Thoughts on “The Description of Cookeham” by Aemilia Lanyer

My first semester of college I took a 17th Century Literature class. I was pushed into the class by my advisor who decided I should take some non-core classes and had no concept of what it meant to be a commuter student who worked off campus. I worked every Saturday that semester in addition to keeping a bananas schedule in order to fit in enough hours at work between classes and, you know, life.

My university was primarily a business school so the English department was small. By the end of my time there all of the professors would know me by name and I would know them, even the ones I never had a class with, by sight. I was an honors student with a full scholarship and one of only two freshman in this particular class.

The first few weeks were fine. The literature was more tedious than anything I had read in a long while but I was enjoying it. The professor was new and a bit intimidating (with a baseline of a “B” grade for good papers) but once I discovered I could still pull of “A”s and therefore not put undo stress on my scholarship, I knew I’d be fine.

It took longer to warm up to the seniors. The other girls were self-assured and comfortable in their own skins in a way that my eighteen-year-old self found infuriating. (Though I hope my 28-year-old self exudes a similar confidence.)

I always contributed if I had something to say (because of the dread participation component of my grade) but never overly much because even then I didn’t have an innate need to hear my own voice. I don’t think anyone in the class paid me much attention until we talked about patronage and country house poems in an online class discussion. (We had a “coterie” that discussed weekly poems on a school message board because of course we did.)

Everyone else the class dismissed “The Description of Cookeham” by Aemilia Lanyer as baseless flattery and the worst kind of pandering. Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” didn’t fare much better in their estimations. (These were rookie mistakes, by the way, even for seniors because the professor in question had a whole chapter in an academic book she wrote about early modern women’s writing–though perhaps none of us knew that yet.)

I don’t have the exact observations any more but I was the only one who noted that these patronage poems were largely a job for Lanyer–not always a creative endeavor–and moreover that even with that in mind they were imbued with defiance. This idea would become the subject of my first scholarly paper–a full nine pages discussing the unique politics and frustrations inherent to writing a poem dedicated (and largely written for) someone else as evidenced in “The Description of Cookeham” and “To Penshurst”, the latter of which I’ll be talking about tomorrow.

You can read the full text of “The Description of Cookeham” by Aemilia Lanyer online thanks to the Poetry Foundation.

But I’ll also include my favorite passage:

This last farewell to Cooke-ham here I give,

When I am dead thy name in this may live,

Wherein I have perform’d her noble hest,

Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast,

And ever shall, so long as life remains,

Tying my heart to her by those rich chains

This passage is why I love “The Description of Cookeham.” See how Lanyer starts out all effacing and praising her patrons (a bold move since she is praising a countess and her daughter throughout and would even help support their petition later on to allow women to inherit property). But still, as she points out in the last lines, it’s Lanyer who is in power here. It is the poet who will immortalize Cookeham and those who live in it. Even though she is forced to dedicate her poetry to others, she will not do it quietly.

Today, both poets have finally gained superiority over their dedicatees. They are no longer known because of the patrons their poems addressed. Rather, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer’s patrons are now known for being mentioned in poems like “To Penshurst” and “The Description of Cookeham.”

And that’s why, even now, when I was thinking of poems to discuss on the blog for April,  this one came to mind. I didn’t know it in 2004 when I walked into that Seventeenth Century Lit class, but this poem and the politics behind it would help form how I thought about literature and the world in years to come as well as my thoughts and ideas on feminism. Years before I would start a blog (or a weekly feature showcasing strong female heroines and authors) I would spend a lot of time thinking about Aemilia Lanyer and how this woman in a decidedly male world managed to carve out a name for herself.

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