Female Voice in Sonnet 14 by Mary Wroth
Lady Mary Wroth’s “Sonnet 14” cogitates concepts of desire and freedom through the perspective of a female speaker. Rejecting a vital theme heavily built into the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, Wroth’s selected style of sonnet, she writes about a woman pursuing an unattainable man, questioning the restraints imposed by her society. Written in and for a time in which submissiveness in women was appraised, Wroth’s work criticizes societal norms by representing women as passionate and sexual beings retaining independence and autonomy. The sonnet questions the natural limits implemented by society and deviates from the conventional standards of the past by analyzing the ways in which people were perceived: restrained by biological and physical reasons.
In Wroth’s England, women had no independence. Under the dogma of coverture, women who were married were deemed the physical properties of their husbands, while single women were expected to dedicate their lives to religion, and therefore, becoming the Church’s property, in a way. However, through her irrefutable role as a “male”, Wroth’s speaker in the sonnet surpasses both of these doctrines as the one pursuing rather than the one being pursued. The speaker’s inquisitorial tone in the phrase, “Am I thus conquer’d?” (line 1), implies her possession of freedom, denoting that she has a way to independently contemplate her society. The use of the word “conquered” establishes the sense that the speaker is conquered by her society’s gender norms and by the limitations enforced by her culture. Furthermore, by amplifying the deprivation of self-sufficiency throughout the sonnet, Wroth emphasizes the implication of the speaker’s liberty. In the lines, “Must I be still, while it my strength devoures/ And captive leads me prisoner bound, unfree?” (line 4), the speaker is portrayed as a prisoner and desire is personified as a captor. However, the societal standards to which the speaker is bound is illustrated as well. While the speaker ponders the idea of losing the ability to think independently because of love, she also questions whether or not she is a slave to nature and to what degree she is bound to the gender codes of the past. Wroth establishes the speaker’s autonomy by highlighting her inquisitiveness, thus scrutinizing the standards of before.
Using an allusion to Cupid, the deity of love and desire, Wroth characterizes her speaker’s struggle to preserve her independence. The speaker poses a question: “Why should we not Loves purblinde charmes resist?” (line 9), in which she is contemplating the idea of why the physical attractions of love or the dim-witted animal sides of human beings should be resisted. This indicates the speaker’s shame regarding the loss of her independence while under the influence of love, but also demonstrates her resistance of the gender codes enforced by her society. In resisting Cupid’s attempts and his “love darts”, she refuses to give into her society’s standards and rejects the idea of viewing herself under the restraints of biological and gender related notions. Furthermore, the speaker presents inconceivable scenarios in the second quatrain that she claims would need to occur before she willingly capitulates her liberty to desire. For instance, “Desire shall quench loves flames, Spring, hate sweet showers,” (line 6). Desire does not quench love, it fires it. Wroth’s oxymoron and the unlikelihood of this situation stresses the speaker’s freedom and rebellion. Evidently perturbed by the power of love, the speaker challenges its control rather than openly deferring to it. The apparent defiance in the speaker’s tone incorporated with her curiosity provide a voice for confined female desire, which further solidifies Wroth’s appraisal of her culture and its gender roles.
Wroth finalizes the speaker’s struggle, both with love and being under the restriction of societal standards, in the ending couplet. Although she initially resists the power of desire, telling it to “seek some host to harbour thee:” (line 11), she ultimately concedes and feels that she must “confess” to it, implying her own displeasure in the acceptance of her defeat and the loss of her autonomy. The speaker’s tone shifts from one of fierce rebellion to lugubrious surrender. While she accepts her loss to desire and love, she also acknowledges the societal restrictions to which she is still bound. Her loss of liberty parallels the notion that she can never be free of the physical and biological restraints of her society. However, although she yields to passion, she does so freely. The final line of the sonnet, “I love, and must; so farewell liberty.” (line 14), indicates the speaker’s minute yet significant independence in accepting her fate. She surrenders to gender norms not under the influence of male dominance, but under her own leadership. Furthermore, the speaker’s defeat against passion is mirrored by her loss against the conventional ways of the past and her confinement to societal gender codes. Wroth further affirms the critique of her society in which the servitude of women is of great value.
Considering the time in which the sonnet was published, Wroth’s rejection of a fundamental structural theme by employing a female voice in what is typically a male-narrated sonnet highlights the importance of her work. She provides a voice for contained female desire and curiosity against a society in which the rejection of opinionated women was prominent. Moreover, Wroth’s sonnet candidly challenges deference and offers a modern contemporary narrative filled with imaginable liberty and autonomy. However, in the context of the work as a whole, while she promotes proto-feministic ideas, Wroth also investigates the natural limitations of her society, appealing not only to women, but to individuals in general. She poses questions such as: to what extent are human beings restricted to the biological and physical regulations of society? Can individuals free themselves of these restrictions? Can her community progress to a new way of living in which the perceptions of human beings are not restricted by physical and biological reasons? Wroth allows her female speaker to explore these questions, employing the idea of losing to love and desire as a parallel to succumbing to societal standards.
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Lady Mary Wroth’s “Sonnet 14” cogitates concepts of desire and freedom through the perspective of a female speaker. Rejecting a vital theme heavily built into the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, Wroth’s selected […]