Friday, January 05, 2007

Machiavel the Waiting Maid

I came across a Cowley poem, thought it witty - what else would Cowley be?

It is ‘The Chronicle: A Ballad’, and the conceit is that he is doing (at the opposite end of the literary scale, i.e., merely in a ballad), his own personal version of the vast volumes of Holinshed or Stowe. In their chronological sequence, he names the queens that have reigned in his heart. So he starts off with his earliest experience of love, and ends with the present reigning monarch.

Margarita first possest,
If I remember well, my brest,
Margarita first of all;
But when a while the wanton Maid
With my restless Heart had plaid,
Martha took the flying Ball.

That’s the stanza form, which my clumsy attempt to shrink the poem onto a single jpeg somehow disrupted. (But at least the whole text is there for anyone who is curious to see it; click to enlarge, of course.)

This Martha loses him to Catherine, who in her turn experiences usurpation:

Beauteous Catharine gave place
(Though loth and angry she to part
With the possession of my Heart)
To Elisa’s conqu’ering face

The self-chronicler asserts that Eliza might have reigned till the present, but the (sexual) politics of her reign turned him into a rebel:

Elisa till this Hour might reign
Had she not Evil Counsels ta'ne.
Fundamental Laws she broke,
And still new Favorites she chose,
Till up in Arms my Passions rose,
And cast away her yoke.

Cowley’s heart then goes through a joint-monarchy of Mary and Ann, then a tyranny under another Mary (you can see how he touches lightly on English history, without trying to sustain too much detail in his analogy):

Another Mary then arose
And did rigorous Laws impose.
A mighty Tyrant she!
Long, alas, should I have been
Under that Iron-Scepter’d Queen,
Had not Rebecca set me free.

But Rebecca dies young; and while the Judith who succeeded her was beautiful, ‘But so weak and small her Wit, / That she to govern was unfit’. From this weak monarch, who does not last long (‘One Month, three Days, and half an Hour’, the poem specifies), Susan seizes the throne, only to yield it in turn to the conquering Isabella:

But when Isabella came
Arm’d with a resistless flame
And th’Artillery of her Eye;
Whilst she proudly marcht about
Greater Conquests to find out,
She beat out Susan by the by.

Cowley has even experienced, like England, an Interregnum:

But in her place I then obey'd
Black-ey’d Besse, her Viceroy-Maid,
To whom ensu’d a Vacancy.
Thousand worse Passions then possest
The Interregnum of my brest.
Bless me from such an Anarchy!

It would be more interesting if one thought that it all reflected real experience, but that’s the last thing to look for in Cowley. What keeps it alive is the sense of him (partly) subordinating himself: here, the male is the territory ruled by the women (yes, a reversal of that Donne conceit in Elegy 19 that one keeps coming back to). Rule tends to be brief (‘few of them were long with Me’), but that is quite like history. Cowley does demean female rule with a Pope-like list of the petty devices that kept them in power (as in my title for this post), but apart from his one rebellion, he is cast in the passive role of being ruled: Isabella, for instance, apparently conquers him only on her way to bigger and better conquests.

I’d imagine that many (most?) men would look back on their personal history as being something like a series of ‘reigns’. Of course, Cowley, writing in the Cavalier persona, is pretending to a rakishly long series of women who have ruled him. But flaunted multiplicity does help sustain the idea of a chronicle that could have been as long as Stowe’s.

In my own case, my sister is currently plotting like General Monck. Again.

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