Soundings April 2007

Isabella Whitney's "Wyll and Testament"

A destitute but talented Londoner pays arch tribute to her city. (Readings by poets Linda Gregerson, Lynn McMahon, and Jane Miller)
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Click here to read and listen to Isabella Whitney's "Wyll"

Isabella Whitney was the first woman in England to publish a volume of poetry. She published not one but two: The Copy of a Letter, Lately Written in meeter, by a younge Gentilwoman to her unconstant Lover (1567) and A Sweet Nosegay or Pleasant Posy (1573). Whitney seems to have been a member of the minor gentry; we believe we know the family to whom she was born; she spent some years "in service" in a London household. Her precise class position and thus the nature of the service she is likely to have performed are difficult to ascertain: she would not have been a charwoman, but neither would she have qualified as an all-but-equal companion to aristocrats, like Maria in Twelfth Night or Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. She seems to have known the nature of real domestic chores: her writings display familiarity with the boisterous commercial and material life of sixteenth-century London, the noise and stench of the streets, the haggling with butchers, apothecaries, and pawnbrokers, the harried contracting of petty loans, the everyday business of getting and spending. Whitney lost her employment in the early 1570s, or so we conclude from her published work, and was forced to leave London for lack of means.

Upon her departure, she wrote a 364-line poem in which she bids farewell to the city and makes a series of mock bequests. Thus begins "The Manner of Her Will & What She Left to London, and to All Those in It, at Her Departing":

I Whole in body, and in minde,
but very weake in Purse:
Doo make, and writ my Testament
for fear it wyll be worse.

Much in the manner of François Villon, Whitney construes her departure from the city as a kind of social death and builds her poem upon the rhetoric and method of a Last Will and Testament. In Whitney's era, as in Villon's a century earlier, the Last Will was a document of both legal and religious force. Villon, despite the mock liberality with which he disposes of worldly goods in his famous "Testament," grants considerable space to that which we recognize as belonging to the soul: he tempers lyric satire with extended meditations on mortality, lost love, lost chances, and regret. Whitney's tonal and sentimental range is considerably different, more like that of Villon in his shorter "Legacy." Whitney dispenses with the soul rather briskly, for instance. And once she has dispensed with it, she doesn't look back: the conceptual and rhetorical leverage that interests her is that which she can achieve by working entirely within her principal conceit:

I first of all to London leave
because I there was bred:
Brave buildyngs rare, of Churches store,
and Pauls to the head.

As conspicuous as the conceit itself is the punning and tautological spirit in which it is deployed. The speaker is leaving London because she is no longer able to support herself there; she leaves to the city that which she must leave behind, that which is not, in the usual sense, hers to give, that which the city owns already or keeps in circulation, that which makes the city what it is.

When she turns her beneficence from the city itself to its denizens, the poet lets loose an expansive and proliferant body of detail:

For Nets of every kynd of sort,
I leave within the pawne:
French Ruffes, high Purles, Gorgets and Sleeves
of any kind of Lawne.
For Purse of Knives, for Combe of Glasse,
or any needeful knacke
I by the Stoics have left a Boy,
wil aske you what you lack.

Would you have luxury fabrics and ornamental sleeves or ruffs? I leave you, says the testator, a world of such things in the pawn shops. Would you have mirrors and trinkets? I leave you hawkers on every street corner who will gladly provide them, cheap. "What do you lack?" is the street hawker's cry, distinctive as the church bell or the alehouse sign. "Lack" is hawker's slang for "wish to buy." Lack is the fuel of commerce and also its undoing; lack for the buyer means appetite and for the one who cannot buy means destitution. The “Stoics,” or stocks, near which the hawker plies his wares, betoken the threat that lurks beneath enticement: for those who hover on the margins of economic competence and venture outside the law, the city has prepared a disciplinary corrective.

But note how the poet turns an empty purse to plenty. She who lacks everything but mother wit, whose extreme lack has occasioned both her departure from the city and her metaphorical death, writes a poem whose effect is that of copia. She contrives, by the sheer force of the speech act, to make the whole burgeoning inventory of urban plenty pass through her hands:

To all the Bookebinders by Paulles
because I lyke their Arte:
They evry weeke shal mony have,
when they from Bookes depart.
Amongst them all, my Printer must,
have somewhat to his share:
I wyll my Friends these Bookes to bye
of him, with other ware.

Isabella Whitney is not the first to expose the legal document ("will") as a vehicle for the capricious exercise and intractable constraint of individual purpose ("will"), but the particular pressure she puts on the paradox, her complex staging of personal insufficiency and resilience is like no other I know. The city, she writes in a preamble to her Will, "never yet, woldst credit geve" nor "help wold finde, / to ease me in distress," and yet, in the spirit of forgiveness and witty one-upmanship, she makes London her "sole executor." What is more, she makes London the unrivaled darling of her poem: she addresses the city as one might address a cruel beloved (thou "never yet ... hadst pitie," she writes); she blazons the city's noises, textures, and rhythms as one might blazon the beloved's eyes and lips.

Isabella Whitney wrote for money at a time when women in England did not do such things, though some few aristocratic women translated Psalms or circulated Petrarchan lyrics in manuscript. She published her intimate acquaintance with the topography and commerce of the city when such details were thought to be sordid and knowledge of them discrediting to her sex. At a time when women had very limited powers under the law to own or convey "real property" at all, she contrived in "The Manner of Her Will" a proprietary interest in the material life around her. She made social and economic vulnerability the ground of rhetorical strength:

And though I nothing named have,
to bury mee withall:
Consider that above the ground,
annoyance bee I shall.
And let me have a shrowding Sheete
to cover mee from shame:
And in oblvyon bury mee
and never more mee name.

Imagining, and forcing the reader to imagine, the naked display of her own dead body, the poet turns shame to moral advantage. She is no confessionalist, God knows; she works at the opposite end of the spectrum. But she pioneers a salient technique: undressing in public, strategically.

Whitney's prosodic choices are telling as well. She composes "The Manner of Her Will," in ballad meter, a popular and populist verse form: iambic tetrameter alternating with trimeter, the trimeter lines end-rhymed. The lowly origins and ubiquity of the form are well-suited to the urban traffic Whitney takes as both her subject and her setting: ballads were sold on the street in Whitney's London like other cheap consumer goods. Ballads were also the repositories of folk memory and popular performance, very much at odds with the sheltered decorums thought to be appropriate for literate women in the sixteenth century, at odds also with the sobriety and high seriousness expected of last wills and testaments.

In a world that measured privilege by the power to withdraw from common public life, Whitney flaunted her immersion in the color and noise of urban commerce. In a world that measured womanhood by its powers of modulated restraint, Whitney practiced exorbitant indecorums. She wrote in her poetic "Will" an oppositional portrait of the system that ruthlessly preserved disparities of privilege and wellbeing. She invented a public self and a mode of public speaking-on-the-page that England would not see again for nearly a hundred years. To the city that rejected her, she wrote a knowing and exuberant love letter—a letter, and a love, that left that city considerably richer than she had found it.

Linda Gregerson’s new collection of poems, Magnetic North, will be published this spring. She teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan. A version of this essay appears in the anthology Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend.
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