one compares verse by Whitney, Lanyer, Bradstreet, Howard, and Cavendish. While none of the women are as assertively possessive as Jonson, Whitney and Lanyer--the most impoverished, least powerful women in this study--come closest. Meanwhile, Howard and Cavendish--the most powerful women in the group--go to the greatest lengths to erase themselves as subjects of property. Cavendish's poem is particularly significant because it illustrates how a powerful woman uses her verse to depict herself as economically nonthreatening while it simultaneously encodes a hidden gesture towards property ownership.
My argument reveals that how a woman represents herself in relation to property is a flexible fiction that she can mobilize to fashion a socially acceptable self-image as a proper woman: we should not make the mistake of taking women's economic self-references in their verse as transparent historical facts. These women poets display strategic creative agency in constructing their self-portraits as subjects of property. This analysis also suggests that it was especially transgressive for an early modern English woman who actually had some social and economic power to call attention to her control over property in her self-representations. And finally, this study shows that, despite the cultural pressure to downplay her economic agency, the poetry of a powerful woman like Margaret Cavendish is still--albeit covertly--marked by her desire to assert herself as a subject of property.
(1.) Marion Wynne-Davies, notes on the authors, in Women Poets of the Renaissance (New York: Routledge, 1999), 348. I am grateful to Mihoko Suzuki, Anne Shaver, Cristina Malcolmson, an anonymous reader for Clio, Darby Lewes, and Gema Perez-Sanchez for their insightful feedback on this article. I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for the summer stipend that helped make this work possible; however, the views and conclusions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the NEH.
(2.) I use the phrase "more powerful" rather than "higher-ranking" because rank was not the only factor determining a woman's power. I borrow "country house discourse" from Kari Boyd McBride, Country House Discourse in Early Modern England: A Cultural Study of Landscape and Legitimacy (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), 2, 7-9.
(3.) Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1993), 233.
(4.) Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, eds., Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (New York: Cambridge UP, 1996), 2; Natasha Korda, Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002), 12.
(5.) J. C. A. Rathmell, "Jonson, Lord Lisle, and Penshurst," English Literary Renaissance 1.3 (1971): 260.
(6.) Ben Jonson, "To Penshvrst," in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, vol. 8 (New York: Oxford UP, 1947), lines 59-60, 6364; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(7.) Robert Herrick, "His Grange, or Private Wealth," in The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, ed. J. Max Patrick (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1963), lines 4, 5, 14; 10, 18, 22, 26; 6; all references to Herrick's poetry are to this edition, and subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(8.) Andrew Marvell, The Complete Poems (New York: Penguin, 1985), lines 369ff; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(9.) Mildmay Fane, "My Hock-Cart or Reaping Day," in The Country House Poem: A Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems, ed. Alastair Fowler (New York: Routledge, 1993), lines 7, 9-11; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(10.) Thomas Randolph, "On the Inestimable Content He Enjoys in the Muses: To Those of His Friends that Dehort Him from Poetry," in Fowler, 138-44; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(11.) Richard Flecknoe, "On the Duchess of Newcastle's Closet," in Fowler, 179-80; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(12.) Erickson, 19.
(13.) Isabella Whitney, "The Mannner of Her Will," in Marion Wynne-Davies, 2-10, lines 25-32; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(14.) Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 305.
(15.) Susanne Woods, introduction to The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), xv-xxi.
(16.) Barbara Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993), 237.
(17.) Lanyer, in Woods, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, 130-38, lines 9-10; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(18.) John Harvard Ellis, introduction to The Works of Anne Bradstreet (New York: Peter Smith, 1932), xi-lxxvi. (19.) Anne Bradstreet, "Vpon the Burning of Our House," in Ellis, 40-42, lines 12, 15; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(20.) Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson, Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology (New York: Oxford UP, 2001), 7-8.
(21.) Margaret Howard, "Now that ye be assemblld beer," in Stevenson and Davidson, 9, lines 1-8; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line.
(22.) Katie Whitaker, Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by her Pen (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 215; Sara Heller Mendelson, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies (Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1987), 57.
(23.) Whitaker, 3, 9, 11-13, 44, 71-72, 89, 108-09; Erickson, 12.
(24.) Mendelson, 42.
(25.) Fowler, editor of The Country House Poem: A Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems, dates the poem's composition between 1651 and 1653 (317).
(26.) Whitaker, 129, 137.
(27.) I refer to the 1664 version in this article (Poems and Phancies [London: William Wilson, 1664], 108-10; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically by line).
(28.) According to Timothy Raylor, ('"Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue': William Cavendish, Ben Jonson, and the Decorative Scheme of Bolsover Castle," Renaissance Quarterly 52 : 402-39), Bolsover was originally "a house for gazing at, a house for feasting in: a divine house" (403).
(29.) Raylor argues that the Little Castle's "decorative scheme" represents a struggle or tension between opposing forces related to William's personality (436).
(30.) Line 15 reinforces the idea that the Castle itself has a lovely view from the hilltop: "There did I see fat sheep in pastures go."
(31.) Wynne-Davies, '"How Great is Thy Change': Familial Discourses in the Cavendish Family" in A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, ed. Stephen Clucas (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003), 42, 46. I am also grateful to Cristina Malcolmson for her insights on Cavendish's feminizing of the Castle and the significance of her reference to enclosure.
(32.) The prominence of Hercules in the decoration of Bolsover makes the feminization of the Knight even more striking, since it undermines the house's emphasis on the owner's virility; see Raylor, 404, 410, 424-25, 427.
(33.) Wynne-Davies, '"How Great is Thy Change," 47.
(34.) Whitaker, 42-43, 89-90.
(35.) Cavendish's Loves Adventures appears in The Convent of Pleasure and other Plays, ed. Anne Shaver (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1999).
University of Miami Coral Gables, Florida
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|Author:||Hammons, Pamela S.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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