Tag Archives: Cavalier poets

O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw

piglets-sleeping-in-straw-bed-a15337

William Davenant was a prominent poet of the Stuart age, his career spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War and Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II. He started a rumour, unintentionally, I think, or jokingly, that he was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare: what he meant to say is that he had drawn his love for poetry and theatre from his reading of the bard’s oeuvre. He was well-known, and good enough to receive royal patronage (and, during the Interregnum, a measure of tolerance from the Cromwellian authorities) and was numbered among those poets classed Cavalier Poets. He was the butt of all sorts of jokes on account of his disfigured – that is, mostly disintegrated – nose, the result of a mercury-based treatment for syphilis, which he contracted from a prostitute. If his poetry is anything to go by (which, of course, it may not be), his disfigurement did not hinder his success with the opposite sex, about whom he continued to write poetry.

The poem below is a lyric from one of Davenant’s plays, which are not widely available these days, so it could be that some details of the poem relate to the play this was taken from. Perhaps the arch tone belongs to a character of that play too, and is not meant to represent Davenant’s own poetic persona. However, the lyric has reached us as a distinct poem, anthologised as such, while the play has been largely forgotten (so much so that where the poem is anthologised, I cannot find the play it is from mentioned by name), so I think it is fair to treat it as such. In any case, it is consistent with the way in which he wrote to and about women in his poetry.

 

O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise;
Open (to keep the sun in awe)
Thy pretty pinking eyes:
And, having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat or dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep
When you have slept enough?
Long since, French boys cried Chimney-sweep,
And damsels Kitchen-stuff.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at’s master’s chamber-door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise! your breakfast stays,
Good water-gruel warm,
Or sugar-sops, which Galen says
With mace, will do no harm.
Arise, arise! when you are up
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle-cup,
Good nutbrown ale, and toast.

The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, Ed. Alastair Fowler, Oxford, 1991

To very sensitive souls, the first line of the poem, ‘thou that sleep’st like pig in straw’ sounds a bit nasty. As someone whose teenage self was called out of bed each weekend with a resolute ‘Get out your pit’, it sounds rather familiar, almost affectionate. And this impression is confirmed in the next seven lines or so: the adjectives used to describe the woman and her dressing are indeed affectionate, though humble and homely – dear, pretty, clean. We’re a distance away from pure and Platonic invocations of ideal love here and firmly in the familiar setting of the home – the bedroom to be precise. There is a nod to the more elevated traditions of the courtly love poetry that so dominated the previous century where Davenant says that the lady opening her eyes will ‘keep the sun in awe’, but this phrase, a parenthesized aside, is surely tongue in cheek, given that the ‘awe’ the lady will keep the awe in is rhymed most contrastingly with ‘straw’.

In any case, lovelorn poets in the Petrarchan tradition are supposed to pine outside their lover’s door, and it sounds very much like the poet here is speaking from inside the bedroom, or at least imagining himself to be so. Or perhaps he is down in the kitchen calling his lover up – in any case, there is no wooing to be done. The beginning of the poem is also ever so slightly sensual, or voyeuristic even: we are watching a woman get dressed here, and Davenant lingers on the details of her doing so  – going so far as to refer to her ‘dock’ – her rump – under the pretence of concern that she keeps herself warm. NOTE: As Cynthia has pointed out in the comments, the voice here could as easily be the woman’s maid or long-time companion rather than her lover, which explains why she’s making her breakfast. Nevertheless, I still detect a little of what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ in the way the poet describes the lady.

The poet contrasts the lady to the people in the neighbourhood who have long-since got up and started their day’s business. The intent here is partly to tease: he cannot surely expect her to follow the example of apprentices, chimney-sweeps and trades-women; she is a lady, after all. But he (or she, if it is a maid speaking) knows she cannot take gladly to being compared to such people. Perhaps the poet is engaging in a little stealth-boasting here too, signalling to his readers that the woman he is addressing is no mere commoner, and on a different social level than apprentices, kitchen girls or chimney sweeps (or, er, prostitutes), which is the very reason she does not actually need to be up as early. I suspect that by modern standards, most everybody in Stuart Britain could be classed an early-riser, but then as now the working classes would be up and about ahead of their social betters. I wonder a little about those French chimney sweeps. Could that be a reference to the play this lyric was taken from, or is a bit of social background from contemporary London? Were Huguenot refugees in seventeenth century London monopolising the chimney cleaning industry? It seems plausible. The other figures alluded to the poem also help to build a picture of a London street of the mid-seventeenth century – young girls selling vegetables, boys shining their masters shoes – before the focus of the poem moves on, and finishes with the comforts of the upper-middle class home, that is, a lovely warm breakfast.

Gruel has a grim association to the modern ear, associated with poverty and flavourlessness, but here it denotes a kind of porridge, and not a particularly bad kind. Sugar sops is bread dunked in sugared water or ale – the English have ever loved food that is comforting though not particularly nutritious. Mace is a kind of nutmeg. I’m not sure how the 2nd century Greek physician would have known of such comforts, but Davenant was presumably well read in the classics, as most poets of his era were, so I guess we’ll have to take his word for it. Another habit the English have preserved down the ages is starting the day with a hot drink, the ‘caudle cup’ of the poem. Since the poem predates the widespread use of tea in England, I’m not quite sure what that hot drink would be – something tasty and not particularly nutritious, I would hazard.

One habit we (unfortunately) haven’t preserved down the ages is starting the day with a nice drink of beer, the pre-tea thirst-quencher of choice in pre-Empire days. ‘Nutbrown ale’ sounds tasty– it’s like something you’d read in the explanatory notes on the label of your craft beer – but there may be a sensual undertone there too. The epithet ‘nut-brown’ had been used since medieval times to describe the skin tone of a working girl, of the kind that poets were sure were less trouble (to woo, to bed and so on) than the pink-skinned daughters of noblemen. Thomas Campion explains her so, giving her the Classical name of Amaryllis:

If I love Amaryllis, 

She gives me fruit and flowers: 

But if we love these ladies, 

We must give golden showers. 

Give them gold, that sell love, 

Give me the nut-brown lass, 

Who, when we court and kiss, 

She cries, “Forsooth, let go!” 

But when we come where comfort is, 

She never will say no. 

I care not for thee Ladies, The New Oxford book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed. Emyrys Jones, Oxford, 1991

The ‘Nut-brown maid’ was also a character in an old ballad, known for her steadfast loyalty to a knight despite the great travails he and she had to go through. It would probably be a bit far-fetched to read much into that, to say for example that Davenant is hinting his lady friend be more like the humble and loyal nut-brown maid, but the association lingers there, perhaps part of the subtle teasing that underlines this otherwise affectionate get out of bed poem.

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To Meadows

This week's poem was chosen by Mrs Cromwell of Ely, Huntingdonshire.

This week’s poem was chosen by Mrs Cromwell of Ely, Huntingdonshire.

In his 1921 play Cromwell, John Drinkwater has Oliver Cromwell’s aged mother sitting in their Ely estate among friends and family and leafing through a book of poetry. She flicks from poem to poem, never reading the whole, in much the same way we might nowadays flick through a newspaper, or TV channels, or the internet for that matter. She is anxious because she is waiting for her son, who has been to London, opposing the King and his usurpation of the country’s laws; it is 1639 and Civil War is brewing.
For all her worries, she still manages to read some poetry out and pass comment. She says, ‘This Mr. Donne is a very good poet, but he’s rather hard to understand. I suppose that is being eighty, too. Mr. Herrick is very simple. John Hampden sent me some copies from a friend who knows Mr. Herrick. I like them better than John does.’ John Hampden is one of Cromwell’s Parliamentarian friends, famous in his own right as a challenger of the King’s overweening authority. He arrives with Cromwell with their younger ally, Henry Ireton. Hampden thinks Herrick not very serious, and prefers the work of George Herbert – this is natural enough, as Herbert’ poetry is moralistic and religious-minded, thus suitable reading material for a roundhead; Mrs Cromwell does not dislike Herbert, but insists, ‘Mr. Herrick is very serious indeed, only he isn’t always telling us of it.’
One of the extracts of poetry she quotes approvingly is the first eight lines of Herrick’s To Meadows. Here is the whole poem:

To Meadows

Ye have been fresh and green,
Ye have been fill’d with flowers;
And ye the walks have been
Where maids have spent their hours.

You have beheld how they
With wicker arks did come,
To kiss and bear away
The richer cowslips home.

You’ve heard them sweetly sing,
And seen them in a round;
Each virgin, like a spring,
With honeysuckles crown’d.

But now, we see none here,
Whose silvery feet did tread
And with dishevell’d hair
Adorn’d this smoother mead.

Like unthrifts, having spent
Your stock, and needy grown
You’re left here to lament
Your poor estates alone.

Herrick employs fairly simple pastoral language in short, sweet iambic trimeter. There is none of the trickier syntax of a Donne or Milton poem. Each stanza comprises a whole sentence whose apparent meaning is simple to digest. It is an enjoyable poem to read and it is right Mrs Cromwell thinks it easy. But what about it being, as she also insists, serious?

Herrick is addressing the meadow, now in a rueful state. What the meadow has lost, and Herrick imagines it to now be lamenting, is the pretty girls who once trod on its pastures. The imagery here is idyllic and sensual – these lovely young girls, kissing flowers, singing, dancing, bringing life and beauty to the meadow, and getting bare-footed and a little dishevelled in the process. Quite witty, isn’t it? Herrick is really talking to himself – it is not the meadow that misses female company, it is Herrick. Perhaps he wrote this during his ‘exile’, when he was sent to tend a parish in the West Country, far from his beloved London, and far from its lovely maidens (if ‘maiden’ be the right term). Herrick is one of a number of English poets (Skelton, Donne and the Anglo-Irish Swift are the others) who made their living as vicars, and perhaps didn’t take the rigours of their office as seriously as they took their poetry, or indeed their pleasures. Pleasure – the memory of pleasure, and the yearning for pleasure – is the motivating force of this poem. The poet misses kisses and song, singing and dancing, ‘silvery feet’ and ‘dishevelled hair.’ Herrick we remember likes the dishevelled sort of maiden, as he explained in his sonnet Delight in Disorder:
A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness

Philip Larkin,three centuries later, shared this proclivity and described it more bluntly, thus

And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up

Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.
That is from the poem Administration he was of course referring also to another kind of disorder. But I digress…

Herrick may have had his mind on young girls, but To Meadows also evinces a true appreciation of the meadow itself – it works as a pastoral poem. The ‘spring, / With honeysuckles crown’d’ is an image that evokes the beauty, vitality and fertility of nature, as well as of those virgins. Herrick is a great poet of simple pleasures – those of nature and those of life, which are, as Mrs Cromwell noted, serious business – especially when they are taken away.

Drinkwater’s play is unabashedly pro-Parliamentarian. He presents a rather partial account of Cromwell, as a kind of English George Washington, given to making noble speeches about freedom of conscience and worship, a reasonable, noble squire who loved ale and song but was inspired by love of freedom to do great things. This doesn’t sit well with what we know of the more brutal and weirder elements of Cromwell’s character. Drinkwater makes no mention of Cromwell’s bloodthirsty antipathy to Catholics, or his sometimes indiscriminate slaughter in Ireland, nor some of the more fanatical policies pursued under his protectorate, such as the banning of Christmas and of Morris dancing. Drinkwater’s idealisation of Cromwell sits strangely with his admiration for Herrick.

Herrick was after all a loyal Royalist. He was one of a number of vicars removed from their posts under Cromwell’s protectorate, for Royalist or Laudian sympathies. For Herrick, this was quite welcome: cast out of his Devon parish, he returned to London, the occasion of that joyous bit of poetry we quoted last week. No doubt he caught up with a few of those maidens he had so pined for. Though Drinkwater’s history is strictly Roundhead (or, arguably, Whiggish), he plainly has more affection for Herrick than the Puritan poets. But then Drinkwater was a poet himself, and in the best of his poetry he too can capture the beauty of the small and the simple. A description of apples sitting in a loft might be the kind of thing a modern day Hampden would dismiss as not serious, but The Moonlit Apples (though not faultless) is a quite beautiful poem, lyrical, pleasurable and sensuous, if not – as in Herrick – sensual. I like the third stanza best:

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
And quiet is the steep stair unde
r.

Picture credit: http://www.olivercromwell.org/where_did_he_come_from.htm

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His Grange, or Private Wealth

Though clock,

To tell how night draws hence, I’ve none,
A cock
I have to sing how day draws on:
I have
A maid, my Prue, by good luck sent,
To save
That little, Fates me gave or lent.
A hen
I keep, which, creeking day by day,
Tells when
She goes her long white egg to lay:
A goose
I have, which, with a jealous ear,
Lets loose
Her tongue, to tell what danger’s near.
A lamb
I keep, tame, with my morsels fed,
Whose dam
An orphan left him, lately dead:
A cat
I keep, that plays about my house,
Grown fat

With eating many a miching mouse:
To these
A Trasy I do keep, whereby
I please
The more my rural privacy:
Which are
But toys, to give my heart some ease:–
Where care
None is, slight things do lightly please.

Robert Herrick

Herrick starts this poem by telling us what he has not got – what he has no need of in fact: a clock. There is a point to this. In the early seventeenth century clocks were all the rage, and clockmakers – or mechanics, held in high esteem. King James I (VI of Scotland), had his own clockmaker royal, a man, like himself, from Scotland, especially brought to the English court – he is a character in Walter Scott’s ‘The Fortunes of Nigel’, a novel set among the Scottish residents of James’s London. In not using a clock, Herrick seems to be eschewing the modern technology of London, and perhaps also the fripperies of the court for the simple life.

Herrick, however, didn’t always feel this way about the countryside. He starts his poem “His Return to London’ thus,

From the dull confines of the drooping west

To see the day spring from the pregnant east,

Ravish’d in spirit, I come, nay more, I fly

To thee, blest place of my nativity!

The countryside: ugh! He continues this encomium to London by listing much the same sort of benefits that people nowadays will extoll: a diverse, multicultural population (‘All nations, customs, kindreds, languages!’), culture, society, and so on. Presumably this was written after he had spent a good part of the sixteen-twenties living as a parson in the wilds of the West Country, and was sick to the back teeth of the simple life of the countryside. Fair enough: London was his home town after all, and poetry can be born of fleeting moods as much as deep, permanent feelings, especially lyric poetry as this – but we must recognise that Herrick’s point of view in this poem is rather a pose. The poem is a little like one of those ‘Country Diary’ type columns that periodically pop up in broadsheet newspapers, in which a city slicker journalist type retires to the countryside and sends reports on life there for the edification, or amusement, of his readers. Like such columns, this poem is really a kind of boast – unlike you unreformed metropolitan types, I have found a purer, more authentic mode of life, and this is what it is like.

There is another point to Herrick’s mention of the clock – the clock is mechanical, while Herrick’s ‘Private Wealth’, as the alternative title to the poem describes it, is living and breathing. The important things in Herrick’s life are animals and people, companions and not mere possessions. The contrast between the natural environment of the countryside and the artificial one of the city is one almost as old as civilisation itself, but the invention of moving, mechanical possessions that began to gain steam (or momentum at least) in Herrick’s time, sharpened the distinction. Herrick’s use of personal names emphasises further the individuality of his residents – his maid Prue, that is Prudence, and his spaniel, Trasy – though he jokingly treats this as a regular noun. I presume that this grange’s retinue was at least fairly typical of a man of Herrick’s position in the seventeenth century, and probably in earlier centuries too. The poem puts to bed this idea of the countryside as a haven from the noise of the city, whatever else it’s a haven from: Herrick’s house is as teeming with life as any London tavern.

From the tenor of his later poems, I think it likely that the ease and amusement that his companions brought him began to wear thin after a while. I must have a cruel streak, but I like to imagine Herrick sitting irately in his house in Devon, surrounded by his yapping spaniel, his hissing geese and prattling maid, thinking to himself, Lord, what I wouldn’t give for a drink with the lads in old London town!

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My Picture Left in Scotland

 What was it Herrick said about youth?

being spent, the worse, and worst

   Times still succeed the former.

Jonson’s humorous poem My Picture Left in Scotland details an experience that comes under ‘worse’ rather than ‘worst’, that is the petty strifes of the portly middle aged rather than the infirmities of the elderly. Ben Jonson, on a trip up to Scotland from London, has fallen in love with a local lass and has tried to woo her the best way he knows – through seductive words. Unfortunately for Jonson, the pre-eminent poet of his age – she was unmoved by his outpourings. Oh, the indignities of middle age!

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,

    For else it could not be

               That she,

    Whom I adore so much, should so slight me

And cast my love behind.

I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,

       And every close did meet

       In sentence of as subtle feet,

       As hath the youngest He

That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

 

 

       O, but my conscious fears,

               That fly my thoughts between,

               Tell me that she hath seen

       My hundred of gray hairs,

       Told seven and forty years

    Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace

    My mountain belly and my rocky face;

And all these through her eyes have stopp’d her ears.

This is a playful poem from start to finish: it’s first play is on the old saw ‘love is blind’ – Jonson has discovered it has eyes indeed to see his faults, but is in fact deaf to the beauty of his words. The first stanza records his puzzlement that she could fail to be moved by such a great poet as he – who inflates his poetic prowess to godly proportions, though the myth he alludes is one where a girl resists the advances of the god pursuing her. In keeping with the self-deprecating tone of the poem, the line lengths are hardly what would be expected of a great poet, at one point rhyming a line of two syllables with one of twelve. Of course, there is art in this – one effect is to capture the rebuffed poet’s stuttering befuddlement, another is to playfully undermine his own divine pretensions.

The second stanza seems to be at first a more straightforwardly comic elaboration of the poet’s physical shortcomings that put off the young girl, from his grey hair to his large belly. An added irony, however, is that she seems to be seeing in him a reflection of what the traveller from London sees in the wild lands of Scotland. A hundred means a borough or shire as well as the number, thus ‘hundred of gray hairs’ evokes barren moorlands as much as an aging man’s hair. There is a related pun on ‘waste’: when she ‘reads waste’ in his features it means she sees signs of aging, but it also puns his overly large waist, accrued over forty seven years – a ‘mountain belly’ to match his ‘rocky face’. The terms of disparagement reflect the London traveller’s feelings towards the unwelcoming Scottish country (this was long before the Romantics would find transcendent beauty in rugged landscapes), but this is turned back on the hapless traveller, in whom the girl sees just as unattractive a prospect.

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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

This is the fourth and last poem in a series of poems on Sweettenorbull that use flower imagery and deal with the theme of mortality. It is another by cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, and is, on balance, my favourite of the four – the most musical, the most generous and most human poem. The poet is not trying to get anyone to bed here, but is addressing the young, encouraging them to make the most of their lives and enjoy their youth while they can. Many of you will recognise the poem from the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. If not, then I strongly suggest you go and watch it. But do read the poem first:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

The higher he’s a-getting,

The sooner will his race be run,

And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,

When youth and blood are warmer;

But being spent, the worse, and worst

Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry;

For having lost but once your prime,

You may forever tarry.

Granted, there’s not much comfort for the older here – the facts of life are ruthless: you really are young only once, and only get the one chance to make the best of your life (older readers of the blog can take heart from the fact that old age was sooner in coming and not as ameliorated by medicine as today!) This is part of the warm-hearted charm of the poem though: Herrick is not a young man extolling the virtues, in the old sense of the word, of youth; rather, he takes the role of an older figure who wants the younger generation to make the most of their lives. As does Robin Williams’ John Keating in this wonderful scene from the film.

It was conspicuous by its absence, by the way, from the collection of poems ‘Poetry by Heart’ that the UK Department of Education has published to encourage schools to have pupils memorise and recite poems. It’s just the kind of simple, musical poem that is so natural to commit to memory, and so pleasurable to recite. No A.E. Houseman, either. Hardy and Blake have many poems that are easy to remember and worth remembering, but two of their more abstruse poems have been selected here. There are maby good poems there, however, and I understand the inclination to include more than just the obvious. It’s well worth a look – whatever one thinks of the government initiative. Good luck memorising Porphyria’s Lover!

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The Great Montrose Mourns the King and Anticipates his Own Death

When Montrose, in exile in the Low Countries, heard of the execution of his king, Charles I, his reaction was not one of quiet resignation. Trevor Royle, in his ‘Civil War’, describes it as so: ‘He took to his room for two days and emerged with barbarous and vengeful lines which gave vent to his feelings of personal outrage’ (p554).  Those barbarous and vengeful lines read as so:

 

Great, Good and Just, could I but rate

My Grief and Thy too Rigid Fate!

I’d weep the World in such a Strain,

As it should deluge once again:

But since Thy loud-tongu’d Blood demands Supplies,

More from Briareus’ hands than Argus’ Eyes,

I’ll sing thy dirge with Trumpet-sounds,

And write Thine Epitaph with Blood and Wounds.

 

As Craig Cross helpfully explains, ‘The Great, The Good, The Just’ is Montrose’s epithet for Charles, though many of his compatriots, as shocked as they had been by the King’s execution, would hardly have agreed. Montrose had come out of two days of mourning vengeful and resolute – Charles’ blood is calling for vengeance, the action of the giant Briareus’s hands, not the looking on of the giant Argus Panoptes’ eyes (both are giants from Greek mythology). The dirge, a funeral song, is to be of war trumpets, and the epitaph written with blood and wounds, presumably of Charles’ murderers and enemies. Actually, one could say that Montrose’s own death in his vain attempt at vengeance formed that epitaph…

Montrose was encouraged to raise a rebellion in the north of Scotland while Charles II negotiated with Argyll and the Covenanters in the south. Montrose managed to organize a Royalist expedition from the very north of Scotland, but his army – made up of foreign mercenaries and Orcadian farmhands didn’t stand a chance against the Covenanters who defeated them and marched Montrose to Edinburgh for a public execution. He was hanged and body parts sent around Scotland to be hung from town walls. Before his execution, he wrote the following lines (an ‘airth’ is a direction, point of the compass etc.):

 

Let them bestow on ev’ry Airth a Limb;

Open all my Veins, that I may swim

To Thee, my Saviour, in that Crimson Lake;

Then place my pur-boil’d Head upon a Stake;

Scatter my Ashes, throw them in the Air:

Lord (since Thou know’st where all these Atoms are)

I’m hopeful, once Thou’lt recollect my Dust,

And confident Thou’lt raise me with the Just.

 

Admirably defiant, to the last then. This time posthumously, the Covenanters decided that Montrose had been backing the right horse and, once he had agreed to their terms, backed Charles II (who wasn’t impressed that they’d killed his father’s ally but was hardly in a position to protest). They were soundly beaten by their old ally, Cromwell at Dunbar and Charles II fled abroad again.

Montrose didn’t have to wait for the final judgment for his atoms to be brought back together again. After the restoration his various body parts were gathered together for a state funeral at Holyrood Palace. His head was taken down from the tollbooth in Edinburgh, and replaced with that of his old enemy, Archibald Campbell the Marquess of Argyll.

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La Bella Bona-Roba

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.

 

Richard Lovelace

 

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’?

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