Sunday, February 04, 2007

Some Early Modern Hair

As hair is proving to be so engaging a topic, and as I am spending too much time trying to justice to Emily Dickinson to offer a longer post, one of my favourite Milton passages, Parachute Lost (that non-rhymed tale of the fall of man), Book IV, from 300. First, Adam’s divine tonsure:

His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthin Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustring, but not beneath his shoulders broad

I often find myself answering a barber’s ‘How do you want it done?’ with ‘Hyacinthine’. Leaving aside Adam looking like Apollo’s boyfriend (actually, the OED traces the word to Homer, and hyacinths that seem to be gold in colour, though one rather likes the notion that, before the fall, just as roses could be blue, Adam's truly regal hair could be purple), the lines remind us just how political hair was in the 17th century – can’t have Adam looking like a Cavalier, can we? I once asked a student in a seminar what Adam’s ‘fair large Front’ was, and was rewarded with the hopeful guess ‘Er, ... his manly parts?’

Adam out of the way, Milton then lets himself go weak at the knees about Eve:

Shee as a vail down to the slender waste
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dissheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav'd
As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli'd
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receivd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.

I guess that Edward Le Comte has written about this in Milton and Sex, I know I’ve read someone about Milton’s hair fixations, but can’t check it out at the moment. The charm of course is that into this blank verse poem, Milton insinuates a rhyming love-lyric to Eve (‘implied/pride’; ‘sway/delay’). Of course, we might find it offensive that Eve is pitched so definitively as a major babe – golden tresses, disheveled, wanton ringlets, her required sexual actions all transferred to or implied by her hair – apt to curl around something.

But her hair ‘implied / Subjection, but required with gentle sway’ – at one level, it expresses her subordination, but required that subjecting to be done only by the exercise of (Adam’s) gentle sway. But then, at the other level, triumphant Eve: her hair only ‘implied’ subjection, but when it came down to it, its ‘gentle sway’ made an irresistible requirement of Adam, and what she wanted, he did.

This will tend to happen when God Himself has been your hairdresser.

In leisure hours, I am reading Njal’s Saga, in which the Adam and Eve are the heroic Gunnar, and Hallgerd Long-Legs, ‘her lovely hair so long it could veil her whole body. She was impetuous and wilful’. She tucks it into her belt when she is out to cause trouble, which is most of the time. The body count of her vendetta grows and grows, but Gunnar seems to forgive her everything. She will destroy him in the end, I guess.

Back to Emily Dickinson (‘my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves’ – who needs Imagism, when you can find off-hand remarks as vivid as that?)

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