“The Ocean of true grace:” Aemelia Lanyer Presents Jesus
You whose clear Judgement far exceeds my skill,
Vouchsafe to entertain this dying lover,
The Ocean of true grace, whose streams do fill
All those with Joy, that can his love recover;
About this blessed
Where your fair soul may safely rest,
When he is sweetly seated in your breast.
(“To the Lady Lucie, Countess of
As a seventeenth-century English woman Aemelia Bassano Lanyer offers a unique, devotional voice. From one woman’s point of view, she enriches her reader’s appreciation of the Bible while steadfastly focusing on Jesus as her “lovely love.” Her singular volume of published poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), sacramentally presents the Lord as someone she knows and believes her readers can relationally experience in and through her poems. Jesus is the “blessed Ark,” the vessel that both navigates and transports the “Ocean of true grace,” even as her poems, she prays, might effectually prove “this blessed Ark” (emphasis mine). In the passage quoted above, bringing together two
Although as, and in some ways more, accomplished as many of her peers in devotional literature, Lanyer is less known to generally educated readers. Through several public records, a few possible autobiographical references in her poems, and the dubious diary of her alleged astrologer Simon Forman, we can only sketchily reconstruct a life of both accomplishment and strain. Aemelia was born in 1569 to Jewish Italian musicians working in the court of Queen Elizabeth the First. Although her father died when she was only seven, Aemelia seems to have enjoyed the benefits of court life, including, it would seem from her later writings, an education by proximity.
When she was eighteen, her mother died and she received the perhaps less desirably beneficial attention of Henry Cary, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain and Shakespeare’s patron. Although married and forty-five years older than Aemelia,
Although her later years were spent in and around her son’s home, he died twelve years before her. Sometime in first half of the seventeenth century she seems to have become acquainted with the female, literary luminaries of the day including Mary Sidney Herbert, Margaret and Anne Clifford. In 1610, she published “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which may have been the first poem in the tradition of celebrating English country houses, and which proclaims her religious conversion. The following year she produced the first full length book of poetry by a woman in English, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.
Certainly, an initial contribution to her reader’s devotional life is Lanyer’s perspective as a woman. She presents godly, virtuous women. Salve Deus begins with eleven commendatory dedication pieces (nine in poetry), including ones to the Queen (James I’s wife) and “To all virtuous Ladies in general.” In her recalling of the events of the passion, the reader is struck by the contrast of all the villains being men while the women contribute the positives of intuitive insight, compassion, sacrifice and commitment. At the foot of the cross, after the death of her son, Lanyer observes “the sorrow of the virgin Mary,” remembering her there as the girl mystified by the call to be a chaste mother, “To bear a child, although a Virgin pure” (1064):
When on the knees of thy submissive heart
Thou humbly didst demand, How that should be? (1073-1074)
Lanyer’s exploration of the virgin birth and of the same mother’s grief at the death of her son gives us all “more cause to wonder and admire” (1080). Late in the poem, Lanyer celebrates in brief the faithful lives of Deborah and Judith, Esther and Susanna (1480-1568). Theirs and all Godly women’s love is contrasted to Cleopatra’s.
Her Love was earthly, and thy Love Divine;
Her Love was only to support her pride,
Humility thy Love and Thee doth guide. (1414-1416)
Pilate’s wife, “who did but dream, and yet a message sent,” plays a major role in Lanyer’s record of the passion. She harkens to a dream and rightly warns her husband not “To seek the death of him that is so good / For thy soul’s health to shed his dearest blood” (839-840). In an attempt to convince him not to slay his Savior, Pilate’s wife issues an apology for Eve and thereby for all women (761-840). Her arguments range from the seemingly erroneous Adam didn’t find fault with Eve eating the fruit (805-806) to mildly humorous men say women aren’t as intelligent as men, so Eve didn’t and couldn’t know any better. She suggests that Adam could have known better because as the first created he had known God longer. Eve’s innocence was tricked by the “subtle Serpent” (767). She was only sharing; her “fault was only too much love / Which made her give this present to her Dear” (801-802). Just because Eve ate the fruit didn’t mean that Adam had to: “Strength might have refused.”
Eventually, Lanyer’s assertions become more pointed. “If any Evil did in [Eve] remain, / Being made of [Adam], he was the ground of all” (815-816). Further still, she batters men with the comparison between eating the fruit, which she seems to grant women may have initiated, and the crucifixion of the Christ which men perpetrated.
Her sin was small, to what you [Pilate] do commit;
All mortal sins that do for vengeance cry,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether try,
By all their sins the wrath of God to get;
This sin of yours, surmounts them all as far
As doth the Sun, another little star. (818-824)
Lanyer is battling systemic injustice against women which disproportionately holds them responsible for the evil in the world. She doesn’t seek complete exoneration, only even handed consideration. At last Pilate’s wife appeals to sentiment. “You came not in the world without our pain” (827). Before men treat women too harshly, they should remember their mothers were women who sacrificed their bodies to birth men.
A second contribution Lanyer makes to her reader’s devotional life is mediation upon the scriptures. Interestingly, she publishes Salve Deus in 1611, the same year the King James Bible first appeared. Among the noble women of her immediate audience, Bible translation was a regular devotional practice. Of public note, Mary Sidney Herbert rendered in meter and rhyme most of Psalms circulated under the names of she and her more famous brother Sir Philip Sidney. However, mostly as a private practice, imaginatively realigning and turning biblical phrases and stories produced insight. Recreations into English of the scriptures’ beauty memorably embedded the words in the heart.
The better part of Lanyer’s work, as the title suggests, is her recounting of and reflections on Christ’s passion as found in Matthew 26:30-28:10. Later in the seventeenth century, when John Milton similarly attempts by reworking the scriptures into English poetry to produce something “doctrinal and exemplary to the nation,” the passion receives little attention.
When before He is arrested, Jesus predicts their betrayals to “his dear Disciples” the emotions are frothy in contrast. Granted the moment will never be considered the highlight of Peter’s spiritual journey, but he is indignant at the suggestion of his inconstancy. He “thought his faith could never fail / No mote could happen in so clear a sight” (341-342). Lanyer augments the conflict by echoing Jesus’ warning in the Sermon on the Mount to not pick splitters from a brother’s eye when there is a tree in your own and applies it to Peter. Ironically, he “thought above them all, by Faith to clime.” That he will deny “his dear Master” is overwrought with emotion.
This could not choose but grieve him very sore,
That his hot Love should prove more cold than Ice,
Denying him he did so much adore. (347-349)
Although the Spirit was willing to obey,
Yet what great weakness in the Flesh was found!
They slept in ease, whilst thou in Pain didst pray;
Lo, they in Sleep, and thou in Sorrow drowned. (425-428)
This brief analysis of Salve Deus from the prediction of betrayal through the disciples sleeping in
What I have said so far might lead to the conclusion that Lanyer is a feminist to the disparagement of men, but this is not the case. Her unabated worship of the man Jesus interdicts any such conclusion. In fact, her presentation of Jesus as lover of the church and members thereof becomes the third way Lanyer leads her readers in devotional development.
Over and over in the prefatory poems Lanyer says that her intend is to present Jesus himself. In the first poem, “To the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty,” she asserts “Here may your sacred Majesty behold / That mighty Monarch both of heaven and earth” (43-44). He is the “Paschal Lamb” of her poetry and she invites the reader to commune with him in them: “This precious Passover feed upon, O Queen” (85, 89). In “To the Lady Susan,” she writes, “Receive your Love whom you have sought so far, / Which here presents himself within your view” (37-38). In the prose piece to her patron Lady Margaret, she straightforwardly claims that in her poems “I present unto you even our Lord Jesus himself.” Even the allegorical dream poem to Mary Sidney Herbert concludes that the reader might “receive him here” (221). Her last introductory poem, “To the Lady Anne, Countess of Dorset,” builds to
Therefore to you (good Madame) I present
His lovely love, more worthy than purest gold,
Who for your sake his precious blood hath spent,
His death and passion here you may behold,
And view this Lamb that to the world was sent,
Whom your fair soul may in her arms enfold:
Loving his love, that did endure such pain,
That you in heaven a worthy place might gain. (113-120)
Lanyer praises God with the names and modifiers she ascribes to Jesus. “The Ocean of true grace;” “the health of the soul;” “this most precious pearl of all perfection;” “this rich diamond of devotion;” “the sweet incense, balsams, odors and gums that flow from that beautiful tree of Life;” “super-excellent;” “the inestimable treasure of all elected souls.” In the passion poem, He is “sweet,” and “silly,” and “kind.” Kind because He bears the fruit of the Spirit in being nice. But also in that he is one of two kinds: humankind and divinity-kind. Before Caiaphas He is
The beauty of the World, Heaven’s chiefest Glory;
The mirror of Martyrs, Crown of holy Saints;
Love of the Almighty, blessed Angels story;
Water of Life, which none that drinks it, faints;
Guide of the Just, where all our Light we borrow;
Mercy of Mercies; Hearer of Complaints;
Triumpher over Death; Ransomer of Sin;
Falsely accused. (641-648)
Aemelia Lanyer embracers this Christ as a lover. That she would focus of such a metaphor seems striking as Henry Cary, Alphonso Lanyer, and Simon Forman pursued her and used her in a less than optimal manner. Nevertheless her message “To all virtuous Ladies in general” is “Put on your wedding garment,” “the Bridegroom stays to entertain you” (8-9). The verb “entertain” echoes Spenser’s use of it in his Amoretti # 68 written to his third wife: “So let us love, dear love, like as we ought / Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.” “To the Lady Arabella” likens Christ to a knight dying for a maid “who all forsook / That in his dying arms he might embrace / Your beauteous Soul, and fill it with his grace” (12-14). After His resurrection, Salve Deus includes “a brief description of his beauty upon the Canticle.”
This is that Bridegroom that appears so fair,
So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight,
That onto Snow we may his face compare,
His cheeks like scarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milk, to give the more delight
His head is likened to the finest gold,
His curled locks so beauteous to behold:
The canticle continues another full stanza (1305-1312).
In the end, “To the Lady Katherine Countess of
Yet through the sable Clouds of Shame & Death,
His beauty shows more clearer than before;
Death lost his strength when he [i.e. Christ] did loose his breath:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So in Death’s ashy pale discolored face
Fresh beauty shined, yielding far greater grace. (73-75, 77-78)
This triumphant lover, having defeated her greatest foe, Death, is all any Lady can desire. If she desires beauty, “who has been more fair than he?” His wisdom is of a depth that cannot be fathomed. Of Kingdoms, wealth, honor and fame, no one possesses more. He has zeal, love, grace, piety, constancy, faith, obedience, valor, patience, sobriety, chastity, meekness, justice, mercy, bounty and love beyond “compare” (91-96). His virtues are “more than thoughts can apprehend.” So Aemelia Lanyer leaves us in our “More clear imagination” to meditate on and contemplate in her poems and in his person
His rare parts, true honors fair prospect,
The perfect line that goodness doth direct.
All the quotations from Aemelia Lanyer in this essay were taken from The Poems of Aemelia Lanyer, edited by Susanne Woods,