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Richard Nugent's Cynthia (1604): a Catholic sonnet sequence in London, Westmeath, and Spanish Flanders

Serjeantson, D (2013) 'Richard Nugent's Cynthia (1604): a Catholic sonnet sequence in London, Westmeath, and Spanish Flanders.' In: Coleman, D, (ed.) Region, Religion and English Renaissance Literature. Ashgate. ISBN 9781472408259

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The title of Richard Nugent?s sonnet sequence, Cynthia (1604), would seem to suggest that it formed part of the tradition of celebratory verse which compared Elizabeth I to the virgin huntress and moon goddess who was variously called Diana, or Phoebe, or, as here, Cynthia. However, Nugent?s collection is aligned to an alternative centre, that of his Westmeath home, and his Cynthia cannot be readily reconciled with courtly depictions of Elizabeth I. In this essay, I explore how the sequence is affected by the political, geographical and religious complexities of early-modern Irish identity. Nugent was well-versed in the traditions of the sonnet sequence, so it seems unlikely that the love story outlined in Cynthia is straightforwardly autobiographical: despite the speaker?s claim to have loved an Irish maiden for four painful years, before going into exile for her sake, the account is too typical of the genre to be read as confessional. Instead, some of the anomalies of the sequence suggest other possible readings. The first anomaly is the title. It seems clear that Nugent?s Cynthia is not to be read as coterminous with the English Queen in her role as virgin huntress. Nugent?s Cynthia is firmly depicted as a native of Ireland, and described as a secret concealed safely in the Irish landscape, and protected by the surrounding seas. Furthermore, Nugent?s political sympathies make a poem of praise for Elizabeth I unlikely. By 1600, spies were recording his presence in the camp of Hugh O?Neill, who was actively engaged in war on England; when he died in 1604, Nugent was part of the Irish regiment in the Spanish Netherlands. Nonetheless, through his choice of a title with such strong Elizabethan overtones, Nugent seems to have used his poem to explore the shifting allegiances of his family and their complex identity as bilingual Anglo-Normans on the borders of the Pale: certainly, in a sequence which includes allusions to the Irish poetry of his father, the poet Uilliam Nuinseann, issues of identity and language are close to the surface. Nugent?s journey from Westmeath to Spanish Flanders highlights another presence in his work. Much Elizabethan iconography was adopted from Marian devices, and the figure of the virginal Cynthia had been aligned by the Christian moralisers of classical myth with the Virgin Mary. Although it is well established that many Elizabethan sequences utilised Marian imagery in praise of sonnet mistresses (including Elizabeth herself) the use of the same images in respect of their Italian originals, Laura or Beatrice, had been deliberately intended to recall the Marian association. Within the recusant poetry, these images were being reclaimed. Nugent?s work suggests a similar endeavour: his epithets for Cynthia incorporate the standard terms of praise, which veer between the secular and the Marian, but more specifically, they recall the explicitly Catholic titles of the litany of Loreto. Thus, Cynthia can be read as a Catholic as well as an Irish text, and its language aligns it with continental, Counter-Reformation spirituality. The poems emphasise the strong connections between sixteenth-century Ireland and Spain, running counter to English influence in the country. Their shared poetic traits argue for an important continental influence in early-modern Catholic poetry in English.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, Department of
Depositing User: Deirdre Serjeantson
Date Deposited: 04 Jul 2012 11:17
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2017 18:11

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