‘With herself into a meditation’: Self-Address in Early Modern English Literature

In January 2022, the Solitudes network met to discuss research and ideas related to the theme of ‘Solitude and Interiority’. In this paper, Vanessa Lim explores the inner voice through moments of self-address in prose fiction works of the English Renaissance.

We all have an inner voice which we correspond with and which we alone can hear. Perhaps some of us engage in such self-address more frequently and consciously than others, but this experience is something that will be familiar to everyone. Indeed, it may sometimes even be difficult to silence our inner voice, especially if it is saying something we don’t particularly want to hear, or which could be potentially harmful to our mental and physical wellbeing. To paraphrase Denise Riley’s comments from Episode 8 of the ‘Spaces of Solitude’ podcast, we have eyelids that enable us to close our eyes, but no ‘earlids’ that perform the corresponding function, leaving us with no way to stop listening to our inner voices. We are thus often enjoined to address ourselves more compassionately and patiently—a familiar dictum to help regulate negative self-speech is to ‘talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend’. At other times, our inner voice can help us to better understand what we are feeling or piece out what we ought to do in a tricky situation, something self-help books pick up on when they promise to unlock ways for us to harness ‘the hidden power of our inner voice […] to live a healthier, more satisfying, and more productive life’.[1]

I have recently become very interested in literary representations of such moments of selfaddress, where characters speak to themselves to resolve dilemmas, figure out their next course of action, or simply as a means of articulating their emotions. Such moments occur frequently in prose fiction works of the English Renaissance, to an extent where they may even be considered a distinctive motif of this genre. In what follows, I outline a rough sketch of a new project I am developing, which aims to explore such articulate moments of solitude and interiority in these works, paying special attention to the rhetorical strategies writers employed in the construction of such passages, how this motif interacts with modes of self-address in other genres, and their effects on the reader.


Mary Wroth’s work of prose fiction, Urania (1621), opens with the eponymous heroine in a meadow with her flock, on a fair day when ‘the Spring began to appeare like the welcome messenger of Summer’.[2] Despite the beautiful weather, all is not as tranquil as it seems, for Urania is in a considerable state of distress. Having recently learnt that she is not who she thinks she is, Urania begins to address herself about her newfound ignorance of her ‘owne estate or birth’ and the emotional turmoil that this causes.[3] Having discovered that she is not, as she believed, ‘a Sheperdes, and Daughter to a Shepherd’, Urania is ‘perplexed’ and ‘[m]iserable’, and professes to be in a state worse than her lambs, for ‘they know their dams, while thou dost live unknowne of any’.[4] Strikingly, in this time of distress and upheaval, Urania desires to be alone. Seeing ‘others come into that Meade with their flocks’ and ‘esteeming her sorrowing thoughts her best and choycest company’, Urania retreats from the presence of others, and continues to speak to herself more extensively in solitude, reflecting on her misery in the form of a sonnet:[5]

Unseene, unknowne, I here alone complaine

To Rocks, to Hills, to Meadowes, and to Springs,

Which can no helpe returne to ease my paine,

But back my sorrowes the sad Eccho brings.

Thus still increasing are my woes to me,

Doubly resounded by that monefull voice,

Which seemes to second me in miserie,

And answere gives like friend of mine owne choice.

Thus onely she doth my companion prove,

The others silently doe offer ease:

But those that grieve, a grieving note doe love;

Pleasures to dying eies bring but disease:

And such am I, who daily ending live,

Wayling a state which can no comfort give.[6]


In her inconsolable state, Urania speaks aloud to find her sadness doubled back to her by the natural landscape. Although she is ostensibly alone, the ‘Eccho’ invoked in Urania’s self-addressed poem points to a complex layering of reflexivity. The echo is not only Urania’s own voice, but also the mythological Echo of Ovidian origins.[7] As the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses goes, Echo is a mountain nymph who incurs the wrath of Juno and is punished by the goddess, who takes away Echo’s ability to speak her own thoughts aloud, dooming her to repeat the words of others (‘Yet Echo of the former talke doth double oft the ende / And backe again with just report the wordes earst spoken sende’).[8] This, as one might expect, leads to tragic consequences: when Echo falls in love with the beautiful youth Narcissus, she is unable to communicate properly with him and her advances are rejected, causing her to retreat into ‘dennes and hollow Caves’, where she eventually wastes away pining for him.[9] While her bones ‘were turned to stones’, her ‘voyce yet still remaynes’, disembodied and yet permanently part of the physical landscape:

From thence she lurking still

In woods, will never shewe hir head in field nor yet on hill.

Yet is she heard of every man: it is hir onely sound,

And nothing else that doth remayne alive above the ground.[10]

One does not necessarily have to be alone nor in emotional distress to hear Echo (or an echo), but with Ovid’s account of this story, such a (re)vocalisation of one’s voice comes to be associated with these states, as Urania experiences at the beginning of Wroth’s work of prose fiction. In speaking to herself alone, Urania thus generates and occupies multiple selves: she is both the speaker and auditor of her complaint, which is ‘doubly resounded’ in her own voice carried back to her by the natural landscape, figured as a friend in the mythological figure of Echo.[11]

Other examples of self-address (either verbal or mental) abound in numerous prose fiction works of the English Renaissance. Characters in this genre frequently address themselves in lengthy discussions, to an extent where such passages eclipse or even halt the development of narrative action. For example, barely a few pages into Thomas Lodge’s Forbonius and Prisceria (1584), the titular characters begin to speak to themselves on the nature of their romantic relationship and the factors that keep them apart, with the narrative perspective switching back and forth between such passages for some considerable length.[12] Elsewhere, in Robert Greene’s Mamilla (1593), the eponymous heroine contemplates how she ought to treat the object of her affections, Pharicles, by entering ‘with her selfe into [a] meditation’, employing a range of rhetorical strategies such as the invocation of exempla and sententiae to assess his constancy.[13] In Greene’s other work of prose fiction, Pandosto (1588, then various editions), a variety of characters similarly undertake such forms of self-address in the face of moral uncertainty. For instance, when the cupbearer Franion is commanded by his king Pandosto to poison another monarch, Franion, ‘being secret in his chamber’, considers this act of treason and how its execution would affect his conscience.[14] Later in the narrative, when Pandosto imprisons Fawnia’s beloved Doratus and demands that she become his concubine, Fawnia frets over the choice between her virtue and the safety of Doratus: ‘being alone by her selfe, [she] began to enter into these solitarie meditations’ on her plight.[15]

As these examples show, characters in prose fiction speak to themselves frequently in different forms, considering a wide range of moral and political issues that resonated with early modern readers. However, despite the striking presence of this motif in works of prose fiction, scholarship on forms of self-address in English Renaissance literature have mainly focused on dramatic soliloquies (as indeed my own work has done), and studies of it in non-dramatic genres are few and far between. The project I am conceptualising thus aims to be the first account of this motif across prose fiction works of the English Renaissance. It begins in the 1570s, when writers such as Philip Sidney and Robert Greene began experimenting with the form, and closes in the early 1620s with Wroth’s Urania, the first published work of prose fiction by a female writer. In examining the rhetoric and poetics of such moments of solitary debate, contemplation, and reflection, I hope to accomplish several aims and objectives. Firstly, I plan to explore how such passages drew on classical and Renaissance rhetorical strategies in the way they are structured and constructed. These rhetorical strategies were outwardly oriented in the sense that students were taught to speak and write for the purposes of persuading others through forms such as parliamentary speeches, sermons, pamphlets, and the like. However, authors in this period frequently turned such strategies inward in their writing, creating for readers and audiences the effect/illusion of a rich interior life (one thinks, for example, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, his soliloquies, and the way the character has been read throughout its critical history). By exploring the mix of interiority and exteriority presented by a rhetorical situation where one is both speaker and auditor, this work explores how the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ speech is complicated in the process of solitary self-address.

The project’s next objective is to contextualise the moral and political questions that characters are grappling with. It will reconstruct what is at stake for these characters by reading passages of selfaddressed speech alongside contemporary works of moral and political philosophy, thereby providing an in-depth account of the questions that works of prose fiction are engaging with. The project will also track intertextual relationships between self-address in prose fiction and other genres where considerable (solitary) introspection and reflection also takes place. These include dramatic set speeches, forms of religious meditations, and autobiographical writing.[16] By analysing the overlaps these works share in their interrogation of the self, the project hopes to articulate new connections between such meditative and reflective practices and imaginative literary production. Lastly, this project is not only interested in situating this distinctive motif in its intellectual and cultural moment, but also in the larger trajectory of how interiority has been represented in literatures across time, from ancient Greek poetry to the psychological realism of the modern novel. Works from The Odyssey to James Joyce’s Ulysses feature characters addressing themselves in a variety of situations, and I am interested in tracking continuities and differences (much of all this, of course, is far out of my area of expertise, and I hope to engage with colleagues working on such themes).

By examining how early modern writers of prose fiction depicted the resolution of contentious questions in their literary works, I not only hope to contribute to the fields of literary studies and intellectual history, but perhaps also demonstrate the relevance of early modern literature to our present concerns. It can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel during these trying times, when the emergence of new variants every so often threaten any attempt to return to ‘normal’ (whatever that ‘normal’ might be) and governments scramble to curb the spread of the virus by mandating restrictions on movement and social gatherings. Civic-minded, responsible, and lawabiding individuals may find themselves increasingly isolated from each other and in conversation with themselves more frequently than before. This was certainly my own experience, having relocated for a job far away from my network of friends and family in a country which adopted stringent lockdown measures. While technology offered valuable opportunities for me to stay connected with others, I found myself in conversation with myself more than usual, especially when faced with difficult and life-changing decisions. A study of self-address in prose fiction works of the English Renaissance therefore affords many significant parallels with our current conditions, and we may have much to learn from how early modern writers depicted ways of (productively) grappling with questions of moral and political significance on one’s own and in the physical absence of other interlocutors.[17]

This research could also prove highly relevant to the current communicative landscape. In recent times, public discourse seems to have become increasingly polarised, fragmenting into a multiplicity of opinions in a way that excludes consensus. While technology helps us to maintain social contact in a time of physical isolation, it has also contributed significantly to the creation of paradoxically isolating ideological silos, where individuals and groups talk only to themselves (by which I mean those who already share the same beliefs), leading to increasingly solipsistic visions of the world. In studying how prose fiction depicts characters thinking through issues of personal and public significance, this project demonstrates how early modern literary texts could provide strategies of rhetorical argumentation that may be useful for building consensus. In depicting a wide spectrum of characters thinking through varied issues of personal and public significance, passages of self-address in English Renaissance prose fiction constitute an important exploration of interiority that is not solipsistic but emerges from dialogical self-debate. In its depictions of how and why characters come to take out different moral and political positions, such passages may have the potential to cultivate an ability to think from a multiplicity of viewpoints. By recovering historical and literary representations of self-addressed speech, this research highlights real and fictional precedents to demonstrate that we are less alone than we realise, even when talking to ourselves.

[1] I am quoting the synopsis of Ethan Kross’s Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (2021). Of possible interest is Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk To Ourselves (2016).

[2] Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (London, 1612), sig. Br.

[3] Wroth, Urania, sig. Br.

[4] Wroth, Urania, sig. Br.

[5] Wroth, Urania, sig. Br.

[6] Wroth, Urania, sig. Br.

[7] As Ross Lerner, ‘“Doubly Resounded”: Narcissus and Echo in Petrarch, Donne, and Wroth’, Modern Philology 118 (2020), 177 points out, this reference serves as the ‘organizing technique of the verse’ through ‘repetitions in diction, anaphoric iterations, and constellations of assonance on the ō that ends Echo’s name’, in words such as ‘alone’, ‘Meadows’, ‘sorrowes’, ‘woes’, and ‘monefull’.

[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1567), lines 459-60.

[9] Ovid, Metamorphoses, line 491.

[10] Ovid, Metamorphoses, lines 496-500.

[11] C.f. the Ciceronian and early modern trope that ‘a friend is another self’; the (modern) notion that our inner voice should be ‘friendly’.

[12] Interestingly, Forbonius also sings a sonnet—seemingly alone—in which he speaks of his ‘mournfull mone’ and invokes Echo. See Thomas Lodge, An alarum against usurers […] Heereunto are annexed the delectable historie of Forbonius and Prisceria (London, 1584). Such shared images, metaphors, and tropes is of great interest/relevance to the project.

[13] Robert Greene, Mamillia: A mirrour or looking-glasse for the ladies of Englande (London, 1583), sig. B3v.

[14] Robert Greene, Pandosto the Triumph of Time (London, 1595), sigs Br-v. This passage appears to be an addition to this later edition of the text.

[15] Greene, Pandosto, sig. Gr. Unbeknownst to both, Fawnia is Pandosto’s long lost daughter…

[16] The latter two coincide, for instance, in texts such as Puritan ‘self-examination’ diaries, which have yet to be read alongside forms of self-address in prose fiction

[17] Characters may of course deceive or mislead themselves, persuade themselves to engage in morally questionable deeds, or also engage in what might be thought of as ‘negative self-talk’, all of which may also provide interesting and useful parallels worth examining further.


Vanessa Lim (@vanessaolim) is Assistant Professor in the English Literature and Language department at Seoul National University.