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Dissident metaphysics in renaissance women's poetry

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:09 authored by Sajed Ali Chowdhury
This thesis considers the idea of the ‘metaphysical’ in sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury women’s poetry, notably by exploring the female-voiced lyrics affiliated with Marie Maitland (d. 1596) in the Scottish manuscript verse miscellany, the Maitland Quarto (c. 1586). The study aims to reintegrate important strands of Renaissance culture which have been lost by too exclusive a focus on English, male writing and contexts. For many literary historians the ‘metaphysical’ refers overwhelmingly to Dryden’s pejorative categorization of Donne and his followers. However, Sarah Hutton has recently shown how the ‘metaphysical’ can be traced to an Aristotelian Neoplatonism, whereby influential fifteenth-century thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino were conflating the spiritual and material for political purposes. For the queer Renaissance critic, Michael Morgan Holmes, the ‘political’ pertains to individual spiritual-material desires which can undermine hegemonic definitions of the natural and unnatural. Building on this, my thesis illuminates ‘metaphysics’ in the work of Maitland, Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645), Constance Aston Fowler (1621?-1664) and Katherine Philips (1632- 1664). These poets use the physical and spiritual bonds between women to explore the nature of female space, time and identity. Hutton’s and Holmes’s definition of the ‘metaphysical’ has special applicability for these poets, as they tacitly deconstruct the patriarchal construction of the virgin/whore and offer their own configuration of the spiritual-sensual woman. While critics have foregrounded a male metaphysical tradition in the early modern period, this study proposes that there is a ‘dissident’ female metaphysical strand that challenges the ‘dominant’ male discourses of the time. Over the last few decades, feminist scholars, notably, Lorna Hutson, Barbara Lewalski, Kate Chedgzoy, Carol Barash and Valerie Traub have reinstated the work of Lanyer and Philips in the English canon of Renaissance writing. More recently Sarah Dunnigan has drawn attention to the importance of the Scots poet and compiler, Maitland. Moreover, Helen Hackett has indicated that the writings of Fowler force us to rethink the roles of women in early modern literary culture. I take this further in two ways. First, I examine these poets’ relationship to the ‘metaphysical’, the importance of which has been underestimated by critics, despite Dryden’s original gendered use of the term. Secondly, I propose that these writers are responding to a ‘polyglottal’ female metaphysical tradition that develops in Renaissance Europe through a female republic of letters. I also assess the difficulties in belonging to a ‘female tradition’ in an era where female authorship was necessarily affected by misogynistic attitudes to women as writers. The research re-contextualizes the work of these women by examining the philosophical ideologies of Aristotle, Ficino, Marguerite of Navarre, Donne, Sir Richard Maitland, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Melville, Olympia Morata, Herbert Aston, Katherine Thimelby, St Teresa of Ávila and Andrew Marvell. By juxtaposing these four poets and reading them from within this philosophical-political context, the thesis sheds new light on the nature of early modern female intertextuality, whilst challenging male Anglocentric definitions of the ‘Renaissance’.


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