"But Worth pretends": Discovering Jonsonian Masque in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus
Anita M. Hagerman
Southwest Missouri State University

Hagerman, Anita. "'But Worth pretends': Discovering Jonsonian Masque in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 4.1-17 <URL:

  1. A common endeavour in the critical study of minor poets--and especially women poets--is to assign a quality of newness to that author's work by exploring its points of divergence from the standards of a perceived canon. When dealing specifically with women writers, critics look for tell-tale signs of "otherness," usually related to issues of content but also of form, to determine her difference. This clearly presents theoretical difficulties, for once these differences are located, how does one judge the results? How can we assess whether such differences determine the author's neglected worthiness or prove her undeniable inadequacy? This issue, although not limited to questions of gender, does assume a particularly troublesome mantle in the case of women writers, for whom writing within a tradition can be condemned as derivative, or certainly as a female voice subjecting itself into a male-defined structure; [1] while, at the same time, writing that seems unfamiliar with these male-dictated formal structures can likewise be condemned as unpolished, unlearned, and amateur.

  2. Consider, then, the additional importance of this line of inquiry in the case of Lady Mary Wroth. Scholars of Wroth's works generally agree that one of her greatest attributes is her ability to evocatively appropriate forms, twisting them to her own rhetorical purposes, and thereby asserting herself as a well-versed author while, at the same time, subverting (or even completely co-opting) formal elements. Most of these critics understandably focus their discussions of Wroth's formal influences almost entirely on her Sidney family background. I would like to expand this discussion by exploring more closely Wroth's connections to Ben Jonson and the possibilities the connections offer regarding both the form and content of Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, a correlation with noteworthy potential as an addition to the ongoing critical debate over the structure of Wroth's sonnet sequence.

  3. The structure of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus has been examined by a number of critics, who have postulated a variety of very different theories on the subject. Part of the confusion about the structure of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus relates to problems with text, since the work circulated in manuscript form as early as 1613. The sequence was revised and published as a companion piece to The First Part of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania in 1621. Urania is an extended prose romance in the Arcadian style which centers on the faithless Amphilanthus, whose name means "lover of two," and his often neglected love Pamphilia, whose name means "all-loving." Both Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus are based to some extent on Wroth's own experience at court. Although both were married, she was in love with her cousin, William Herbert, and the two had an affair for some time. Following the death of her husband in 1614, Wroth was no longer welcome at court and was left deeply in debt. Although she never remarried, her relationship with Herbert continued and she bore him two children. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was certainly revised during the period 1614-21, including the removal of several poems which were inserted into the main text of Urania. For this discussion, I refer to the published 1621 version, by all accounts the more polished, in a modern edition by Gary Waller.

  4. The formal structure of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus has proven an elusive issue. Several critics have studied Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, resulting in various structural analyses, most of which divide the work into sections, ranging from as few as two to as many as seven segments. Jeff Masten even argues that the work we call Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is not one work at all, but rather is comprised of "several distinct sequences of poems copied into a single manuscript, including Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, which just happens to be the first group" (68-69). May Nelson Paulissen divides the work into four sections, but agrees that the poems are "not related in narrative progression" but are merely "unified in their total effect, which is a picture of her developing attitudes about love" (iv). Marion Wynne-Davies, on the contrary, offers a narrative progression for the work, arguing that it depicts a transition from Petrarchanism to Neo-Platonism, from personal desire to philosophical love. The corona is the focal point of Wynne-Davies's analysis of the piece, since she believes that it not only displays the best of Wroth's poetical capabilities, but it also refines Pamphilia's love, raising it to the Neo-Platonic, spiritual level (363-64).

  5. I favour dividing Pamphilia to Amphilanthus along similar lines as Paulissen and Barbara Lewalski, into four main sections: a highly structured opening [i-lv], an erratically structured mid-section [lvi-lxxvi], a pivotal corona [lxxvii-xc], and a closing series of songs and sonnets [xci-ciii]. The opening fifty-five poems are based on a standard Petrarchan sequence of eight sets of six sonnets, separated by a songs. As such, this opening constitutes a strongly cohesive unit. This highly-structured opening is followed by a less structured group of twenty-one poems, opening with a reversal of the Petrarchan sequence--one sonnet is followed by six songs--followed by ten sonnets, three songs, and a closing sonnet that rounds out the section and looks ahead to the next:

    O Pardon Cupid, I confesse my fault,
     Then mercy grand me in so iust a kinde:
     For treason neuer lodged in my minde
     Against thy might, so much as in a thought.

    And now my folly I haue dearely brought,
     Nor could my soule least rest of quiet finde;
     Since Rashnes did my thoughts to Error binde,
     Which now thy fury, and my harme hath wrought.

    I curse that thought and hand which that first fram'd,
     For which by thee I am most iustly blam'd:
     But now that hand shall guided be aright,

    And giue a Crowne vnto thy endlesse praise,
     Which shall thy glory and thy greatnesse raise,
     More then these poore things could thy honor spight. [lxxvi]

    Here, Wroth provides an introduction to the following sequence of fourteen sonnets that constitute a corona, in which the closing line of each sonnet is repeated as the opening line of the next. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus then closes with a series of four songs and nine sonnets.

  6. What is compelling about this four-part structure is that it corresponds on a generic level to the segments of the Jonsonian masque as it had developed by the time of the composition of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. David Lindley explains that the court masque had evolved, by the second decade of the seventeenth century, into a "fairly fixed form" following the sequence poetic induction/antimasque(s)/masque/revels/ epilogue (1). Since this sequence is common to most Jacobean and Caroline court masques, Lindley asserts that structure is a primary identifying characteristic of the masque. The thematics of the masque were also standardised at this same time: the ordered world of the court is established in the opening dance (and, sometimes, a prologue), only to be disrupted by an antimasque of rustic and chaotic characters. The courtly order is always restored, usually by a monarch, and the entire work ends with the masque and revels, which present visions of an improved, more orderly, more transcendent existence. That the sections of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus correspond to the sequence of the Jonsonian masque at its height may be mere coincidence. But the argument for a stronger connection between the two becomes more compelling when weighing further evidence. First, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains a dramatic arc which mirrors those commonly found in the Jonsonian masque. Second, Wroth knew Jonson, was familiar with his masques, and influences between Wroth's and Jonson's works have been detected elsewhere. Third, recent scholarship on the masque offers political and social perspectives on the form that may also apply to Wroth's work.

  7. The "dramatic" arc of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is based on the progression of love from Petrarchan to Neo-Platonic. The love expressed in the opening sequence of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a Petrarchan love, worldly and unfulfilled. The first sonnet [i] clearly describes the heroine's love within the Petrarchan tradition, as inspired by Cupid at Venus's order:

    But one heart flaming more then all the rest,
     The Goddesse held, and put it to my breast,
     Dear Sonne now shut, said she, thus must we winne;
    He her obeyd, and martyr'd my poore heart.
     I waking hop'd as dreames it would depart,
     Yet since, O me, a Louer I haue beene. (ll. 9-14)

    Her poor, martyred heart is then subjected to all the glorious pains of unfulfilled love we associate with the Petrarchan traditions of the late Elizabethan era. Sweet lips prove poisonous and the pleasing sun blinds the eye [v]; and even while "hurts are deem'd delights" ([ii], l. 12), Pamphilia, the typical Petrarchan, still claims, "Long haue I suffer'd, and esteem'd it deare" ([vi], l. 9). By Wroth's day, such Petrarchan sonnets would have been considered standard, established, sanctioned, and, primarily, conservative. Here Wroth turns convention on its head, however, by reversing the gender roles of the Petrarchan sonnet. She speaks clearly and openly as a female author within a structure primarily defined and dominated by the male voice. Gary Waller identifies Wroth as a poet who writes "specifically from a woman's gender assignment" (198), and cites the following as an example:

    Why should we not Loues purblinde charmes resist?
     Must we be seruile, doing what he list?
     No, seeke some host to harbour thee: I flye

    Thy Babish tricks, and freedome doe professe;
     But O, my hurt makes my lost heart confesse:
     I loue, and must; so farewell liberty. ([xvi] ll. 9-14)

    In Naomi J. Miller's Changing the Subject, the numerous specifics of feminine subjectivity in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus are explored, ranging from the very fact of a female speaker, to the treatment of Cupid as the poet's suitor rather than an ally or rival (as he is to Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil, for example), to the absence of the male beloved in the sequence (39-44, 155-60). [2] So, while Wroth's approaches are unconventional, the elements she applies are, nevertheless, typically Petrarchan.

  8. After the opening, highly-structured Petrarchan section, Wroth provides what is essentially a poetic antimasque, beginning--appropriately--with an inverse of the Petrarchan sequence. The antimasque was probably performed by professional actors (Lindley 7), although historical records are not extensive and performance history remains open to doubt. Certainly, the carnivalesque, often perverse characters of the antimasque were considered inappropriate parts for courtiers. Their part consisted of a chaotic dance that would stand out in sharp relief against the geometrical, restrained dances of the courtier's masque. In particular, the dance steps associated with the antimasque were often inversions, or dance steps performed in reverse. Wroth's inversion of the Petrarchan sequence [lvi-lxii] reflects a similar approach to her material. Altogether, the section [lvi-lxxvi]--which has an abundance of songs in ratio to sonnets--reads as less cohesive and less reserved structurally. I find it intriguing to consider this feeling of chaos, this haphazard structure, as intentional on Wroth's part, illustrating the darker, more chaotic emotions that result from carnal love. Pamphilia's themes shift accordingly, from plaintive desire to outright lust and jealousy:

    Cruell Suspition, O be now at rest,
     Let daily torments bring thee some stay,
     Alas, make not my ill thy ease-full pray,
     Nor giue loose raines to Rage, when Loue's opprest. ([lxvi] ll.1-4)

  9. After degenerating to the level of carnal chaos, Wroth effects a transformation of Pamphilia's desire to a more noble, Neo-Platonic love through the poetic device of the corona. Sonnet 9, for example, argues that "If Lust be counted Loue, 'tis flasely [sic] nam'd, / By wickednesse" ([lxxxv] ll. 9-10), and the following sonnet continues in a similar vein:

     For Loue in Reason now doth put his trust,
     Desert and liking are together borne
     Children of Loue, and Reason, Parents iust.
    Reason aduiser is, Loue ruler must
     Be of the State, which Crowne he long hath worne;
     Yet so, as neither will in least mistrust
     The gouernment where no feare is of scorn
    Then reuerence both their mights thus made of one,
     But wantonnesse, and all those errors shun,
     Which wrongers be, Impostures, and alone
     Maintainers of all follies ill begunne.
    Fruit of a sower, and vnwholesome grownd
    Vnprofitably pleasing, and vnsound. (ll. 2-14)

  10. The choice of a corona or "crown" is particularly apropos from the perspective of the court masque, in which the return to order is usually facilitated by the appearance of the monarch. At the same time, however, Wroth subverts pro-court connotations of the form by presenting, within the sonnets themselves, language that has condemned a court, in this case that of Venus and Cupid, as one in which "no true loue you shall spye" ([xiv] l. 18). Moreover, the opening and closing lines of the corona, "In this strange Labyrinth how shall I turne?" betray an underlying discontent and confusion on the part of the subject. This acts in stark contrast with the poetic function of the corona, which is the restoration of order. Wroth highlights and intensifies the complex, highly-structured nature of the corona by composing it of fourteen sonnets, mirroring the fourteen lines of the sonnet itself. In fact, that Wroth so carefully employed mathematical architecture [3] in the corona is possibly the strongest argument against the interpretation that Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is based on no overall discernible structure.

  11. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus ends with a series of four songs and nine sonnets, which reflect a restoration of self-control and order. Pamphilia's desires have evolved from Petrarchan order through carnal chaos into a heightened, Neo-Platonic order. While this mirrors the concluding concord of the Jonsonian masque, Wroth again subverts the poem's surface meaning, this time through formal techniques. Wroth often projects the form of the sonnet onto a larger structural level. In particular, the numbers fourteen, eight, and six, representative of the number of lines in a sonnet, are recurring features of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus: the first fifty-five poems consist of eight groups of six sonnets; the antimasque section consists of the Petrarchan inverse (seven poems), plus fourteen additional poems, and the corona also consists of fourteen poems. As a result, when Wroth concludes Pamphilia to Amphilanthus with a series of thirteen poems, she seems to have left it unfinished. Her world is not, after all, perfectly ordered. In essence, by so carefully constructing a mathematically perfect corona, Wroth has prepared her reader to think mathematically, only to provide a mathematically weak conclusion. In effect, Wroth foregrounds a feeling of incompleteness--perhaps in herself, perhaps in the tenuous "order" she has created--by concluding the work with a missing poem. Once again, she has subverted the very meaning she has so carefully constructed.

  12. Wroth often employed the formal practices of writers she admired, a fact generally associated with her Sidney family connections. Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, for example, echo Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Astrophil and Stella, respectively. It is, therefore, of interest to this discussion that Wroth's connections with Ben Jonson are well-documented. [4] Most famously, Jonson, who copied out her verse, clearly appreciated Wroth's work and composed a sonnet to her (Underwood 28), which opens:

    I That have beene a lover, and could shew it,
    Though not in these, in rithmes not wholly dumbe,
    Since I excribe your Sonnets, am become
    A better lover, and much better Poet. (ll. 1-4)

    Jonson and Wroth interacted socially, and Jonson is variably referred to as both Wroth's mentor and her patron (Paulissen 39, 25). The two shared the same coterie audience, and Jonson had several times visited the Wroth estate at Durance, not far from London, where he had witnessed some formal entertainments of her devising. He praised these in a poem of backhanded compliment to her husband, "To Sir Robert Wroth," saying that "his noblest spouse" can make "Apollo's harpe and Hermes lyre resound" even in the rustic life of Durance (96-100). [5] Later Jonson dedicated The Alchemist to Lady Mary, referring to her as "the Lady, most aequall with vertue, and her Blood: the Grace and Glory of Women." Wroth was also the subject of several of Jonson's poems and may have been his "Celia" (Paulissen 18). The relationship between Wroth and Jonson may have been closer still; May Nelson Paulissen argues that the two could well have been lovers (16-17). R. E. Pritchard argues, convincingly, for at least one occasion where Jonson's poetry was influenced by that of Wroth (527). Certainly the two were well acquainted, having at least met during rehearsals for The Masque of Blackness, [6] but probably earlier still, since Jonson was a friend of Wroth's father, Robert Sidney, and had been a guest in their home on occasion (Paulissen 14, 19).

  13. Wroth performed the role of Baryte in Jonson's The Masque of Blackness at the court at Whitehall in January of 1605. [7] She also performed in its sequel, The Masque of Beauty (1608), and possibly Hymenaei (1606), The Masque of Queens (1609), and Oberon (1611) (Waller, Sidney Family 228). In particular, the role of Baryte in Blackness had a lasting effect on Wroth's life at court. Her character's name means "weight" and refers to Wroth's personality as one of seriousness and dependability. Furthermore, on their first appearance, the ladies of the court, who all portrayed Ethiopian maidens (hence the title of the masque), entered in pairs, with each couple carrying a fan painted with a symbol representative of their personalities. The symbol given Wroth and Lady Walsingham was a globe or heavenly sphere, a symbol which reappears throughout Wroth's work and the work of others in her coterie to represent Wroth. A fine example of this is in Sonnet 5 of the corona [lxxxi], where Wroth plays with the concept of weights as desire:

    And burn, yet burning you will love the smart,
    When you shall feel the weight of true desire,
    So pleasing, as you would not wish your part
    Of burden should be missing from that fire; (11. 1-4)

    In addition to her personalised iconography of the globe and weight, darkness also becomes a recurring theme in Wroth's work--all three can be interpreted as references not only to Wroth's courtly persona but also to the artificiality and theatricality of court life in general. In Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, for example, Sonnet 22 (xxv) is a direct reference to Wroth's role in The Masque of Blackness:

    Like to the Indians, scorched with the sun,
    The sun which they do as their god adore,
    So am I used by Love, for, ever more
    I worship him, less favours have I won.
    Better are they who this to blackness run,
    And so can only whiteness' want deplore,
    Than I who pale and white am with grief s store,
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Then let me wear the mark of Cupid's might
    In heart, as they in skin of Phoebus' light,
    Not ceasing offrings to Love while I live. (11. 1-7, 12-14)

    Similarly, Wroth employs the traditional theme of dark v. light, or night v. day, but she does so with all the overtones of the ambiguity she felt for the court. Throughout Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, dark versus light imagery reflects Pamphilia's ambivalence towards her object of desire, since she knows that unfulfilled desire is torture, but she also recognizes that the fulfillment of that desire would be torturous as well. [8] These attitudes, while they can be applied on the surface to Pamphilia's unfulfilled desire for Amphilanthus, can also be applied to Wroth's feelings towards the courtly experience as a whole when we look at the theme through the lens of Wroth's role in The Masque of Blackness.

  14. Jonson, as the first playwright to be given the duties of providing masques at court, changed the nature of the masque by increasing the flow of dramatic action and integrating a more polished use of language (Orgel 12-13). But despite such changes, the primary focus of a Jonsonian masque remained on characters and dance, not plot or poetry. Women participated in the masque as central characters and as dancers, but the precise degree of restrictions on women acting (i.e. speaking) held true for the masque as well. Because acting was considered an inappropriate activity for the aristocracy, speaking parts were performed by professionals, with female speaking parts played by the boys of the chapel royal. Nevertheless, the masque proved a more female-centred performance structure, since women certainly performed physically, through participation in the dances, which were the central facet of the entertainment (McManus, 95). Moreover, the ladies danced in character, amounting to what can be considered "acting" in a sense. Certainly, the masque was viewed as an opportunity for the ladies of court to display themselves and to command the gaze of an audience, however limited that audience may be. This becomes even more important when we consider that Jonson's development of the masque was influenced tremendously by the demands of his patron, Anne of Denmark. As Clare McManus states, Anne, through her control over the masque, "directly influence[d] the stage representation of the female, offering what could be read as a distinct process of feminine self-fashioning and the manipulation of the performance of power" (96).

  15. Regardless of the sex of the courtier, the world of the court is one which is dominated by theatricality. Lady Mary Wroth would have been influenced, no doubt, by the descriptions of the theatrical life of female courtiers described in Thomas Hoby's 1561 translation of Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. According to Castiglione's Lord Julian, she should "cultivate a certain bashfulnesse" and "frame her garments to this entent, and so to apparell her selfe, that she appeare not fonde and light" (qtd in Weidemann 198-99). And later, according to Julian's sparring partner Lord Gaspar, women at court are theatrical by nature, often feigning and pretending in order to manipulate (Weidemann 199). Courtly women, therefore, were expected to act the part of an ideal courtier, to costume themselves appropriately, and to speak the proper dialogue. By these descriptions, court life for women was as much subject to the stresses of theatrum mundi as it was for men.

  16. If, as Heather L. Weidemann argues, Mary Wroth's purpose in writing The Countess of Montgomery's Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was to justify the roles of women in a world of theatrum mundi (198-200), then it is not surprising to find the masque tradition to be an influential one in Wroth's writing. With its mixed values of feminine expressive display and enforced silence, the masque could represent both the best and worst of what the court life was for Wroth. On the one hand, Wroth wished to be noticed and to express herself, opportunities she was granted while at court; on the other hand, once those opportunities were no longer available to her, she expressed her distaste with the necessary falseness attached to courtly life. Both Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus reflect Wroth's fixation on the court of which she is no longer associated. [9] In Urania, this is often reflected by direct references to the masque (Sanders 54). From this perspective, it is highly probable that when Wroth turned to writing to express herself, she retained the language of courtly theatricality--particularly of the masque tradition--as a vehicle through which to develop her own voice.

  17. Once we accept that Wroth may have intended to echo the formal structure of the court masque in her ordering of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, we then open ourselves to the further possibilities of such a choice. This particular approach to the work allows Pamphilia to Amphilanthus to grow out of the constraints of personal narrative and into the social and political arena--an arena into which commentators on Wroth's work have been struggling to place her. However appealing these connections may be, it is impossible to state with any certainty the degree of influence of the masque on Wroth's work. But even though Pamphilia to Amphilanthus remains an elusive work, the possibilities of a connection to the masque form indicate a stronger, and perhaps more deliberate, hand on the part of the author.


1. For insightful and in-depth discussions of Lady Mary Wroth's distinctly feminine voice within masculine contexts, see Gary Waller's Sidney Family Romance and Mary Ellen Lamb's Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle.

2. See also Fitzmaurice, et al., Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England, 5, 109-113.

3. Carefully-planned architectural poetry is a feature of the Jonsonian masque as well. For an intriguing analysis of this, see Johnson's Ben Jonson: Poetry and Architecture.

4. In particular, see Lewalski 246-47, Paulissen 10-27, and the entirety of Miller and Waller, Reading Mary Wroth.

5. Sir Robert Wroth disliked the city and preferred hunting and the country life. He particularly disliked the waste of money he considered life at court to be (Waller, Sidney Family Romance 118-19). Jonson's backhanded compliment, then, would have provided Robert Wroth with the pleasure of receiving a poem from such a popular author (especially among the Sidneys), but, as Barbara Lewalski points out, it would have provided Lady Mary with a more devious form of entertainment (246).

6. As one of Jonson's early masques, Blackness does not conform to the structure of Jonson's later masques outlined above. It does, however, contain some formative elements of the antimasque. See Lesley Mickel's chapter " 'Free from servile flattery': panegyric and the formation of the antimasque" (26-62).

7. Baryte is an Ethiopian maiden whose name means "weight." The other ladies of the court played similar parts: Queen Anne played the part of Euphoris ("abundance"); Lucy, Countess of Bedford, Aglaia ("splendor"); Lady Herbert, Diaphane ("transparent"); Lady Alice, Countess of Denby, Eucampse ("flexibility"); Lady Penelope Rich, Ocyte ("swiftness"); Countess of Suffolk, Kathare ("spotless"); Lady Bevill, Notis ("moisture"); Lady Effingham, Psychrote ("coldness"); Lady Elizabeth Howard, Glycyte ("sweetness"); Lady Susan de Vere, Malacia ("delicacy"); Lady Walsingham, Periphere ("revolving/circular").

8. The light/night paradox, a Petrarchan element popular in Elizabethan sonnets, was a main theme of Wroth's uncle Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella 33, 89, 91, 96-99. Sidney's sequence has been credited as Wroth's primary influence in the writing of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (Martin 405).

9. See Ann Rosalind Jones for related information.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).