Ann Vavasor’s poem

“Though I be strange”
by Ann Vavasor c.1581

Though I be strange, sweet friend, be thou not so;
Do not annoy thyself with sullen will.
My heart hath vowed, although my tongue say no,
To rest thine own, in friendly liking still.

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,
That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;
Thou knowest right well what sorrows may arise
If once they chance my settled looks to find.

Content thyself that once I made an oath
To shield myself in shroud of honest shame;
And when thou list, make trial of my troth,
So that thou save the honor of my name.

And let me seem, although I be not coy,
To cloak my sad conceits with smiling cheer;
Let not my gestures show wherein I joy,
Nor by my looks let not my love appear.

We silly dames, that false suspect do fear,
And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,
Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,
Far from the show that outwardly we make.

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;
Where I desire, there must I feign debate.
One hath my hand, another hath my glove,
But he my heart whom most I seem to hate.

Thus farewell, friend: I will continue strange;
Thou shalt not hear by word or writing aught,
Let it suffice, my vow shall never change;
As for the rest, I leave it to thy thought.

This is a modern spelling version of a poem found in the 16th century commonplace book that once belonged to one Anne Cornwallis, probably the daughter (or another relative named Anne) of Sir William Cornwallis, who, having acquired Fisher’s Folly from Oxford (his distant relative) in 1588, lived there with his family until it was sold to the Fifth Earl of Rutland who then sold it to the first Earl of Devonshire.

The book (Folger MS V.a.89) contains 33 poems written in two different hands, by some very interesting authors, among them the Earl of Oxford.  This poem, found on page 8, was attributed therein to “Ann Vavaser” while the poem on the opposite page, attributed to Oxford, is the so-called Echo poem acknowledged by Stephen May as Oxford’s: “Oh heavens, who was the first that bred in me this fever? Vere.”

Although both poems are generally acknowledged  as dealing with their 1578-81 affair, the poem attributed to Ann and written from her point of view, has been attributed ever since to almost everyone except  Ann (including Oxford) despite the very obvious difference in viewpoint and style from anything he ever wrote, either then or in his Shakespearean maturity.

It may seem a little cool as a love letter, but keep in mind that such poems tended to be shared with the entire community, so even if not purposely written with that in mind, the author certainly knew that it would take that course.  If seen as too passionate, it would have meant more of the kind of trouble she was trying to avoid, for his sake as well as her own.

For some reason editor Victoria Burke chooses to see Oxford as abandoning Ann, when all evidence points to a forced separation by Elizabeth, her invariable response to such misdeeds.  Burke also follows Ilona Bell that Henry Lee wrote Oxford’s poem and that Ann wrote hers for Henry Lee, despite the obvious fact that it is addressed to someone she has been forbidden to approach, which must surely eliminate Lee.  Stephen May gives Lee three known poems, though the authorship of the one he provides in his book (a beautiful and highly skilled piece of work, hardly the product of an amateur) is not particularly solid (356-7).

Wielding Ockham’s razor, I prefer to see it for what in fact it appears to be, a poem written by an intelligent and gifted young woman, gifted enough to be considered a poet herself, for a poet lover with whom she is not allowed to communicate, in hopes that through the traditional medium of coterie publishing––the handing around of a manuscript within a self-contained circle––the message will eventually reach him.  From what she says it seems he made an attempt to contact her, and this is her way of explaining why she can’t, and won’t, respond.  One man has her hand (the Captain Finch she married first?), one her glove (Lee ?), and one her heart, the one for whom she wrote the poem, of course.

I have to thank authorship scholar Derran Charlton for acquainting me with this poem when he read it to the audience at the SOS conference in Boston MA in 1994.  By its very beauty we can see why Oxford loved Ann, just as in reading Emilia Bassano Lanier’s poetry and her feisty defense of women we can understand why he loved her.  Poets love poets; think of Robert and Elizabeth Browning or Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

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