Monday, August 13, 2007

Richard Brathwaite makes an excuse and stays, 1615.

One of those 17th century names you know of (learned allusions to The English Gentlewoman, that kind of thing) but don’t read … well, there’s such a lot of it. I came across his ‘The Civil Devil’, which is a poem about him visiting a prostitute.

It presents itself first of all as a ‘chanson d’adventure’, in which our hero just happens to come upon a brothel:
It chanc’d one evening as I went abroad,
To cheer my cares, and take away my load,
Of disagreeing passions, which were bred
By the distemper of a troubled head,
Midst of my walk, spying an Alley door,
(Which I protest I never spied before)
I entered in, and being entered in,
I found the entry was to th’ house of sin…

What is interesting is that, next, Brathwaite represents himself as disorientated and particularly seduced by the modest demeanour of the ‘civil matron’ who meets him (hence the title). By this stage he is more candid about the actual knowledge that has brought him to this particular alley door, but she lets him know that she is the wife of a respectable man: “ ‘therefore pray forbear, / You doe mistake yourself, there’s none such here /As you make suit for.’ I as one dismayed, / That durst not justify what I had said, / Began to slink away”.

But she is too experienced to lose her client: she detains him with much talk about her good reputation, but winds up by professing to love him:

She would, forsooth, remain entirely mine,
This alteration made me strangely doubt,
And though my feet were in, my mind was out.
Yet so was I enthrall’d by tempting sin,
Though Virtue forc’d me out, Vice kept me in.
Thus did my tempting Genius, swear, protest,
That of all creatures she did love me best …

Rather surprisingly, at this point he does not ‘make an excuse and leave’, but succumbs completely. I keep hearing Shakespeare in this transaction, the way that he manages to assent to the pretence while knowing how false it all is:

Reason did tell me, and suggest her name,
Whisp’ring me in the ear, it was a shame
To gage my reputation to a whore:
But 'las who knows it not, sense hath more power
Then reason in these acts: I gave consent
To her inducements, thought her Innocent,
And a right modest matron…

What he represents himself as being, is incapable of resisting a seduction that’s artfully wound up in modest language and demeanor, to the extent that he can hide the real transaction from himself. “My lascivious Matron” is the oxymoronic term he comes up with to describe how he’s completely hooked. At this point in the poem, a fantasy sequence starts. Of course, we are in a 17th century published poem, so it will not be a description of what went on, but transfers all that to a rather implausible décor. He addresses the reader:

see wantons see,
How many motives now environ me?
Here my lascivious Matron woos with tears,
There a repose for lust’s retreat appears.
Here a protesting whore (see whoredom’s shelf)
Rather then loose me, she will damn her self.
There Adon’s picture, clipping Venus round,
Here Jove Europa lying on the ground …
Here Danâe stood (admiring divine power)
Which did descend like to a golden shower

What Brathwaite was seduced by surely wasn’t a room of mythological paintings: they are all in his head – he is being seduced by literature. The echoes of those morally dangerous Elizabethan epyllia start to thicken (later, “faire / Alcinous daughter, courted for her hair / By great Apollo” recollects the start of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: “Hero the fair / Whom young Apollo courted for her hair”). His lady companion hits his mood by pulling the major cultural trigger – she lets him admire the pictures for a while (on the wall, in his head), and then segues into the allusion or recital she has to make, to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:

Leave me the shadow, to the substance go,
What thou now seest, let lovers’ action know,
I’le be thy Venus, pretty Duck I will,
And though less faire, yet I have far more skill,
In Love’s affaires: for if I Adon had,
As Venus had: I could have taught the lad.
To have been far more forward then he was,
And not have dallied with so apt a lass.
Come, come (my youngling) though I ne’re could be
Immodest yet, I’le show my self to thee,
A lass of mettle…

This is what he needed to hear: after the modest preliminaries, Venus speaking to him, and casting him in the role that exonerates him, as an Adonis – younger, reluctant, overwhelmed, and, implicitly, the boy who will die if he refuses the goddess.

In his The English Gentlewoman, 1631, Brathwaite makes one of the famous allusions to Shakespeare’s narrative poems: “Books treating of light subjects are nurseries of wantonness: they instruct the loose reader to become naught. Remove them timely from you. Venus and Adonis are unfitting consorts for a Lady’s bosom”. This earlier poem (it is in A Strappado for the Devil of 1615) shows far more completely how Shakespeare’s poem conditioned his erotic imagination: after all the necessary virtuous pretences, he finally surrenders when she starts her recitation.

As I say, there is no blow-by-blow account of what they do. Brathwaite plunges on with ‘The Author’s Moral to his Civil Devil’. In this post-coital moralisation of experience, the prostitute is no longer a disconcertingly modest looking matron, found by chance through a doorway up an alley, but is all overtness: on show in her horse-drawn limousine, her eyes everywhere, heavily made up, with her entourage, pet monkey, and her phasers set to stun:

See my coach’t Lady hurried long the street,
Casting her lust’s-eyes on who so’ere she meet,
See, see her ceruse cheek, made to delight
Her apple-squire, or wanton Marmosite.
See, see her braided hair, her paps laid out,
Which witness how she’le do when she’s put to’t …

Brathwaite writes often about courtesans. Such a voluminous and verbose author could be represented as obsessed with any of his topics. But poems like this, and his ‘A Satyre called the Coniborrowe’ seem very symptomatic of his particular fever, and it is a topic on which he writes very revealingly for a man of his time.

My image is from one of his more famous publications, the collection of jests and tales about men and women, Art Asleep, Husband? Brathwaite has some good titles.

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