The interesting life of a forgotten religious poet
Anne Locke (c. 1530-c. 1590) is not a well-known figure in the annals of English poetry, yet she has an important and interesting – not to mention little-known – claim to literary fame, so her biography is worth dwelling on. As we discuss in our new book about obscure and forgotten books, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, Locke was not only the first Englishwoman to write a sonnet sequence, but the first English poet of either gender to do so.
These are the biographical facts of Anne Locke’s life: she was the daughter of Steven Vaughan, who was in Henry VIII’s service shortly before the English Reformation. Vaughan fully supported the Protestant Reformation – probably a bit too enthusiastically, given that the 1530s was a time when overzealous reformers could come to a sticky end as easily as ardent Catholics. His daughter, Anne, was born in around 1530 and inherited her father’s reforming zeal. When Anne grew up she married Henry Locke, who shared the Vaughan family’s passion for Protestant reform. In 1553, the Scottish reformer John Knox stayed with the Lockes, until the accession of Catholic Bloody Mary sent him into self-exile on the Continent. Anne and her husband joined Knox in Switzerland in 1557, taking their two young children with them. Their daughter died four days after they arrived in Geneva. The Lockes didn’t stay long in Switzerland, and following the death of Mary I a year later, they returned to England. But Locke stayed in touch with Knox: Robert Louis Stevenson even argued that Anne Locke was the woman Knox loved more than any other. (We don’t know when Locke died – some time after 1590 is the best guess.)
Although she had not received a formal education – English schools were still all-male affairs – Locke had been taught the essentials, and could read and write well in several languages. This led to her translating some of the sermons of another Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, which were published in 1560.
But what’s particularly interesting is the sequence of 26 sonnets which she included in the book of sermons. Titled A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner: Written in Maner of A Paraphrase upon the 51. Psalme of David, it’s the first sonnet sequence written in English, published over twenty years before Sir Philip Sidney wrote his Astrophil and Stella and over thirty years before Shakespeare began his sonnets.
Locke’s authorship of the sonnets only became widely accepted by scholars recently, and for a long time the general view was that Knox had written them. Locke helped to fan the flames of speculation, claiming in her preface to the sonnets that they were the work of a ‘friend’ and she was merely including them in her volume. But the work appears to have been all Locke’s, although, as the full title of the sequence suggests, the poems are a paraphrase of the sentiments expressed in the 51st Psalm.
As the title of Anne Locke’s sonnet cycle reveals, her poems take sin and penitence as their predominant themes, and the following poem – given in the original spelling – shows that, although Locke was taking her cue from Psalm 51 in these sonnets, she was a fine poet who made masterly use of the relatively recent arrival in English poetry, the sonnet. What’s even more remarkable is that this is a Shakespearean sonnet, with the same rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg) that Shakespeare would use over thirty years later.
My many sinnes in nomber are encreast,
With weight wherof in sea of depe despeire
My sinking soule is now so sore opprest,
That now in peril and in present fere,
I crye: susteine me, Lord, and Lord I pray,
With endlesse nomber of thy mercies take
The endlesse nomber of my sinnes away.
So by thy mercie, for thy mercies sake,
Rue on me, Lord, releue me with thy grace.
My sinne is cause that I so nede to haue
Thy mercies ayde in my so woefull case:
My synne is cause that scarce I dare to craue
Thy mercie manyfolde, which onely may
Releue my soule, and take my sinnes away.
This may not be as instantly memorable as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ or ‘Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show’, but it’s a fine example of religious belief inspiring an early attempt at a new poetic form. We should remember the name Anne Locke, and the interesting biographical and historical events that gave rise to her poems – the first such poems in the English language that were authored by a woman.
In The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History (by chief librarian Dr Oliver Tearle) we discuss a range of other literary curiosities, including the first female English playwright (a woman named Joanna Lumley – no, really), the world’s oldest joke book, and the identity of the female poet who was the first person in America to have a volume of poems published.
Image: Several of the sonnets from Anne Locke’s A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner , via Wikimedia Commons.