To Her Inconstant Lover by Isabella Whitney

As close as you your wedding kept,
yet now the truth I hear,
Which you (ere now) might me have told –
what need you nay to swear?

You know I always wisht you well,
so will I during life:
But sith you shall a husband be,
God send you a good wife.

And this (where so you shall become)
full boldly may you boast:
That once you had as true a love,
as dwelt in any coast.

Whose constantness had never quailed
if you had not begon :
And yet it is not so far past
but might again be won.

If you so would, yea, and not change
so long as life would last,
But if that needs you marry must?
then farewell – hope is past.

And if you cannot be content
to lead a single life?
(Although the same right quiet be)
then take me to your wife.

So shall the promises be kept
that you so firmly made:
Now choose whether ye will be true,
or be of Sinon’s trade.

Whose trade if that you long shall use,
it shall your kindred stain:
Example take by many a one
whose falsehood now is plain.

As by Aeneas first of all,
who did poor Dido leave,
Causing the Queen by his untruth
with sword her heart to cleave.

Also I find that Theseus did
his faithful love forsake,
Stealing away within the night,
before she did awake.

Jason that came of noble race,
two ladies did begile.
I muse how he durst shew his face,
to them that knew his wile.

For when he by Medea’s art
had got the Fleece of Gold
And also had of her that time,
all kind of things he wold.

He took his ship and fled away
regarding not the vows
That he did make so faithfully
unto his loving spouse.

How durst he trust the surging seas
knowing himself forsworn?
Why did he scape safe to the land
before the ship was torn?

I think king Aeolus stayed the winds
and Neptune ruled the sea:
Then might he boldly pass the waves
no perils could him slee.

But if his falsehed had to them
been manifest before,
They would have rent the ship as soon
as he had gone from shore.

Now may you hear how falseness is
made manifest in time:
Although they that commit the same
think it a venial crime.

For they, for their unfaithfulness,
did get perpetual fame:
Fame? wherefore did I term it so?
I should have called it shame.

Let Theseus be, let Jason pass,
let Paris also scape
That brought destruction unto Troy
all through the Grecian rape,

And unto me a Troylus be,
if not you may compare
With any of these persons that
aboue expressed are.

But if I can not please your mind
for wants that rest in me,
Wed whom you list, I am content,
your refuse for to be.

It shall suffice me, simple soul,
of thee to be forsaken:
And it may chance, although not yet,
you wish you had me taken.

But rather than you should have cause
to wish this through your wife,
I wish to her, ere you her have,
no more but love of life.

For she that shall so happy be,
of thee to be elect,
I wish her virtues to be such,
she need not be suspect.

I rather wish her Helen’s face
than one of Helen’s trade:
With chasteness of Penelope
the which did never fade.

A Lucres for her constancy,
and Thisbie for her truth:
If such thou have, then Peto be,
not Paris, that were ruth.

Perchance ye will think this thing rare
in one woman to find:
Save Helen’s beauty, all the rest
the Gods have me assigned.

These words I do not speak, thinking
from thy new love to turn thee:
Thou know’st by proof what I deserve –
I need not to inform thee.

But let that pass: would God I had
Cassandra’s gift me lent:
Then either thy ill chance or mine
my foresight might prevent.

But all in vain for this I seek;
wishes may not attain it.
Therefore may hap to me what shall,
and I cannot refrain it.

Wherefore I pray God be my guide
and also thee defend,
No worser than I wish my self,
until thy life shall end.

Which life, I pray God, may again
King Nestor’s life renew:
And after that your soul may rest
amongst the heavenly crew.

Thereto I wish King Xerxes’ wealth
or else King Cressus’ gold,
With as much rest and quietness
as man may have on mould.

And when you shall this letter have,
let it be kept in store,
For she that sent the same hath sworn
as yet to send no more.

And now farewell, for why at large
my mind is here exprest,
The which you may perceive if that
you do peruse the rest.

Summary and Analysis

Isabella Whitney’s The Copy of a Letter, Lately Written in Meter, by a Young Gentlewoman To her Unconstant Lover, written in 1567, is written in an epistolary form (in the form of a letter) to her “unconstant” – (unfaithful) – lover when she hears that her lover is going to get married to someone else. The lover has tried his best to keep this a secret so that the beloved does not come to know about it; yet she comes to know. In the course of the poem, the poetess makes an attempt to present her point of view, sometimes as a jilted woman who keeps on reminding her lover that he has done gross injustice by abandoning her and sometimes in the voice of a counselor offering her lover advices which is not only meant for her, but for the whole Mankind.

Isabella Whitney states that she had lover him truly and therefore has always wished him well and will continue to do so throughout her life. Even though he has determined to marry someone else, the beloved feels that she should always remain faithful to him and wish him well. She moreover adds that he can always be boastful of loving someone who has been faithful throughout her life. At the same time, she also states that if he needs to marry someone, why does not he marry her and keep the promises that he had made to her.

Though the poem starts in a very personal note and speaks about the way in which the lover has jilted her; but very soon the poem gets into a host of classical allusions (primarily Greek) to make a discourse on “faithfulness.” These series of allusions make us feel how learned Isabella Whitney is about the Greek mythology which makes her write a poem stating the significance of constancy from the Classical Age onwards. The references that she makes in the course of the poem are as follows –

  • Isabella Whitney asks her lover to choose between honesty and “Sinon’s trade.” Sinon is a Greek soldier, who allowed himself to be captured by the Trojans and then persuaded them to take the Trojan horse into their city. He was thought to be an emblem of deception.
  • Whitney takes names of other such treacherous men as that of Sinon, such as, (a) Aeneas who abandoned Dido, (b) Theseus who deserted Ariadne (c) Jason who betrayed Medea. By referring to a host of Greek mythological characters like that she wants to tell that there is a tendency among men to betray the trust and yet it is usually women who are thought and represented to be unfaithful. During the Renaissance, women were usually kept under the patriarchal checks and balances as it was thought that given a chance they would show that they are not trustworthy and will create some kind of blasphemous things which will mar the social order. Therefore to keep women on checks, the Puritans during the renaissance made elaborate discourses on their pamphlets which we will be dealing with in a while.
  • By referring to these host of unfaithful men, Isabella Whitney also wanted to remind her lover of the ways in which these Greek characters are thought to be the epitome of shame and She further suggests that he should not follow their examples.
  • Isabella Whitney also takes the example of Paris who brought about the destruction of Troy by betraying his host, Agamemnon, and running away with Agamemnon’s wife, Helen.
  • Whitney moreover counsels her lover to be like Troilus as Troilus, a brother of Paris, died faithful to his lover, Cressida, and became a symbol of constancy. So if there are examples of “unconstant’ men in Greek mythology, then there are characters like Paris who should be the role model for her lover.

She then further wishes that her lover gets the most awesome wife that one can expect in life. She enumerates some of the qualities of what he can expect in his wife –

  • the beauty of Helen
  • the faithfulness of Penelope,
  • the constancy of Lucrece, and
  • the true love of Thisbe.

By having the qualities of all these women, the wife of her lover would be someone who will again be the ideal woman and Isabella Whitney wishes that her lover gets such a wife. She then anticipates the question of the lover that having all qualities of Helen, Penelope, Lucrece and Thisbe in one female is impossibility; and thus she answers that she has all the qualities except Helen’s beauty.

After saying so, she at the same time adds that she does not have the prophetic quality life Cassandra to foresee the future and prevent the misfortune that is to fall on her or her lover but at the same time, she states that she prays to God to show her the right path and to guide her in her decisions. Then, she wishes her lover all good things in life as she again uses classical allusions to say that the lover should have –

  • the long life of King Nestor,
  • the wealth of King Xerxes, and
  • the gold of King Crresus
  • as well as “rest and quietness”

In other words, she wishes the lover all things which a man can aspire to live a happy and satisfying life.

Some scholars are of the opinion that Isabella Whitney’s poem is written following the tradition of Ovid’s Heroides where an abandoned woman speaks to her lover about his betrayal. The classical allusion (as discussed earlier) makes scholars feel that she is consciously imitating Ovid. But at the same time, it is also being observed that Isabella Whitney’s protagonist is not just an abandoned woman; she is much more than that as she not only wishes well for her lover but also offers him advises to lead a happier life. In that sense, Isabella Whitney seems to be much more a virtuous woman trying to guide his estranged lover and at the same time through her advices provide some kind of corrective measures that men can follow in the renaissance England so as to provide some significant space for female consciousness. If Isabella Whitney wishes well and offers advices; yet at the same time she also offers a critique which makes her one of the prominent female voice of the early modern period, the Renaissance.

In Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “They flee from me” we have seen an inconstant beloved who has changed her colour with the change of time and the poet complains that she flees from the poet even though earlier she was physically intimate with him. The inconstancy of the beloved is the theme of many literatures (both poetry and drama) of the Renaissance times; but there is very few women’s writing which exists from the Renaissance period. Therefore Isabella Whitney’s poem is a significant voice of the then times which manifests the female voice.

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