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Two Epistles: Whitehead And Tollet

July 24, 2013

Last week I posted Elizabeth Tollet’s poem based on the “Lady In The Tower” letter, and commented on its similarity to William Whitehead’s poem, published eleven years earlier. As I said earlier, the fact that poems resemble each other a good deal is hardly surprising — not only are they based on the same letter, but their outside sources were also the same; primarily Herbert and Burnet, and both throw in a few Burnet-inspired barbs at Nicolas Sander’s portrayal of Anne. In Whitehead’s introduction, and Tollet’s notes, both make it clear that the cause of Anne’s fall was primarily Henry’s love for Jane Seymour, and secondarily the vaguely-delineated “bitter Malice” of “the Popish Clergy” (Tollet) who were only too happy to frame Anne to prevent her reforming zeal from overwhelming the country completely.

Both poems hit the notes one would expect — for example, demanding a fair trial with a non-packed jury:


Then try me, Prince; but ah! Let Truth prevail,
And Justice only hold the equal Scale.
Ah! Let not those the fatal Sentence give,
Whom Brothels blush to own, yet Courts receive


The obviate this, undaunted I demand
That at the Bar of Justice I may stand:
Nor there, O King! your helpless Wife expose
To the fell Rage of her relentless Foes;
But let the World decide, on what were built
The base Surmises of objected Guilt.

Indirect, pitying allusion to Jane Seymour and her possible fate:


Alas! She knows not the sad Time will come,
When Henry’s Eyes to other Nymphs shall roam:
When she shall vainly sigh, plead, tremble, rave,
And drop, perhaps, a Tear on Anna’s Grave.


Yet if Ambition urge, and publick Good
Best by the Monarch’s Will be understood,
She too may Fall, whose now too potent Eyes
Enthral your Heart, herself your Sacrifice.
Unhappy she, whoe’re like me must prove
The dire Disaster of superior Love!

And, naturally, concern for Elizabeth’s survival and good treatment:


O to thy Babe they tend’rest Cares extend,
As Parent cherish, and as King defend!
Transfer’d to her, with Transport I resign
Thy faithless Heart – if e’er that Heart was mine.


O! may she still survive! — I ask no more!
Tho’ Fancy augurs greater Things in Store;
To vindicate, tho’ late, my injur’d Name;
And emulate, perhaps, her Father’s Fame.

So far, so similar, and that’s hardly the end of it — both Annes exhibit a degree of concern for Henry’s well-being and comfort that to our minds (though perhaps not so much to the original Anne’s) seems bizarre. Whitehead’s Anne, though much more defiant than Tollet’s in general, bids Nature to “snatch me, blast me, let the Lightnings wing / Avert this Stroke, and save the guilty King.” Granted, she prefaces this by saying that this should happen only if a disloyal thought ever crossed her mind, but in the hyperbole one sees her real desire to save Henry from his own worst instincts if possible, even by extreme means. Tollet’s Anne is less defiant, more terrified, and even more excusing of the King: “Ev’n Pity I renounce, if it must bring / But an uneasy Moment to the King,” though at the end she claims her right to Pity as “the meanest boon a Queen can claim” even as she ironically thanks Henry for giving her the crown of martyrdom.

However, even with the very similar frameworks, the poems do vary in some significant ways. Whitehead’s Anne is presented as angry, upset, feeling the injustice of her fate, but nonetheless she has some agency and uses it by rejecting an offer of clemency in exchange for a confession:

You bid me live; but oh how dire the Means!
Virtue starts back, and conscious Pride disdains.
Confess my Crime? – what Crime shall I confess?
In what lewd Terms the nausous Falshood dress?
A vile Adultress! – Heav’n defend my Fame!
Condemn’d for acting what I fear’d to name.

She also remembers her rise to prominence as making her complicit in her own destruction — or, in more familiar terms, since he did it with her she should have expected him to do it to her.

Fool that I was! I saw my rising Fame,
Gild the sad Ruins of a nobler Name,
For me the Force of sacred Ties disown’d,
A Realm insulted, and a Queen dethron’d.
Yet, fondly wild, by Love, by Fortune led,
Excus’d the Crime, and shar’d the guilty Bed.

But while her concern for Henry’s soul is strong, her confidence in her own eventual vindication is equally so — “Bright from your Ordeals shall my Virtues shine / Nor Emma’s Name be more revered than mine.” Most importantly, while she asks Henry to lie about her to Elizabeth rather than let the child know that her father killed her mother baselessly, she’s still willing to see “cruel Henry’s” suffering if that’s what it takes for him to repent and save his own soul. “When weeping, humbled in the Dust he lies,” then she hopes that her innocent soul will bear a heavenly mandate to “breathe the Mercy he denies to me.” Overall, Whitehead’s Anne, while angry and emotional, gives the sense of being in control of herself from first to last — even her mention of imagining Henry VI’s and Edward V’s ghosts isn’t overly-laden with emotion.

Tollet’s poem, however, turns this framework on its head and makes Anne’s discourse both much longer and much more rambling and fearful. In this interesting post about Tollet’s poetry, this particular poem is praised with qualifiers, thus:

If you can bypass the self-blinding presentation of her as somehow penitent and excusing herself to the king (instead of bitter, enraged, hurt, and probably rightly duplicitious — read Retha Warnke’s [sic] accurate biography of Boleyn), the poem is striking.

Anne certainly does come across as frantic and confusedly penitent (“With Fear my Bosom beats, and sinks with Shame”) but I don’t see why that panic-stricken presentation is somehow less legitimate than portraying her as “bitter, enraged, hurt” etc. She certainly sounds bitter and hurt, if not enraged. Besides, while I doubt Tollet’s Anne is particularly true to the original, I’m leery of arguments which run along the lines of “We in the twenty-first century understand this sixteenth-century woman much better than someone in the eighteenth century!” Here’s the thing about this Anne: while she feels a smidge of guilt about the beginning of the relationship — “Too well I guess’d what must at last ensue” — she’s still deep in love with Henry and ascribes this fact both to his own aggressive wooing and her own weakness — in one passage she describes Henry as being typical of all men, who grow tired of women after winning them and dispose of them via legal loopholes — “some lucky Turn of misconstructed Law.” This Anne, despite the occasional such sharp phrase, is much less hardheaded than Whitehead’s Anne, who was also in love with Henry but was distinctly disenchanted by the time she was in the Tower. Tollet’s Anne, alas, loves him still:

Tho’ from your Throne and Bosom forc’d to part,
I bear your Image in my faithful Heart;
Your Royalty with Ease I can resign;
But never can forget you once were mine.

She also, unlike Whitehead’s Anne, has little confidence in what history’s verdict on herself will be. Whitehead’s Anne is confident of her own eventual, public vindication, and doesn’t spend much time on the subject. Her distress touches on what’s being said now, not what will happen after she’s dead. Tollet’s Anne has the opposite problem, and a large part of her terror springs from her extended, dramatic imaginings of what will happen after she’s gone — a martyr’s crown will be only partial compensation for what her name will undergo back on earth.

Hard Fate! for ever that I must engage
The various Insults of injurious Rage:
My own misjudging Sex, who, loath to blame
Their own Defects, imagine mine the same;
Or Men who triumph in a prostrate Fame.
And scarce among the Herd of Readers find
One pitying Tear, to speak a gen’rous Mind.

Tollet felt that Anne had been traduced (mostly by Sander) and needed vindication; in this she was the foremother of many, many future writers. Her Anne also dwells on the eventual fate of her own body:

They fly me all! how barb’rous! how ingrate!
All but the faithful Few who share my Fate!
Deterr’d by their Example, who shall dare
Compose my lifeless Limbs with decent Care?
Who from polluting Gore my Body lave?
Or lay me peaceful in an humble Grave?

Helplessness is a recurring theme with Tollet’s Anne — her imprisonment is (obviously) not her choice, her love of Henry was due to her being overwhelmed by him and encouraged by a society in which men are encouraged to treat women as disposable, and her helplessness will not be ended by her death but magnified; she’ll be slandered and have no way to respond, and her very body will be disposed of in the crudest and least dignified way possible.

Whitehead’s Anne, while largely helpless, has at least one choice; she’s given the choice of denying her marriage and being allowed to live, anticipating Anne of the Thousand Days by a few centuries. She rejects this as a lie, and beneath her dignity, but at least she has the choice to do so. She puts more responsibility on her own shoulders — she should have seen what Henry was — and although she doesn’t want to die, she walks into it with her eyes open and a strong confidence that she’ll be vindicated both in Heaven and on earth. Her prison nightmares, while briefly alluded to, have nowhere near the extended, hair-tearing drama of nightmares given to Tollet’s Anne. Whitehead and Tollet, drawing from the same sources, chose to concentrate on different sides of what was, essentially, the same Anne — genuinely loving Henry, genuinely victimized by him, and firm for the reformed religion. The pulled-together, dignified Anne of Whitehead’s poem is familiar to us from descriptions of her trial, but Tollet’s wailing, haunted Anne also peeks out at us from some of Kingston’s letters. That Whitehead, the rising young male academic, saw Anne’s strength and confidence, while Tollet, the dependent woman, saw her helplessness, is not perhaps very surprising, but it’s a good reminder that people have changed very little in one way; no matter what the century, they’ll look into Anne’s eyes and see their own preoccupations reflected back at them.

From → Essays

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