Yes! I love Lady Mary Wroth, the miserable so and so. I’ve analysed a number of her poems in the AS Poetry section, where she is invariable in a state over her broken heart.
This poem is a little less personal and raw, but she gives us a cynical image of love and its impact on our lives. Love is personified as a child, but a selfish little git, who is only out for himself and who enjoys hurting other people.
Folly – stupidity/idiocy;
Cozen – to trick or deceive;
Virtues – redeeming features.
Love, a child is ever crying;
Please him, and he straight is flying;
Give him, he the more is craving,
Never satisfied with having.
His desires have no measure;
Endless folly is his treasure;
What he promiseth he breaketh,
Trust not one word that he speaketh.
He vows nothing but false matter,
And to cozen you he’ll flatter.
Let him gain the hand, he’ll leave you,
And still glory to deceive you.
He will triumph in your wailing,
And yet cause be of your failing,
These his virtues are, and slighter
Are his gifts, his favours lighter.
Feathers are as firm in staying,
Wolves no fiercer in their preying,
As a child then leave him crying,
Nor seek him so given to flying.
Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3)
Lady Mary Wroth lived between 1587-1651/3 (it was a long time ago and documentation doesn’t always survive after a few centuries), which means she was a contemporary of Elizabeth I, one of the most famous queens of England, and James I.
At the time there weren’t many women writing, so she is something of a pioneer. Coming from a literary family, she found considerable success, but to the detriment of her marriage, which by all accounts was deeply unhappy. Thankfully her husband died and she fell in love properly (with her cousin: urggh!). However, even that love affair was fraught with difficulties and she had a bit of a tustle with James I’s wife, Anne, as he was one of her favourites. That didn’t stop her having a few illegitimate children with her incestuous lover.
This ‘poem’ is one of the songs included in a huge sonnet sequence called Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. The songs are meant to be Pamphilia (a lady) convincing Amphilanthus (her chap) that love needs to be carefully controlled. This one in particular details the reasons why he needs to be careful.
Similarly to Blake’s The Clod and the Pebble this poem explores the nature of love. However, this is completely cynical with no trace of the pure/innocent perception of love. At best we can say that the poem serves as a warning to be careful with love, at worst it is a message that we need to stay clear completely.
We begin with Love personified as a baby. As someone who is now expecting, I can tell you that babies are famous for their absolute selfishness. Even if you do something he/she/it likes you don’t get any praise or compliments, just a short respite from its moaning and wailing.
This is Wroth’s point entirely in the opening stanza. Love is always demanding more and never seems to be satisfied. I don’t think this is meant as a moan about how much an individual has to put into a relationship, but rather the impact of love in one’s own breast. So we are always crying out for more, never stop to appreciate what we have.
She establishes how unreasonable it is as an emotion further in the second. If ‘desires have no measure’ then there is no way of ever satisfying them and thus finding contentment. In addition, the emotion seems to lead us down some idiotic routes (‘endless folly’), searching for impossible treasure or unobtainable bliss. The third and fourth line of this stanza suggest that love is also fickle and lacks consistency, breaking promises left, right and centre. I would suggest what she is describing here sounds more like lust, desire or romantic love than what many of us may consider true love to be.
Although Wroth continues to talk about the personified emotion, you should be getting a sense of her negativity towards it. In the third quatrain I think we start to see that she has been hurt and let down by love. In fact, connect this to the end of the previous stanza where she mentions broken promises, she now mentions broken vows. Both these phrases link to the idea of marriage and Love seems to have promised the earth, flattered us into thinking we are its constant focus, but ultimately Love cannot commit and will break the hearts of those who are not prepared for its flighty nature.
Now, in the fourth, we are getting into classic Wroth territory. She talks about the pain that Love can inflict. When we have our hearts broken it feels like the world is over and we can’t go on, such is the intensity of the emotion – given its connection to trust, companionship and loyalty. To Wroth it feels like Love actually enjoys its power and the pain it can inflict. She considers the pain it can inflict to be more powerful than the gifts/happiness it can also bestow.
The final stanza has some nice comparison for us to consider. Its firmness and consistency is likened to lightweight feathers, while its cruelty is compared to a wolf’s: Wroth is clearly not a fan! She concludes the poem with a message to us that we should beware the crying child and avoid Love all together to save ourselves a great deal of pain.
She’s probably right: let’s all live alone and be miserable!
Language and techniques
There is loads of really interesting stuff going on in here.
I’ve already touched upon the personification of Love as a baby, but let’s explore exactly why she’s chosen this disguise. First of all there is the classic association between love and the wing-baby, Cupid, who goes around firing his arrows and causing mischief by making people fall in love. That is certainly part of Wroth’s choice. However, there are other important connotations relating to babies that are important to consider.
Our very nature teaches us to nurture the vulnerable, thus the baby represents something that we care for and want to nurture. However, although we want to play the parental role we acknowledge that it is a pretty thankless task – cleaning up all sorts of unmentionable stenches and bodily disasters. Thus Love being a baby gives us this idea of it being something that we long for and want to develop, but know how difficult it can be.
Next I’d talk about Wroth’s (or maybe her protagonist in the sonnet sequences, Pamphilia’s) clear indication that she has been left heartbroken. We see this as Love ‘promiseth he breaketh’ and his ‘vows are nothing but false matter’, suggesting not only that he is inconsistent in his affections, but linking to the idea of marriage (promises and vows are things we make at the alter) and reneging on commitments. These words have been chosen very deliberately and make me think that Wroth wants us to associate men’s love as being about short term lust and them making all sorts of disingenuous promises in order to achieve their aims. This idea is furthered with her suggestion that we need to beware of Love’s ‘flatter[y]’ lest it lead us to a position of comfort where we can expose ourselves emotionally to be hurt by Love’s broken promises.
You might also want to go further into this and demonstrate how anti-love Wroth is in this poem. She paints Love not just as being selfish and a liar, but also shows how cruel and vicious Love can be as he ‘glor[ies] to deceive’ and ‘triumphs in your wailing’. Both of these suggest a real nastiness with the emotion taking pleasure in our suffering. What this refers to is how miserable we feel after having our heart broken and the fact that this pain is caused by the very love that once made us really happy. Being heartbroken is not the same as conventional misery as it is that sharp crash from happiness with another to sheer misery of loneliness, thus the pain is sharp and vicious, as Wroth portrays here. Triumph and glory make me think of a football cup final, where one team is celebrating wildly, while the other is feeling completely devastated. Thus there is a bitterness to the reaction of the loser and a resentment towards Love in its celebrations, which could be found by a heartbroken lover in anyone content in a relationship.
You could link this to her description of our romantic desires (‘treasure’) to ‘Endless folly’? Folly means sheer idiocy/stupidity and this is seen by Wroth as the desire of Love. This shows just how crazy an emotion it is, making people do stupid, irrational things constantly and ultimately, for her, always leads to disaster.
Finally, deal with the twin metaphors in the final stanza that compare love to a ‘feather’ and ‘wolves’. The feather is soft, comfortable and desirable, but it is also weak and can blow away easily – thus love is seen as having these desirable qualities, but lacking the constancy that Wroth desires. Wolves are often portrayed in literature to be vicious, heartless and ruthless beings. Wroth’s image here makes us picture Love as being on the look out for its prey and thus wanting to inflict its misery onto people, the emotion being like a trap.
Not a huge amount to comment on here.
We have a very regular structure of five quatrains with AABB rhymes. This regularity reflects the fact the speaker in this poem is delivering this as advice rather than speaking from a position of recent heartbreak or experience of love. Thus the information is controlled and expressed without any spikes of emotion (Wroth is particularly fond of spikes in emotion in her sonnets).
The only other thing I’d mention is the repetition of the opening rhyme with that at the end of the poem. Wroth takes us back to her original message of warning as if she has just proved her hypothesis with the rest of the poem and now wants us to accept her advice and steer well clear.
Disappointingly for Wroth this is very calm throughout. There are hints that the speaker has been hurt, based on their cynicism, but this advice is presented in a clear and relatively emotionless manner.