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A Case for Isabella Whitney

The argument that the Dido-Aeneas poems are by Isabella Whitney is based primarily on the second preface 'To the Reader' which follows F.L.'s translation of Remedia Amoris, and is clearly written by the translator. It is the strongest indication that they are by a woman poet:

To the Reader
I thought it not amisse (courteous Reader) to adioyne unto this small labour of mine, these two following Epistles, of which one is translated out of Ouid, the other is an answeare thereunto. Which chiefly I did, least the sweete exercises of that honorable and thrise renowned Sapho of our times, should euen the least of them, be lost in the obscure night of sad silence, and Obliuion: and then, especially the subiect, and the matter so fitly agreeing and participating with the former, I could not but couple them together in all points else, a most unequall match. Wherein I hope the greatest fault that I have committed is, but that it hath not the first place. Yet take this old Prouerbe with a right application for my iust excuse.
All is well that endeth well. And so end I.
Reader farewell.[1]

Parts of this preface are a little ambiguous, but it is clear that at least one of the two poems which follow is by someone else. The person credited with the poems is called the 'Sapho of our times', which strongly suggests that the author is a woman, and a famous woman (so probably not one unknown to us). The looseness as to what exactly is 'the former', and what 'unequall match' results, allows for either the 'Aeneas to Dido' reply alone, or both epistles, to be by the new author. The 'Aeneas to Dido' poem, since it is the last, and 'all is well that endeth well', must surely be by the other author. Furthermore, for F.L. to continue after saying 'And so end I' seems awkward. Also, the material in the epistles which fits with the Remedia (fulfilling his claim that the 'matter' agrees with the former) comes in Aeneas's reply (lines 215-50). The balance of probability seems to be towards both poems being by this 'Sapho' figure, and it seems more plausible for F.L. to join the two poems to his translation and then justify it. If the 'Dido to Aeneas' is by F.L. then one would expect to hear either about the remarkable coincidence or the decision to write the epistle which anticipates the reply.

This preface narrows the search for an author very considerably. The list of candidates for the title 'Sapho of our times', as long as it is accepted that this must be a woman, is very short. It is hard to see more than one plausible candidate, and that is Isabella Whitney. Betty Travitsky calls her 'apparently the first declared professional woman poet in England'. [2] Her two published works appeared in 1567 and 1573, a generation before the publication of F.L.'s translation. [3] This fits well with the 'obscure night of sad silence' into which the work of the 'Sapho' is said to be disappearing. The metres also fit with the date: sesta rima and poulter's measure are both metres used by Whitney in poems known to be by her, and the latter in particular is very characteristic of the 1560s and 1570s, and a less so of 1600. [4] Whitney's poetry also reveals a somewhat turbulent life, with copious complaint about abandonment and a feeling of helplessness. This perhaps explains the connection with 'Sapho' a little further, in that Whitney's perspective on sexual politics can be anti-patriarchal. [5] Being a woman poet at all was possibly enough to explain the name, but the name would have been difficult to apply to other tenuous candidates: it is unlikely to have been used of the Countess of Pembroke, for example, or of Queen Elizabeth herself. Neither of these women is known to have produced poetry anything like these epistles (nor is such poetry plausibly conjectured) and the prospect of imminent 'Oblivion' does not seem appropriate in either case. [6]

The real strength of the attribution to Whitney is the remarkable way that the Dido-Aeneas epistles fit into her career. Her work returns on numerous occasions to an interest in Ovid and many of her poems owe something to the tradition of the Heroides. In her first collection, The Copy of a letter (1567), both the central poems are deeply immersed in it. 'The Copy of a letter' itself cites the story of Jason, to whom Heroides 6 and 12 are addressed. Two stanzas earlier it takes on the story of Aeneas and Dido:

As by ENEAS first of all,
who dyd poore DIDO leave,
Causing the Quene by his untrueth
with Sword her hart to cleave. (33-6) [7]

'The Copy of a letter' is explicitly sent from a woman to her 'unconstant lover', with the gender of its author adding a certain sharpness to the Ovidian model. This sharpness is there in Whitney's version of the Aeneas and Dido story, which she slants against the hero, registering his 'untrueth' to 'poore DIDO'. The second poem in the collection, 'The admonition by the Auctor, to all yong Gentilwomen', makes reference to the Ovidian stories of Phyllis and Demophoon, Hero and Leander, and Paris and Oenone (65-88), all of which feature in the Heroides (2, 18-19, and 5 respectively). This poem actually adopts an antagonistic attitude towards Ovid and other male poets: [8]

Some use the teares of Crocodiles,
contrary to their hart:
And yf they cannot alwayes weepe,
they wet their Cheekes by Art.

Ovid, within his Arte of love,
doth teach them this same knacke
To wet their hand and touch their eies:
so oft as teares they lacke. (17-24) [9]

In the Heroides Ovid's female narrators voice their unhappiness at their treatment by men. In his other poems, however, there is less sympathy towards women. The Ars Amatoria (the 'Arte of love') provides tricks and deceits for the potential seducer and thus incurs Whitney's wrath. [10] She writes in an Ovidian tradition as far as it allows a female poetic voice to emerge, but allows that voice to criticise Ovid when he writes against women. [11] The adoption of a male voice in order to reply to Ovid (as in the epistle from Aeneas) might be seen as characteristically interested in the gendered voices of poetry. [12]

When Whitney does ventriloquise the voice of Aeneas her poetry shows some signs of attempting to assume a male persona. Aeneas's reply does not defuse the heartfelt anger of the abandoned Dido, or indeed answer her specific charges with anything unexpected, and it ends with a hollow advocation of some Remedia Amoris techniques for forgetting a lost love (215-50). One possible male touch comes when Aeneas describes the way he learned of his destiny:

And now of Gods the fatal messenger
From Jove himself (they both my witness be)
Hath message brought, I saw the God most clear.
I plainly heard what words he spake to me.
Leave then with plaints to set us both on fire,
Constrain'd I go, not with mine owne desire. (A-D, 71-6) [13]

There may be a stereotypical maleness in his emphasis on the simplicity and clarity of the message, counterpointing the emotional depth of Dido's poem. By recalling the plain style of the message Aeneas seems to want to shrug off the power of her 'plaints'. On its own this is not exactly a systematic attempt to ventriloquise a specifically male rhetoric. However, that this may be part of the point is suggested by Aeneas's attack on women:

You thoughtless sit within your princely bower,
Or minding only love or life's delight.
Your fame meantime, like tender springtide flower
The busy blasts of bitter tongues do bite.
Each deed, each word, yea countenance and thought
Of simplest sort, are under censure brought. (A-D, 125-30)

Whitney, if it is her, portrays a man seeing women living lives of leisure. That Whitney's domestic bower was far from serene provides a poignant subtext to what is at best a clumsy attack from Aeneas. He comes across as selfish and insensitive, but his words capture a credible (and unappealing) male perspective. On another occasion he attacks the irrationality of his correspondent:

But thou mad dog, whose reason lies in rage,
Who no rule else, but recklessness doth know,
Nor reverence bearest to thy father's age,
Nor from thy brother canst abstain thy blow.
And lest for that fault might with thee be found
By only us, thou did'st thy mother wound. (A-D, 173-8)

The author finds good verse to express these stereotyping and (again) misogynistic words. This is one of several moments in the Dido-Aeneas pair with far more vitality than F.L.'s translation of Ovid (which it follows in the book). The male voice here looks to the passion of women and finds it uncomfortably reckless, and again it seems possible that the author is exploring the plight of women from another angle, creating a provocative persona. This is something which fits well with Whitney's other poems.

Whitney's second collection, A sweet Nosgay, Or pleasant Posye: contayning a hundred and ten Phylosophicall Flowers (1573), which is based around a versification of Hugh Plat's Flowers of Philosophy (1572), starts with another anti-Ovidian gesture in its preface 'The Auctor to the Reader':

I straight waxt wery of those Bookes,
and many other more
which many wonders bore. (21-4)

Despite her professed weariness with such secular poetry, the poems which follow (and which do not derive from Plat's worthy work) do not show a rejection of Ovidian topoi. At the end of the volume are 'Certain familier Epistles and friendly Letters'. These come, notably, with replies, suggesting that Whitney had an interest in letters as parts of dialogues, or that establishing these dialogues was important to her. Dido's letter is rendered both less and more forlorn by the reply. Whitney's poem 'To her Brother. G.W.' emulates some of Ovid's heroines in its wish for contact (17-24), further allying them with the troubled life of the author (and perhaps further sketching in a psychological background to the need to reply to the Heroides). 'To her Brother. B.W.' has a beginning which is pure Heroides:

Good Brother Brooke, I often looke,
to heare of your returne:
But none can tell, if you be well,
nor where you doo sojurne:
Which makes me feare, that I shall heare
your health appaired is:
And oft I dread, that you are dead,
or somethyng goes amys. (1-8)

This is not the best verse Whitney wrote. However, this is a significant poem in that it shows her so candidly casting herself in the Heroides role. This work of Ovid's seems to have provided a model for her to imitate and an articulation of some very real anxieties, while also providing a version of a female poetic voice, even if it is one which provides painful roles for women.

It is for this reason that the Dido-Aeneas epistles, if they are attributable to Whitney, will not fit in on the edge of her oeuvre. Perhaps prompted by George Turbervile's translation of the Heroides which appeared in 1567, these poems encapsulate so many of their author's interests that, if they are hers, they must be among her most important poems. [14] The most compelling reason for this is that by writing Aeneas's reply to Ovid's Dido, she overturns the gender dynamics of the genre and offers herself the chance to adopt a challenging new voice. Critics of renaissance women's writing have often noted points where authors use genres which are more readily identified with male voices. Ann Rosalind Jones describes the Ovidian qualities of the 'Copy of a Letter' in these terms:

Whitney shifts the voices of Ovid's solitary heroines into the speaking position of a marriage counselor whose opinions are legitimated by decades of advice books. As a result, she writes to her 'unconstant lover' not as his victim but as his superior. She then turns to an audience of women as a social and literary critic, to expose men's deceptions of women. [15]

This casts Whitney's work as a kind of corrective to the maleness of Ovidian poetry, providing a counterbalancing earnestness. Elaine Berlin gives this a specifically learned, godly, protestant aspect, with Whitney seeking to help others with teaching about the role of women. [16] In other poems she emulates different aspects of Ovid's poetry, with the 'Wyll and Testament' (in the Nosgay collection) in particular showing some of the Latin writer's urbanity, irony, and enthusiasm for what the city has to offer. [17] Generally it is fair to say that Whitney's second collection does focus on more moral advice for women. 'An order... to two of her yonger Sisters' counsels them to 'exile' all 'wanton toyes' from their minds (21-4). However, her interest in the Dido story persists in this volume most visibly in 'A carefull complaynt by the unfortunate Auctor', which is worth quoting in full:

Good DIDO stint thy teares,
and sorrowes all resigne
To mee: that borne was to augment,
misfortunes lucklesse line.
Or using styll the same,
good DIDO doo thy best:
In helpyng to bewayle the hap,
that furthereth mine unrest.
For though thy Troyan mate,

that Lorde AENEAS hight:
Requityng yll thy stedfast love,
from Carthage tooke his slight.
And fowly brake his oth,
and promise made before:
Whose falshode finisht thy delight,
before thy haires were hore.
Yet greater cause of griefe
compells mee to complayne:
For Fortune fell converted hath,

My health to heapes of payne.
And that she sweares my death,
to playne it is (alas)
Whose end let malyce styll attempt,
to bring the same to passe.
O DIDO thou hadst liv'de,
A happye Woman styll,
If fickle fancy had not thrald
thy wits: to retchlesse wyll.
For as the man by whom,

thy deadly dolors bred:
Without regard of plighted troth,
So might thy cares in tyme,
be banisht out of thought:
His absence might well salve the sore,
that earst his presence wrought.
For fyre no lenger burnes,
then Faggots feede the flame:
Thy want of things that breede annoy,

may soone redresse the same.
But I unhappy moste,
and gript with endles griefes:
Dispayre (alas) amid my hope,
and hope without reliefe.
And as the sweltyng heate,
consumes the Wax away:
So doo the heapes of deadly harmes,
styll threaten my decay.
O Death delay not long,

thy dewtye to declare:
Ye Sisters three dispatch my dayes
and finysh all my care.

The poem ends like several Heroides, with a wish for death, and it is based on that of Dido, and her description of her woes. Whitney casts herself as Dido's successor and indeed as someone whose pains are worse. She also shows a certain lack of sympathy for her predecessor, and uses the same word of Dido, 'retchlesse' (i.e. reckless), that Aeneas does in his reply which seems also to be by Whitney (line 174). This itself is useful evidence in favour of the attribution. Most of all this poem establishes how important the Dido-Aeneas story, and Ovid's version of it, were to Whitney, making an imitation by her an unsurprising thing to find. In the Nosgay volume there is a reply to the 'carefull complaynt' from one T.B., entitled (unpromisingly) 'An answer to comfort her, by shewing his haps to be harder'. It urges a sense of proportion and mentions Dido twice in its 28 lines:

For DIDO, thou, and many thousands more,
which living feele the panges of extreme care,
Though tottered much; and torne in peeces smal:
whom ever griping death doth never spare.
Nor he, that falsey, Carthage Citie fled,
so fraught with wiles, nor ye such sorrowes tast,
By thousand partes, as I who rightly sed:
do pine as WAX, before the fire wastes (9-16)
Till then, with silly DIDO be content,
and rip no more, thy wronges in such excesse:
Thy FORTUNE rather, wills thee to lament,
with speedy wit, til hope may have redresse. (25-8)

Whitney replies to this and does not stop bewailing her lot. If a place for the Dido-Aeneas poems needs to be found in her career, the lack of depth in T.B.'s depiction of 'silly DIDO' may have been just the thing to spur Whitney to translate Heroides 7 and to compose a reply from Aeneas. This, though, is not the point, which is rather that it is hard to imagine two poems which would fit better in Whitney's career than the Dido-Aeneas pair.

There remain some problems with the attribution. It is of course possible that F.L. (and/or his printer) may be lying or wrong when he says that the poems are by someone else. The way these poems fit so well in Whitney's oeuvre seems almost too good to be true. However, if the presence of spurious Whitney works were worth lying about then her name might be expected to appear. Also, if this is a lie then it seems a wasted one given that the second author is not made a selling point of the book on its title-page. If the second preface's claim is simply a mistake then it is an understandable one given the literary evidence connecting author and poem. An error could explain things if the weight of other evidence for attribution seems too little. However, like the notion of deception, that of simple error on its own does not have the substance of the positive reasons for attribution.

Raphael Lyne
New Hall, Cambridge

Aeneas and Isabella Homepage


1. See F.L., Ovidius Naso His Remedie of Love (London: Thomas Creede for John Browne, 1600), fol. E3 verso. [back]

2. Betty Travitsky, ed., The Paradise of Women: Writing by Englishwomen in the Renaissance (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 117. Two other women attempted to earn money from secular writing during Elizabeth's reign, according to Retha M. Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 123. Margaret Tyler translated Spanish romance but did nothing particularly comparable to Whitney or the Aeneas-Dido poems. Jane Anger, author of Jane Anger her Protection for Women (London: Richard Jones and Thomas Onions, 1589) is an interesting case. The name could be real, or a pseudonym for a man or a woman, and that the book involves Whitney's own printer Richard Jones raises the tantalising possibility that Whitney herself could be the author. Her book is a prose treatise in defence of women with a few snippets of poetry in metres used by Whitney, but to connect it to her seems wishful. [back]

3. Her works are The Copy of a Letter, lately written in meeter, by a young Gentilwoman to her unconstant Lover (London: Richard Jones, 1567), and A sweet Nosgay, Or pleasant Posye: contayning a hundred and ten Phylosophicall Flowers (London: Richard Jones, 1573). Other poems have subsequently been attributed to Whitney, by Richard Fehrenbach, 'Isabella Whitney (fl. 1565-75) and the Popular Miscellanies of Richard Jones', Cahiers Elisabethains, 19 (1981), 85-7, and Randall Martin, 'Isabella Whitney's "Lamentation upon the Death of William Griffith"', Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (1997), 2.1-15 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/martwhit.html>, which reflects interestingly on Ovidian aspects of Whitney's technique in that poem. [back]

4. Whitney regularly writes in fourteener couplets, and sometimes in poulter's measure. Both these metres tend to be set as a ballad-like stanza. Her only sesta rima stanza is 'I Replye to the same', 43-8 (in A sweet Nosgay), which is anomalous as it comes in a poem of 7-line rhyme royal stanzas. [back]

5. Cecilia Infante, 'Donne's Incarnate Muse and his Claim to Poetic Control in "Sapho to Philaenis"', in Representing Women in Renaissance England, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), pp. 93-106, assesses the place of Sappho in the mythology of women (as a powerful intellect and a defender of women) and as a sexually complex figure. See also Martha Rainbolt, 'This Ancient Claim: Sappho and Seventeenth- and Eighteenth- Century British Women's Poetry', The Seventeenth Century, 12 (1997), 111-34. [back]

6. Although Dido's alternative name Elissa caused her to be connected to Eliza elsewhere, this does not make the Queen any more plausible a candidate. Other candidates include: Anne Dowriche, author of The French Historie (1589), whose very protestant version of French chronicle makes a strange companion for the Dido-Aeneas poems, and Rachel Speght, who although a vigorous defender of women who uses classical imagery, writes almost certainly too late (works published 1617-1621, probably only born 1597). See Elaine V. Beilin, 'Writing Public Poetry: Humanism and the Woman Writer', Modern Language Quarterly, 51 (1990), 249-71, pp. 269-71 (on Speght), 258-67 (on Dowriche). Lucy Harington was born in 1581 and received her first major dedication in 1597, but her own poetry (none of which resembles the epistles) comes later, if her only extant poem, part of the 1609 'Death be not proud' exchange with Donne, is representative. Aemilia Lanier was born in 1569 and had an eventful life, but her works were published in 1611, and her country-house poem 'To Cooke-ham' suggests her poetic awakening happened during her stay at the house between 1601 and 1609. Elizabeth Cary was born in 1585 and had no works published until Mariam in 1613. [back]

7. Texts of Whitney's poems taken from the online text at Literature Online <URL: http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk>. Michael David Felker, The Poems of Isabella Whitney: A Critical Edition, Ph.D. thesis, Uni. Tech. Texas 1990, DAI 91-04766, is a useful modern edition. Many visitors to this site may have access to Literature Online and it seems in keeping to cross-refer to another electronic text.[back]

8. On this poem, see Ilona Bell, 'Women in the Lyric Dialogue of Courtship: Whitney's "Admonition to al yong Gentilwomen" and Donne's "The Legacie"', in Representing Women in Renaissance England, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), pp. 76-92. [back]

9. I have amended 'as' in line 24 from 'has'. [back]

10. Betty Travitsky, 'The Lady Doth Protest: Protest in the Popular Writings of Renaissance Englishwomen', English Literary Renaissance, 14 (1984), 255-84, says that 'Whitney initiated the women's voice in poetic protest' (p. 283). [back]

11. See Beilin, 'Writing Public Poetry', pp. 252-8, on Whitney and the creation of a public persona for a writing woman. Paul A. Marquis, 'Oppositional Ideologies of Gender in Isabella Whitney's Copy of a Letter', Modern Language Review, 90 (1995), 314-24, explores the strong privilege given by this volume to the female voice and its oppositional personae. See also Tina Krontiris, Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 28-44. [back]

12. Her poem (if correctly attributed) thus presents an interesting additional facet to the Ovidian interests of Elizabeth D. Harvey, Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). [back]

13. Text taken from the edition in this project. [full text of Aeneas to Dido] [back]

14. George Turbervile, trans., Heroycall Epistles (London: Henry Denham, 1567) includes Sabinus's replies to the Heroides of Penelope, Phyllis, and Oenone, and so may have prompted Whitney towards the idea of reply. [back]

15. Ann Rosalind Jones, The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyrics in Europe, 1540-1620 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990), p. 43. See pp. 37-52 on Whitney, and pp. 1-10 on women writing in male genres. Also Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Writing Women In Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993), pp. 243-307, on Mary Wroth's adventures in male literary territory. This material also appears in Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1993), pp. 296-310. [back]

16. Elaine V. Berlin, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton UP, 1987), pp. 88-101. Ann Rosalind Jones, 'Nets and Bridles: Early Modern Conduct Books and Sixteenth-Century Women's Lyrics', in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 39-72, says that Whitney situates herself within an evolving conduct tradition, aimed at bourgeois women in bourgeois households, at least partly as a means of establishing a platform from which to speak. On the same issues, see also Patricia Phillippy, 'The Maid's Lawful Service: The Household and 'Mother B' in Isabella Whitney's A Sweet Nosegay', Modern Philology, 95 (1998), 439-62. [back]

17. For text and introduction, see Betty Travitsky, 'The "Wyll and Testament" of Isabella Whitney', English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), 76-95. See also Wendy Wall, 'Isabella Whitney and the Female Legacy', ELH, 58 (1991), 35-62. [back]
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