Marshall Grossman, ed. Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. viii+264pp. ISBN 0 8131 2049 7.
Joyce G. MacDonald
University of Kentucky

MacDonald, Joyce G. "Review of Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon ." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999):12.1-5 <URL:


  1. As Marshall Grossman's preface explains, the earliest versions of some of the essays in this first collection entirely dedicated to discussion of the life and work of Aemilia Lanyer (1569?-1645) were included in a session at the 1992 meeting of the Modern Language Association. Her country-house poem, "The Description of Cooke-ham," had first crossed his desk three years earlier as part of a packet of material sent along by a colleague who had served on a university committee charged with developing suggestions for the integration of women into the curriculum. Lanyer's admittance to college classrooms and her emergence as a fit subject for scholarly discourse are important signposts in the ongoing resurgence of interest in and recovery and recirculation of the works of early modern women writers. Indeed, her only surviving work, the long poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was the first volume in the lamentably cancelled Oxford paperback series, Women Writers in English, 1350-1850, suggesting its importance to feminist re-evaluations of the canon of Renaissance literature. Thus, Grossman's volume not only sums up the state of the first wave of new Lanyer scholarship, but also suggests the intellectual and commercial vitality of the study of Renaissance women.

  2. As is appropriate to a collection formed by issues of such pedagogical and critical moment, the contributions address a full range of aspects of Lanyer's career: from attention to life events, to considerations of her theological and generic assumptions, to explications of the Salve Deus' treatments of sexuality and its author's means of achieving enunciative authority. The papers are of uniformly high quality. Two essays particularly impressed me: Leeds Barroll's inquiry into Lanyer's life events, mounted so as to help determine more clearly whether and how she secured the patronage bonds her poem apparently celebrates, and Michael Morgan Holmes' investigation of the possibility of a female homoeroticism contained within the Salve Deus' celebration of bonds between women. These papers share an impulse to push against what may be seen as an emerging orthodoxy in Lanyer studies, first the unexamined assumption that the poet achieved some kind of standing within the circle of female patrons to whom she serially dedicates her work, and second that the community of women the poem and "Cooke-ham" invoke is imagined only in terms of social -- and not erotic -- independence of men. I like the way both these discussions force readers to think again about the possibly self-censoring mechanisms by which Lanyer's poem may be being admitted to canonical status. If not as potentially challenging to new feminist assumptions, essays by Kari McBride, Susanne Woods, Janel Mueller, and Barbara Lewalski do mark the curious "inside/outside" position towards prevailing literary and cultural doctrines that Lanyer and her poem occupied. By creating explicitly religious contexts for the usual courtly values of the patronage poem (McBride), revaluing the colour vocabulary of Petrarchan poetics (Woods), and laying open claim to divine inspiration and sanction for her appropriation and revaluing of various kinds of texts (Lewalski), Lanyer actively created herself as an author. Her work demonstrates both her understanding of received modes, and her creative will in transforming them to her own purpose. The Lanyer of these essays is perhaps less at variance with a developing critical party line (if such a thing can be said to exist) than Barroll's or Holmes', but this Lanyer -- generically conscious, possessed of a sense of literary history, informed by theological understanding -- has the pedagogical advantage of being very easily absorbed into existing narratives of Renaissance literature. Mueller's discussion is noteworthy in that it compares Lanyer with Giles Fletcher and Christine de Pizan, a strategy which succeeds in both highlighting Lanyer's feminist particularities and in continuing the process of placing her among her predecessors and contemporaries.

  3. But not all of Grossman's essays want to place Lanyer securely within the context of English and European literary practice. Achsah Guibbory's discussion of Lanyer's radically feminized rereading of scripture comes to mind, as does Naomi Miller's treatment of the significance of mothering and motherhood in the Salve Deus. The effect of both these essays is to estrange Lanyer and her poem from a reading practice which strives to accommodate her within the purposes and terms of a traditionally-conceived Renaissance canon. Guibbory and Miller, as well as Holmes, are interested in analyzing the things that distinguish her from her fellow writers, rather than emphasizing how she works with the materials which emphasize her resemblance to them.

  4. I certainly do not wish to overstate the radical potential of Guibbory's and Miller's articles. But the volume's largely synthesizing and normalizing view of Lanyer's accomplishment seems to me to suggest a manifestation of the phenomenon in feminist criticism Margaret Ferguson trenchantly described in a 1994 review essay, in which the local knowledge, which can aid in placing a writer within the currents of Renaissance literature, is sometimes purchased at the cost of declining to ask questions about the how and why of this process of canonization. For instance, the social difference between writer and putative patrons is a non-issue for Lewalski, who aims rather at emphasizing the means by which Lanyer's poem challenges, opposes, and displaces patriarchal ideology. (For a more extended critique of Lewalski's method in her important book, Writing Women in Jacobean England, see Ferguson.) The volume also forgoes tantalizing questions about race in Lanyer -- her poem's employment of the tools of racial difference between women, as in its Cleopatra allusions, as well as how race might be read into her own status as a half-Italian, half-Jewish woman in Elizabethan England. The essays do not acknowledge Kim Hall's provocative comments on these matters.

  5. Grossman's collection, which concludes with a valuable annotated bibliography by Karen Nelson, is important because it offers a portrait of the emerging official Aemilia Lanyer now in the process of being absorbed into our teaching and our understanding of literary history. But other work remains to be completed about Lanyer, work inquiring more thoroughly and consistently into the operations of race and class difference in her achievement of authorship. Such work may not contribute to the establishment of the official Lanyer; but it matters.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).