La Bella Bona-Roba
I cannot tell who loves the skeleton
Of a poor marmoset, naught but bone, bone:
Give me a nakedness with her clothes on.
Such whose white-satin upper coat of skin,
Cut upon velvet rich incarnadine,
Has yet a body (and of flesh) within.
Sure it is meant good husbandry in men,
Who do incorporate with aery lean,
T’ repair their sides and get rib again.
Hard hap unto that huntsman that decrees
Fat joys for all his sweat, whenas he sees,
After his ‘say, naught but his keeper’s fees.
Then Love, I beg, when next thou tak’st thy bow,
Thy angry shafts, and dost heart-chasing go,
Pass rascal deer, strike me the largest doe.
While Herrick’s ode to unkempt beauty is mildly sensuous, fellow Cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace’s eulogy to the larger lady is downright suggestive. To puritan ears, unadulterated filth.
Lovelace deserves the name Cavalier poet, more than most. As well as presenting a pro-Royalist petition to parliament, Lovelace (upon escaping) actually raised troops and fought for the doomed king. He later fought for the King of France too. A true warrior-poet then, but one more remembered for his love poems, of which ‘La Bella Bona-Roba’ is one of the lustier offerings.
More than just the title is Italian. The rhyme scheme is the same kind of rhyming tercets so beloved of Dante, bringing to mind a poetry-literate audience one of the poets most associated with a love affair, though Lovelace obviously hopes for a much more earthly relationship than Dante ever had with Beatrice. A ‘bona-roba’ is a kind of expensive Italian prostitute or courtesan, but the word could just mean a well-dressed woman. Still, it retains its erotic associations – the woman he is imagining is attractive, yet unashamedly sexual. She is also, it becomes clear after the first two stanzas, a larger lady, and Lovelace is at pains to suggest that this, more than anything is what he is after. The metaphor of the first stanza shows exactly what Lovelace has in mind by ‘good robes’, he’s not like Herrick interested in the clothes she wears, but means for ‘clothes’ a good covering of flesh.
In the second stanza this metaphor is extended further – under a ‘white-satin upper coat of skin’ lies a ‘velvet rich incarnadin’. This image conjures to mind an amorous or erotic blush on white skin, the blood coming to the surface in passion.
The third stanza rehearses what is today a well-worn argument by those who defend plumper women against expectations of primness and skinniness, that as men are praised for putting on a healthy weight – to ‘repair their sides’, so should women. But there is another sense here, and something of a double-entendre. According to Genesis, Eve was made from a rib that God took from Adam as he slept. ‘To get rib again’ would mean retrieving that lost rib – to get a woman in other words, perhaps to sleep with her.
Okay, I’m being coy – of course to sleep with her.
The last two stanzas use the old convention of the deer hunt as a metaphor for romantic pursuit. That other great Italian love poet, Petrarch, started that all off, and Anne Boleyn’s old boyfriend, Thomas Wyatt, among others, followed suit. All par for the romantic course, then, but am I alone in detecting just a little unsavoury relish in Lovelace at the prospect of Love’s ‘angry shaft’ piercing the ‘largest doe’?