Saturday, September 09, 2006

To his Coy Wife...?

I have been off-line, waiting fairly patiently for BT's server to go back up, unaware that Lupin the rabbit had wandered in out of the garden, found the door she always wants to get through open, and had abstractedly bitten through the cable running from the wall socket to the wireless router.

While Lupin was disconnecting, I was unearthing the career of Thomas Jordan. His name pops up when the first woman actress, in the 1660 Othello, gets mentioned, as he wrote a genial Prologue and Epilogue to the production, which asks the audience to agree that she was far more authentically female than anything they have been used to seeing, but firmly points out that just because she has appeared on stage, it does not mean that they can have her (just what kind of women on-stage shows had these 17th century gentlemen been frequenting?). It's all rather graceful of Jordan, for he too had played female roles during his stage career.

Jordan does seem to have been everything an actor ought to be. These days, every shouty old hack seems to become a knight, but back in the days of burial at the crossroads (and quite right too), Jordan was a grade one scamp. I've read his poems, which are amateur, and very enthusiastic about women and sex. His various lady friends get their dedications, but would have found themselves (perhaps disconcertingly) not alone in being honoured by their poet - there's quite a room-full, including an Avisa Booth, and Susannah Blunt, who would be his wife. I surmise that Jordan was both pretty (playing all those girls), and a convincing performer. Thomas Randolph, in his 'Ad Lesbiam, et histrionem' makes a spicy allegation about why 'Lesbia' pays for her actor toy-boy's gambling:

you'd know the reason why
Lesbia does this, guesse you as well as I;
Then this I can no better reason tell,
'Tis 'cause he playes the womans part so well.

A performer like Jordan could deliver a best-of-both-worlds experience, it seems. Scrupulous behaviour does not appear in Jordan's history of publication. He pulled every trick: blank spaces in dedications, old volumes reprinted entire with new titles ... and how can the author of such highly sexed poetry claim this?

You wanton Lads, that spend your winged time,
And chant your eares, in reading lustfull rime,
Who like transform'd Acteon range about,
And beate the woods to finde Diana out,
I'st this you'ld have? then hence: here's no content
For you, my Muse ne're knew what Venus meant...

This is the first authorial poem in his Divine Raptures of 1646 (the same year that he had his Poeticall varieties of 1637 reprinted with the new title Loves Dialect). Well, it was easy enough for him to make that claim, for the whole of Divine Raptures is a plagiary of the obscure James Day's sole publication, A New Spring of Divine Poetry (also 1637). There's chutzpah for you! (Someone Else's Divine Raptures just wouldn't have sold, would it?).

Anyway, this appealingly lairy boy had the excruciating lack of taste to publish the poem below. It is, essentially, 'To his coy wife'. The scenario he imagines with such undisguised salaciousness may be imaginary, but the impression from the rest of the volume is that Jordan, barely past 20 when he married, had form with the ladies. I am pretty much convinced that Jordan has Donne's Elegy XIX in his mind as he perpetrates this set of rhymes, and this reminds me of Germaine Greer's unforgettable and somehow convincing argument that Donne's Elegy XIX should be read as a matrimonial poem (in Michael Hattaway's Blackwell Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, 2001).

But enough chat, here it is, 'To Leda his Coy Bride, on the Bridal Night'

Why art thou coy (my Leda) ar’t not mine?
Hath not the holy Hymeneal twine
Power to contract our Natures? must I be
Still interpos’d with needless Modesty?
What though my former passions made me vow
You were an Angel; be a Mortal now.
The bride-maids all are vanish’d, and the crew
Of Virgin Ladies that did wait on you,
Have left us to our selves; as loath to be
Injurious to our loves wish’d privacie.
Come then undress; why blush you, prithee smile;
Faith I’le disrobe ye, nay I will not spoil
Your Necklace, or your Gorget; Here’s a Pin
Pricks you (faire Leda) twere a cruel sin
Not to remove it; Oh how many gates
Are to Elizium? (yet the sweetest Straits
That e’re made voyage happy) here’s a Lace
Me thinks should stifle you; it doth embrace
Your body too severely, take a knife,
Tis tedious to undo it; By my life,
It shall be cut. Let your Carnation gown
Be pull’d off (too) and next let me pull down
This Rosy Petticoat; What is this cloud
That keeps the day light from us, and’s allow’d
More privilege then I? (Though it be white)
Tis not the white I aim at (by this light)
It shall go off (too) No? then let’t alone,
Come, let’s to bed, why look you so? Here’s none
Sees you, but I; be quick or (by this hand)
I’le lay you down my self; you make me stand
Too long I’th cold; Why doe you lie so far?
I’le follow you, this distance shall not bar
Your body from me; Oh, tis well, and now
I’le let thy Virgin innocence know how
Kings propagate young Princes, marriage beds
Never destroy, but erect maiden-heads:
Faire Virgins, fairly wedded, but repair
Declining beauty in a prosperous heir.
Come then, let’s kiss, let us embrace each other,
Till we have found a babe, faire (like the mother.)
Such face, breasts, waste, soft belly, such a---why
Doe you thrust back my hand so scornfully?
You’le make me strive (I think) Leda, you know,
I have a warrant for what ere I doe,
And can commit no trespass; therefore come
Make me believe theirs no Elizium
Sweeter then these embraces---Now ye are kind,
(My gentle Leda) since you have resign’d,
I’le leave my talking (too) lovers grow mutes
When Amorous Ladies grant such pretty sutes.

I think that I may have, at last, found something to rescue Donne's poem from its critical obloquy ('You found that offensive?! Let me show you offensive...'). But maybe Jordan's poem is just so funny and recognisable - that male impatience with female garments so well captured in this very 'hands-on' account - that the pasha-like dictating in the Donne poem ('off with' this and that) just looks worse.

The picture is a detail from a painting by Jan de Bray, who seems, oddly, to have painted his Mum and Dad as Antony and Cleopatra. We won't go into that now, I just like the old-fashioned look she gives her partner as he plays the voluptuary.

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