Aemilia Lanyer

On Friday I stumbled across an interesting poem by Aemilia Lanyer (also known as Emilia Lanier). I found it in an anthology that I’ve had for some time but hadn’t had a look at the poems in it: Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition, edited by Janet E.Gardner et al. Lanyer was the first Englishwoman to consider herself a professional poet and she was quite the proto-feminist. She lived from 1569 to 1645, a few years earlier than John Milton (1608 to 1674). Her poem “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” really struck me, because it reminded of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Last December I reread Paradise Lost together with a friend. I had last read it about 25 years ago while I was at university. I didn’t remember much about it except that I had rather liked it. I had, however, completely forgotten how much I had disliked how Milton interprets Eve’s role. She is shown as being responsible for the fall of man, because she enticed Adam to eat the forbidden fruit… and so on and so forth, the traditional view. It was quite funny finding all my outraged exclamation marks and notes in the margins of my old battered Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Well, Aemilia Lanyer’s poem judges the actions of Adam and Eve quite differently, seeing Eve as a simple and ignorant woman who was deceived by the serpent Satan and writing about Adam:

But surely Adam cannot be excused;
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What weakness offered, strength might have refused,
Being lord of all, the greater was his shame,
Although the serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was lord and king of all the earth,
Before poor Eve had either life or breath.

Aemilia Lanyer, “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women,” verse 5.

The poem can be found online, it has 12 verses. It pairs Eve with Pontius Pilate’s wife and Adam with Pontius Pilate and speaks about giving women freedom. I found it very interesting. I wonder if Milton had read it before he wrote Paradise Lost? It’s fascinating when texts seem to speak to each other by showing different interpretations of the same original source, in this case the biblical myth about Adam and Eve.

I also found out that Aemilia Lanyer may have been Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, about whom he wrote some of his famous sonnets. Very intriguing. Maybe next year I’ll try to find a copy of her poems and check out if I like the rest of them as well.

Keep safe, world.

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