The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judeorum
edited by Susanne Woods
(Oxford University Press, 1993, 192 pages)
Aemilia Lanyer, the early seventeenth century devotional poet, is a figure of intense literary speculation. Some suggest that she is the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, while others claim that she is the true author of the Shakespearean canon. Aside from these wild speculations surrounding the scant biographical information available, the poetry that is unquestionably attributed to Lanyer stands on its own unique merits.
Lanyer is considered a proto-feminist figure. Her major poem, Salve Deus Rex Judeorum, is a meditation on Christ’s Passion and the traditional Christian doctrines of sin and redemption that concern much of the era’s poetry. However, unlike the work of contemporaries like Herbert and Donne, Lanyer’s reflections pick up on the distinctive roles of women in redemptive history. Christ’s Passion is viewed largely from the perspective of Pilot’s wife, and Lanyer argues against the traditional attribution of blame for the Fall to Eve. As Woods states in the Introduction, “Lanyer’s religious poem claims biblical and historical authority and grants the viewpoint of women as much or greater authenticity as that of men” (xxxii). These themes, along with poems of dedication to multiple female patrons, serve to show the unique place that Lanyer occupied in her time. Not only was she a women trying to make a living as a professional poet, but the themes of her poems also serve as critiques of patriarchal structures.
Susanne Woods’ Introduction is valuable for the biographical and literary context that it offers. The textual notes within the poems help to elucidate arcane terminology and biblical and cultural allusions. This volume is a very helpful introduction to a poet who holds a unique place in the English Renaissance and continues to generate a lot of scholarly interest.