Dissident metaphysics in renaissance women's poetry

Chowdhury, Sajed Ali (2013) Dissident metaphysics in renaissance women's poetry. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Abstract

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’.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR0111 Women authors
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR0500 Poetry
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR2199 English renaissance (1500-1640)
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 26 Jun 2013 13:48
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2015 11:59
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/45264

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