Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Mistress-Master of his passion?

Charles Cotton again … I’ve always considered Orsino a character delivered in Shakespeare’s highest style of comedy. But students tend to dismiss him automatically (‘in love with being in love’ is held against him, as if this were the worst of emotional depravities). His final speech in Twelfth Night is his best moment, when he seems to contrive to marry everybody (‘A solemn combination shall be made / Of our dear souls’), moves in with Olivia at last (‘We will not part from hence’), and assigns an undiminished role for Viola, who can continue to play ‘Cesario’.

At the end of Cotton’s ‘Amoret in masquerade’, the poet puts the question that he has pondered throughout this poem to a beguilingly pretty boy who has caught his attention:

… Come, tell truth,

Are you not a cloven youth?

See, he laughs, and has confess’d,

God-a-mercy for the jest:

Monsieur Amoret let me

Your Valet de Chambre be,

I will serve with humble duty

Both your valour and your beauty,

You shall all day Master hight,

But my Mistress, Sir, at night:

Which if you will please to grant

To your humble supplicant,

Since you wear your wig so featly,

And become your clothes so neatly,

He has sworn, who thus beseeches,

You shall always wear the breeches.

Cross-dressing masquerades do not sound plausible social occasions for the 17th century Peak District: this is a literary piece, from a culture that has had time to assimilate Shakespeare, and all the ‘page-boys’ of Jacobean stage romances. This little fantasy of safe same-sex attraction has its charm: I like the rather unexpected way that a mid 17th century girl has to put on a wig to make herself masculine. Of course, Cotton was unreconstructed: ‘cloven’ is his usual way of denoting specifically female anatomy, but it’s a word that has rather markedly diabolic associations, while that final line promising that she will ‘always wear the breeches’ gets its point from misogamistic discourse (Cotton has a satirical ‘Joys of Marriage’ poem). She can be, day-time, a boy wearing the breeches, as that turns him on, but she conspicuously isn’t a wife with any potential for wearing (metaphorically) the breeches in the household. Perhaps most betrayingly of all, Cotton uses for this set of verses the same heptasyllabics he deployed for Matty his pine marten. ‘Pretty’ and ‘little’, quite acceptable in a poem about a pet, become leering in a poem which miniaturises and de-genders a woman.

But that goes too far: imagining a girl as a surpassingly beautiful boy excites Cotton to a strong restatement of her hidden gender. This is earlier in the poem:

My heart tells me, to those eyes

There belongs a pair of thighs,

'Twixt whose iv’ry columns is

Th’Ebon folding door to bliss:

And this sprig, all that we see

Strut with such formality,

Huff, and strive to look so big,

Is but Pallas in a wig;

And though his count’nance he doth set

To a good pitch of counterfeit,

Yet he cannot hide the while,

Venus’ dimple in his smile…

(Beresford’s 1923 edition has ‘Ebor’ where I’ve put ‘Ebon’ (‘Ebor’ isn’t in the OED, but ‘ebon’ connotes dark, etc), and reads ‘spring’ where I’ve substituted ‘sprig’ - as a regular term for a young man).

‘Venus’ dimple’ giving the true gender of the boy away reminds me of Donne’s ‘All will spy in thy face / A blushing womanly discovering grace’ (Elegy XVI), that marvellous moment when Donne for once allows a young woman’s beauty into his poetry (before being impelled to efface it: ‘Richly clothed apes, are called apes…’).

Cotton’s more famous poem about a ‘Doubtful Gender Masculine is his ‘On Annel-seed Robin, the Hermophrodite’, in which he casts Robin as a henotic being (one flesh, man and wife at once). It’s again faintly Shakespearean, being like ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ this time: ‘in this Chest Entombed are, / The wonder of a single pair’. But why ‘Annel-seed’?: my guess is from ‘anil’, indigo – as purple mixes two colours, Robin mixed two sexes. Could it be something to do with aniseed?

I couldn't find a convenient image of an early modern transvestite girl, so I took the putti with a mask from a bad painting by Everdingen. Maybe someone with more courage at the internet browser can tell me where to find one.

No comments: