Friday, December 14, 2007

Early Modern Teeth Veneers

Yesterday evening I was giving an M.A. class on Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets. Instead of doing some solid class preparation, I’d spent a deal of Thursday afternoon frantically interrogating EEBO with keyword searches, ‘Mistress NEAR black’, ‘black NEAR beauty’, etc, as ever in the hope that something might emerge that had been missed by those diligent Victorian gentlemen who actually read the books themselves (well, what can I say? I have a busy life).

So I have looked at lots of commentaries on the Song of Songs, and being ‘black, but comely’, but on this last day of term I don’t have the energy to sum up early modern opinions about that smokingly hot Bible text. Instead, I dwindle down to one of the poets I turned up, John Collop.

Collop’s vauntingly titled Poesis rediviva, or, Poesie reviv'd (1656) was not up to the aim projected in its title. Perhaps part of his notion of ‘reviving’ poetry involved echoing earlier writers rather closely:

‘Prophanum vulgus. The People.’

“Th'rabble's an echo made 'twixt Knave and Fool,
To work his ends, the politician’s tool:
While he the Devil’s quilted Anvil is,
On which he frames all that we find amiss…”

That’s a direct crib from Webster’s Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi:

“A Polititian is the divells quilted anvil,
He fashions all sinnes on him, and the blowes
Are never heard”

but with Collop rather witlessly losing the point of the silent fashioning of sins on that ‘quilted anvil’. In the book as a whole, after our poetaster has aired his opinions about various preachers, sects, doctors and treatments, he gets onto the subject of women. Not having anything much to say, he falls back on praising yellow skin, ‘Ethiopian Beauty’, the larger lady (in ‘To Dionysia the plump Lady, S D.’), etc. - anything on which he can jangle out a few conceits and paradoxes.

One poem did strike me:

‘On Pentepicta: A Lady with enamell'd Teeth, black, white and yellow. F.W.

The wiseman teeth call'd flocks of sheep;
Sure Jacob’s speckled flocks here keep.
Where teeth are checker'd black and white,
Nay gilt too to enrich delight:
Her mouth ope, you at Chess may play,
With teeth resembling night and day.
Each fondling reach will praise what's white;
Is there in Chalk such strange delight?
Give me the mouth like th'Temple floor,
With speckled Marble paved o're,
Or - oh more rich! - in gold thus set,
A row of pearl, then one of jet.

I think that this is just a burlesque (any foolish poet can attain the praise of white teeth, he says) but it does seem that you could get your stained teeth enameled. In the poem by Royall Tyler (there’s a name for you!) below, jeering at the cosmetic construct that is ‘Flirtilla’, one 18th century practitioner of this particular aid to beauty is actually named. White enamel is obvious, gold quite conceivable, but having your teeth enameled black seems altogether implausible. Another stray reference in a play of 1655 by William Rider turns up a character writing a burlesque poem to a ‘loathly lady’, whose teeth are enameled with blue, black and yellow (i.e., simply discoloured: but the reference does suggest that white enameling existed as a practice).

[Collop’s opening line took me back to the Song of Solomon anyway: ‘Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.’]

Royall Tyler, 1757-1826: ‘To Miss Flirtilla Languish’

Flirtilla, the pride of the street,
Oh listen to Tippy's fond lay;
I swear, by my shoe bows, so neat,
No beauty was ever so gay.

Her pudding is puff'd to her chin,
Her chignon is frizzled with taste,
Milk of roses has soften'd her skin,
And her neck is white over with paste.

The rouge on her cheeks spreads its rose,
Her braids on her neck sweetly play;
No waist has my love to her clothes.
And her hair is, with Marechalle, gray.

With a grace my Flirtilla trips in,
Her umbrella display'd to the wind,
From her ruff in and out bobs her chin;
And her spencer keeps bobbing behind.

Of the mouse's sleek skin are her brows,
And her eyes they so languish beneath;
She is scented with Jonquil and rose
And GREENWOOD enamel'd her teeth.

I have found out a gift for my fair,
To LANE'S sweet scented shop did I go,
I there bought her a Tete of false hair,
But she pouted at all I could do.

For he ne'er could be true, she oft said,
Who a present could make to his fair;
Who could purchase a Tete for her head,
Without any braids to the hair.

To see, when my charmer trips by,
Some beau point his Opera glass;
How he looks down Cornhill, with a sigh,
As a shopping Flirtilla doth pass.

On him she may leer, if she please,
Or nod as she passes the street;
But let him not kiss her, or squeeze,
For he'll rub the Carmine from her cheek.

I'd give my Canee and Bootees,
My Pantaloons, Pudding and Vest,
If once my Flirtilla would please,
To press me to what once was her breast.

In wedlock I'd keep her from harm,
No nurs'ry should spoil her soft health,
Fleecy hosi'ry should keep my dear warm,
If I failed for to warm her myself.

My image is from the Web Gallery of Art, and is Goya's 'Out Hunting for Teeth!' The commentary there suggests that the young lady is pulling teeth from the jaw of the hanged man for purposes of witchcraft. This is wrong: witches are never depicted as disgusted at what they do. Rather, she is collecting nice white teeth to push into the gap the barber surgeon is about to make in her own discoloured smile. Like 'Waterloo teeth'.

No comments: