Autonomy and Desire in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus

by Maria van der Sloot                                                      

Written for Woman and Literature (LARTS 326, Spring 2014)


Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (Sonnet 14)


“Am I thus conquered: Have I lost the powers

That to withstand, which joys to ruin me?

Must I be still while it my strength devours

And captive leads me prisoner, bound unfree?


“Love first shall leave men’s fancies to them free,

Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers,

Love shall loose all his darts, have sight, and see

His shame, and wishings hinder happy hours;


“Why should we not Love’s purblind charms resist?

Must we be servile, doing what he list?

No, seek some host to harbour thee: I fly


“Thy babish tricks, and freedom do profess;

But O my hurt, makes my lost heart confess

I love, and must: So farewell liberty.”

—Mary Wroth, 1621


Lady Mary Wroth’s impressive sonnet and song sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), explores states of desire, love, and passion through the perspective of a female protagonist, deviating from the male voice typically seen in sonnet sequences (Warhol-Down, et. al 71). Wroth’s writing is bold both in scope (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains 103 sonnets and songs) and, through the reversal of literary gender roles, in its portrayal of women as actively desirous, dynamic, and possessing some autonomy. Written in and for a society that valued docility and obedience in women, her poetry gives agency and voice to suppressed female desire, questioning, and critical thinking.

Written as an addendum to Wroth’s The Countesse of Mountgomerie’s Urania (1621), the sequence’s short-lived publication in the 17th century was a feat in itself, as women’s writing was limited primarily to religious topics and rarely published; for Wroth to have published a work with flipped literary gender conventions is quite remarkable. This reversal is also essential for the poetry to be effective: in giving her protagonist the narrative of the actively desirous lover, she allows Pamphilia an agency that would not otherwise exist (Kuo 264-266). For example, the phrase “Am I thus conquered” (l. 1) implies that Pamphilia had some amount of autonomy to begin with. In Wroth’s England, women’s autonomy did not exist. Under the doctrine of coverture, married women were considered the physical property of their husbands, and single women were generally expected to devote their lives to religion, thus in a sense becoming the property of the Church (Warhol-Down, et. al 7-12). Pamphilia transcends both of these narratives through her unquestioned “male” role; as the pursuer rather than the pursued, she possesses autonomy that is surrendered only to her own desire, not to a man’s will. This fictional point of view is central to the poetry’s power, as it allows Wroth expression of female physical desire that would otherwise be denied in her society.

Wroth illustrates the importance of her narrator’s freedom by dramatizing the loss of autonomy throughout the entire 14th sonnet. She describes Pamphilia as a prisoner, implicitly personifying love or desire as an unfriendly captor: “Must I be still while it my strength devours / And captive leads me prisoner, bound unfree?” (l. 3-4). The phrase “it my strength devours” suggests even a bestial quality to this captor. Wroth’s personification of love expands in the second stanza, recalling an allusion from the opening sonnet to Cupid, Roman deity of desire. As with the original allusion, this reference directly depicts love as a force greater than Pamphilia herself; however, this time, it is used within a larger hyperbole to sensationalize Pamphilia’s passionate and decidedly negative response to love’s power. The entire stanza is hyperbole, describing various impossible situations that Pamphilia claims would need to arise before she would voluntarily yield her freedom to love—for example, “Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers” (l. 6). The impossibility of these situations, the pacing of the stanza (with lines broken into shorter, lighter phrases), clever alliterations (the most obvious, “wishings hinder happy hours” [l. 8]), and vivid imagery together lend a theatrical quality to the hyperbole, in turn adding drama to the sonnet as a whole.

The theatricality of the hyperbole and cruel, powerful personification of love solidify Pamphilia’s voice in her response to desire, enhancing the defiance and passion in her narrative tone. Combined with the pleading, question-heavy structure of the sonnet as a whole, this creates a complexity that renders Pamphilia believable and dynamic. She is clearly distressed by love’s power, yet rather than simply submitting to it, she (literally) questions its authority not once, but four times over the course of the sonnet. She fights back even as it conquers her (l. 1) and tells it to “seek some host to harbour thee” (l. 11), while warning others not to be blinded by love (l. 9). When she does admit that desire has overwhelmed her (l. 12-14), she must “confess” to it (l. 13), suggesting her own discomfort in acknowledging her loss. This confession of defeat shifts her tone in the last stanza from one of passionate defiance to sorrowful resignation. By the final line, “I love, and must: So farewell liberty” (l. 14), Pamphilia has accepted her state, but with great unhappiness. Through this tonal shift, Wroth portrays her narrator as dynamic and active while finding a compelling, natural denouement to the sonnet.

In the context of the 21st century, Wroth’s fight for Pamphilia’s autonomy against love may not appear notable in and of itself; however, considering the context in which Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was written, this theme makes a bold statement, as it both acknowledges female desire as a powerful force and allows a female protagonist to be critical and rebellious. Against a society that rejected outspoken women and sought to silence their critical voice and desire, Wroth’s poetry openly questions subjugation and provides a new narrative, one with potential freedom. Although Pamphilia does eventually lose her battle, she is portrayed as complex and self-aware in her surrender. She is also presented as having possessed necessary autonomy, lost only to her own physical desire—a desire that was itself discouraged and silenced in women in her society. Furthermore, Wroth presents women’s freedom as inherently valuable; if love’s aim is to “ruin” Pamphilia (l. 2) by subjugating her to its whims, she must possess something worth ruination. Wroth communicates her message via strong poetic writing; through dramatic literary devices, a dynamic narrative tone, a questioning structure, and, most importantly, the fictional perspective of an openly passionate female narrator, Wroth gives a public voice to female desire and emotion.


Works Cited

Kuo, Huey-jen. “A Feminine Crevice in the Male Genre: Lady Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus vs. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.” National Dong Hua University Institutional Repository. Department of English, National Taiwain Normal University, 29 May 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Warhol-Down, Robyn, Diane Herndl, Mary Lou Kete, Lisa Schnell, Rahmi Varma, and Beth Kowaleski Wallace, eds. Women’s Worlds: The McGraw-Hill Anthology of Women’s Writing. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

Wroth, Mary. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Warhol-Down, et. al. 71-73.


One comment

  1. I don’t think there was enough emphasis on the subject matter of the writing. There was a strong focus on the social statement that the poem made for women’s autonomy but this poem is a beautiful observation of the idea that: while love seems to free our desires it also takes hold of us. I think a philosophical inquiry into this subject would do Lady Mary Wroth more justice than analyzing her as a woman making a statement for women.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s