This poem provides an interesting perspective on the art of wooing. It will, I’m sure, strike a chord with some gentleman readers – or perhaps some rather ungentlemanly readers.
John Davies was a well-known trouble maker at the Inns of the Court in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. He was expelled from the Inns for cudgelling a fellow scholar over the head. Later he won official favour again (few sins were irredeemable in Stuart England) and won his way to high office in Ireland as Governor-General where he was known for being particularly unsympathetic to the native Gaels, even by the standards of the time, giving them little recompense for the Ulster lands that had been expropriated from them and handed over to English and Scots settlers. He was by no means good looking, and somewhat lacking in manners, with one observer noting how he ‘goes waddling with his arse out behind him as though he were about to make everyone that he meets a wall to piss against’ (The Ulster Plantations).
Knowing this about Davies, you’d be surprised to find out that when he wasn’t brawling and politicking he wrote delicate love poetry. And indeed he didn’t. But he once wrote the below poem. It was first printed in a collection of poems by both Davies and Christopher Marlowe, and put between two of Marlowe’s poems, though recently it has been considered a discrete poem in its own right. The opening line picks up Marlow’s phrase ‘sprightly eyes’, but the rest of the language is all Davies.
Faith (wench), I cannot court thy sprightly eyes
With the bass viol placed between my thighs.
I cannot lisp, nor to some fiddle sing,
Nor run upon a high-stretched minikin. (minikin = the treble string of a viol)
I cannot whine in puling elegies,
Entombing Cupid with sad obsequies.
I am not fashioned for these amorous times
To court thy beauty with lascivious rhymes.
I cannot dally, caper, dance and sing,
Oiling my saint with supple sonneting.
I cannot cross my arms, or sigh, Ay me,
Ay me, forlorn — Egregious foppery!
I cannot buss thy fist, play with thy hair, (buss = kiss)
Swearing by Jove thou art most debonair.
Not I, by cock! But shall I tell thee roundly,
Hark in thine ear: Zounds, I can ( ) thee soundly.
The four-space bracketed gap in the last line, my Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse (Ed. David Norbrook) informs me, is the F-word, which I have not replaced in full, in case you’re reading this at work, but obviously it’s a lot more fun if you say it when you’re reading the poem aloud. The poem is, all of it, great fun to read aloud, with its brisk couplets, its brazen false modesty and its dismissive sarcasm. Davies may have been a lawyer and a politician, but I can’t help but detect something of a soldier’s swagger in this verse, with its contempt for civilian gentility and its rough, combative language. Strangely, much of the imagery has a pre-taste of the sexual vulgarity of the last line. The bass viol between his thighs, in the original spelling can be read as ‘base vial’ or ‘bass vile’, that is something base or vile between his legs. The image of ‘oiling’ , that is flattering, his lover beings to mind a vaguely sensual movement, there’s that ‘supple’ sonnet, and then all those breathy noises, the whining, the sighing, the ‘Ay me’s. He may not go in for gentle wooing, but he seems to be doing his best to get his lady in the right mood…
Apologies to regular readers for the rather long, unheralded absence from WordPress. Life has been busy – I have been working on other projects, as they say – and taking on more childcare duties as my wife starts to feel the strain of her second pregnancy. I will try to keep in touch, however – though posts may be somewhat shorter than in the past!