Isabella Whitney (ca. 1540-after 1580)
I. W. To her Unconstant Lover
1As close as you your wedding kept,
2 yet now the truth I hear,
3Which you (ere now) might me have told --
4 what need you nay to swear?
5You know I always wisht you well,
6 so will I during life:
7But sith you shall a husband be,
8 God send you a good wife.
9And this (where so you shall become)
10 full boldly may you boast:
11That once you had as true a love,
12 as dwelt in any coast.
13Whose constantness had never quailed
15And yet it is not so far past
16 but might again be won.
17If you so would, yea, and not change
18 so long as life would last,
19But if that needs you marry must?
20 then farewell -- hope is past.
21And if you cannot be content
22 to lead a single life?
23(Although the same right quiet be)
24 then take me to your wife.
25So shall the promises be kept
26 that you so firmly made:
27Now choose whether ye will be true,
28 or be of Sinon's trade.
29Whose trade if that you long shall use,
30 it shall your kindred stain:
31Example take by many a one
32 whose falsehood now is plain.
33As by Aeneas first of all,
34 who did poor Dido leave,
35Causing the Queen by his untruth
36 with sword her heart to cleave.
37Also I find that Theseus did
38 his faithful love forsake,
39Stealing away within the night,
40 before she did awake.
41Jason that came of noble race,
42 two ladies did begile.
43I muse how he durst shew his face,
44 to them that knew his wile.
45For when he by Medea's art
46 had got the Fleece of Gold
47And also had of her that time,
48 all kind of things he wold.
49He took his ship and fled away
50 regarding not the vows
51That he did make so faithfully
52 unto his loving spouse.
53How durst he trust the surging seas
54 knowing himself forsworn?
55Why did he scape safe to the land
56 before the ship was torn?
57I think king Aeolus stayed the winds
58 and Neptune ruled the sea:
59Then might he boldly pass the waves
60 no perils could him slee.
61But if his falsehed had to them
62 been manifest before,
63They would have rent the ship as soon
64 as he had gone from shore.
65Now may you hear how falseness is
66 made manifest in time:
67Although they that commit the same
68 think it a venial crime.
69For they, for their unfaithfulness,
70 did get perpetual fame:
71Fame? wherefore did I term it so?
72 I should have called it shame.
73Let Theseus be, let Jason pass,
75That brought destruction unto Troy
76 all through the Grecian rape,
77And unto me a Troylus be,
78 if not you may compare
79With any of these persons that
80 aboue expressed are.
81But if I can not please your mind
82 for wants that rest in me,
83Wed whom you list, I am content,
84 your refuse for to be.
85It shall suffice me, simple soul,
86 of thee to be forsaken:
87And it may chance, although not yet,
88 you wish you had me taken.
89But rather than you should have cause
90 to wish this through your wife,
91I wish to her, ere you her have,
92 no more but love of life.
93For she that shall so happy be,
94 of thee to be elect,
95I wish her virtues to be such,
96 she need not be suspect.
97I rather wish her Helen's face
98 than one of Helen's trade:
99With chasteness of Penelope
100 the which did never fade.
101A Lucres for her constancy,
102 and Thisbie for her truth:
103If such thou have, then Peto be,
104 not Paris, that were ruth.
105Perchance ye will think this thing rare
106 in one woman to find:
107Save Helen's beauty, all the rest
108 the Gods have me assigned.
109These words I do not speak, thinking
110 from thy new love to turn thee:
111Thou know'st by proof what I deserve --
112 I need not to inform thee.
113But let that pass: would God I had
114 Cassandra's gift me lent:
115Then either thy ill chance or mine
116 my foresight might prevent.
117But all in vain for this I seek;
118 wishes may not attain it.
119Therefore may hap to me what shall,
120 and I cannot refrain it.
121Wherefore I pray God be my guide
122 and also thee defend,
123No worser than I wish my self,
124 until thy life shall end.
125Which life, I pray God, may again
126 King Nestor's life renew:
127And after that your soul may rest
128 amongst the heavenly crew.
129Thereto I wish King Xerxes' wealth
130 or else King Cressus' gold,
131With as much rest and quietness
132 as man may have on mould.
133And when you shall this letter have,
134 let it be kept in store,
135For she that sent the same hath sworn
136 as yet to send no more.
137And now farewell, for why at large
138 my mind is here exprest,
139The which you may perceive if that
140 you do peruse the rest.
1] close: secret.
7] sith: since.
13] quailled: failed.
14] begon: taken off.
28] Sinon: Greek secret agent who betrayed Troy in the Trojan War.
33] Aeneas: son of Priam who escaped the ruin of Troy and founded of Rome in Virgil's Aeneid
34] Dido: queen of Carthage, seduced and then abandoned by Aeneus.
37] Theseus, who killed the Minotaur and took away King Minos' daughter Ariadne, whom he left behind at Naxos.
41] Jason, who got the Golden Fleece with the aid of Medea, whom he then left to marry Glaucë (Creusa), later killed by Medea in revenge.
48] wold: would. I.e., Jason had his "will" of her.
57] Greek Aeolus: god of the winds.
58] Neptune: Greek god of the oceans.
60] slee: slay.
61] flasehed: falsehood.
74] Paris: son of Priam, king of Troy, and seducer of Menelaus' wife Helen, whom Paris took away to Troy and to recover whom the Greeks successfully fought the Trojan war.
77] Troilus: son of Priam, who died faithful to the love of Greek Criseid, who betrayed his love for Diomede. This is the subject of Chaucer's love epic, Troilus and Criseyde.
82] wants: deficiencies.
84] refuse: rubbish.
98] Helen's trade: seductress.
99] Penelope: wife of Odysseus who remained faithful to him through his wanderings in Homer's Odyssey, despite the persistent suitors who laid siege to her for her wealth.
101] Lucres: Lucretia, a Roman lady who killed herself to protect her chastity.
102] Thisbie: beloved of Pyramus who committed suicide, believing him dead.
103] Peto: the Greenwich friar William Peto who opposed Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon.
104] ruth: a pity.
108] Isabella means that, although no beauty, she has the faithfulness and virtue of Lucres and Thisbie.
114] Cassandra: daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and a clairvoyant who prophesied the fall of Troy.
120] refrain: check, prevent.
126] Nestor: a Greek king well-known for his great age and wisdom.
129] Xerxes: rich king of Persia, defeater of the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
130] Cressus: wealthy king of Lydia.
132] mould: earth.
140] the rest: perhaps the other poems in the published book.
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services,
University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Isabella Whitney, The Copy of a Letter, lately Written in Meeter, by a Yonge Gentilwoman to her Unconstant Lover (London: Richard Jones, 1567): a2r-a5v.
First publication date:
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2003
Recent editing: 1:2003/9/2
Other poems by Isabella Whitney