Almost exactly ten years ago, I had an unfortunate lapse in judgement of the sexual variety, which had at least one terrible consequence and one pretty good one: The terrible shall remain my secret, but the good I happily claim, namely, a song called Sludge, destined for my band gutter & spine. At that time, playing drums and singing in a punkity-rockity band represented a distraction and fun outlet from writing my dissertation and teaching. It is no coincidence that most of my other lyrics for gutter & spine songs (d’Orca, Ode to a Mofo) also have their origins in early modern literature. It may even have been that I was teaching Renaissance Poetry that semester, which is why, the morning after, feeling gross and hungover, I wrote the lyrics to Sludge with almost no revision–something that basically never happened before or since.
I can’t remember if I had Wroth’s sonnet “When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove” open before I started, but I believe I turned to it while I wrote. The lyrics give voice to a time when bad life choices were so intermixed with good, that sludge seemed an apt existential state of being.
Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) was born into a noble
and literary family. She was the niece of the famous Elizabethan poet and courtier Philip Sidney, and of Mary Herbert (Née Sidney), a poet in her own right and a great patron of the arts who encouraged and inspired the young Wroth in her literary endeavors. and although she enjoyed accolades from the great male authors in her lifetime, such as Ben Jonson, her poems (unlike that of her male counterparts) fell into obscurity. As the Longman textbook with which I used to warp young minds tells me:
“Appreciated by the finest poets of her time, her writing was neglected for the next 300 years, she has only recently been rediscovered as one of the most compelling women writers of her age. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus the first Petrarchan sonnet sequence in English by a woman, was first printed in 1621 but was not reprinted until 1977.”
When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire
From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftness need require:
In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire
I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,
And at her feet her son, still adding fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above.
But one heart flaming more than all the rest
The goddess held, and put it to my breast.
”Dear son, now shoot,” said she, ”thus must we win.”
He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.
I, waking hoped as dreams it would depart;
Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.
[From Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition, La Trobe University]
Although I stole a few key phrases, for instance the martyring of the heart, unlike Wroth, I address the song to the love-object (bastard), while Wroth is unconcerned with him, at least in this poem. However, we know that there is one, since the cycle is called Pamphilia (the all loving one) to Amphilanthus (the dual lover). In other words, the female speaker in the lyric loves completely one man while her lover is divided in his affections. Infidelity and jealousy preoccupy the speaker in the lyrics, as well as the women in Urania, the romance to which the sonnet cycle is appended. And yet, in this first poem, the lover is nowhere to be seen. Only love, the daughter and son team, shoot the already burning heart with more desire–eternal desire perhaps, and enclose it in the poor speaker’s breast.
In this first sonnet, the speaker hasn’t any obvious gender, however Wroth sets up the Petrarchan love sonnet cycle with a difference by having the woman (Pamphilia) write to the man (Amphilanthus). Typical Renaissance love poetry, written mostly by men following Petrarch’s model, presented the love object as the unattainable, idealized and silent lady.” But as the first essay in Re-Reading Mary Wroth suggests, Wroth reverses the roles by giving the silent lady a voice and goes even further than her male counterparts by paying little attention to their presence:
“She silences the male beloved even more completely than is usually the case with the Petrarchan lady, omitting many of the usual Petrarchan topics: there are no praises of his overpowering physical beauty or charms, no narratives of kisses or other favors received or denied, no reports of his words or actions, no blazons praising each of his parts, no promises to eternalize him, no palinodes or renunciations of love.”
Pamphilia does not bother to extol the virtues of Amphilanthus, because, for one thing he does not turn out to be virtuous, but rather inconstant–no surprise considering his name. It is also that, as in so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the interest lies within the psyche of the speaker/poet and not with the beloved. The beloved is but an impetus for shaping strong passions into poetry.
Perhaps that is where the speaker of Sludge offers the most affinity with her Renaissance counterpart. Although she takes some little time to denegrate the bastard that is her love object by indulging in a death-metalesque blazon of the unworthy scoundrel, she is more interested in her own feelings of shame that is the consequence of being dragged into the mire by an unworthy lover:
Up from the depths of the murky sludge,
You rise and stand in your glory, all thumbs
And metal, you look like some badass jesus
And you’ve come to martyr my poor heart today…