The mysterious life of an early English woman poet
Isabella Whitney is not a familiar name to many readers of poetry, and in many ways this is hardly surprising. But here at Interesting Literature we like to keep one eye out for the curious but overlooked, the obscure but interesting – and the life and work of Isabella Whitney fit the bill, we’d say. In this post we offer a very brief biography of one of the first English female poets.
That said, writing such a biography of someone like Isabella Whitney might be easier said than done, for very little is actually known about her life. We don’t even know when she was born or when she died. She is said to have ‘flourished’ (the ‘fl.’ abbreviation, standing for ‘floruit’ – Latin for ‘he or she flourished’ – is how her dates are usually rendered in biographical sketches of her) in the years 1567-73. Michael Schmidt’s indispensable The Lives Of The Poets, elsewhere a thoroughly detailed biographical introduction to the great and the good of English poetry, has just one paragraph about Whitney. But this is understandable, given the paucity of information about her that we have.
Yet Isabella Whitney has the accolade (if that is quite the word) of being the first English woman poet to have a volume of her poems published. Titled A Sweet Nosegay or Pleasant Posy, Containing a Hundred and Ten Philosophical Flowers, the volume appeared in 1573. Whitney was also, arguably, the first professional woman writer in England – beating Aphra Behn, to whom Virginia Woolf gave that mantle, by a century.
So much for the work; what else do we know about the life? Whitney may have been born in around 1545, making her in her mid-twenties when she composed much of the poetry included in A Sweet Nosegay. She appears to have grown up in Cheshire, possibly in or around Nantwich. Her family were not rich; Whitney’s status as the first published female poet is even more remarkable when we consider that she had a humble background.
Whitney’s coverage in poetry anthologies remains patchy. The Norton Anthology of Poetry includes a couple of her poems, both constituting part of her poetic ‘will and testament’ which praises London, a city she apparently had to move away from owing to poverty. Here’s an excerpt:
The time is come, I must depart
from thee, ah famous city;
I never yet to rue my smart,
did find that thou had’st pity.
Wherefore small cause there is, that I
should grieve from thee to go;
But many women foolishly,
like me, and other moe,
Do such a fixèd fancy set,
on those which least deserve,
That long it is ere wit we get
away from them to swerve.
When Whitney died (she may have survived until at least 1600, by which time she’d raised two children; she may have died some decades earlier, shortly after A Sweet Nosegay was published), and what caused her death, remain unknown facets of her biography.
We hope you found this short biography of Isabella Whitney useful; if you’d like to discover more about her life, we recommend the Poetry Foundation website. You can discover Whitney’s poetry in the excellent Penguin anthology (pictured above): Renaissance Women Poets: Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Aemilia Lanyer (Penguin Classics).