Update 7: The Isabella Whitney Affair

After reading Chaucer and Shakespeare, I looked towards literature more from a counter-culture perspective that would look at Helen from another angle. This idea brought me to the poetry of Isabella Whitney, a woman poet in the 16th century. I’ve titled this post as such because finding information about her is not easy. I had previously read the specific poem that I want to use, “To Her Unconstant Lover,” in my Early Modern Brit Lit class a couple semesters ago, but aside from that I didn’t have much to go on. I found a few biographical articles and a couple articles about references to Ovid in 1600s literature that gave her brief mention, but not much else. I’m still in search of a wider range of information about her.

That said, I want to talk a little bit about this one poem she’s written that’s of interest to me. In “To Her Unconstant Lover,” Whitney reframes a number of Ovidian heroic “love” stories (such as Jason and Medea, Aeneas and Dido, Helen and Paris) to highlight the treachery, the un-heroic nature, of these so-called heroes. She explicitly attributes the Trojan war to Paris and the “Grecian rape” [of Helen]. I found this poem fascinating and evocative of Ovid’s Heroides in the way that it focuses the narratives more on the women involved and doesn’t shy away from questioning the heroism of the men.

I initially thought this was my only relevant primary source from Whitney, but as I searched for critical articles about her work, I stumbled upon another poem of interest.  I found something called the “Aeneas and Isabella” project, which focuses on attributing an anonymous poem responding to Ovid’s “Dido to Aeneas” section of Heroides to Isabella Whitney. This poem is a reply to the aforementioned from Aeneas to Dido and the creator of the project, Raphael Lyne, makes a good argument for attributing this poem to Whitney. The poem not only talks about Dido, who is of interest to me as arguably one of Helen’s many literary descendants, but also about Helen herself. Although the attribution of the poem is not entirely certain, I plan to integrate it into my work operating on and accepting Lyne’s claims that Whitney is a good candidate for its author – and either way, it is a poem from around 1600 that has a unique outlook on Helen of Troy, and one that I definitely want to consider as part of my project.

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