“Productive Time” and Poetic Inheritance: Contemporary Queer Theory and Aemilia Lanyer?

It’s raining. Hard. There’s been a flood watch in Bloomington for two days now. But I’m home, warm, with a cup of tea and some ideas I want to write up. There’s something really cozy about being inside blogging, looking out the window on a rainy day. It’s right up there on my list of mental images of what it should mean to be a blogger. But, in reality, these moments are probably rare. So, I’m take advantage of it.

I’m taking a contemporary queer theory class this semester, and that’s what I’ve been reading for most of the morning. While I knew this class would be useful in building a theoretical framework for my early modern interests, I didn’t realize the results would be quite so immediate, or so beautifully direct. I really like when something like this happens – the incredibly rare moments where my graduate work almost feels too easy. How could I have foreseen that a reading in contemporary queer theory would provide a perfect source for a paper I’m revising on Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judeaorum? The answer is always: I couldn’t have possibly…how did this glorious connection happen?

So what follows is a tentative working out of this connection and some thoughts about whether or not this is something I can actually use.

In reading Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, I came across this passage in her introduction (apologies for the lack of contextualization, but, if you’re really interested, there’s a preview on Google Books where you can read the whole paragraph):

“In the eyes of the state, this sequence of socioeconomically ‘productive’ moments is what it means to have a life at all…The logic of time-as-productive thereby becomes one of serial cause-and-effect: the past seems useless unless it predicts and becomes material for a future. These teleologies of living, in turn, structure the logic of a ‘people’s’ inheritance: rather than just the transfer of private property along heteroreproductive lines, inheritance becomes the familial and collective legacy from which a group will draw a properly political future – be it national, ethnic, or something else” (Freeman 5).

Here, Freeman is pointing to the illusion of “productive time” (or “industrial time”) – constructed by the dominant ideologies and structured according to factors that will result in successful progress and maintenance of the dominant order. In her book, Freeman references birth, marriage, and death as three of the primary state-structured events that result in the maintenance of a kind of “socioeconomically productive” time.

In the paper I’m writing on Lanyer, I ground many of my arguments in several examples of early modern conduct manuals for women, written by men and filled with instructions for a “proper” use of female time. But, I argue, that “proper” use of time is predicated on what the male writers (and, thereby, the dominant ideologies of the patriarchy) conceive of as “productive” and “proper” for the early modern woman. In her poem, Lanyer appropriates many of the male writers’ conventions and repurposes them to construct a work with a decidedly feminist slant, or, at least, hints of female transgression cleverly couched within the male tropes. One of the tropes she plays with is time and what it means for a woman to use her time “productively.” Obviously, as a female writer in an almost completely male print marketplace, she was very interested in finding a way to frame her writing as a productive use of time.

These ideas are already in my paper, but what Freeman’s text gives me is an interesting connection to “inheritance” that I hadn’t thought of. Freeman’s concept of “time-as-productive” definitely parallels the sense of male/female productive time I’m thinking about, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that this sense of time could be linked to serious considerations of poetic inheritance and legacy that were also salient in early modern texts. Even within Lanyer’s text there is a clear desire to place herself in a lineage of (the very few) successful women writers that came before her. Her dedication to Mary Sidney is the longest in the work and is filled with desire that Sidney read her work and that her poem achieves the same level of respect and admiration as Sidney’s psalms. This dedication is also where Lanyer most directly defines a sense of productive time that will legitimize her writing. Speaking of sleep, she writes:

“But thou, base cunning thiefe, that robs our sprits
Of halfe that span of life which yeares doth give;
And yet no praise unto thy selfe it merits,
To make a seeming death in those that live.”

This stanza is, at the same time, a complaint about sleep – necessarily unproductive time – and a redefinition of productive time. Sleep is that span (“halfe that span of life”) where nothing productive can occur (“no praise unto thy selfe it merits”). And it is, importantly, unproductive for both men and women. Any time, then, that is the opposite of sleeping, especially time spent on an activity that has the potential to garner “praise unto thy selfe,” becomes productive time.

If we follow Freeman, then, within the same definition of time where Lanyer’s act of writing can be seen as “productive” (perhaps a kind of “queer time?”), the possibility of a female poetic legacy emerges. Maybe its not possible to call this queer time because the logic follows the same cause-and-effect structure that early modern patriarchal time defines. Lanyer is not necessarily changing or interrupting the logic of that structure. Rather, she’s redefining it so that women can be inscribed within it. As Freeman states, “inheritance becomes the…collective legacy from which a group will draw a properly political future.” In early modern England, women were closed out of all structures of legacy and inheritance, including poetic and rhetorical forms, because of their gender. Male writers often used tropes of inheritance to legitimize their public writing – building on respected writers that came before them or riding on the respectability of their patrons. In her poem, then, Lanyer seems to seize on these tropes of inheritance as one way to legitimize herself. But, as Freeman’s text helped me see, she needs to first redefine productive time in order to make this move.

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